Voinovich, Ratzinger, and Principle

What does it mean to be keeper to a conservative tradition? On the same day, worlds apart, we find two examples. I may disagree, but I can respect people who stand for principle in the face of political pressure to the contrary.

In two separate chambers, two heirs to conservative revolutions faced challenges and stood on principle. On the surface, the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope and the refusal of Senator Goerge Voinovich could not be more different. The former comes from a 200 year old institution whose processes are profoundly antidemocratic and secretive. The other took place in a public debate be elected representatives in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet in both conclaves something unusual happened — men stood on principle in the face of strong political opposition, and won my respect (if not support) thereby.

Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benidict XVI has been roundly denounced as a hide-bound conservative and neo-inquisitor for his role as Pope John Paul II’s hatchet man and enforcer of doctrinal orthodoxy. (He also was drafted into the Nazi army at the end of WWII, but apperently deserted 3 months later)(perhaps I should not use the term “deserted.” I was once talking to a man who had been drafted into the Red Army in WWII and defected to the U.S. at his first opportunity. ‘So what happened after you deserted?’ I asked, not intending anything thereby. He grew very angry with me. “I did not desert! Those bastards dragged me from my home and made me shoot people. Made me work like a slave. What did I owe them? I did not desert, I escaped!”)

Anyway, Ratzinger has taken much heat over the years for his utter unwillingness to reconsider church doctrine. He purged the Latin American church of “liberation theology” in the 1970s after John Paul II’s ascension (“liberation theology” argued that the Church had a moral duty to resist tyranny by fostering civil disobediance and active rebellion, rather than passively ameloriating suffering in autocratic regimes through traditional charity work). He reaffirmed that “alternate lifestyles” have no place in the church and that women are barred from service in the clergy. He has justified continuing clerical celibacy, and — perhaps most offensive to many — argued that accused and even convicted sex abusers in the clergy are entitled to the protection of the Church’s due process (separate from civil conviction), cannot be defrocked solely as a function of secular justice, and that offenders that are genuinely penitent may, in accordnace with the church doctrine on redemption, serve in other roles of importance in the Church.

As John Paul II declined, and in the lead up to the conclave, Ratzinger was often listed as a leading candidate. The more liberal wing of the Catholic Church, particularly in the U.S. but also in Latin America, was vigorously opposed to his candidacy.

In this environment, it would have been politic for Ratzinger to offer an olive branch before the conclave. But he did not. His homily at the Pope’s funeral, while noted for personal warmth for John Paul, essentially reaffirmed his previous positions. “If I am Pope,” he seemed to be saying, “you get what you have seen already.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the nomination of John Bolton for ambassador to the U.N. Bolton’s views on the U.N. are well-known. He think’s it’s a waste of space tieing up valuable real estate in Manhattan. But what has been damning for many Republicans are not his views on the U.N., but his conduct with his subordinates. In particular, testimony from a fellow Republican at the State Department that Bolton routinely bullied and abused subordinates in a way that goes outside the bounds of even the obnoxious prickdom common among high-ranking political appointees. (I was a fed for three years. You have to be not just a royal a-hole, but heir to the kingdom of a-holes, to go outside the bounds tolerated abuse).

Nevertheless, as debate wore on, it appeared that we would get yet another partyline vote. But then, in a an act of the Holy Spirit more profound than what happened in Rome, George Voinivich found his principles. He recalled that he is not a vasal to the current leadership, but an heir to a conservative movement that stands for principles as well as political expediency.

“I’m not comfortable voting for Bolton at this time,” Voinivich told a stunned Committee Chair Richard Lugar. Lugar ahd cut off debate after two hours and was prepared to move for a vote. Voinivich’s statement threatened a stalemate of the 10-8 Committee. As a consequence, Lugar agreed to a month’s delay to investigate new charges of Bolton’s bullying ways.

That someone, particularly a Republican, switched votes as a consequence of chamber debate was so astonishing that it prompted fellow Republican Lincoln Chafee to remark:

“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen, in a setting like this, a senator changing his mind as a result of what other senators said. The process worked. It’s kind of refreshing.”

Voinovich has gotten into trouble with the Republican leadership in the past for sometimes chiding the current administration on its lack of fiscal responsibility. An old-line Regan financial conservative, Voinovich doesn’t believe in lowering taxes without reducing spending. But this is the first time he has defied the administration on a matter of principle openly on the Senate floor.

Not that Voinovich views this as defying the President or even that he wishes to oppose the President. But he found himself irreconcilably caught between his party loyalty and his principle that how a person behaves is as important as his official positions on things. Voinovich also made it clear he could be persuaded to vote for Bolton in the future. But if pressed to act with the information at hand, his principle would win over his loyalty.

Since Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994, the Republican leadership has sought to make party loyalty the ultimate governing principle. Whatever fights and negotiations take place in back rooms, memebrs are expected to fully back the leadership in public. This has held, and accounted for the success with which the Republicans have pursued their agenda over the years. Only rarely, such as when the leadership punished Jeffords so much he re-registered as an independent, has anyone on the Republican side broken ranks. (Media ownership was another exception, but the back-bencher rebellion there was so widespread that the leadership ultimately caved).

I don’t particularly agree with Bendict XVI or Voinovich any more today than I did last week on fundamental issues. I still think a celibate clergy is nuts, and I don’t see why people who feel free to ignore the parts in Leviticus about not eating pig or the part in Deutoronomy about allowing divorce get all hot and bothered about the part of Leviticus that says no homosexual sex. Nor do I think the way to solve deficits is to cut social programs. But I can give a respectful nod to men who chose to stand on principle even if it could cost them.


  1. (I wish our good pal Chris Bremser, the neutrino of Wetmachiners, would chime in on this (Papal) topic, as he as been sending me a fascinating stream of letters from Paris on this whole Pope thing. That’s a hint, Chris.)

    I must say that I’m just sick to death of the whole business. I’ve got a reasonably pronounced Jesus obsession — as is manifest in my novels and so forth — but for Pete’s sake, I’d be just about willing to excise him from history if it would mean we could get rid of this ridiculous supernaturalism and antirationalism and the whole cult-of-death meme that has sprung up in his name. Whatever happened to the enlightenment?

    In a time of war, pestilence, looming ecological disaster, blah, blah, blah, can we really do no better for leadership than a bunch of men who walk about solemnly in silly hats and speak in Latin?

    I say this as a nostalgist, traditionalist, technoparanoid luddite, what-have-you. So in general am all in favor of "the old ways." But tell me, what the hell exactly do these religious guys have on offer? Why is it, tell me again, that I’m supposed to venerate the pope more than, say, http://www.astrosdaily.com/… Phil Plantier ?

    And what, exactly, does the papacy & all the high-spook ritual and costumes and cannonization and all this spectacle have to do with Jesus the preacher? Just about fuck-all, as far as I can tell. Although I’ve never had much use for institutionalized religion, I’ve always been willing to cut it some slack because it did, after all, keep the Jesus story alive for along time, and, moreover, it did so in a way that dramatically signaled that this was an Important Story (which it is, I think). But I’m increasingly of the opinion that Churches are to Jesus as artichokes are to the flight of Charles II from Worcester in 1652. That is to say, artichokes have absolutely nothing whatsoever at all to do with the flight of Charles II from Worcester in 1652.

    So as to Pope Benedict XVI, well, God Bless him, I guess, but what I really mean is who gives a shit. I would be very happy indeed to join forces with him in the name of traditional values of decency, honest inquiry, rationality, and protecting the children. But so long as he stays with his current outfit, I’m giving long odds.

    As to Voinovich. Well it sure is refreshing to see a Republican act with some integrity. God knows that’s a rare enough sight these days.

  2. I have a hard time seeing the election of Ratzinger to the papacy as an act in accordance with a long-standing tradition, since this conclave of cardinals was the first to use new rules designed by JP2 with the apparent purpose of disempowering minority factions. This marks a break with centuries of tradition, not a continuance.

  3. Neither the Catholoic Church nor the Republican party are today conservative. They are radical. Cardinal Ratzinger, like President Bush, have lead the movement of their organizations towards fundamentalism, even as they both decry any fundamentalism but their own. Both have the attitude that the world must either stand with them or against them.

    In this light, I view Cardinal Ratzinger’s stand to be precisely the opposite of Senatar Voinovich’s stand.

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