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The papabili — and Angelo Cardinal Scola among them

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — thinking today of the Church in terms of its “foreign policy” and the “Islamic world” ]

It’s worth looking at John Allen‘s list of papabili from the most recent conclave, the 2005 conclave that elected Joseph Ratzinger to the papacy, before reading the twelve names he offered CNN for the upcoming election — if only to note that Ratzinger’s own name is conspicuously absent from the list of likely candidates…

It is also worth remembering the response then-Cardinal Ratzinger gave to a reporter in a 1997 interview:

INTERVIEWER: “Your Eminence, you are very familiar with church history and know well what has happened in papal elections. . . . Do you really believe that the Holy Spirit plays a role in the election of the pope?”

RATZINGER: “I would not say so in the sense that the Holy Spirit picks out the pope, because there are too many contrary instances of popes the Holy Spirit would obviously not have picked. I would say that the Spirit does not exactly take control of the affair, but rather like a good educator, as it were, leaves us much space, much freedom, without entirely abandoning us. Thus the Spirit’s role should be understood in a much more elastic sense, not that he dictates the candidate for whom one must vote. Probably the only assurance he offers is that the thing cannot be totally ruined.”


Bearing that in mind, and given the current world context in which the issue of reform within the church is receiving the most fervent press attention, I’d like to pause for a moment to consider “foreign affairs” — and more specifically the Church’s relations with the Islamic world, since the next pope has the opportunity here to be a bridge builder, a literal pontifex, a peacemaker if he so chooses — or a divider, an antagonist.

I am therefore particularly interested in the possibility that Angelo Card. Scola might be elected to the papacy, since he has been involved for some time in Catholic-Islamic dialog through his Oasis project:

The ‘mestizaje of civilisations and cultures’. This refers to the ongoing, novel historical process of mixing of peoples and cultures. Hybridization is neither a theory about cultural integration, nor a general notion explaining realty. It is simply an acknowledgment of a situation that we must all face, whether we like or not, individually or collectively, that requires that each one of us to try to influence it for the better. On the basis of this notion the Oasis Centre aims at transcending certain frames of reference and concepts like multiculturalism, integration and reciprocity that are proving increasingly inadequate to explain the increasing interaction of peoples. It is clear that reflecting upon it cannot be done without taking into consideration the contribution of various religions and the way they themselves interact. In particular the Centre’s focus is on the relationship between Christians and Muslims.

Scola is currently the archbishop of Milan, and was previously patriarch of Venice. For a closer look at his work with what he accurately terms “the Islams” see his 2008 op-ed, The Freedom to Convert and interview with John Allen on “popular Islam”.


For myself, I was particularly interested in his response to a question from Allen in a 2009 interview on Shi’ite messianism:

ALLEN: What are you hearing from your contacts in Iran these days? Looking down the line, it seems that Shi’a Muslims and Catholics share certain traits: A strong clerical hierarchy, a theology of sacrifice, and deep currents of popular devotion. Does this suggest that Catholicism can play an important role in a dialogue with Iran, where Shi’a Islam is dominant?

SCOLA: Three accents strike me in the Shi’a tradition: the necessity of a continual actualization of revelation in certain physical persons, to the point of overcoming a too-rigid conception of divine transcendence; the lively expectation of eschatological fulfillment; and the reflection on the problem of evil. I have the impression that we’re not well informed on these points, despite the enormous work of study and analysis that’s been done by specialists in recent years. We know Shi’ites better than we know Shi’ism!

The Oasis network really hasn’t arrived yet in Iran, so what I know about what’s happening is what I see and read in the mass media. I don’t doubt, however, that many people in Iran want better relations with the West. We must not forget that Persian culture has shown itself to be extraordinarily fertile and receptive.

The principal problem, if I can put it slightly audaciously, is that Shi’ite messianism, almost unable to bear the weight of the expectations with which it is structurally bound up, has been converted over the centuries, at least in some circles, into a political ideology. We’re talking about a long process that’s not linear, which experience a brusque acceleration with the 1979 revolution. As Westerners, we were caught off guard. We had forgotten that history is also sometimes forged by ‘theological options.’

In any event, all this is reversible.

A comparison of the Shi’ite Ta’zieh “passion plays” mourning the martyrdom of Husayn at Kerbala with the equivalent Catholic play at Oberammergau memorializing the passion of Christ confirms the resemblance Allen suggests between the “theology of sacrifice, and deep currents of popular devotion” in Shi’a Islam and Catholicism respectively.

As for our lack of awareness of the contemporary pull of Islamic eschatology, Scola’s words mirror one of my own concerns to a T:

As Westerners, we were caught off guard. We had forgotten that history is also sometimes forged by ‘theological options.’

Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]

Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

So — church collapses?


As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism


The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

“Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
“Do you think I called in a decorator?”
“The one over the sink is a European city?”
“It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
“Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
“Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…


So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.


I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…


And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.

Ooh, will there be a [breathless] schism?

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — of headlines and ice cream headaches ]

I’m a tolerant sort of chappie on the whole, but the astounding idiocy of a tweet today from the Huffington Post really caught my attention. It’s in the upper panel of the pair that follows:

I might have been seen the HuffPo tweet, suffered a transient mental glitch and forgotten it immediately — but as fortune would have it, I had also seen the lower of the two tweets earlier in the day, and a tweet in response which pointed Jimmy Sky to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. I’d been intrigued enough, in fact, to track down Betteridge’s Law on Wikipedia to figure out what the fuss was about.

It’s simple:

Any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.


Does the presence of Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the United States while Barack Obama is sitting president — indeed, even holding a photo op in the same room with him — mean that the United States has split into five distinct and warring nations?

No more does the presence of a “pope emeritus” alongside a newly elected pope in the Vatican imply that there will be a schism in the church.

The idea is pinheaded.


As British journalist Andrew Marr wrote in his book, My Trade:

If the headline asks a question, try answering ‘no.’ Is This the True Face of Britain’s Young? (Sensible reader: No.) Have We Found the Cure for AIDS? (No; or you wouldn’t have put the question mark in.) Does This Map Provide the Key for Peace? (Probably not.) A headline with a question mark at the end means, in the vast majority of cases, that the story is tendentious or over-sold. It is often a scare story, or an attempt to elevate some run-of-the-mill piece of reporting into a national controversy and, preferably, a national panic. To a busy journalist hunting for real information a question mark means ‘don’t bother reading this bit’

He’s the one who seems to deserve credit for the idea… but Betteridge uses more colorful language in discussing a story titled Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data To the RIAA?

This story is a great demonstration of my maxim that any headline which ends in a question mark can be answered by the word “no.” The reason why journalists use that style of headline is that they know the story is probably bollocks, and don’t actually have the sources and facts to back it up, but still want to run it.


Okay. That HuffPo tweet is probably bollocks.

And that’s a case of characteristic British understatement on my part.

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