The Church gets big litigation win but looks like extinction is in the offing

If you are one of those few who don’t regularly visit the Holy See’s daily press releases, I urge you to do so. It’s easy enough for us Anglophones (i.e., those with an iPhone app which allows you to speak in English).  You first go to the Vatican’s web site. You then select the link “The Holy See English” to go the English page. There you will be greeted by a photo of His Holiness to the left of a series of concentric semi-circles that look like a code not so much drawn by da Vinci as by a modern graphic arts grad student. The outer circle has ominous sounding buttons like “Vatican Secret Archives” and “Peter’s Pence” and “S.C.V.” I’ve never clicked on those things, mainly because I’ve read enough medieval history to know that it’s best not to involve yourself with Church secrets–it never pays knowing. To the right of this circle are various buttons like “Abuse of Minors. The Church’s response” and “Archivio Storico de Propaganda Fide.” Again, it’s best to not click on those. The first because there are laws, at least in the US, about internet child porn, and the second because, well, let’s just say that the stuff the Propaganda Fide people did was such that the cardinal in charge was known as the “red pope.”

So play it safe and just click on “News/Photos.” This will take you to a page where you can scroll down and press “Daily Bulletin of the Holy See Press Office.” Now if you’ve done all this correctly, following all the prompts for English readers, you will be taken to a page all in Italian, a language spoken by neither the readers who have followed all the English prompts nor the Pope. Nevertheless you can get by tolerably well by having Google translate everything for you–which the Vatican could have told us up front and saved all the unnecessary English navigation. But I suppose the Vatican is uncomfortable in the role of telling people what to do.

In any event, you will find many interesting things at the press release page (translated by Google). For instance if you select releases for the past week, you will see one on 16/03/2011, wherein, according to Google’s translator, the Pope congratulated the Italian Republic “on the occasion of the policy unit of Italy 150 years.” Since this makes no sense, you have to go to Wikipedia and look up “1861” and scroll down to March 17 to find out that on that date “The Kingdom of Italy is proclaimed, with Victor Emmanuel II as its king.” As between the Vatican, with its paid historians and its commitment to historical accuracy, urging the date as March 16, and Wikipedia, which is manned by anonymous, unprofessional amateurs, claiming the date as March 17, it’s best to go with Wikipedia, which has a better record of veracity.

I tried to grasp why the current Pope was congratulating Italy on this event, when the Popes at the time were dead-set against it, but it was written in that ponderous Vatican style which recites all sorts of things in that self-congratulatory smugness that makes it impossible to read. I did note, however, this sentence: “Dante, Giotto, Petrarch, Michelangelo, Raphael, Pierluigi da Palestrina, Caravaggio, Scarlatti, Bernini and Borromini are just some of a line of great artists over the centuries [who] have made a fundamental contribution to the formation of the Italian identity.” That’s some list, but really! Scarlatti is included but Monteverdi is missing. What gives? Is it because the Pope spent most of his life listening to Wagner that he missed the main innovators of Italian music?

Well, that wasn’t the point of this post. I meant to draw your attention to the item “Dichiarazione del Directtore della Sala Stampa della Santa Sede, P. Federico Lombardi, sulla Sentenza Odierna della Grande Chambre della Corte Europea dei Diritti dell’Uomo (160/2011 – 18.03.2011).” Google translates the lede of this release as: “The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights required exposure of the crucifix in the classrooms of the Italian public schools is welcomed by the Holy See.” Now that hardly seemed likely, so I went to the European Court of Human Rights homepage, which thankfully is in English, even though for reasons I don’t understand Americans are not in charge of this court. But it did have the decision of the court in Case of Lautsi and others v. Italy. When you read the decision, it’s easy to see what has the Vatican Press Office so excited (but it really is not about a mandatory exposure of the crucifix in Italian classrooms–Google should get it’s mind out of the gutter).

Here’s the decision in a nutshell: Back in 2002 (what I recall as a simpler time) the parents of two Italian public school students (aged 12 and 14) met with the administrators of the school and questioned whether it was appropriate for the public schools of a secular republic like Italy likes to claim it is to be decorated with crucifixes, which appear to endorse a particular religious point of view–that of the organization which once maintained an Inquisition which tortured and killed heretics and threatened to do in Galileo for rightly putting the sun at the center of the solar system notwithstanding the views of the organization that dealt in crucifixes (among other things). The school governors, after due deliberation, voted 10-2 against removing the crucifixes. We were not privy to the discussion but we can assume that it went along these lines:

How can a little statue influence the minds of little children one way or the other. After all, we are a country whose identity was formed by Dante, Giotto, Petrarch, Michelangelo, Raphael, Pierluigi da Palestrina, Caravaggio, Scarlatti, Bernini and Borromini.

What about Monteverdi?

I was just picking a few of the many artists that forged our identity. I was not trying to make a complete list of important Italian artists.

Still if you are going to pick Scarlatti, how can you leave out Monteverdi? It would be as if you were German and made a list of the of the important artists forming German character and included Wagner but not Bach.

Please, let’s not start with Cardinal Ratzinger again. He will never become Pope. Nobody in the twenty-first century goes from running the Inquisition to becoming the Pope. Besides, he’s German.

My point exactly.

But what does this have to do with the crucifixes they are complaining about?

My point is: if the Germans are allowed to have Wagner piped through their public schools day and night, why can’t we have crucifixes? Didn’t Monteverdi wear a crucifix?

Good point. All in favor. Against. Ok, 10-2. Leave them up. Nobody pays attention to those things anyway.

Notwithstanding this close reasoning, the original EU court that heard the matter held that the crucifixes violated the students’ rights to be free of religious indoctrination in school. But on appeal to the full Court, the decision was reversed. The Court heard arguments not only from the private litigants but also from representatives of the following countries who sought leave to intervene: Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, the Russian Federation, and the Republic of San Marino. Now each of these countries have long and deeply held civil liberties values, going back in some cases to before the 1990s, and several of these countries were without dictators for some of the past 50 years. The Court was undoubtedly impressed by their argument. Especially since each of those countries had a judge on the panel deciding the case.

So, given the broad understanding that this court had of tolerance and religious freedom, you can only admire the ringing principle the court carved out: “There is no evidence before the Court that the display of a religious symbol on classroom walls may have an influence on pupils and so it cannot reasonably be asserted that it does or does not have an effect on young persons whose convictions are still in the process of being formed.” Reminds you of a decision by Earl Warren or Hugo Black, right? Maybe the reason we can’t find a Louis Brandeis for our own Supreme Court is because they all went to the European Court of Human Rights.

The decision is perfectly in accord with common sense. After all, the crucifixes don’t actually say who is being crucified. Lot’s of people have died that way. Just watch Spartacus. Hell, the Church itself probably killed more people that way than the Romans. And even if you make unwarranted assumptions, as to which there is no evidence before the court, that the person on the cross is a specific individual, it’s not like it anyone has ever suggested that one group or another was responsible for the killing.

Given the holding–that there is no evidence that the crucifixes have any influence on anybody, even children who have not formed any opinion–it’s no wonder the Church is so proud of the ruling. The Church hasn’t had a good record in court in recent times. And when it comes to children, it would just as soon take a decision that says it had no part in forming their opinion as what they’ve been seeing recently. So it has every right to crow about the decision, and even go a little bit beyond what the court said, by announcing in its press release (according to Google): “It is recognized, therefore, an authoritative legal and international level, that the culture of human rights should not be placed in conflict with the religious foundations of European civilization to which Christianity has made a major contribution.” Not to mention Dante and Scarlatti.

Sadly, this great victory, however, may be in vain. According to the BBC, a team of mathematicians gave a report at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas which showed, based on nonlinear dynamics that religion, sooner rather than later, will become extinct. This same group has been predicting the extinction of some very marginal languages, and, needless to say, you have probably not heard many people talking in Quechuan recently. It seems the fate of Quechuan will also be the fate of religions. The scientists who presented the report described the process of dying languages and dying religions as based on decisions by people as to what group they felt was more useful to them. Perhaps they could also have pointed to such practices as celebrating symbols that impartial observers believe have no ability to persuade even young children of their beliefs.

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