Pope John Paul II’s reaction to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is well known. Immediately after seeing it, he murmured, “It is as it was!”—a statement that was then quickly withdrawn by Vatican officials. A glimpse into the Pope’s spontaneous reaction was thus replaced by the “official,” neutral stance, corrected so as not to hurt anyone. This withdrawal, and its nod toward liberal sensibility, betrayed what was best in the late pope, his intractable ethical stance.
Today, in our era of over-sensitivity regarding “harassment” by the Other, it’s increasingly common to hear complaints about “ethical violence,” those ethical injunctions that “terrorize” us with their brutal impositions. In its place, these critics would prefer to see an “ethics without violence,” a sort of permanent (re)negotiation of ethical norms. It is here where the highest cultural critique unexpectedly meets the lowest pop psychology.
The example par excellence is John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, who, in a series of “Oprah” shows, brought this stance to its extreme logical terminus. Since we ultimately “are” the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, Gray argues, the solution to our psychic deadlock resides in creatively “rewriting” the narratives of our past with a positive twist. What Gray has in mind is not only standard cognitive therapy—that is, changing negative “false beliefs” about oneself into a more positive attitude of the assurance that one is loved by others and capable of creative achievements. He advocates a more “radical,” pseudo-Freudian notion of regressing back to the scene of the primordial traumatic wound.
Gray accepts the psychoanalytic notion of an early childhood trauma that forever marks its subject’s further development, giving that development a pathological spin. He proposes that, after regressing to this primal traumatic scene and directly confronting it, the subject should, under the guidance of a therapist, “rewrite” that experience in a more “positive,” benign and productive narrative. For example, if the traumatic scene that persists in your unconscious, deforming and inhibiting your creative attitude, is that of your father shouting at you, “You are worthless! I hate you! Nothing good will ever come out of you!,” one should simply rewrite it into a scenario where a smiling, benevolent father encouragingly tells you, “You’re OK! I trust you fully!” To play this game to its end, in Freud’s famous case of “Wolfman”—whose primal, traumatic scene was witnessing his parents’ coitus a tergo—Gray’s ostensible solution would be for Wolfman to rewrite the scene, so that what he effectively saw was merely his parents lying in bed, his father reading a newspaper and mother a sentimental novel.
The problem is that such a satirical exaggeration is actually taking place. Today, many ethnic, sexual or racial minorities rewrite their past in a more positive, self-assertive vein, i.e. African Americans who claim that long before European modernity, ancient African empires already had highly developed science and technology. Along the same lines, one can imagine a rewriting of the Ten Commandments: Is some commandment too severe? Let us regress to the scene on Mt. Sinai and rewrite it! “Thou shalt not commit adultery—except if it is emotionally sincere and serves the goal of your profound self-realization.” Exemplary here is Donald Spoto’s The Hidden Jesus. In this New Age “liberal” reading of Christianity, we can read apropos of divorce:
Jesus clearly denounced divorce and remarriage. … But Jesus did not go further and say that marriages cannot be broken. … Nowhere else in his teaching is there any situation where he renders a person forever chained to the consequences of sin. His entire treatment of people was to liberate, not to legislate. … It is simply self-evident that in fact some marriages do break down, that commitments are abandoned, that promises are violated and love betrayed.
Sympathetic and liberal as these lines are, they involve the fatal confusion between emotional ups-and-downs and an unconditionally symbolic commitment that is supposed to hold precisely when it is no longer supported by direct emotions. “Thou shalt not divorce—except when your marriage ‘in fact’ breaks down, when it is experienced as a unbearable emotional burden that frustrates your full life.” In short, except when the prohibition to divorce would have regained its full meaning (since who would divorce when the marriage is still blossoming?).
This is how (although the modern topic of human rights is ultimately grounded in the Jewish notion of the love for one’s neighbor) we tend to establish today a negative link between the Decalogue (the traumatically imposed divine Commandments) and human rights. That is to say, within our post-political, liberal-permissive society, human rights have, ultimately, become the rights to disobey the Ten Commandments. “The right to privacy”—the right to adultery, done in secrecy, where no one has the right to probe. “The right to pursue happiness and private property”—the right to steal and exploit others. “Freedom of expression and freedom of the press”—the right to lie. “The right of free citizens to bear weapons”—the right to kill. And ultimately, “freedom of religious belief”—the right to worship false gods.
The greatness of John Paul II was that he personified the disavowal of the liberal, easy way out. Even those who respected the Pope’s moral stance usually accompanied their praise with the caveat that he nonetheless remained hopelessly old-fashioned, medieval even, by sticking to dogmas out of touch with the demands of modernity. How could someone today ignore contraception, divorce or abortion? How could the Pope deny the right to abortion even to a nun who got pregnant through rape (as he effectively did in the case of the raped nuns in Bosnia)? Isn’t it clear that, even when one is in principle against abortion, one should consent to a compromise in such an extreme case?
One can see why the Dalai Lama is a much more appropriate leader for our postmodern, permissive times. He presents us with a feel-good spiritualism without any specific obligations. Anyone, even the most decadent Hollywood star, can follow him while continuing their money-grabbing, promiscuous lifestyle. In stark contrast, the Pope reminded us that there is a price to pay for a proper ethical attitude. It was his very stubborn clinging to “old values,” his ignoring the “realistic” demands of our time, even when the arguments against him seemed “obvious” (as in the case of the raped nun), that made him an authentic ethical figure.
That said, however, was John Paul really up to the level of this task? Consider that the Catholic Church has its own “white mafia,” Opus Dei, a (half) secret organization that somehow embodies the pure Law beyond any positive legality. Opus Dei’s supreme rule is an unconditional obedience to the Pope and the ruthless determination to work for the Church, with all other rules being (potentially) suspended. As a rule, its members, whose task is to penetrate the top political and financial circles, keep secret or play down their Opus Dei identity. As such, they are effectively “opus dei”—the “work of God,” i.e., perversely imagining themselves as the direct instrument of divine will.
Let us also consider the abundant cases of sexual molestation of children by priests. These cases are so widespread, from Austria and Italy to Ireland and the United States, that one can effectively speak of an articulated “counterculture” within the Church that has its own set of hidden rules. And there is a connection between the pederast scandals and Opus Dei because the group works with the Church to intervene and hush them up.
The Church’s reaction to the sex scandals demonstrates the way it perceives its role: It insists that these cases, deplorable as they are, are the Church’s internal problem, and it displays great reluctance to collaborate with police in their investigations. Indeed, in a way, the Church is right. The molestation of children is the Church’s internal problem—that is to say, an inherent product of its institutional organization and of the libidinal economy on which that organization relies. Obviously, these scandals are not simply particular criminal cases concerning particular individuals who just happen to be priests. The problem is systemic.
Consequently, the answer to the Church’s reluctance should not only be that these are criminal cases and, if the Church does not fully cooperate in the investigations, it should be seen as an accomplice after the fact. Over and beyond this, the Church, as such, as an institution, should be investigated in regard to the way it systematically produces such crimes. This is also the reason why one cannot explain away the priests’ sexual scandals as the opponents of celibacy suggest—that they occur because the priests’ sexual urges do not find a legitimate outlet and thus explode in a pathological way. Allowing Catholic priests to get married would not solve the problem. We would not get priests doing their jobs without harassing young boys because it is the priesthood itself that generates pedophilia through its sexual apartheid (male exclusivity).
And it is here that the Pope failed. In spite of his public pronouncements of worry, he failed to confront the roots and consequences of the pedophilic scandals. Under his reign, Opus Dei got stronger than ever. The pope’s spokesman, Navarro Valls, is a member. He even elevated the group’s founder, Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer (an open anti-Semite and proto-Fascist), into sainthood—an act that blatantly contradicts and thus cancels his apology to Jews for the centuries of Christianity’s crimes committed against them. This is why John Paul II was an ethical failure—proof that even a sincere, radical ethical stance can become a fake, empty pose if it does not take into account its own conditions and consequences.
Slavoj Žižek, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. Among other books, he is the author of The Fragile Jesus and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?