"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Sometimes a Kiss is More Than a Kiss

Far and away my favourite example of popes and kisses has to be Pope Paul VI who, in December 1975 fell to his knees to greet the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Metropolitan Meliton, who came to tell him that Orthodoxy was organizing itself to launch an official dialogue with the Catholic Church. Overjoyed by this news, Paul VI fell to his knees and astonished everyone by kissing Meliton's feet. It had a powerful effect on those in the Sistine Chapel with the two churchmen, but on many others in Orthodoxy as well.

This story has been in (limited) circulation for a while, but was written up in a very short little book I enjoyed reading when it first came out, Rome & Constantinople: Pope Paul VI & Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon by Athanasios Papas, trans. George Dion Dragas (Orthodox Research Institute, 2006), 60pp. (There are some photos of the incident here.)

Fast forward to this week's utterly silly furor over the pope's hand being kissed. The question nobody is asking is of course psychological. Outside a liturgical exchange of the kiss of peace, what motivates people to want to do this? And what motivates people to rush to judge Pope Francis over this when the evidence from the event in question seems less than straightforward and admits of several plausible interpretations? For many Catholics, of course, this is just one more piece of evidence of how wicked a man he is for defying such a "sacred tradition."

But why should this be a tradition in the first place? And how "traditional" is it, anyway? Would it be more traditional if he had people kiss his feet, as used to be prescribed by protocol until only a few decades ago? Would he be thought more traditional if he brought back the papal slippers with a cross on them to receive the kisses of the people prostrate before him on his throne? Would that reassure people, and give them an extra frisson at being able to indulge in not one but two kisses, and not of his hand or ring, but of his feet while they are on their knees?

The need to do this is what should give us pause. Already, of course, his most vocal detractors are insisting that people always and only do this to show reverence to Christ, and if he doesn't like it or prevents them from doing it, then he must be like Ayn Rand (as one person put it on Twitter) denying the divinity of Christ. Kissing the ring, then, is a sign of impeccable Christology or something called "orthodoxy."

Some people--perhaps--may see themselves doing it solely for that reason, but I wager they are a vanishingly small minority, and even they are not doing it for that reason alone. One of the things we ought by now to have learned from Freud is that our motives are rarely if ever that unequivocal--even as we remain largely unaware of our motives, which are revealed by our actions. (See his 1914 essay  "Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through" for more on this.)

To his credit, the erstwhile Catholic Rod Dreher has helpfully drawn our attention to these mixed motives in reflecting on the earlier crisis of sex abuse that engulfed Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston in 2002 and how Dreher used the act of ring kissing as tendentiously as today's critics of Francis are doing:
This is nobody’s fault but my own. Part of that involved hero-worshipping Pope John Paul II, and despite having a healthy awareness of the sins and failings of various bishops, exaggerating the virtues of bishops my side deemed “orthodox.” Bernard Cardinal Law was just such a bishop. I count it as one of the most shameful acts of my life the moment when I rushed across a courtyard in Jerusalem to kneel and kiss Cardinal Law’s ring.
I don’t count it as a sin to kiss a cardinal’s ring; what was wrong was my motivation for doing so: I felt so much pride in showing myself to be an orthodox Catholic paying due homage to an orthodox archbishop in that public way.
It was, in other words, and as we say today, virtue signalling. But why?

Again the question before us is psychological. Leaving aside the claims to be demonstrating piety or respect for an "office," why do Christians, all children of the same Father, feel the need to elevate some of their number and prostrate before them? This is a question taken up to powerful effect by another Spanish Jesuit, Carlos Dominguez-Morano in his recent and hugely important book Belief After Freud.

I draw on Dominguez-Morano in my new book Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Powerwhere I was forced to spend time on such psychological questions as are engendered by the personality cult around the pope, and discuss in detail three very revealing instances--from a group of laics, from a prominent priest, and from an entire episcopal conference (that of England and Wales)--of this need to prostrate themselves before the pope and engage in self-abasement while figuratively kissing his ring (if not other more posterior parts). Whether you kiss the ring or not, and whether he likes it or not, are all entirely beside the vastly more interesting and important question: why this is a felt need in the first place?

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