Catholic Church in Crisis?

Why Pope John Paul has just about driven the Church into the ground

Here you’ll find the English version of an article by dissident Catholic theologian Hans Küng. Technically, I guess you can’t call him a theologian anymore, since the Church took away his permit to teach Catholic doctrine in 1979 after he wrote a book challenging the doctrine of papal infallibility. Küng finds almost nothing good about the Pope’s tenure, singling out the following areas:

  • This Pope has done little to promote collegiality or any form of Church democracy, preferring instead to concentrate power at Rome, and in the hands of mediocre loyalists
  • The Church has refused to engage in any reassessment of its teachings on sexual morality, driving away Western parishioners in droves and hobbling efforts to halt the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the Third World
  • Priestly celibacy, an institution unknown to the early Church, has starved the Church of priestly recruits and contributed to pedophilia scandals
  • Instead of taking steps to broaden the Church’s mass appeal, the Pope has elected to turn to shadowy conservative lay organizations such as Opus Dei, which fosters an impression of the Church as conspiratorial, out-of-touch, even dangerous

An unsparing indictment — and one that comes from a Catholic priest, no less. Küng is obviously resentful that the Church didn’t continue along the path of Vatican II. But it’s hard to doubt that he’s urgently concerned about the well-being of the Church. His argument is that the Church’s present near-catastrophic condition can be traced largely to the policies of the current Church leadership. Further, he’s no ordinary polemicist; he’s written big thick books (such as "On Being a Christian") that leave little doubt of his vast knowledge. He’s particularly good at demonstrating that many oft-criticized Church doctrines cannot be traced directly to Biblical authority, and thus are theoretically open to revision.

The German original of this piece, strangely enough, is behind a paywall.…

Titanic Sinkings 2: Max Goldt

Max Goldt also writes a column for Titanic, about which I have already enlightened you. Column’s a pretty grand name; it’s more a series of musings. Often inspired by things he’s found at a flea market. Such as the following picture (caption translation mine):


Sophia Loren.  Jawohl: the great, incomparable Sophia Loren.  No less a personage than this renowned actress adorned the cover of the edition of the American magazine “Life” from 1964, in which the meat dish reproduced above was found.  Looking at the photo, you might wonder at what kind of inconceivable crap people ate 40 years ago, or rejoice in the progress that food photography has made since the photo was taken.  But you could just as well turn the photo upside-down, as I’ve done here, and, to your amazement, recognize a Dadaist anti-war collage from the time directly after the First World War.

[Titanic, March 2005, p.45]

Show me a blog & Make 10 Euro!

Why aren’t more German profs online?

German universities are encrusted with bureaucracy — a fact everyone here complains about but nobody tries to remedy. New books take months to arrive in libraries, after which they are immediate whisked away to some undisclosed location for the process of labeling and classification, which for some reason also takes months. (I have a mental picture of a German librarian carefully reading the entire book, and then, pondering for a good several weeks exactly what sort of book it is). What’s worse, you can’t just turn to the Internet to get your hands on good academic work. Only a small amount of research is published online, and that which is is rarely available in one centralized, catalogued index or databank.

I wondered whether the professors themselves were more tech-friendly than the institutions they worked in. Were German professors were using blogs to broadcast and exchange ideas?  I had in mind something like Crooked Timber, Language Log, or the Volokh Conspiracy, where professors (in the humanities, linguistics, and the law) mix off-the-cuff insights with occasional deeper discussions.

I exhausted my meager German skills trying to find one blog – just one blog – run by any German professor or group of professors. I couldn’t find a single one. I was surprised since I’d always thought professors and blogs were a natural combination. After all, professors have lots to say and generally love to spout off. A blog, especially one written by several profs in collaboration, is a natural medium for the exchange and refinement of ideas. The idea behind such blogs is that you trade ideas and thoughts in raw form, expose them to criticism, and then perhaps later release them more formally, burnished and refined in some article somewhere. [Which will probably be read by many fewer people than the blog posts were.] As bloggin’ professor David Dow puts it, "blah blah blah. it’s the modern public square."

Can it really be that not a single one of the thousands of professors in Germany has hit upon the idea of running a blog?  Not one?

To test this theory I came up with a bet — one that everyone — yes, even you! — gets to take part in [details and important restrictions below the fold]

First, I sent an email out to a variety of German and European friends which, combined with a lot of whining about how much of the potential of the Internet remains unused in Germany, offered the following reward:

I will offer any and all of you a €10 Euro reward, if you can point me to a single frequently-updated blog run by a German professor devoted to explaining new developments, from a personal perspective, in that professor’s field. [i.e. not just here is a list of upcoming meetings, or a list of recently-published articles – the text of which will of course NOT be available online – but ‘rather this is what I personally think about X’s new book’].

I figured native speakers might be much more able to find a nice soothing professor blog than I was. But, to this date, nothin’. I hereby widen the invitation to the entire Internet universe, or at least the incredibly tiny fraction that reads this still-young blog. [note: you don’t get 10 euro per blog, and you don’t get it if someone else has told me about the blog before!]. I’m dead serious about this. I am supremely confident nobody

I did, however, get a lot of interesting responses, which I will share with you here. A fellow foreigner (who lives in Germany & speaks fluent German) wrote:

The whole online discourse thing is too fraught with pitfalls and confusion for German profs. For one, anyone could ask questions and raise issues. Besides, you know the typical reasons for rejecting a legal or any other argument in Germany? “We’ve always done it that way. We’ve never done it this new way.”

A German correspondent living outside Germany wrote:

On a related subject: I have often been fascinated by German young academics’ reluctance to share their ideas: the topic they research about, their drafts etc. All out of fear that someone would “steal” it all (in some cases of course it is insecurity about the quality of their work). Surely not the way you disseminate ideas when they are fresh and topical and you get inspiration from debating with others. I also find it slightly offensive when people suggest to me that they think I could be someone who photocopies their work, puts a new cover on top with name and hands this in at some university.

Yet another perspective, from someone to whom my initial rant was forwarded. Don’t know where he originally comes from, but he certainly has something to say about German academia:

Being someone who has studied in Germany for more than three years and who can compare the German system to at least the British one I can only subscribe to this annoyed American lecturer’s poignant conclusion. Germany’s intelligentsia is backward, dust-covered, and worst of all, inherently hostile to new ideas. The absence of tenured bloggers, obviously, is not the root of the crisis but an evident symptom. . . . What German academics frown upon is the entertaining and readable presentation of insights. Only the most boring and detail-ridden presentation will satisfy their craving for a science that is both useless and void of a broader vision.

That last sentence sounds like a manifesto in the making…or is it a quote from Weber?  Marx?

However, not everyone was amused. Another German who’s studying in an English-speaking country pointed out that, even if there aren’t blogs by professors, there’s plenty exchanging of legal ideas on the German internet:

If you are interested in the economics of law, you should go to the website of the Max Planck Institute for reserach on collective goods which is an interdisciplinary research group specialising in law & economics.  Law blogs are here (but I don’t think they are run by professors, so don’t transfer any money to my bank account). &

In the interests of fairness, I present the voice of a German who found my initial post (which, I admit, did draw some unflattering comparisons between the U.S. and Germany on this specific point) blaringly chauvinistic:

I am truly sorry you ended up in this third world country where people are that backward! I am proud to be one of these few early adopters who have heard about blogs before. And I even have my own email account! This leads me to the assumption that we are not really third world but that we have reached the stage of a developing country already. Therefore I would like to kindly suggest to increase the reward a little bit. EUR 10 might be enough in even more retarded countries than Germany (if there are any). But it probably isn’t enough to get anyone of us out of our holes.

And btw, just because you mentioned that you Americans are that eager to share your ideas with as many other people as possible. And that you Americans immediately recognized the immense power of the Internet to facilitate intellectual development through broad and simultaneous exchange of new ideas and insights, and that you are simply light-years ahead of the German intelligentsia: At least most of us backward, complacent Germans speak several languages, English included!

But I am sure your well ahead think tanks are working on the best translation software imaginable already!

To which I can only reply (about the language point), touché.

Now that’s what I call dignity!

Ahh, the wonders of the Bild-Zeitung, Germany’s largest tabloid.  Its title means simply "Picture Magazine."  Although its website is in German, you should visit it long enought to click "Erotik" on the lower left-hand side, to get an idea of what gets Otto Normalverbraucher (Joe Sixpack)’s blood pumping.  Also only in German, unfortunately, is Bild’s "anti-website", the Bild Blog, which keeps a tab of Bild’s numberless idiocies. 

Today, Bild’s theme was dignity. 

Specifically, the dignity of the Vicar of Christ, His Holiness John Paul II.  "Lord Have Mercy!  Millions of Christians pray for the recovery of Pope John Paul II" ran the headline, and the lede was "What a man!  What dignity even in the greatest weakness."  Noble sentiments, perhaps, if they weren’t accompanied by a giant picture of the pope grimacing in agony.

And the headline right underneath?  "Dead Baby in Plastic Bag."

German Word of the Week I: Verniemandung

A creator of a stupid word, nicely insulted.

It means “Nobody-ification.” Strictly speaking, it’s not really  proper German.  The definition will be provided by the German satirist Eckhard Henscheid (link in German, he’s unfortunately unknown outside of Germany).  In 1985, Henscheid opened up the German front in the War on Crap with “Dummdeutsch” (Idiot German), a dictionary of moronic new phrases from the worlds of academia, business, and sport.  Take it away, Hensch:

Verniemandung.  The well-known author and editor of the works of Hölderlin D.E. Sattler bemoaned in the Frankfurter Rundschau the “nobody-ification” … of Germans through the advertising campaign of Egon Hölder, Director of the Federal Statistics Agency. The ads reassured Germans “Your name helps us count and will later be destroyed.” 

Granted, not an especially clever formulation.  But then again, not everyone is a Hölderlin, or his editor. Through sentences like “it was an attack on the productive imagination, that lies in the non-normative marking quality of names” Herr Sattler’s name, in turn, will not be "destroyed" but rather eternally branded as completely nuts.  By us, namely.  Here.

Lucio Fontana’s Mary

One picture of the Virgin Mary.

I visited Rome in early March.  I’ll spare you the details here, but I did want to share one picture. 

It was taken in the Vatican museums, where you can see oodles of treasures, including the Caravaggio Entombment and the Sistine Chapel.  For me, a high point was a short trip through the Vatican Museum Collection of Contemporary Religious Art, a less-visited section of the museum.  Put together by a few forward-looking Popes, it contains many works by little-known Italian artists, including one painting featuring a crucified Christ in a business suit, which I found a bit jarring. 

I was surprised to see how many bona-fide contemporary artists have done a Holy Family or St. Christopher or two, including such unusual suspectMary_by_lucio_fontanas as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix.  The most unusual was perhaps Lucio Fontana, the Argentine/Italian sculptor, best known for thoroughly abstract works involving punctured canvases and globes with erupting holes.  He was given to names like "Spatial Concept."  Here, he shows an unexpectedly lyrical side with this enchanting Madonna.  No idea how this work came to be, but I’m quite glad it did.

Titanic Sinkings 1: The Theft of the World Cup

A satire magazine steals the World Cup

Days ago, the new issue of Titanic (German) arrived in my inbox. I will devour it, but carefully – each slim volume is to be treasured. Titanic – the Final Satire Magazine, is the real thing. Raunchy, caustic, epochally politically incorrect, it’s easily the funniest publication in Germany. The editors, led by the wiry Martin Sonneborn, are renowned as much for the magazine as for the elaborate pranks they stage, which take a jackhammer to the most vulnerable points in the German psyche. This post inaugurates a new feature: as the blog continues, I will be selecting choice bits from the German satire magazine Titanic and translating them.  Let’s call them "Titanic Sinkings."

There is no other place to start but with a crowning moment of Titanic history: Titanic’s sabotage of Germany’s bid for the 2006 World Cup.

Germany was a finalist, and on 6 July 2000, the final decision was to be made in Zürich, Switzerland. According to an account published later in Titanic ("How Titanic brought the World Championship to Germany: Diary of a Successful Bribery"), the editors, after careful consideration "and a few beers," decided action was needed on July 5, the night before the vote. They sped back to the office, phoned the hotel where the International Football Federation (FIFA) was meeting, and told the flustered receptionist they had "extremely urgent messages" for several members of the committee. The fax messages, signed TDES (the initials of the magazine and its motto in German) and with a phone number underneath, asked the committee members to vote for Germany the next day, and offered them [in English]: "A fine basket with specialties from the black forest, including some really good sausages and ham and – hold on to your seat – a wonderful KuKu clock! And a beer mug, too! Do we leave you any choice?"

Apparently not! The next day, the FIFA committee voted 12-11 to send the Cup to Germany rather than South Africa. The vote was all the more controversial because one member, who had received a Titanic fax, had abstained.  He was actually supposed to have voted for the loser, South Africa, but abstained out of disgust at all the pressure that had been placed on him. England’s Channel 4 got a copy of the German bribe letters and phoned the number, pretending to be a FIFA committee staffer and promising to keep the conversation secret. The Titanic editors calmly assured the "staffer" that they had indeed sent the letters, and that TDES was a "committee for bringing the World Cup to Germany." The reporters, incredulous, suggested "obviously it could be interpreted as a form of corruption – as a form of bribery or inducement!" Whereupon Titanic answered, well, it really depends what the committee members wanted in return when they called us: money, or perhaps a Mercedes… To Channel 4’s question of whether any committee members really did call, Titanic coyly provided no answer. Finally, Channel 4 sprung the trap: "I am a journalist and I have taken note of the conversation we have had!" Titanic screamed with mock horror: "Oh my God! A journalist! No, no, for God’s sake no!"

In the next days, worldwide headlines screamed: "Rotten Stench of Foul Play"; "Did a Hoax cost SA the cup?" "Germans in World Cup Bung Scandal." Titanic editor Martin Sonneborn gives a few interviews; to Reuters he says "I did it for my country!"; asked by the BBC whether the faxes could be interpreted as bribe offers, Sonneborn answers, "Sure, if you’re hungry." The diary entry for 10:05 PM on July 6, 2000, reads: "The telephones in the Titanic editing room are ringing without pause. The editors go for a couple beers in Günthersburg Park." Eventually it becomes clear the whole thing was an elaborate prank. The German football federation, incensed, declares it went beyond the bounds of satire, to which Titanic responds that it’ll determine where those bounds are, not the "amateurs at the football federation." Britain is the sole exception to the worldwide wave of outrage: "apparently all of Great Britain is in stitches over the bribe fax, especially over the offer of a cuckoo-clock."

Bild, Germany’s only mass tabloid, interprets the whole affair as a "nasty trick" against Germany’s bid leader, beloved icon Franz Beckenbauer. Bild publishes Titanic’s phone number, and invites every German prole to give Titanic a piece of his mind. Titanic records every conversation and message, and prints them in the next issue [I’ve tried to translate the sloppy grammar, lovingly transcribed by the Titanic editors]:

Caller #1

Caller: They should stop you! It’s disgraceful, the way you’ve toyed with peoples’ honor. I’m totally against it!

Titanic: If you want to stop us, go buy all the copies from the kiosk!

Caller: I won’t do that! I’ll burn them!

Titanic: Buy them all up and then burn them.

Caller: Yes, exactly! Goodbye!

Caller #2

[After insulting Titanic a good long time]: How could you do something like that? You should be punished like a bandit!

Titanic: What are you thinking of?

Caller: That’s what I’m thinking of! You should be punished like a criminal, like a murderer!

Titanic: So, prison?

Caller: No, much worse!

Titanic: Chop an arm off?

Caller: Much much worse!

Titanic: Chop an arm and a leg off?

Caller: Leg off? Hell, y’all belong on the chair!

Titanic: On the electric chair?

Caller: Yeah, exactly!

Titanic: But we don’t have the electric chair in this country!

Caller: That’s a disgrace! Yeah, a disgrace! If y’all were in America, they’d put ya right on the chair!