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Random/Theological Notebook: Slate Articles on Benedict XVI and the Economics of Bachelorhood

Slate articles I read in the last few days, brought to my attention by friede and kesil.

"God's Rottweiler" Becomes the Church's "Beloved German Shepherd"
How Pope Benedict has disappointed the right.

By Michael Sean Winters
Posted Friday, April 11, 2008, at 5:15 PM ET

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI on April 19, 2005, Catholic conservatives in America were licking their chops. "The 'progressive' project is over," Catholic neocon George Weigel triumphantly announced. William Donohue, the eccentric, right-wing president of the Catholic League, said of Catholic liberals, "We expect that the weeping and gnashing of teeth will begin soon."

Three years later, as American Catholics prepare for the pope's visit next week, those same conservatives in the United States have been disappointed. They had hoped Benedict would confront liberal tendencies in the church. Some, like Weigel, sought to purge the presbyterate of gays whom they blamed for the sex-abuse scandal. They wanted the ecclesiastical equivalent of court-packing, with the pope appointing only conservatives to major posts. But Benedict has defied them in his appointments, in his views on capitalism and the war in Iraq, and even in his approach to other faiths. "No one would call Benedict the darling of the left, but he has been moderate, pastoral, tolerant, nuanced," says Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, a theologian and U.S. leader of the Catholic group Communione e Liberazione.

Conservative distress began almost immediately after Pope Benedict took over, when in May 2005 he named San Francisco Archbishop William Levada to fill his old job as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a position that amounts to being the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog. Levada had been suspect to conservatives since 1996, when he worked out a compromise on same-sex partner benefits with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. Under Levada's proposal, employees at Catholic institutions could designate anyone with whom they were legally domiciled as their beneficiary: an aunt, a cousin, a same-sex partner. The proposal avoided the culture war that some Catholic conservatives were hoping for. In a controversial article in February 2006, Father Richard John Neuhaus cited the Levada appointment as one of the reasons for "a palpable uneasiness" among "those who greatly admired Cardinal Ratzinger and were elated by his election as pope."

The next year, when Benedict had to appoint a new archbishop for Washington, D.C.—his first major stateside appointment—neocons hoped he would redeem himself. They championed three archbishops who had publicly urged denying communion to pro-choice politicians during the 2004 election: Charles Chaput of Denver, Raymond Burke of St. Louis, and John Myers of Newark, N.J. Instead, Benedict chose Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl, a moderate who has opposed turning the communion rail into a political battle station. Benedict further disappointed conservatives hellbent on denying communion to pro-choice politicians when he named as cardinal Boston Archbishop Sean O'Malley, who refused to order Sen. John Kerry out of church. Benedict's choices shouldn't have surprised anyone, though. According to one American present during a spring 2004 Vatican meeting with U.S. bishops, then-Cardinal Ratzinger laughed when he heard of denying politicians communion based on their political views. After all, popes have, over the years, given communion to Communist mayors, gay legislators, and countless pro-choice politicians.

But appointments weren't the only area where Benedict failed to live up to expectations. Conservatives took heart when then-Cardinal Ratzinger denounced the "filth" within the church at Good Friday services just weeks before his election as pope in 2005. They understood him to refer to sexually active gay clergy whom right-wing Catholics blamed for the sexual abuse of minors. But the first victim of Benedict's purge was the founder of the ultraconservative Legionnaires of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, who under John Paul II had long avoided being suspended despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct. Benedict also removed John Paul II's closest collaborator, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, whose ties to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had severely compromised the church's image in Latin America. Sodano's American secretary was also sacked from the Vatican diplomatic corps late last year.

Pope Benedict shares virtually none of the core political beliefs of American neocons. In his book Jesus of Nazareth, he warned against "capitalism that degrades man to the level of merchandise." He has consistently spoken out against the Iraq war. And the whole reason Benedict is coming to America is to address the United Nations, which is not the neocons' favorite organization. Even when Benedict has endorsed a part of the conservative agenda, he has done so with none of the rigidity that characterizes the writings of American Catholic conservatives. Throughout his career, first as theologian, then as bishop and cardinal, and now as pope, Benedict has emphasized the centrality of the person of Christ in the salvation of the world. Yet he has been adept at making profound interreligious gestures, meeting with Muslim diplomats at the Vatican to soothe relations after an unfortunate remark in a speech, reaching out to Eastern Orthodox Christians at every opportunity, and even framing the central section of his book Jesus of Nazareth as a response to a book by his friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner. When Benedict brought back the traditional Tridentine Mass, he changed certain prayers from the Good Friday liturgy that were offensive to Jews.

Still, Pope Benedict is no liberal. One of the problems with most press coverage of the Catholic Church is that the left-right template doesn't fit very well. The right tends to ignore or water down the church's teachings about social justice, while the left frequently minimizes the church's teachings on sexual ethics. A pope can't side with either group but must love them both and try to communicate the church's teachings in their entirety and integrity.

The difference between Ratzinger the cardinal—the man conservatives saw as an answer to their prayers—and Benedict the pope—who has disappointed those same Catholics—has less to do with any changes within the man himself. He has, by almost all accounts, always been brilliant, concerned about overly hasty theological change, personally kind, prayerful. What has changed is his job. For 23 years, Cardinal Ratzinger's job was to protect the deposit of faith from distortions or manipulations which, even if well-intended, might alter the content of what Catholics believe was given them by God when He founded the church. This was a difficult and often controversial task, and it was a desk job. When he was elected pope, he became a pastor. Albacete says, "He is committed to exploring how faith and reason work together to lead man to the truth about himself. Benedict would never diminish himself, or his office, fighting tired ideological battles." The change in roles can be found in another way: Until he was elected pope, had anyone ever seen a picture of Joseph Ratzinger embracing children?

All popes have three central tasks: to lead the church in prayer, to teach the truths of the faith, and to govern the universal church. To watch Benedict preside at Mass is to see someone whose interiority, whose depth, is almost tangible. Liturgies are never rushed. The sermons are always exquisite. As a teacher, Benedict has used his weekly general audiences to revisit the teachings of the fathers of the church, those early writers and thinkers who shaped Christian theology before the divisions between East and West. His writings are accessible and profound, and his best-selling book may reach people whom traditional methods of evangelization miss. Some quibble about his governance of the church—that appointments take too long, that he is not accessible enough to this group or that. But Benedict has gone from being known derisively as "God's Rottweiler" to becoming the church's "beloved German shepherd."

Cheering the pope in Washington and New York will be those Catholics who look to their church for comfort and challenge, for solace and strength, people who are more concerned about loving their pope than they are about any ideological battles within or without the church. Joining in the cheers will be many of those who greeted his election with trepidation. And if there is any gnashing of teeth, it will be coming from the bleachers on the far right.

Everyday Economics: How the dismal science applies to your life.
The Eligible-Bachelor Paradox
How economics and game theory explain the shortage of available, appealing men.

By Mark Gimein
Posted Wednesday, April 9, 2008, at 4:23 PM ET

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the available, sociable, and genuinely attractive man is a character highly in demand in social settings. Dinner hosts are always looking for the man who fits all the criteria. When they don't find him (often), they throw up their hands and settle for the sociable but unattractive, the attractive but unsociable, and, as a last resort, for the merely available.

The shortage of appealing men is a century-plus-old commonplace of the society melodrama. The shortage—or—more exactly, the perception of a shortage—becomes evident as you hit your late 20s and more acute as you wander into the 30s. Some men explain their social fortune by believing they've become more attractive with age; many women prefer the far likelier explanation that male faults have become easier to overlook.

The problem of the eligible bachelor is one of the great riddles of social life. Shouldn't there be about as many highly eligible and appealing men as there are attractive, eligible women?

Actually, no—and here's why. Consider the classic version of the marriage proposal: A woman makes it known that she is open to a proposal, the man proposes, and the woman chooses to say yes or no. The structure of the proposal is not, "I choose you." It is, "Will you choose me?" A woman chooses to receive the question and chooses again once the question is asked.

The idea of the woman choosing expressed in the proposal is a resilient one. The woman picking among suitors is a rarely reversed archetype of romantic love that you'll find everywhere from Jane Austen to Desperate Housewives. Or take any comic wedding scene: Invariably, it'll have the man standing dazed at the altar, wondering just how it is he got there.

Obviously, this is simplified—in contemporary life, both sides get plenty of chances to be selective. But as a rough-and-ready model, it's not bad, and it contains a solution to the Eligible-Bachelor Paradox.

You can think of this traditional concept of the search for marriage partners as a kind of an auction. In this auction, some women will be more confident of their prospects, others less so. In game-theory terms, you would call the first group "strong bidders" and the second "weak bidders." Your first thought might be that the "strong bidders"—women who (whether because of looks, social ability, or any other reason) are conventionally deemed more of a catch—would consistently win this kind of auction.

But this is not true. In fact, game theory predicts, and empirical studies of auctions bear out, that auctions will often be won by "weak" bidders, who know that they can be outbid and so bid more aggressively, while the "strong" bidders will hold out for a really great deal. You can find a technical discussion of this here. (Be warned: "Bidding Behavior in Asymmetric Auctions" is not for everyone, and I certainly won't claim to have a handle on all the math.) But you can also see how this works intuitively if you just consider that with a lot at stake in getting it right in one shot, it's the women who are confident that they are holding a strong hand who are likely to hold out and wait for the perfect prospect.

This is how you come to the Eligible-Bachelor Paradox, which is no longer so paradoxical. The pool of appealing men shrinks as many are married off and taken out of the game, leaving a disproportionate number of men who are notably imperfect (perhaps they are short, socially awkward, underemployed). And at the same time, you get a pool of women weighted toward the attractive, desirable "strong bidders."

Where have all the most appealing men gone? Married young, most of them—and sometimes to women whose most salient characteristic was not their beauty, or passion, or intellect, but their decisiveness.

Evolutionary psychologists will remind us that there's a long line of writing about "female choosiness" going back to Darwin and the male peacocks competing to get noticed by "choosy" mates with their splendid plumage. But you don't have to buy that kind of reductive biological explanation (I don't) to see the force of the "women choose" model. You only have to accept that for whatever socially constructed reason, the choice of getting married is one in which the woman is usually the key player. It might be the man who's supposed to ask the official, down-on-the-knee question, but it usually comes after a woman has made the central decision. Of course, in this, as in all matters of love, your experience may vary.

There may be those who look at this and try to derive some sort of prescription, about when to "bid," when to hold out, and when (as this Atlantic story urges) to "settle." If you're inclined to do that, approach with care. Game theory deals with how best to win the prize, but it works only when you can decide what's worth winning.
Tags: america, benedict xvi, catholicism, cultural, random, sexuality, theological notebook

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