It may be time for Pope Benedict XVI to go to confession. Greed after all is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas warned Christians about the mortal sin of greed. “It is a sin directly against one’s neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them… it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man contemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things.”
I realize of course that a somewhat higher spiritual authority, Jesus himself, told us not to judge others. However, I am not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. I shall not lob a stone Pope Benedict’s way, but I will send a raised eyebrow. For if not a sin, this new sign of covetousness by the Pope is disturbing.
For as you may have read in the paper, the Pope has a fashion sense. Pope John Paul II did not. John Paul believed in off-white and skullcaps. It was pretty much the same vestments every day. Benedict must have tried on the off-white robes and found them not quite to his liking. He seems to want something dressier. His shiny red Prada shoes seem to be making a statement: there is a new pope in town and he’s not a John Paul II clone. This new pope will not join the voluminous list of popes who only stood out in a crowd because their off white was surrounded by so much cardinal red.
If it were just the shiny red shoes perhaps he might be forgiven. Alas, last week Pope Benedict also showed up in St. Peter’s Square in a fur-trimmed stocking cap. Moreover, he has been seen wearing designer Gucci sunglasses. In addition, in a recent visit to the statue of the Madonna in Spain he appeared in a bright red cape trimmed in ermine. Avarice, that’s what it is. Greed, covetousness and avarice: he appears to be guilty of all of them.
Benedict sees himself as a classical pope. In those nostalgic days before Protestantism the pope was not just the spiritual leader of all Christianity, he was also seen as something of a defacto uber-king. It was okay for a pope to be opulent. Indeed, popes were not just opulent; many were also corrupt to the core. Others had wives, mistresses, extended families and bastards. The custom of priestly celibacy did not evolve until the Middle Ages. With such power and influence there was little point for a pope to spend his life pretending to be miserable.
While it is unlikely that Benedict will diverge with his predecessors’ inclinations toward priestly celibacy, he does appear to be taking the first few tentative steps toward emulating a richer sort of personal life. This fisher of men seems to be appealing to a higher-class clientele. Perhaps there is some logic to his approach. While the poor will be always, it seems like most of the poor that can be converted to Catholicism are already members. Europeans seem to have moved on beyond organized religion. That churches survive in Europe today at all is largely due to governments refusing to let them die. Yes, countries such as Germany prop up their churches with direct subsidies.
Even so, Christianity has lost much of its appeal in Western Europe. In today’s Washington Post, for example, we learn that the Church of England has closed 1,700 churches since 1970. While 24 million Britain citizens were baptized into the Church of England, only 5 million can be found in the pews on a given Sunday. In England, churches are being rented out for rock climbing and acrobatic exhibitions. For many Catholics in Western Europe, the only time they are likely to see the inside of a church is when they attend a marriage or a funeral. Otherwise, they simply cannot be bothered. Religion is no longer trendy; it is so Old World.
Perhaps that is why the Pope is wearing Prada. Maybe he realizes he must make some tiny compromise with the 21st Century. After all, it is hard to bring in churchgoers if they cannot identify with you. Many ordinary Western Europeans and Americans are now rich beyond Jesus’ wildest dreams. Moreover, it seems they like their material comforts just fine and do not feel too disturbed by their apparent lack of spirituality. What was that advice that Jesus gave them? Give away all their possessions to the poor, live with no thought of tomorrow and follow Jesus? I don’t think so! They will part with their Land Rovers, Pilates classes and Caramel Chocolate Frappuccino Blended Crème coffees when Hell freezes over. But hey, if the Pope can wear Prada and nifty Gucci sunglasses, maybe he is not as uncool as they thought. Perhaps they will give him a listen.
So perhaps there is marketing acumen with Pope Benedict’s recent fashion statements. I have to wonder if one of his first actions as pope was to call in a Madison Avenue public relations firm. If he had then doubtless they would have recommended an image makeover. Perhaps ermine lined capes and fashion sunglasses were their top recommendations.
Still, you have to wonder what the late Pope John Paul II would have thought of his fashion statements. I get the feeling he would be giving him a jaundiced eye. As Pope John Paul II saw it, the truth never changes. Consistency has been the Catholic Church’s main selling point for two thousand years. For if Pope Benedict is to give in to marketing pressure what is next? Loosening of celibacy requirements for priests? Women priests? A pragmatic stand toward birth control? The devout Catholic mind reels.
While I am sure a pope never has to do more than raise their hand before a lackey attends to his every need, the Church has invested too much in the marketing of a pope as a spiritual creature wholly indifferent to the earthly desires. Were I a Catholic perhaps I would advise Pope Benedict to consider the message that he is sending.