Pontifical Chic

In 2013, Pope Francis sonorously and rightly enjoined the bishops of the world: “Avoid the scandal of being ‘airport bishops’!”  An almost obsessive compulsion of some prelates to travel beyond their own dioceses evokes the absenteeism of the Middle Ages, when many bishops and abbots were seldom seen among their own people. The Pope travels with astonishing frequency—surely with no little toll on himself, considering the burdens of age—but this might be justified to some degree by the fact that he is the Universal Pastor, with worldwide and immediate jurisdiction, according to canon law.

Nonetheless, a precedent set by his recent predecessors can impose a sense of obligation to travel, as if a pope is remiss if he isn’t constantly on airplanes. Most pontiffs were effective, and perhaps more affective, when staying in Rome. Given arguments in favor of globetrotting, there is a danger that universality might be confused with internationalism. Considering the daunting costliness of such journeys, the plaintive apostrophe of Noël Coward obtains: “Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel / When the right people stay back home?”

There is also the peril of over-exposure. A pope now is even expected to give freewheeling chats while on airplanes, and this has led to off-the-cuff remarks that the Holy Father’s communications staff subsequently redact into a benign and coherent form.  Jochen Hinkelbein, president of the German Society of Aerospace Medicine, has warned that the air pressure on a jet airplane can match that atop an 8,000-foot-tall mountain.  This can cause hypoxia, reducing the oxygen in blood by up to 25 percent; this is particularly harmful to the elderly and those with breathing difficulties. Pope Francis is an octogenarian and has only one lung. Without careful monitoring, say experts, this can affect the ability to think and speak clearly.

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Pope Francis has nevertheless braved the challenge in a desire to reach his far-flung flock. In 2015, upon arrival in Bolivia, that nation’s culture minister announced that the Holy Father requested coca leaves to chew. Although coca was declared illegal after the 1961 United Nations Convention on Narcotic Drugs, Bolivia withdrew from the convention system, maintaining a domestic coca market, and so the leaf is available there to mitigate altitude sickness. 

This month, Pope Francis encouraged many people in Mozambique who desperately need moral support: their country, which was officially socialist until 1990 and still is not an electoral democracy, ranks 184 out of 187 countries on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index. In the Zimpeto sports stadium, the pontiff said boldly: “Mozambique is a land of abundant natural and cultural riches, yet paradoxically, great numbers of its people live below the poverty line. And at times it seems that those who approach with the alleged desire to help have other interests. Sadly, this happens with brothers and sisters of the same land, who let themselves be corrupted.”

It was a message that needed to be heard not only by that nation’s  political leaders, but also by some theorists in the Vatican itself who have gone so far as to extol China and other oppressive regimes as ethical paragons, while disparaging the United States—a country almost unique in the disaster aid and developmental assistance it has been providing Mozambique. On the other hand, China has been exploiting that country through oblique loan debt. Perhaps it was not coincidental that just before the papal visit to Africa, the Jesuit journal America featured an article entitled “The Catholic Case for Communism.” It asserted:

In fact, although the Catholic Church officially teaches that private property is a natural right, this teaching also comes with the proviso that private property is always subordinate to the common good. So subordinate, says Pope Francis in a truly radical moment in Laudato si’ that “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.”

The Pope’s witness in Mozambique was somewhat compromised by those who, perhaps with the best intentions, vested the Pope in a chasuble decorated with leopard skin orphreys. Perhaps Roman advisors thought this would signal some sort of empathy with the indigenous culture. If so, they were mistaken. It was an echo of that low point in 2000 as when liturgists at the Third Millennial celebrations in Saint Peter’s Basilica provided hired men dressed as Africans in leopard skins, blowing trumpets made of elephant tusks, oblivious to regulators of the ivory trade. The leopard design worn by the Pope in Africa must have been synthetic because, as the liturgical designers apparently did not know, there are practically no leopards in Mozambique. Indeed, in 2018, a leopard was seen in Gorongosa National Park for the first time in fourteen years.  At least one German cardinal with Teutonic superiority, Überlegenheitskomplex, still refers to Africa as “the Dark Continent.”

Affecting leopard haberdashery may have been witless stereotyping, but it does resemble the patronizing sort of “radical chic” that Tom Wolfe satirized in his 1970 essay describing a cocktail party Leonard Bernstein hosted in his Park Avenue duplex for leaders of the Black Panthers, when he served watermelon hors d’oeuvres.

Scottish drummers still wear leopard aprons. This dates back to the use of Africans in their regimental bands in the 19th century because Africans were the best drummers. These days, the skins they wear are faux. In 1970, Pope Paul VI (at whose canonization traditional vestment makers were not conspicuous) abolished cardinalitial ermine and the bearskin helmets of the Corps of Gendarmerie. Even Britain tried to replace the bearskins of the Grenadier Guards—a privilege granted after Waterloo, beginning with the First Regiment of Foot Guards—and other units, but found that the fur from culled Canadian black bears was much better in every way. If the pontifical liturgists wanted to be “woke,” as the neologism has it, instead of leopards they should have imitated the skins of real Mozambique wildlife: impala, nyala and kudu.

For those who really want to keep up with these curiosities, the only African religion which uses leopard skins as ritual vesture (along with monkey tails) is Shembe, a relatively new amalgam of Christian and Zulu customs in South Africa’s KweZulu-Natal region. Even that cult seems to have felt the long arm of PETA, and one their leaders, Lizwi Newanes, recently announced: “For the past (several) months now, we have been using fake skins because we are trying to bring awareness among our people.”

Rather ominously, Pope Francis not long ago was pictured wearing a circlet of parrot feathers in preparation for the special Pan Amazon Synod of bishops. Regrettably, he was not the first modern pontiff to do something like that, and it was more unsettling than the spectacle of Calvin Coolidge donning an Indian headdress upon his induction into the noble Sioux tribe in 1927.

The Synod’s instrumentum laboris, includes a rhapsodic elegy to Stone Age culture beyond the reveries of Rousseau, while neglecting to mention the local practices of child sacrifice, cannibalism, and chronic intertribal belligerence: “They live in communion with the soil, water, trees, animals, and with day and night. Wise elders… promote the harmony of people among themselves and with the cosmos.” Alas, the Catamari Mission among the Yanomami people has not had a single conversion in 53 years. Radical chic cannot change this.

Self-conscious attempts to flatter a people can be as demeaning as bigoted subjugation. If the Church is truly universal, she need not try to mottle what is Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant in her supernatural charisms by lowering herself to mere syncretistic internationalism. One can only hope that, at the canonization of John Henry Newman, the Pope does not carry a cricket bat.

In an exclusive 2018 interview with Vatican News, the official news service of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, former vice president Al Gore said that Pope Francis “has been at the forefront in leading the world toward constructive climate action” and that he was “grateful for and in awe of the clarity of the moral force [the Pope] embodies.” But Mr. Gore is not flawless in his impressions, nor is he exact in his exegesis. In contradistinction to the prophet who said that a leopard cannot change its spots (Jeremiah 13:23), the Toronto Sun quoted the radical chic Gore on November 19th as saying, “We all know the leopard can’t change his stripes.”

Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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