washingtonpost.com  > Columns > Tina Brown

Reverence Gone Up in Smoke

By Tina Brown
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page C01

"Secular and the City" is a weird show to be in at the moment. For those of us who came to Manhattan precisely because you're guaranteed never to meet anyone who has read the "Left Behind" series, America's much-celebrated spiritual revival can have its trying moments. The papal marathon of the past three weeks, though, had the paradoxical effect of making the non-born-againers among us feel a little less left out.

The European production values of the Roman Catholic Church upstaged anything exurban America's strip-mall megachurches can do -- or Hollywood, for that matter. Of course, Catholics who'd been made to feel for the last three years that they belonged to the Church of Pedophilia were especially elated by the clouds of incense trailing around. But even the most cynical of impious cultural elitists were feeling ever so slightly reverent by the time of the funeral itself.

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The scarlet and gold glory of the spectacle. The civilized tranquillity of the crowds ("Italians look so good, too," one cable anchor told me. "No one's fat over there."). The heady mixture of the modern and the medieval as cell phone cameras were held aloft to snap Pope John Paul II's pointy feet in their dressy shoes when the bier passed by. "Those were his favorite traveling shoes," an ex-altar-boy-turned-surgeon told me authoritatively at an arty dinner party downtown. Everyone at this gathering rhapsodized about the splendor of the ritual and the beauty of the liturgies until a glossy magazine editor begged for mercy. "Stop, stop!" she shrieked. "You're all papists!"

Perhaps we all got so excited about the pope because it had been so long since we'd been immersed in mystery rather than in overexposure -- in divine revelation rather than the tabloid variety. In an age when even the selection of a new leader of the Catholic world might have been turned into "American Idol," the impenetrability of the conclave was a relief.

By the time the plume of white smoke appeared and the bells of St. Peter's pealed on Tuesday afternoon, a wholly unrealistic hopefulness had descended on the secular salons of New York. It felt a bit like the afternoon of the exit polls last November when Democrats believed Sen. John Kerry was about to become the 44th president of the United States. There was an irrational feeling that someone who would proclaim the truth of spiritual liberty over fundamentalism would fling open the doors to the balcony and emerge from behind those theatrical scarlet curtains -- some youthful cardinal we hadn't even heard of yet, some charismatic dark horse whom the joyful crowds, so many of them young, would immediately recognize as their own. The suspense was killing.

Until -- Oh no! Cardinal Ratzinger! His very name was ominous, a cross between Ratso Rizzo and William Zanzinger. His election was like the sharp rap of a ruler across the knuckles by a punitive nun. It was as if you expected Barack Obama and got Bob Dole. The more that cardinals and Vatican watchers lined up on "Larry King Live" to say what a friendly, conciliatory guy he really is (the most appealing detail that emerged the next day was that he looked "a little forlorn" as he entered the Room of Tears to change into his papal vestments), the more he seemed to emerge as a 19th-century throwback, stridently opposed to liberalism, doubt, internal argument within the church. And the Bavarian background doesn't help. As one of Larry's callers who identified himself as an amateur historian of the Holocaust put it, "Couldn't we have let this generation of Germans pass into history?"

"I am so bummed out," the writer Dominick Dunne, who is Catholic, told me. "I had gotten all excited about Catholicism again. I just loved all the people and ceremony of the last few weeks, all the hundreds of thousands in the square. I was out to lunch when I heard, 'It's the German.' You could just feel everyone groan."

That there has been such a sense of letdown among some New Yorkers who aren't even Catholic, as well as many who are, is a little surprising, given all the expert papal handicapping that had long made the "Panzer Cardinal" the favorite in the race. It probably reflected the airbrushing that had gone on all through the gauzy weeks of emotion-driven commentary. It was easier to focus on John Paul's reversal of the church's historic anti-Semitism, his outreach to other faiths and his defiance of communist tyranny. The non-negotiable harshness of his stands on women, on homosexuality, on denying condoms to stop the spread of AIDS, was now being filled in with a vengeance and experienced afresh through the person of his 78-year-old successor, who somehow has earned himself a nickname -- "God's Rottweiler" -- that evokes Camilla Parker Bowles.

Maybe the disappointment was also the flip side of the wishful, desperate expectation that the new pontiff would be a standard bearer for a refreshed discourse of ecumenism, tolerance and openness. Secularists, humanists and quiet worshipers of an unpoliticized God have felt beleaguered, frustrated and unfairly disrespected. There's no energy on the non-zealot side of the cultural debate. There's no Voltaire, no Clarence Darrow, not even a Lenny Bruce to balance the stifling, censorious religiosity -- not even a Bill Clinton or a Jimmy Carter to show that religion doesn't have to resemble some Tom DeLay combination of contempt and pious hypocrisy. So the prayer, so to speak, was that the new pope might miraculously turn out to be a shot in the arm not just for anti-materialism but also for anti-religious humbug, anti-medievalism and anti-repressive orthodoxy. Instead of which it looks as if we are in for more dogma closing the windows of our world -- unless he enjoys an epiphany.

© 2005, Tina Brown

© 2005 The Washington Post Company