The Name Game
Ever wonder, “What’s the deal?” with Popes and Nuns and gang members and cult members and fraternity brothers being given a different name? It’s a very simple confusion of ideas called identity blurring, and it works in a couple of related ways.
The frat boys are doing it in its most basic and ancient form. For them, it is merely a group identity, a rite of inclusion, and an alter-ego that gives the young adult a degree of anonymity within certain social situations. You might have experienced this yourself without realizing it if, as a child or young adult, you hung out with a group (or gang) that gave each other nicknames. Having a nickname can have no effect at all, or it can have a similar liberating effect as wearing a costume to a costume party. One can feel uninhibited enough to take on the characteristics of a pirate, or a gorilla, or the group persona of the gang. The consequences of this form of identity blurring can range from a healthy tool of self-discovery all the way to a surrender of self to a group-inspired ideal. The fraternity brother has ties to life outside the group, and his old, individual identity continues to be used and reinforced.
When you look at Nuns, cults, and street gangs, you start to see a darker element. Nuns take on a new name as a deliberate attempt to renounce their former lives. This is a conscious decision, a strong declaration of obedience to the rules of a religious order, and a start of a new way of life. Whatever else I might think of this lifestyle, at least it was a conscious decision, made with many opportunities to reconsider. Gangs and cults perpetrate this name changing, identity blurring behavior on their members without the members being aware of the subtle psychological effects. Cult members are often isolated from those that knew them in the past, and “gangstas” often assume the given identity and insist on being called by their gang name. In all of these cases, when an individual allows a group or group leader to dictate a name change, that individual is loudly proclaiming that he or she is a follower, not a leader. A person’s name is a unique linguistic extension of that person’s self image, and allowing outside entities to modify that name is a surrender of personal integrity.
Finally, we come to why the Pope changes his name. As figurehead/leader of a large religious sect, this does not seem to fit the patterns above. One explanation is that, like the Nuns, he is starting a new life in the service of his god. This does not hold water, however, because he was already in service as a priest, bishop, and cardinal. Another explanation is that it reinforces the argument of, “See? I’m just a servant, like you, even though in fact I control the future of the church, have use of a vast fortune in spite of my hair-splitting vow of personal poverty, and live in luxury.” Pope Flounder I, just one of the boys. For a more secular explanation, one has to remember the state of the world when the practice started. Documentation, when it existed at all, was usually the property of, and tightly controlled by, the church. Communication beyond one’s own province was rare, and in many cases, the private property of royalty. Pagan bards, who spread news to the masses, had been fairly well exterminated as part of Christianity’s spread through Europe. The practice of taking a new name as Pope allowed Pope Alexander VI for example, to enjoy a certain anonymity from the family name of Borgia. History is a little more public and better documented these days, but the life of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger will still not be as closely associated with the career of Pope Benedict XVI as it would be for Pope Joseph Ratzinger I.