NEW BREEZE FROM VATICAN: Like many ex-Catholics, I have long subscribed to a decidedly perverse form of bigotry. Of all the denominations on the so-called Christian menu, only mine had the moral heft and stature to denounce and renounce. None of the others qualified as even pretenders. Such delusions of superiority are inevitable, I suppose, when you grow up belonging to “The Church.” But as Pope Francis rounds the bases of his first year in office, I no longer know whether I’m coming or going with all my well-nurtured attitudes. For the first time this millennium, we have a Pope who’s positively cool. It’s not merely that he used to work as a barroom bouncer. Or that he sneaks out of the Vatican at night dressed up like an ordinary Joe Schmoe priest to mingle with the mangled. Last week, Pope Francis issued a fatwa against “sourpusses.” This was included in a major policy statement arguing that the church’s mission was no longer judgment, guilt, and condemnation — its old bread-and-butter for about 2,000 years — but to spread the gospel of joy, of all things.
In addition, Francis took issue with the growing income inequality, the “deification” of the market, and “the globalization of indifference” thus spawned. How is it, he wondered, that a 2 percent drop in the stock market qualified as news, but that old people dying in the streets from exposure did not? “All those lives stunted by lack of opportunity,” he said, have been reduced in our moral imagination to “mere spectacle. They fail to move us.” The facts, he said, no longer justify our “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” This is a far cry from the compassionate fatalism of “The poor we shall always have with us, so please give generously to the collection basket.” Instead, Francis argued that true charity meant changing the social structures that give rise to such vast poverty. Naturally, America’s foremost sourpuss — Rush Limbaugh — would denounce the Pope as a Marxist. If Limbaugh knew anything about history — or Marx, for that matter — he’d know that can’t be the case. While Marx got a whole lot of things painfully right as a historian, he was — as a human being — a throbbing hemorrhoid of a sourpuss. And are we to believe that only Marxists are worried about a world economy that makes billions of people redundant the day that they’re born? If you’re not lobotomized, you’re not paying attention.
I mention all this, in part, because this Wednesday marked the feast day of our city’s namesake, St. Barbara, a hot babe from Asia Minor who got beheaded by dear old dad after she converted to Christianity while he was away on a business trip. For those facing imminent doom back in the Middle Ages — which was just about everybody all the time — St. Barbara was the go-to saint to whom you prayed when there was no one to come to the rescue. Since then, Vatican scholars have seen fit to downgrade her status to somewhere between the improbable and the impossible, which if you think of it, would make a pretty good motto on our city’s seal. Among other things, St. Barbara was — is — the patron saint for ships’ artillerymen about to blow themselves up. With all this in mind, there’s something wonderfully coincidental about the U.S. Supreme Court hearing arguments involving the case of Santa Barbara’s perennial Catholic Commie peace activist, Dennis Apel, on St. Barbara’s feast day this week.
Apel’s case has become a which-side-are-you-on showdown over free speech versus national security. For umpteen years now, Apel and his wife, Hortencia Hernandez-Apel, have operated out of Guadalupe, feeding the hungry, scrounging health care for the sick, teaching immigrants how to speak English, and in one case, providing the video evidence that secured about $300,000 for displaced tenants in a major landlord-tenant dispute. And in his spare time, Apel — a hard-core peacenik — has protested outside the gates of Vandenberg Air Force Base. While that’s obviously an exercise in futility, Apel — like the Pope — explained he needed to agitate against the causes of poverty. If we are spending so much on the military, think of all the poor people who could be helped. While Vandenberg has provided a designated space for peace protestors just outside its main gate on Highway 1 since 1989, base commanders say Apel is not allowed to use it. Five days before the United States starting bombing Iraq in 2003, Apel sprayed Vandenberg’s entrance sign with his own blood. In 2010, Apel was arrested several times for protesting there despite the ban.
Two years ago, the Ninth Circuit Court ruled the arrests were improper on hyper-technical legal grounds. Because Apel was arrested on a public road over which the Air Force did not enjoy exclusive ownership — it shares an easement with the county — base commanders lacked the legal authority to tell Apel what he could do. The Department of Defense, naturally, pitched a fit, arguing if it could not control activities taking place at the perimeter of military installations, the barbarians would soon be at our gates and we’d be overrun by Huns. In theory, I suppose this makes sense. In practice, it’s at best dubious and at worst hysterical. Though the base “owns” the land in question, it does not operate that land as part of a military installation. Instead, it’s a completely open road with no gates, no sentries, and no warning signs. Because it looks, smells, and tastes like a public road, Apel argues, all his constitutional rights should apply and obtain. Located just 200 yards away from this designated free-speech zone is a well-fortified entrance gate capable of keeping the Zombies at bay.
How this all shakes out with the Supremes, we’ll know in a few months. The vote is likely to be close. In the meantime, if you see St. Barbara, give her a big hug.