23 April 2008

The Inquisition Visits the House That Ruth Built

I didn’t pay too much attention to the recent visit to America by Pope Benedict XVI, apart from feeling a slight disgust at the constant harping in the media upon the “priest sex scandal.”  (As appalling and deserving of punishment as the priests’ criminal behavior is, it is a distraction from the fundamental evil that the Church represents.)

However, I have to say that I found one thing to be particularly disturbing: the sight of Pope Benedict XVI in Yankee Stadium.  Any baseball park, especially one so storied and magnificent as this one, is a symbol of American freedom quite unlike any other.  Only in this land of freedom earned by our fathers could a game flourish like this.  The figure of the pope in Yankee Stadium is viscerally jarring to me.

Let us extend John Adams’ famous statement that, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy... in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music...”  So too, the Civil War generation inherited and preserved the freedom to invent this not-so-simple game of baseball, so that the next generation could turn it into a profession, and the following generations could refine and improve and profit from it.  It’s a uniquely American game, not only because it is a conspicuously for-profit enterprise (a single Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, makes more money than the whole Florida Marlins roster), but because it is grand entertainment, with heroes and villains, drama and rivalry, all cast in the most benevolent of settings.

Yankee Stadium is a place for 57,000 fans to bask in the glory of a game on a warm summer evening, to cheer in elation or groan in dismay - and above all, to experience pleasure.  

The pope simply does not belong here.

One of the hallmarks of an advanced civilization is that they play.  The play because they are free to play, because they have leisure to play, and because they are happy enough to play.  The ancient Minoans, the Greeks, and the Romans all had games.  I know of no such thing after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when Christianity and Islam dominated Europe.  Games (outside of royal courts) did not return until the Enlightenment.  Baseball is unimaginable in the Dark and Middle Ages.  How could anyone play when one had to work from dawn to dusk in order to hold off starvation for one more day?  How could one play when one was busy fighting religious wars or hanging witches?  How could one play when one was taught that suffering is the way to salvation, and that pleasure is sinful?

It is to rank medieval squalor that the pope belongs.  This man in these absurd sacerdotal vestments would be at home in a dark and solemn cathedral, with mourning plainchant droning in the background - not in a splendid arena that looks upon the New York City skyline.  

Or perhaps there is a setting more sinister than a cathedral that would be appropriate for him.  After all, before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Herr Ratzinger held the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  The lengthy name of this office is relatively new and is rather less direct than the more ominous name that it previously bore: the Holy Office of the Inquisition.


Burgess Laughlin said...

I agree with your theme about the disgusting contradiction between the Pope and the baseball stadium.

However, you might reconsider this: "The ancient Minoans, the Greeks, and the Romans all had games. I know of no such thing after the collapse of the Roman Empire, when Christianity and Islam dominated Europe. Games (outside of royal courts) did not return until the Enlightenment."

The Middle Ages (more properly called the Latin-Christian Period) lasted about 1000 years, from about 400 to 1400. I would be very surprised that games disappeared during that vast period and over that vast territory. In the "high" middle ages, in the 1200s in particular, such figures as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Marco Polo, and the inventors of the most selfish of Western inventions, double-entry bookkeeping, flourished.

If I were researching this, I would look into horse-racing, mock combats, chess, marbles, bowling, tafl (a Dark Age Scandanavian board game prior to chess), mallet-and-ball games (such as croquet), dice, bull fights, dog fights, archery, spear throwing, and others.

I don't have special knowledge of the subject of games (which includes sports) in any period, but as a long-term student of the Latin-Christian period, among others, I would urge caution about generalizing.

Your main point remains. Baseball in the U. S., despite all its statist connections, is a sharp contrast to the essentials of Christianity with its focus on another world and suffering in this one. In particular, I visually contrast a crucifix with a photo of a strong, focused batter ready for the first pitch.

LB said...

Your love of baseball knows no bounds. Is any wonder that I'm a convert? Seriously.

"it is grand entertainment, with heroes and villains, drama and rivalry, all cast in the most benevolent of settings"

This is what I try to impress upon those who would scoff at the game. It really is just that good.

As for the pope giving audience in the Bronx, I think you hit the nail on the head with the contradiction of culture and time. A sort of twisted Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, or rather a German Torquemada in America's Yankee Stadium, if you will (apologies to Mark Twain). [Did you know that Twain wrote that (the first) in an attempt to wean the American culture off of the idyllic dream of Camelot by showing medieval England in a more realistic light? Perhaps another American attempt must be made to do the same with the promise of religious rapture. Alas, grasping reality is not listed among the assets of the sacerdotally deferent.]

Gotta go read some Twain now, and thanks for the vocabulary word!

C. August said...

This is a great post, and I agree completely with your characterization of the Pope's rightful place in the world as "...rank medieval squalor."

I was also very interested in your ideas about humans at play. In reading Burgess' comments, I think there is something different between Medieval board games and the grand spectacle of baseball, though it does address the fact that individuals took leisure time to play, even in the darkest intellectual times.

I don't think animal-related "sports" fit in this discussion, though. Bull fights, dog fights, bear bating, and horse racing are more like simple, unintellectual entertainment (barbaric at that) than human sporting and athletic achievement. So my question in that context is whether the sporting events of ancient Greece and Rome were more like baseball, and if so would this support your correlation between advanced civilizations and "advanced" play (like grand organized sports)? I don't know much about ancient Olympic history, but my impression is that it was a celebration of human athletic ability, whereas many (but not all) of the examples of Medieval leisure activities don't have that quality.

On another point, I'm curious about how you would characterize other modern organized sports in other parts of the world, and if they are fundamentally different than baseball in America. You said in reference to baseball "Only in this land of freedom earned by our fathers could a game flourish like this." I immediately thought of cricket, rugby, and soccer, flourishing in some very unfree parts of the world. (though I recognize they are all likely British in origin, which supports your idea)

The pro leagues in those sports are also "conspicuously for-profit enterprise[s]", they have stars that make tons of money, and they have the same drama and rivalry as baseball. So I'm having trouble following the line of reasoning that characterizes baseball as uniquely American. I know it wasn't the main focus of the post, but I'd be interested to hear more about this.

And finally, I remember hearing about Ratzinger's past post in the "Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith" and that it sounded absurd to me. But is it really the new sanitized name of the Inquisition? Really??! It seems so outlandish, and yet makes perfect sense. Do you have any references, because I'd like to be able to refer to that fact in the future.

SB said...

LB, as you know, I could go on and on about baseball. Don’t get me started!

And yes, I acknowledge the points you made, Burgess. I was really speaking in the broadest possible terms, referring to leisure and recreation that rises to major cultural significance. Of course, in any place and age, one will find games of some sort. Even in the most miserable, famished, war-ridden, and plague-stricken village of tenth- or twelfth-century Europe – or even in Iraq today – one will find children playing with a ball or men playing card games.

The overall point I am making is more figurative than literal. If we look over the last two millennia or so, we can see (for example) the Roman Coliseum and Yankee Stadium serving as bookends, with essentially nothing like them in between. I am suggesting that these arenas stand as symbols of advanced civilizations. As far as I know, during the Dark Ages up to the Renaissance, the only massive constructions that compared to the Coliseum and Yankee Stadium were either cathedrals, dedicated not to sport but to man’s sinful nature, or royal palaces enjoyed by a small group of privileged knights and aristocrats.

Of course, there is a lot about the Roman Coliseum that is quite troubling; I do not hold gladiatorial fights-to-the-death or the public devouring of Christians to be particularly sporting. But I remember hearing or reading somewhere that the Roman Coliseum, despite its massive cost – or on second thought, because of its massive cost – was a reward issued to the Roman people for the fact that they were Roman. It was a conspicuous statement that said, effectively, that because the Romans were civilized they deserved leisure and recreation. Yankee Stadium, being a privately built product of a free country, carries the point even further.

I like your contrast of Christ on the cross and a batter at the plate. It’s a good juxtaposition.

Incidentally, one thing that occurred to me but I didn’t include in the original post is that one of the nicknames of Yankee Stadium is, ironically, “The Cathedral!”

One other quick comment: I’m curious about what you mean by the “statist connections” in baseball. What are you referring to? In some respects, baseball has avoided some of the explicitly socialist ideas, such as salary caps, that other sports suffer from.

C. August, you asked a lot of good questions, so I’m going to need some time to respond!

SB said...

Thanks for the comments, all. Okay, C. August, as I said, you made a lot of good points and asked a lot of good questions, so I’ll try to respond the best I can!

First, you and Burgess both pointed to things about sports and games I hadn’t given any thought to for this post. I was trying simply to show the sharp contrast between two incongruent images, not to make an airtight case that only ancient Greeks and Americans play games! My overall intent was to take the two disparate entities - the pope and Yankee Stadium - and “chew” or improvise on why they didn’t belong together. Sins, suffering, and the afterlife on the one hand; leisure, profit, and enjoying life on earth on the other.

Part of my lack of precision - and perhaps overstatement - is due to my habit of using “America” to denote something that is wider than merely this country. (Once, after calling someone anti-American in a letter, I was rebutted with, in effect, “He’s not anti-American, dummy; he is an American citizen!”) By “American,” I often really mean “Western,” referring to Enlightenment values, liberty, capitalism, etc. So, for instance, baseball could just as well have been invented in Canada or England, which I maintain is “American” in this broader sense. (That’s exactly the point you made about cricket and rugby.) To illustrate, I would point out that baseball flourishes in Japan now, but it is utterly impossible for it to have flourished in Japan in 1930. Why? Because now Japan is “American!”

This might answer the point you made about other professional leagues throughout the world that are also “conspicuously for-profit enterprises.” It’s probably sloppy of me to attribute this literally to America. I don’t care where they are from. What I really care about is that they are for-profit enterprises devoted to benevolent entertainment and physical and mental excellence. Insofar as this is true, I hold that it is Western values, with America as its noblest incarnation, that makes the whole business possible.

By the way, do professional soccer players in Europe and South America, such as the ones that compete in the World Cup, make the huge amount of money that professional sports players make in America? I really don’t know if they do or not. I was under the impression that European superstars like David Beckham came to America precisely because of the money. Anyway, it doesn’t much matter, for the reason I gave in the previous paragraph.

One of the wonderfully obnoxious things about Major League Baseball - that I really love, by the way - is the fact that it declares its champion the winner of the World Series, even though all but one of its teams are located in the United States. A German friend of mine bristled at this arrogant claim to “world” championship, but in a way it’s true. It’s like a microcosm of the “melting pot”; all the best players in the world come here.

You also asked about my thoughts on whether the sports of Rome and Greece were similar to baseball in some fundamental way. I think the only comparison is the one you mentioned - that the sport is presented as a “grand organized” activity to the population as a whole. There are many obvious differences, most notably the relative barbarity of some of the ancient games. Many things in the ancient world seem barbaric and primitive by today’s standards, but still represented advances.

Finally, here is a quote from the Vatican web site (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_pro_14071997_en.html):

“Founded in 1542 by Pope Paul III with the Constitution ‘Licet ab initio,’ the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was originally called the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition as its duty was to defend the Church from heresy. It is the oldest of the Curia’s nine congregations.”

Hmmm. Now that I think of it, maybe I could post on the disturbing juxtaposition of “Vatican” and “web site”...

Burgess Laughlin said...

>"I’m curious about what you mean by the “statist connections” in baseball. What are you referring to?"

I was working from news articles I have seen over the years. Here, in Portland, Oregon, city government works with baseball backers to "facilitate" baseball: For example, the City might provide funds for refurbishing a stadium to make the city more attractive for a team to reside here. That is statism.

Has Yankee Stadium received no subsidies or other privileges from the city or state?

If I understand the idea correctly, salary caps, as such, are not socialistic (in the political sense). One could have them under capitalism. They are a reflection, I suspect, of the principles which underlie socialism: egalitarianism, altruism, and envy. Under capitalism, egalitarian communes could exist alongside individual proprietorships, partnerships, and large corporations.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Anyone interested in an additional view of the Latin-Christian period (the "Middle Ages") might find this book interesting:

Frances & Joseph Gies, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages," Harper Perennial, 1994, paperback. I can't vouch for the details, but overall it confirms what I have studied elsewhere and provides a much-needed counter-balance to medieval stereotypes that are only partly true.

There is one chapter each on: ancient technology, Dark Age technology, the "Asian connection," the technology of the Commercial Revolution (900-1200), the High Middle Ages (1200-1400), and "Leonardo and Columbus: The End of the Middle Ages." Though directed to a broad audience, the book is well documented for further investigation. It is highly readable.

Another but far more technical historical work is Constance Brittain Bouchard, Holy Entrepreneurs: Cistercians, Knights, and Economic Exchange in Twelfth-Century Burgundy. It shows how economically active some monasteries were. The Cistercians, a monastic order initially devoted to poverty and separation from the world, soon became very worldly in buying, selling, pawning, leasing, and fostering economic enterprises to its own benefit. This is not the stereotype monastery!

SB said...

Ah, yes. I see what you mean about the subsidies. I think that’s true of many or most major stadiums. It appears that the new Yankee Stadium is getting about $200 million dollars from the state of New York - which is to say, Yankee Stadium is being paid for partially by the taxpayers of New York, including Mets fans, Red Sox fans, and people who are completely indifferent to baseball.

And yes, I think a salary cap is socialist only in its conception; it is not political socialism, since it is completely voluntary and the government does not impose force. Major League Baseball can sets its rules however it wants to and players can go to some other league if they wish. However, I think it is foolish for a sport to attempt leveling in this manner even if they have the right to do so.

And frankly, if the goal is to prevent “dynasties” by imposing salary caps, it doesn’t seem to work very well. In the National Football League, which has stringent salary caps, the New England Patriots have dominated the league for several years. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees, the “poster child” if there ever was one for trying to “buy” championships by outspending everyone else, has not won a World Series in almost a decade.

C. August said...

using “America” to denote something that is wider than merely this country

Yeah, I definitely see what you mean. And I agree completely when you say that baseball flourishes in Japan now because it is so Westernized. And you're absolutely correct when you say it's the Western ideas that allow random backwaters and dens of collectivism to still have grand stadiums for soccer and the like. Were it not for Western thought and productive success (primarily due to America) those countries would be closer to the "rank medieval squalor" you mentioned previously.

It's just too rich that the Pope is also the Grand Inquisitor. He also looks an awful lot like the Emperor from Star Wars.

SB said...

Ha! You're right - he does look like the Emperor!