Wait a minute, hang on a minute! I've just got to strap this cilice onto my left thigh.....
...crikey, those spikes really make your eyes water! It's a bit of a homemade job I know, but as I don't have one of James Cameron's sun-bed contraptions for uploading my consciousness into my Pope avatar, it's the only way to simulate walking a mile in his pretty red (Devil Wears) Prada you-shall-go-to-the-ball loafers, something you left-leaning libertines who are so fond of lambasting his every word and deed might consider once in a while. For unlike you, the Eminence formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope # 265, Benedict XVI, Bishop of Rome, head of the Catholic Church and Sovereign of the Vatican City State, is charged with the pastoral care of the souls of over a billion Catholics. It is to Him they look for moral and spiritual guidance through this vale of tears we call the modern (or even the post-modern) world, not you!
So when "the green Pope" chides world leaders for bungling a global climate treaty in Copenhagen and the very next day the Vatican newspaper and radio station denounce the most popular film ever, the $2 billion+ Avatar, for promoting trendy modern credos that substitute religion and God with Nature-worship, 2 billion ears should prick up. According to Vatican Radio, which one would imagine reflects the Pope's views, the film "cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium," so that "nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship." As secularism spreads like a pandemic rash, these must be worrying messages for all the Biblical religions.
Surely the Pope, if anyone, is entitled to pontificate on matters of grave import such as these -- it's his very own verb, in fact. Let us ponder his underlying question then: ecocentrism may be fashionable flavour of MMX for the growing legions of agnostics and atheists who have been disillusioned, let us face it, by human evils unleashed upon the world, but does it offer personal salvation? Does it tell us the Meaning of Life? Any clues as toThe Purpose Of It All? You see, I tied the tendrils of my ponytail to the dog's tail -- which, alas, elicited nothing but a rather sloppy lick -- and although sticking it into the wall socket certainly gave me a bit of a jolt from that all unnatural electrickery we can't seem to live without, still no answer to The Big Question.
Predictably, you glittering literati with long memories will draw spurious parallels with 1610, when the Catholic Church denounced Galileo's heretical claim that the Sun is the centre of the universe as "false and contrary to scripture."
But who among us would not relish the idea of a modern Inquisition imposing permanent house arrest on our own Galileo Galileiheehoo, that mammoth ego on legs and self-proclaimed "king of the world," James Cameron?
You see darlings, he and all the other money-grubbing yahoos of his ilk who prey on our craving for easy pre-packaged romantic answers to the gargantuan problems we face are simply raking it in by feigning rejection of the forces that actually drive them -- the Seven Deadlies in fact -- greed, pride, envy, lust, sloth, anger, and gluttony. He has given us the most technologically sophisticated 3-D condemnation of technology, greed, rape of the earth, and colonization of indigenous territories. Bravo! Yet one can't help wonderingwhat percentage of the many billions still to come from the film, the video game, and the heaps of merchandising will go towards environmental protection or restoring lands to indigenous nations? Will the real anti-mining activist organizations fighting evil corporate environmental rape of indigenous territories around the world get a slice of the action? Is that an impertinent question? Oh well...
Is it any wonder that the pontiff is worried about the multiple messages embedded within this film? For a start, equating human beings with other living things in a "supposedly egalitarian vision," the pontiff said recently, is a sort of "new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man's salvation in nature alone, understood in purely naturalistic terms."
Obviously, we humans are Über Alles, the Alpha species of Creation...at least if the Word of God is anything to go by. It says so for all to see in Genesis 1 -- right after creating light, the firmament, waters, dry land, grass, trees, fowl, great whales and every living creature, on Day 6 the Lord created man in his own image -- man (pretend for a minute that that includes woman), not monkeys, not pigs, not hippopotamuses. No bacteria, baobab, or beetle, no virus, shrub, or jellyfish can claim to look anything like God. No, just us! Clearly, we are God's favourites, so much so that He commanded us to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth." It's an actual order from the Lord -- procreate and dominate!
Alright, clever clogs, everyone knows that God did not personally dictate Genesis, but the gist of it is accepted as the foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, religions that collectively claim more than half the world's population. And if it weren't true, how have we come to actually be the top species, exercising our dominion over all others? Why aren't hyenas and warthogs running the world? Why do horses and elephants let us ride them and work for us for nothing but room and board? Why are huge animals with pointy teeth and scary claws so afraid that they flee at the sight or smell of us? Yes, yes, alright, some animals will try to kill us if they can, but surely that is proof of the decidedly unromantic violence of nature, of the inferiority of creatures who are incapable of reasoning, who act instead from instinctive fear?
But alas, the nature of nature seems to be bedeviling the poor pontiff at every turn. His Holiness has recently been skewered for denouncing the UK's new Equality Bill as "violating the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded." Under this anti-discrimination law, the Church would have been obliged to refrain from discriminating against gay and lesbian and even transgendered employees, including clergy. Of course, in a certain light, you cynical types will point out, the bill might have done the Vatican an enormous favour as its centuries-old ‘don't ask, don't tell' policy has offered sanctuary to untold thousands of gay men and lesbians, whose exodus if the Church were allowed openly to discriminate against them might leave many aparish priestless and nunless.
Nonetheless, the Labour government withdrew the clause after the Pope's intervention, leaving the Church free to discriminate against homosexuals, while doing everything in its power to protect child molesters. Phew! That was a close one!
But surely His Holiness is on solid turf here, as the Bible offers at least half a dozen admonitions against homosexuality, from the smiting of that mob of lusty Sodomites wanting to know Lot's visiting male angels literally in the biblical sense, to Romans 1:26-27: "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another...."
I must admit that the bit about God giving them up to unnatural ‘vile affections' has always been a niggler in my mind, especially as scientists keep insisting that homosexual behaviour is also rampant within the ‘animal kingdom.' Why would God do that to us -- and to animals who lack reason and choice -- if it's wrong? But then, as is well known, the Lord works in mysterious ways to test our moral turpitude -- like creating Lucifer to tempt us into all sorts of unseemly acts, and of course, chocolate.
This was rather well put, I thought, in the film Devil's Advocate, when Beelzebub, appearing as senior partner of a New York law firm (convincingly portrayed by Al Pacino) explains to his devil's spawn son (forgive the profanities): "God's your prankster, my boy. Think of it. He gives man instincts. He gives you this extraordinary gift and then, I swear to you -- for his own amusement -- his own private cosmic gag reel -- he sets the rules in opposition. It's the goof of all time. Look but don't touch. Touch but don't taste. Taste but don't swallow. And while you're jumping from one foot to the other he's laughing his sick fucking ass off! He's a tight-ass. He's a sadist..."
Indeed, the core mission of the Catholic Church, if not Christianity in general, seems to be to elaborate and enforce the schism between us and nature. It thrives on devising strategies (prayer, piety) for avoiding our natural inclinations,and horrific punishments for yielding to them (mortification of the flesh, weekly sermons, and of course, Hell). Again, I refer you to Genesis 3, for example: as punishment for Eve's "original sin" of disobedience (curious by nature but knowledge-seeking, it turns out, is bad), God puts ‘enmity' between her and Adam, banishes them from the Garden of Eden, makes them mortal, and throws in a few extra penalties for Eve: "I will greatly multiply your pain in child birth...yet your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you." Thus has God authorized man's dominion over woman as well as the creeping creatures. Patriarchy and androcentrism are actually mandated by the Lord. So there.
Now, the pontiff comes from a long line of popes who have interpreted the Bible thus. Of course, it's not really a line as in blood-line from Jesus (curses on Satan's servant, Dan Brown, and his blasphemous claims!) because, following Jesus, priests and popes are not allowed to have sex or get married, not since the 12th century anyway. Of course, many ignorant unbelievers have suggested that the celibacy requirement is driven by the deep misogyny of the Biblical religions that consider women to be lesser, unclean beings...with the bonus of preserving the Catholic Church's corporate property holdings from the clutches of priests' wives and children. Some have even postulated that celibacy is against both scripture (we are all commanded to be fruitful and multiply) and nature. This may explain why for centuries so many Catholic (as opposed to Protestant) clergy have been raping those under their ‘pastoral care' -- children and vulnerable women -- who can be manipulated or threatened with everlasting punishments if they tell. Perhaps the Church should have remembered the old adage, never let a dog guard your food. One can't help thinking of it asa classic chicken and egg question -- which comes first, the sexual predator or the Church? Is the one attracted to the other? Hmmm, that simply doesn't bear thinking about...
Anyway, as if it weren't enough that Pope #264, John Paul II, was cornered into apologizing for everything from the Crusades to the Inquisition (e.g. to China for the ‘past errors' of missionaries; to Orthodox Christians in Greece and Ukraine; and to women and minorities and Jews in Israel), poor #265 has recently had to apologize to the many thousands of Irish victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests both for the crimes and for the Church's long-standing cover-up policy -- sorry about that! -- although there appears to be no plan to compensate them from Church coffers.
What is most unfortunate is that the Pope himself has been heavily implicated in the cover-up policy in his previous incarnations as Archbishop of Munich and later as head of the "Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" (formerly known as the Inquisition). Apparently, in 2001 he signed a Vatican document instructing Bishops to keep secret the details of priestly misbehaviour they reported to Rome. It seems the Church has taken "suffer the little children to come unto me" rather too literally; Jesus surely did not mean the Church should facilitate their systematic abuse by shuffling child rapists from one parish to another and threatening excommunication, not for them, but for any Church officials who admit the problem and cooperate with police!
This should hardly be news though as the history of the Church has been one cover-up after another, of everything from the relative positions of the planets to its dodgy relationship with the Nazis. Yet there's no stopping the domino (or rather the dominus) effect as the Church is bombarded with legal suits for thousands of sex abuse claims from Germany, Holland, Austria, Italy, Poland, Spain and who-knows-where next, suits that could well bankrupt the Church altogether as it flails about trying to cover up the cover-up. Alas, the Pope's dismissal of the massive global public outrage as "petty gossip" was perhaps not the wisest way to demonstrate the Church's remorse. The whole thing is a frightful cock-up of Biblical proportions.
In any case, the recent mea culpas (such as they are) follow Pope Benedict's ‘acknowledgment' last year that many forms of abuse had been perpetrated by some Catholic clergy against Aboriginal children in the ‘Indian' residential schools of Canada, though he did not suggest that the entire system was inherently abusive beyond a few bad apples. Still, the Pope offered prayers (rather than crass cash) for their healing, for which they must surely be truly thankful, like the indigenous nations of Australasia and the Pacific Islands to whom John Paul II expressed his virtual ‘deep regret' via email in 2001.
Isn't it enough that the Vatican has bloody well apologized to half the world? Well, isn't it? And let us be candid: it's not as if the non-Natives of the settler societies of the Americas, Africa, and Australasia are not the continuing beneficiaries of exactly such church and state policies aimed at stripping indigenous nations of their territories and cultures. Let he who is without benefit among the trendy progressive soy latté set cast the first scone!
Now then,what does all this have to do with Avatar? You may well ask! Well, at the risk of tossing in a few plot-spoilers for the few who have not yet parted with their $15, the romanticized Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves white Messiah story is about the colonization of indigenous peoples and their lands on the planet Pandora by greedy insensitive earthlings after the valuable substance, "unobtanium." The indigenous humanoids, the blue-striped, long-tailed Na'vi, represent the very sorts of peoples -- animists living in harmony with nature -- to whom two Popes have ‘apologized' here on Earth. Ultimately, they are saved by the human sent to infiltrate them -- interestingly, in Hinduism, Avatar means "one who descends" as in the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form, usually to counteract some evil. There are multilayered meanings here, surely.
Indeed, it cannot be denied that the Church has been deeply implicated in the very sort of colonization depicted in the film. As is well known, the European adventurers seeking gold and other forms of wealth in all the other continentsbrandished the sword in one hand, the cross in the other. One thinks of Columbus sticking imperial flags into Caribbean beaches and rattling off in Spanish the Requerimiento, a declaration that the Pope had ‘donated' the heretofore unheard of lands of the Americas to the monarchs of Spain, as if they were within his gift! The indigenous nations were admonished to obey and to "acknowledge the Church as the Ruler and Superior of the whole world, and the high priest called Pope (and the King and Queen) as superiors and lords and kings". And if they didn't surrender to all this willingly, "[we] shall make war against you...and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them...and we shall take away your goods..." etc. Full marks to the Church for being true to its word on all counts.
Leaving aside the vexing question of how God could have excluded an entire continent full of people from the possibility of salvation for 1500 years till Columbus got there, it took centuries of hard bloody work for the Church to expel the animist demons from the indigenous nations of the Americas. Even so, many of them insist on retaining their own spiritual practices to this day.
And now along comes the "king of the world" with his poncey prancing Pandorans, just like that, claiming that all those Natives were right all along, that everything is alive and has its own spirit and is tapped into everything else, and that Nature is the singular energy source with which we need to be aligned. Not only that, but the Mother-Earth Goddess they worship, Eywa, is female! And she seems to be conscious, intelligent, and capable of exercising choice (in the film, she responds to Jake Sully's cry for help by mobilizing enormous scary Pandoran animals to fight the human invaders).
And so we come to the nature problem in a nutshell: while on the one hand, for example, the Pope is denouncing homosexuality (rather than say, child rape) as against nature -- suggesting that ‘nature' is some sort of sacrosanct force that is set up one way and one way only, and must be followed -- on the other hand, he is denouncing the worship of nature in Avatar. Is nature the be-all-and-end-all or not? Here is the Pope's dilemma: what is nature and what is God? Is nature not just a creation of and thus subsidiary to God, as followers of Biblical religions believe? Because what these pesky secularists would have us assume is that there is no God, there is only nature.
Which leaves us with the niggling question coming up the middle...are God and nature one and the same force? Could it be just that some people see it as an old man with a white beard carving out a set of rules-to-live-by on some tablets, while others see it as the fundamental life force coursing through everything?
What if the Darwinians are pretty much right that evolution is a process, but wrong that it is just a series of random, meaningless changes? What if Nature is intelligent, brilliant beyond our wildest imagination in fact? It is brilliant enough to organize this incredibly complex system that supports trillions of organisms, each infinitely complicated on its own, but interacting in intricate ways in sophisticated biomes, with built-in management principles such as birth, death and rebirth in another format. Perhaps it is not one centralized consciousness, but has infinite manifestations? Oh dear, this is beginning to sound a bit Hindu-philosophyish... sorry about that.
Anyway, moving on, if the secularists are to be believed, there is no Ultimate Meaning or Eternal Salvation and all we can do is our best to live clean, healthy, sustainable lives because it just feels better and works better for the world than living mean, greedy, unethical ones. But steady on, chaps! Surely what works best could not possibly be enough to inspire people to be good and generous towards other beings? Surely we need the promise of bliss in Paradise and/or the terror of everlasting hellfire (although sadly, neither seem to have stopped the Catholic Church from being the most corrupt and cruel organization ever known to humans over two millennia...)? Gosh, so many imponderables, so little space... it's all starting to make my brain hurt...
Whatever the answer to the above, clearly, the time of the Catholic Church is over. The Anti-Christ (or whatever) has infiltrated the entire operation from lowly parish to Vatican HQ, and plots to bring it down from within, one salacious sex scandal after another. Will the Prince of Darkness finally succeed in destroying the Church entirely with this latest ploy to subpoena the Pope to testify in a Kentucky legal claim that the Vatican is accountable for all the sexual abuses of children in the United States? Could the Church possibly survive such a spectacle? For even if that claim fails, others will surely try the same strategy elsewhere. The more the Vatican resists, the worse it will look, until at last it will be easier for a pope-mobile to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Catholic priest to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This leaves only one choice.
Surrender Benedict! The jig is up! The Church has been caught with its trousers down and theonly hope of redemption now lies in trying to make amends. Why not sell off Vatican Inc.'s massive real estate holdings and other treasures, turn the Vatican into an art museum and distribute the proceeds to indigenous communities, the poor and victims of church abuse around the world? If you really believe in Jesus and feel compelled to proselytize, then why not follow his example? Take to the open roads with nothing but a weather-beaten staff and a packet of sandwiches, practice senseless acts of kindness, give rather than take from the poor. For God's sake, Pope Benedict, we implore you, shut up shop now while you can still do it with some semblance of dignity, while you can make it look like you are choosing to Do the Right Thing...
Oh dear, I seem to be feeling rather queer...think I'd better have another belt of sherry and a bit of a lie down.....
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