Two stories about the Vatican have made the news this week, and it's only Wednesday. The first was the excommunication of a nine year old girl, pregnant with twins, who was given an abortion to save her life after being raped by her step-father. Her mother and her doctors were also excommunicated. The second story is a mea culpa by Pope Benedict XVI for the way he handled the reinstatment of four heretic bishops, including Bishop Richard Williamson, a holocaust denier excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. As you may recall, at the time this story first broke, the Pope pled ignorance. This time he helpfully explains that the bishops' ordinations had been "valid but illicit"--a phrase that should have its own shelf in the archives of theological legerdemain.
Perhaps it's unseemly for me to criticize the Pope, since I am not a Catholic, but I'll do it anyway. Of the two stories, the first is the more infuriating because it shows that the Catholic hierarchy doesn't seem to grasp what is unique about their own religion: its capacity for forgiveness and redemption. However, the second story is the more alarming because it indicates that the Pope has no ear for nuance and, unlike his predecessor, will be unable to make a contribution to humanity's quest for freedom and concord. The Pope is headed for Israel in May; will anything come of it?
Before closing, I want to tell you about a book by my late teacher, the great novelist Stanley Elkin. It was called "The Living End" and it was a satire on religion. In it, Heaven is depicted as a theme park in need of a coat of paint, and God as a "strict constructionist" too lacking in imagination or initiative to grasp the quality of mercy. I wish Stanley were still with us; he'd have enjoyed "valid but illicit."