Strange Politics: What is “The Vatican” anyway?

St Peters Square image from Francois Malan

Last week, I reported on the historic resignation of the pope. I realized after the fact that I frequently referred to “The Vatican” without really explaining what that term meant. Since this is still one of the big news stories of the day, I figured now is as good a time as any to discuss it. Beware, though: we are about to get into some Strange Politics.

When ancient Rome was founded, it was built on seven hills along the Tiber River. Across the river, an eighth hill named the Vatican Hill was eventually used by the Romans for a racetrack and a cemetery. Over the centuries, the racetrack and cemetery have been replaced by some of the most important churches and buildings of the Roman Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination with more than a billion followers. If Roman Catholics were a country, they would be just behind China and India in population! So, yeah, the Vatican is a very important hill to a lot of people.

In fact, for centuries, Vatican Hill has been something like a global headquarters for the Catholic Church. Just as today when we say “Hollywood” we usually aren’t really talking about the Los Angeles neighborhood, but rather the American movie and television industry, when most people talk about “The Vatican” they are talking about the leaders and hierarchy of the Catholic Church. It was this meaning that I intended last week.

Pretty clear, right? Well, it’s about to get more complicated.

It turns out that part of Vatican Hill and the plain next to it are actually an independent country, called “The State of the Vatican City”. It is the world’s smallest country, at just over 100 acres in size:

It's that grey blotch smack in the middle of Rome.

It’s that grey blotch smack in the middle of Rome.

As small as it is, it has room for St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Gardens (which take up more than half of its tiny area), the Vatican Museums and Vatican Library, a train station and rail line, a heliport, a post office, a radio station, a phone company, a drugstore, military barracks, and not one but two colleges; all of it surrounded by a wall.

Why the heck would this tiny country even exist? Because: history.

Originally, Christianity was a small, persecuted religion in the ancient Roman Empire. But things changed when the Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire. Over time, the Roman Empire collapsed in the west and was transformed into the Byzantine Empire in the east, leaving the Pope as the only guy in central Italy with any real power, forced to defend Rome and the surrounding countryside from barbarian invaders knows as the Lombards. Eventually, another barbarian people known as the Franks came to the rescue, defeating the Lombards and “donating” most of central Italy to the Pope.

Throughout the Middle Ages and up into the beginning of the modern age, these “Papal States” were literally ruled by the Pope, putting them in the awkward position of being both the main religious headquarters of the Catholic Church and a physical country, with a population, taxes, and an army that sometimes fought wars against other Catholic countries. Then, in 1870, this was all brought to and end when the newly-formed Kingdom of Italy conquered the Papal States. This act united all of Italy for the first time in centuries, and let the new country move its capital to Rome, but it also meant that the Pope and the other Catholic leaders were now just ordinary Italian citizens – a status that they absolutely rejected. How could the vicar of Christ, responsible to God himself and leader of the faithful around the world, possibly submit to any authority made of mere flesh and blood? This dispute was finally settled by, of all people, Benito Mussolini.

The face of diplomacy and compromise.

The face of diplomacy and compromise.

In 1929, Mussolini gave the area that is now Vatican City to the Holy See. Thus, the world’s smallest country was born, and the Pope could now be free of any potential political interference by a non-religious leader.

But wait, Holy See? What is that?

The Holy See is the Pope’s religious domain as Bishop of Rome, his official title. While the Vatican City is a physical place ruled by the Pope and governed by a Pontifical Commission for Vatican City State, the Holy See is more like an idea of “that stuff the Pope is responsible for”. Mostly, it’s just the central leadership of the Catholic Church, responsible for managing the affairs of such a huge organization.

What makes the Holy See significant, though, is that it is considered a “sovereign entity” by 180 countries, meaning they treat it as a “country” for legal purposes. The Holy See sends ambassadors, called “Apostolic Nuncios”, to countries around the world, with both the secular power to negotiate with that country like a normal ambassador, and a religious power to help the Pope pick the Catholic bishops in that country. It has a military, the Swiss Guard, that protects the Pope.

And looks fashionable while doing so!

And looks fashionable while doing so!

It is an observer (but not full member) of the United Nations, and controls several locations in Italy that are not a part of the Vatican City.

So, in summary, the Roman Catholic Church, a global religious organization with more than a billion followers, is led by an organization that is not a country, but acts like one, sort of. And this non-country made up of religious leaders has the world’s smallest country created just for it by Benito freakin’ Mussolini to call home, so it can exist free of any political interference.

Politics, and religion, are strange.

Information from Wikipedia, as usual.

Wait, what? Pope announces resignation

Pope Benedict XVI announces his resignation in the Vatican. Image from the Washington Post

Pope Benedict XVI announces his resignation in the Vatican. Image from the Washington Post

Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation today, stating “I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise” of the papacy. He will step down on February 28.

To say this was a surprise is the understatement of the century. According to the BBC’s David Willey, only two other people probably knew this in advance: the Pope’s brother and his personal secretary. Father Federico Lombardi, speaking for the Vatican, said even the Pope’s closest aides were blown away by the news.

For thousands of years, the tradition has been for the Pope to serve until his death. However, it is not completely unprecedented. In December of 1294, Pope Celestine V declared that a pope has the ability to resign, and then did just that. The last time a pope used this power was in 1415, when there were three people claiming to be pope, each backed by their own faction, and all three gave up their claims so the Catholic Church could be reunited. To put that in perspective, that was before St. Joan of Arc famously led the French to victory against the English, before Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, and before Christopher Columbus’s fateful voyage. One Twitter user pointed out, “The gap [between] papal resignations is roughly equivalent to that [between] the [Declaration] of Independence and when Picard became captain of the Enterprise.”

With papal resignations being so rare, the first question to answer is, “why?” In his announcement, the Pope claimed it was because of his health. He said, “In order to steer the ship of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.” It is true that he suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1991 and a broken wrist in 2009, but he recovered from both incidents. Then again, he is 86 years old and walks with a cane.

Pope Benedict XVI with a cane image from Patheos

As seen here. Image from Patheos

Of course, there is plenty of speculation that the resignation is in part a response to the criticism he has received for how he has governed the Catholic Church. He has been haunted by his past in the Hitler Youth during World War II, rocked by early P.R. disasters, struggling to contain the fallout from the child sex abuse scandal, cheated by his own butler who stole and released secret Vatican documents, and now watching the Vatican’s own bank is investigated for money laundering.

So, what’s life going to look like for an ex-Pope? This excellent report by L.V. Anderson for Slate discusses just that, explaining that even though he will no longer be Pope, Benedict XVI (who may still go by “Benedict”, or may choose to revert to his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger) will still be a bishop and will spend some time at the Castel Gandolfo in Italy before retiring to a monastery in the Vatican. He will also not play any direct role in the selection of the next Pope.

The new Pope will be chosen by the 117-member College of Cardinals, and speculation already abounds regarding who will be chosen. Among the names being floated are:

  • Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, the oldest potential candidate, and highly favored by bookies. A bishop since 1965, he has in recent years become a prolific public speaker and campaigner for inter-faith dialogue.
  • Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana, another prominent African cardinal who is far younger, at “only” 64. A former seminary professor, he has acted as a mediator in the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire.
  • Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Canada, who is theologically very conservative and has criticized those who interpret the findings of the Second Vatican Council “too liberally”.
  • Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who has become an outspoken supporter of efforts to help the poor in Latin America as well as a critic of Hugo Chávez.
  • Cardinal Angelo Scola of Italy, who has a reputation for openness; as Patriarch of Venice, he set aside Wednesday mornings for meetings with anyone who wanted to see him.

Interestingly, most of the potential candidates being discussed are not European. The last Pope who has not been from Europe was the Syrian-born Pope Gregory III, and the overwhelming majority of popes in history have been Italians. However, nearly half of all Catholics in the world today come from the Americas, and there has been tremendous growth in recent years of Catholicism in Africa, so the College of Cardinals may decide to elect a pope who reflects this new demographic shift.

However the College of Cardinal decides, the United States will for the first time have the second-largest share of votes. No fewer than 11 of the cardinals who will soon gather in the Vatican will be Americans. Only Italy, with 28 voting cardinals, has more.

Information from BBC News, CNN, NBC News, Fox News, Slate, and Wikipedia.

Brain Drippings 3

Brain image from Willamette University

I have been really busy this week, and haven’t really had time to think of or prepare a proper blog post. Yep, it’s time for another one of these. Hope you enjoy!

Presidents Day image from Houchin Community Blood Bank

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12. George Washington was born on February 22. Because they are so close together, it makes sense to combine the two as “Presidents’ Day” and celebrate it sometime in between those two dates, such as the third Monday in February. Simple, right?

Of course not.

First of all, the federal government doesn’t celebrate Abraham Lincoln – the official name of the holiday on the third Monday in February as far as Uncle Sam is concerned is “Washington’s Birthday”.

The states, though, do call the holiday “Presidents’ Day” and use it to honor both figures. Or rather, most of them do. Some states still celebrate the two presidential birthdays separately, which is why each year my dad gets both Lincoln’s Birthday and Washington’s Birthday off. In Alabama, the holiday on the third Monday in February is called “Washington and Jefferson Day”, in spite of the fact Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is April 13!

If that wasn’t confusing enough, in Massachusetts, they celebrate “Washington’s Birthday” in February and then, on May 29, they have a completely separate “Presidents Day” that honors the presidents that came from their state: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.

And although Canada is a completely separate country with its own government headed by the British Queen, six of their provinces celebrate some form of holiday on the third Monday in February as well. Why? Well, because there is so much economic interdependence between America and Canada that it made sense to have Canadian workers take the same days off as American workers. Of course, that still leaves the rest of Canada working on that day.

I think my brain hurts now. Moving on…

Delivery truck image from Wikipedia

So, remember last week when I talked about the Postal Service being in deep financial trouble? Well, this week they announced that they will be cutting Saturday mail deliveries in August. They would still deliver packages, and post offices would still be open, but no letters, bills, or magazines would be delivered in the mail. The move would save $2 billion a year… still a drop in the ocean for them, but a start to be sure.

Only one problem. By law, the Postal Service has to deliver the mail on Saturdays. Unless Congress retroactively approves the change, the Postal Service might find itself in legal trouble as well as financial. We’ll see what happens next.

Justice League image from Comicvine

In retrospect, it was pretty obvious that once The Avengers made more than $1.5 billion (with a B!), Warner Bros. would try to compete with its own superhero team-up movie. Almost as soon as the box office returns were announced, Warner told the press they were going full-steam ahead to make a Justice League movie by 2015, in time to (hopefully) compete with The Avengers 2. They even said they were going to start with the Justice League and make films about the individual heroes on the team afterward. That’s how confident they were.

Now, it looks like that confidence has fizzled. And the Justice League movie plans may have fizzled along with it.

The problem? Supposedly, the script is the problem. It’s terrible, we’re told. Terrible enough that potential directors who have looked at it said, “No way am I directing that!” Terrible enough that studio bosses have decided to toss it in the garbage can.

According to anonymous sources that spoke to film reporter Devin Faraci of Bad Ass Digest, Warner’s bosses are divided on whether to even make the new film at all. He reports that the studio is going to wait and see how Man of Steel does before committing to anything.

I’m kind of torn on this one. I do really want to see a Justice League movie, but I sure don’t want to see a bad one. So I’m not sure whether to be disappointed that something I was looking forward to might not happen, or to be relieved that fans like me may have dodged a bullet.

Speaking of movies…

Star Wars lens flare image from The Examiner

J.J. Abrams is going to direct the new Star Wars: Episode VII movie that Disney announced shortly after buying Lucasfilm.

Now, there’s a sentence I never would have thought I’d write.

Think about this for a moment, though: both Star Wars and Star Trek have the same director now. That means the two biggest names in sci-fi history will be under one man’s creative control. That is a scary amount of pop culture power, and a huge risk on the part of everybody involved. This should be interesting.

Three Businesses that are Circling the Drain

A News Analysis

Last night, the 70-year-old Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo, California, closed its doors, apparently for good. It made me sad, as I have fond memories of going to watch many an exciting new movie there. Plus, its classic Art Deco facade is one of the key fixtures in San Luis Obispo’s downtown, helping to give that city its character.

UPDATE: It turns out the Fremont Theater will be re-opening! I appear to have spoken a bit too soon. Sorry.

Alas, such is the price of free market capitalism – if a business can’t stay profitable in the face of its competitors, it goes away. This Darwinian nature of the business world recently claimed a giant of the video game industry. As of this morning, THQ, makers of Saint’s Row, Darksiders, Red Faction, and the Warhammer 40,000 video games, has ceased to exist after its last assets have been liquidated. Not long ago, the company was one of a handful of video game developer studios that every gamer instantly recognized, yet according to its outgoing CEO Jason Rubin, the company had a bad habit of throwing too much good money after bad.

“To be sure, all triple-A publishers have been under pressure, but THQ had every chance to survive had it not made massive mistakes.”  Rubin said.

Among the mistakes he described were sinking too much money into a massive multi-player online game that was eventually scrapped, continuing to develop children’s games after it was clear that its mobile-gaming competitors had captured the children’s market, and building the uDraw peripheral for the Nintendo Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 that sold poorly and lost the company more than $100 million.

THQ’s collapse caught many by surprise, including myself, but in retrospect, the company had been circling the drain for a while. This got me thinking, what other companies are headed on the path of doom? Here’s what I’ve come up with:


BlackBerry image from Forbes magazine

The problem with being in the technology business is that you are entirely dependent on your ability to stay ahead of your competitors. Technology companies are like runners in a race, if we assume the runners that fall behind get shot. And boy, has Canadian firm Research in Motion fallen really far behind.

RIM had actually been one of the first to introduce the concept of the smartphone, when they unveiled the BlackBerry in 2003. The idea of technological convergence between cell phones, computers, PDAs, and other devices into something that looks like it came from Star Trek has in the past decade not only become “normal”, but downright “expected”. Between the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy SIII, the Motorola Droid, and more, mobile technology has sped off at an amazing clip.

Yet being first has been a curse for the BlackBerry. Its own inertia has been sinking it for years, as the makers of apps and peripherals want to make stuff for the latest and greatest devices and neglect the BlackBerry. The company has taken to drastic measures to try to catch up: on Wednesday, they announced that they are not only releasing two new phones – the Z10 and Q10, both of which are supposed to have “caught up” technologically with their far superior rivals – but that they are changing their corporate name to “BlackBerry”.

Yet one can’t escape a sense of desperation at the announcement. The phones will be advertised during the Super Bowl, we are told, but the release date in the United States isn’t until March. The firm also announced that their phones will finally be able to support Skype, Kindle, and Angry Birds. Things that their rivals have supported for years. In fact, early reviewers complain that BlackBerry’s new phones are still a desert when it comes to the apps they support.

Rather than feeling like celebrating, investors have taken the announcement as a call to abandon ship: the company’s shares have fallen 17% since the announcement. Even Forbes Magazine predicts the company might not be around for more than two years.

J.C. Penney

JC Penney ad image from Business Insider

Yep, I’m harping on this again.

The reason I keep bringing up J.C. Penney is that my family has many life-long, devoted Penney customers, all of whom have been turned away by the company’s “bold new vision”. And you know what? They are far from alone.

In just one year, the company has been hit big-time by rapidly declining sales as confused customers leave. CEO Ron Johnson, the man behind these changes, at first kept pressing ahead, claiming the problem was that the company simply hadn’t communicated the changes very well. He unveiled a whole new redesign of the store’s layout and business model, including things like a “denim bar” and “mobile checkouts”. It still wasn’t working, and the company is still bleeding money.

Lately, the company has been backtracking, announcing that some of the things they had tried to get rid of are being brought back. But I think it is too little, too late. J.C. Penney now tops the list of the most hated companies in America, according to a poll by 24/7 Wall Street. The brand has been damaged irreparably. In its desperation to reach the Millennial market, it has very publicly booted out its established customer base and told them, “You aren’t welcome here”. It’s kind of too late to take that back. And its insistence that shoppers had to be “retrained” in how to shop just insulted everyone’s intelligence. A few repetitions of “I’m sorry, I was wrong” are not going to fix that.

The U.S. Postal Service

Delivery truck image from Wikipedia

Okay, so technically the U.S. Postal Service isn’t a company, it’s a government agency. But you wouldn’t know it from the way it functions. Going into a post office and going into, say, a UPS Store is not much different of an experience. Heck, the postal service even advertises its shipping service like a private company.

And that’s just the problem.

Originally, mail service in the United States was carried out by the Post Office Department, which was created in 1792 as a part of the President’s Cabinet and administration, just like the State Department, Treasury Department or Interior Department. Then, in 1971, the Postal Reorganization Act turned it into the modern sort-of-government-agency-but-independent body that it is today.

It is run by a Board of Governors appointed by the President, and by law only the Postal Service can deliver letters and postcards into your mailbox. It is America’s third-largest employer, with 546,000 employees. On the other hand, its shipping services face fierce competition from private carriers like UPS, FedEx and DHL, and since the 1980s it has been forced to support itself financially with no taxpayer funding, making it essentially a for-profit business as far as its budget is concerned.

This dichotomy is not sustainable. In fact, the Postal Service says it will have to shut down completely in October if Congress doesn’t act soon. Already, it has reached the limit of how much money it can borrow to support itself. It has also completely stopped paying benefits to its retirees, leaving former postal workers high and dry. It is bleeding money to the tune of $30 million a day. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe told Congress last March, “If the Postal Service were a private company, we would be engaged in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings.”

The fact is, e-mail has taken away a massive portion of the Postal Service’s business. The one thing it had a monopoly on is no longer a monopoly in any real sense – it competes with Gmail, Hotmail, Outlook, Yahoo! Mail, and so on. And it does so at a severe competitive disadvantage: physical letters are slower to write and slower to deliver, hence their nickname “snail mail”, and they cost far more to send than, you know, FREE.

Some proposed measures to save the Postal Service have included ending Saturday mail service and closing post offices, but as of yet Congress has been too distracted to act.

Great. Now I’m depressed. *Sigh.*

This'll make me feel better.

This’ll make me feel better.