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Cardinal points

By Terry Joseph
April 22, 2005

Among the severely under-reported triumphs of man's attempts at global co-operation is an ancient but extant agreement on which way is North, even when cartographers argued the flat-earth theory and maritime navigators of a later day deliberately sailed westward with intent to go east.

It was a demonstration of compromise, further compartmentalised to identify "True North", which served the Christian community well, since it had already established a star in the East. Consequently, it was easy for mankind to agree on all four cardinal points, developing a rudimentary compass that would later evolve into global positioning systems of astonishing sophistication, an example of technology opening throttle; its exhaust spitting in the face of tradition.

Going placidly amidst the noise and haste, historically conservative institutions do not easily lose composure, scientific advances notwithstanding. Among the most staid is the Roman Catholic Church, defying multimedia bombardment of liberal alternatives, even as it weathered self-generated scandals; leaping into the 21st Century on one leg, the other forever shackled to the past.

This week's election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI highlighted that contrast, when Vatican-commissioned cutting-edge surveillance electronics operated side by side with tradition dating back nearly two millennia, a disparity that invoked at least one variation of the definition of "Cardinal" points.

The Vatican-ordered installation of signal-jamming devices in hotels where the cardinals were accommodated, as a safeguard against their using cellular phones to leak progress reports to the media, suggested that among the holiest of holies, a few might be locked into shadowy conspiracies with vulgar paparazzi, planning to hawk lucrative tell-all scoops, the take from which might boomerang as hefty donations to selected archdioceses.

Discovery that high priests could not be trusted with secrets must have been devastating to the devout although, as demonstrated by Cardinal Bernard Law, accused of protecting sexual predators operating under his purview, strict adherence to the principle of maintaining confidences originating in the confessional sometimes brings with it undesirable side-effects, including perpetuation of criminal acts.

For that transgression, which created a global howl, Cardinal Law was nonetheless accorded senior rank in the final mass for Pope John Paul II. And don't blame Pope Benedict XVI for it was he, as Cardinal Ratzinger, who last December ordered reopening of the sexual abuse case against founder of the Legion of Christ, Fr Marcial Maciel, nearly a decade after the file was considered closed.

Even that initiative was devalued by cynics, who interpreted the timing of Cardinal Ratzinger's move as politically inspired, given widespread speculation that his predecessor would not last much longer, the gesture proving intolerance with wrongdoers regardless of position, although in the eight years since the sexual abuse allegations were first reported to Cardinal Ratzinger, Fr Maciel's seven accusers heard nothing. Perhaps they were far too dependent on cellular phones.

Where the Vatican could have used new technology with less embarrassing fallout all around was in upgrading the quaint tradition of deliberately creating smoke to send messages, a process deemed primitive when used by indigenous American peoples, even though at that time there was little risk of raising the pollution index by so much as a micron.

In sticking with the over-romanticised tradition, this year's official smoke-mixer, someone presumably new at stoking or, perhaps disoriented by media glare, didn't put enough of the dark stuff in the crucible at the end of day two, the initial white puff causing as much misinformation over decision on a successor as inadvertent tugging of the shutters in the Pope's apartment triggered on April 1, when news of his passing was greatly exaggerated.

Senior cardinals may be mortified by the prospect but the Vatican might consider installation of an electronic plasma display, tastefully located atop St Peter's Basilica, reading in large letters (as appropriate) "No Pope Yet" or "Ratzinger Is It", to reduce speculation and betimes ward off nitpicking environmentalists. In any event, it must be at least politically incorrect to stay with smoke coloured white or black, particularly when the latter hue connotes only indecision, while the former indicates success, patently awkward references in a scenario where Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinzi, once among high-profile aspirants to the papacy, simply disappeared from the ranking.

Given the laden portfolio awaiting Pope Benedict XVI who, in his previous position, played the role of doctrinal advisor to the late John Paul II and is therefore unlikely to reverse, review or relax any decision announced during the past 25 years, the task of reconciling maintenance of tradition with gains to be accrued from embracing galloping technology and social change may will fall to the same group of cardinals with the cell phones.

We shall soon find out what's up with that if their telephone transmissions and the Vatican's confidence in its cardinals are both restored.

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