Many years ago when I was a young man, I found myself in midtown Manhattan with over an hour to wait for a scheduled bus connection. Looking for some distraction I went into a nearby movie theater that was showing short subjects and among them a prominently advertised flick by Andy Warhol.
I can’t remember its name but I will never forget the movie. The camera was aimed at a large bed, and never moved. As the film opened, a young man entered camera range, sat on the bed, took off his shoes and lay down. He quickly fell asleep and the film rolled on. Nothing happened … ever. He slept. Every so often he would roll over onto one side, then roll back onto the other. I left after half an hour but found out later that the movie ran on like that for hours. The theater was not very full, and as the audience began to realize that this was all we were going to get, the reactions became quite audible: some laughed, some expressed anger at being insulted. We had been had. We were all drawn in there on Warhol’s name, and he flipped us the bird. I was dumbfounded. I did not know what to make of it.
I still don’t. But I came away with a distinct impression: the film was so utterly boring … so totally without action, interaction, relationship or thought, that I found my attention becoming drawn to any motion whatsoever. The highlights were the few times the guy rolled over. Those tiny wrinkles of modulation in an otherwise immense motionless continuum, had become the source of expectation and, believe it or not, when they occurred, satisfaction.
Looking at the “filming” of the “Synod on the Family,” going on in Rome these days I can think of no more apt symbol than that outrageous “gotcha” by Warhol. We are, just as surely, being had. The media attention is the camera recording a ripple in an otherwise vast unchanging sea of stagnant Catholic dogma and decrees. The sleeping behemoth has rolled over … the action, in context, is riveting … we are tense with expectation, and the many who have already had their minds cauterized by the scarring of a thousand years of repetitive immutability, live in a catatonic state with brains atrophied beyond the possibility of resuscitation, actually think there is something happening here.
Nothing that comes out of this synod will have the slightest effect on the way people live their lives. No one, absolutely no one, is looking to the synod to guide their moral choices, and according to polls, not even Catholics. The mighty magisterium has long since lost all moral relevance to any but the ever dwindling coterie of those who cannot shake off the church-induced nightmare of a monster-“God” who obediently binds his punitive wrath to the pontifications of the Catholic hierarchy. The only effect this synod’s decisions could possibly have is on the hierarchy itself. The hierarchy could begin to dispel the impression created over the last 50 years that it is a mediaeval anachronism hardened in the willful rejection of its own Conciliar resolutions. But to do that it would have to make a break with the past … and wake up.
But the sleeper cannot wake up, and for two reasons: First, de facto, the Synod is a toothless “consultative” body under Papal presidency (and the mandatory presence of the heads of all Curial departments) made up of male prelates only — not even the heads of women’s’ religious orders can participate, much less lower clergy, priests and deacons, and lay people, men and women, who are the only members of the church with appropriate experience in these matters, sex and families — and we are to believe something will happen? The fact that it was intended as a rubber-stamp of Papal wishes, ironically, may be the only source of hope, because this particular pope seems sincerely to want to move forward. But in my opinion, the only authentic thing this this non-representative klatch of ageing male celibates could do would be to disband itself and humbly declare to the world that it had nothing meaningful to say to people with whom it has nothing in common.
The second is that, de jure, these men, including the Pope, are committed to uphold decrees that function with the force of law and enjoy an official aura of infallibility. The “sacred magisterium” to which they have pledged loyalty is firmly in place. Its authority is held in such awe that it would instantly neutralize any decision that was taken in opposition to it, even if by some miracle it should ever occur.
Birth control is not the only example of this captivity to the magisterium, but it serves well. Papal deference to the magisterium decreed 50 years ago that the use of contraceptives was “intrinsically evil” in utter disregard of the recommendations of a “consultative” body of prelates and others assigned to the task by the pope himself. Since nothing can change without repudiating tradition, it’s hard to imagine how things could possibly be any different today. Why even think about it? Tradition that functions as dogma and “law” can never be changed. The star of the movie may toss and turn, but his role is to keep on sleeping. The obsession of insisting that the Church can never change because it can never be wrong is narcissistic hubris. If you are never wrong, by definition there is never anything to change, you never have to repudiate the past, you never have to wake up.
But while I call it hubris and intentionally insinuate narcissistic self-involvement, for many Catholics it is actually much worse. It is sincere! It’s an honest response to a belief in the infallibility of the magisterium and the divine establishment of hierarchical government and papal autocracy. And precisely because it is sincere, it is impervious to self-correction. For individuals, thinking they are infallible is clearly a “delusion of grandeur” recognized by all as a pathology out of touch with reality. But in the Catholic Church it is a collective projection that fantasizes imaginary powers and special protections given by “God” exclusively to this institution. Insane as it might be, this group of people who honestly believe in their own infallibility cannot officially be accused of pathology because they comprise a socially recognized and respected institution. This social recognition reduces to near zero any hope that they will be challenged and possibly convinced by argument and evidence that their attitude is in fact a pathological “delusion of grandeur.”
So the sleeper never wakes up. It always takes a while before the fact sinks in, because you can’t believe anyone could be this outrageous. But once you advert to the reputation of the perpetrators and recall what you already know of their character and conceits, you realize you should have known. If you don’t walk out, it’s only because you’ve fallen asleep yourself.