The Church We Want?

By Joanna Manning
Summer 2002

Walt Disney World in Florida is a place where the harsh realities of life can be suspended for a few short hours or days of good, clean, family fun. Within the boundaries of Mickey’s Magic Kingdom there are no poor people, no environmental problems, no dissent.

Visitors suspend their critical intellects at the drawbridge of Cinderella’s Castle, to enter the fantasy of the walled universe of Disney’s empire where all the faces are happy, all the uniforms clean and the trees as well as the smiles are often plastic.

On one level this is just harmless family fun. But woe betide anyone who raises questions about the foundations on which the house that Disney built are erected. When Walt first opened his theme park, no women or blacks were allowed in managerial positions. Today, the starting salary is $6.50 an hour. After ten years service, it goes up to $18 an hour, but because of the high turnover rate, few workers ever make the maximum wage.

The seamstresses in Haiti and elsewhere who make Disney dolls and apparel are paid as little as 30 cents an hour, or $264 a year for piece work in sweatshop conditions. But Disney’s dream machine, like so much of the American Empire, continues to thrive on uncritical consumerism.

In July, the Vatican’s magic kingdom will roll into Toronto, Canada. Ontario’s premier, Toronto’s mayor, and city council are all caught up in the fantasy.

What vision of the church will be on display? One that we can admire, committed to social justice and a preferential option for the poor and downtrodden? Or another one, eager to eke every penny it can out of the city, retaining its vast wealth for itself?

The arrival of Pope John Paul II will be preceded by 123 pieces of art from the Vatican Museum, insured for some $800 million, to be displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum.

The sale of just one of the paintings could foot the entire bill for Toronto’s Youth Day event, which goes on for a week-but nevertheless the church is pleading poverty and squeezing the city for some $6.9 million (in policing services, garbage collection, etc.) while Toronto’s recreational facilities for real kids are closing.

And let no one dare suggest that the church sell off its assets to pay the young victims of sexual abuse by priests.

The Stations of the Cross, billed as a major event, promises to provide a magnificent spectacle of lights, images and music as it wends its way up University Avenue and around Queen’s Park. But the homeless, who walk a real way of the cross each day on these same streets, will be swept away, out of sight of the passing cavalcade of cardinals.

In the grand finale, the pope will descend from the sky in a helicopter to preside at an open-air mass at Downsview. No women allowed in managerial positions here. And ranked alongside the pope, bishops and priests will don vestments whose style and history links them not to the poor man of Nazareth but to the empire that crucified him.

Church leaders are hoping that fresh cohorts of young Catholic men, inspired by a potent display of piety linked with exclusive male power, will then join the priesthood. And organizers are anticipating that the mass appeal of this magic Catholic kingdom with its symbolism, color, religious processions, rosaries and rituals will help douse the flames of controversy that have swept through the Catholic church in recent months.

So Catholics and non-Catholics alike are expected to suspend critical thought and not rain on the pope’s parade. Marc Hall and his gay partner-who were forced to sue a Catholic school board to allow them attend Hall’s school prom- will almost certainly not be invited to meet John Paul II. The sexual abuse of youth by Catholic clergy will not be on the agenda for discussion in the youth teach-ins, which will be carefully controlled by priests and bishops anxious to display a public face of conformity within the church.

Young women will be exhorted to fulfill their unique role in the church: to be more motherly, have more babies and not use birth control.

Youth in danger of contracting a fatal dose of AIDS through sex, whether consensual or not, will be told they cannot use a condom to protect themselves from death.

The shepherds are hoping for more obedience and less analysis amongst the flock; that parachuting in Rome’s magnificent display of the Catholic mystique will produce more docile consumers of the Catholic sacramental mysteries as dispensed by its uniformly male initiates.

Of course, youth and the media will cheer wildly for the pope even if they don’t hear or follow what he’s actually saying. But when the costumes are packed away, and the props removed, the foundations of the pope’s magic kingdom will be as shaky as ever.


Joanna Manning is a former nun and author of Is the Pope Catholic? Her new book, Take Back the Truth: Confronting Papal Power and the Religious Right, will be published in June.

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