If they watched the overnight vigil in Saint Peter’s Square as the Pope lay dying, the good doctors of the Netherlands must have shaken their heads in bewilderment. “Watson, the needle,” Sherlock Holmes implored to another medicine man of dubious ethics. The Dutch doctors, pioneers in the coming age of euthanasia, surely were thinking the same thing. The needle would have spared us this painful wait. After all, the Vatican had conceded that the Pope’s condition was beyond hope-strong words from those whose very business is hope. So why not get on with it?
That’s how they do it in the Netherlands, to the delight of right-thinking beings who see the Dutch branch of Murder Inc. as a force for better living through homicide. And perhaps that is how they will do it everywhere some day soon, when the Western world formally puts aside its Judeo-Christian traditions in favor of science and progress.
As we’ve been reminded these last few days, John Paul II helped bring down the Berlin Wall through the power of his moral authority. But even this formidable man was unable to dismantle the pillars and flying buttresses which support the Western world’s Church of Everlasting Consumption, where children are euthanized, not baptized, and the only sin is a belief in sin itself. He argued and hectored and warned, but to no avail. This champion of liberty was unable to free us from the ceaseless dictates of consumerism and the fateful snares of what is called scientific progress.
In the televised obsequies over the weekend, John Paul invariably was described as “beloved,” as surely he was. But in the traditional heart of Christianity and Roman Catholicism-Europe-those tender feelings weren’t so heartfelt as to inspire millions to return to the churches they abandoned before and during the late pontificate. Those talking heads who compared the Pope’s appeal to that of a rock star accidentally identified the cause of his failures. Like a rock star, the Pope was famous-a Polish Bono. But people do not order their lives in accordance with Bono’s teachings (however much the Irish rocker might wish it). Nor, very likely, did many of the people who felt obliged to light a candle to John Paul’s memory pay much heed to what the Pope said.
The Pope’s triumphs in the East, justly celebrated as advances in human freedom, were not matched in the West, despite his best efforts. It is commonplace to note that Catholics no longer attend Mass in countries like Italy and France, and even in John Paul’s beloved Poland and in stalwart Ireland, priests look out on huge gaps in the pews.
Critics in the secular media invariably suggest that this falling away from devotion is the inevitable result of the Pope’s traditional teaching on abortion, divorce, gay marriage and birth control. While some or all of these issues surely alienated many Catholics, in fact they are but pieces of a larger and more complicated truth. These critics assume that had the Pope ordained women priests and revoked Humanae Vitae, Catholics would have returned to Mass and, rather than closing parishes in the U.S. the Vatican would be looking to build bigger churches. That is too simplistic. Aggressive secularism, a cult-like belief in the higher powers of science and rampant consumerism-the spirit of the times-proved to be the Pope’s most determined antagonists in the battle for Western hearts and souls.
In 1979, John Paul II celebrated Mass in Yankee Stadium and used the occasion to admonish the very forces which so many believe animate this city. “Christians,” he said in his homily, “will want to be in the vanguard in favoring ways of life that decisively break with the frenzy of consumerism, exhausting and joyless. It is not a question of slowing down progress, for there is no human progress when everything conspires to give full rein to the instincts of self-interest, sex and power. We must find a simple way of living.”
Without the instincts of self-interest, sex and power, what is New York-or, more to the point, what is that rarefied sector of New York which speaks for a city of eight million? According to John Paul, what it is not is free. It is captive, hostage to a “joyless” ideology, empty of meaning.
When John Paul told the Poles and the other oppressed peoples behind the Iron Curtain to “be not afraid”-the exhortation of the risen Christ-they rose and cut loose their shackles. But when the Pope preached at Yankee Stadium against “the temptation to make money the principal means and indeed the very measure of human advancement,” we in the West smiled and waved and went about our business. And so, like Marley’s ghost, we have seen our chains grow link by link and yard by yard. We have found neither repose nor freedom in the unyielding demands of careerism, that bastard child of consumption and ambition.
John Paul couldn’t go on speaking such things without a reaction from both the secular left and the free-market right, although it must be said that the former was more frothing than the latter. The secular left deemed him conservative and reactionary-never mind his positive citations, espoused in Laborem Exercens, of the “struggle for social justice.” He was, in fact, more liberal than the Democratic Party in his demands for a more equitable distribution of the world’s wealth and resources.
Informed, caring critics (this category would exclude the instant theologians among the pundit class) have it right when they say that the Pope wasn’t helpful in building trust between the hierarchy and the flock. Priests and bishops and even the Pope himself are supposed to be servants of the servants of God. Under this Pope, however, the servants of God-the men and women in the pews-were handed their orders and their subscription fees and advised to keep their mouths shut. If the local bishop decides to close a church-like historic St. Brigid’s in the East Village, a true landmark of American Catholicism-there will be no discussion. The bishop decides. Parishioners will please pay attention to the collection basket and refrain from asking questions.
This breakdown in dialogue-between bishops and the Pope, between bishops and an informed, educated laity-will haunt the Catholic Church for years. Happily, however, the work to which John Paul called Catholics is being done at the parish level, where involved laypeople are working cooperatively with priests in renewing this 2,000-year-old institution. I know priests and nuns who make a distinction between the institutional church, presided over by out-of-touch bishops, and the spiritual church, a holy place where all that matters is the work of the Lord.
That said, there’s no denying that John Paul became an easy target not only for those who find Catholicism distasteful, but for those who find religion in all its manifestations to be evidence of backward values and stunted intellect-except, of course, for those rituals practiced in cultures deemed to be oppressed by the United States. The Papacy as an institution stands for what the technicians of the modern world oppose: a belief in the sanctity of human life; a suspicion of free-market capitalism operating according to its own morality, with no sense of social justice.
“For why is it that you put the blame on this Christian era, when things go wrong?” St. Augustine asked unbelievers in City of God. “Is it not because you are anxious to enjoy your vices without interference, and to wallow in your corruption, untroubled and unrebuked?” John Paul would not have put it so bluntly, but he, like Augustine, saw his role as a teacher and a prophet, searching for spiritual truths in a secular world.
Rooted in Scripture, John Paul would not have claimed to be flawless, or even great. Many Catholics did disagree with him profoundly. I am deeply concerned about some of the men he has raised to bishop in the United States, small-minded autocrats who seem to believe they can tell me how I should vote. I believe he was wrong to shepherd former Boston Archbishop Bernard Cardinal Law to Rome after he quit in disgrace, the chief organizer of the appalling cover-up of sexual abuse in the Church. I was disturbed by his squashing of dissent, and his moves to rein in Catholic universities, particularly in the United States.
Nevertheless, it was during his Papacy that I moved from the ranks of lapsed Catholics to those of practicing Catholics. It was, in part, because of his words that I have tried to live my life and raise a family according to the Catholic principles of social justice. I don’t always live up to those principles, which makes me not a hypocrite but a sinner-a flaw I share with the Pope and the rest of humanity.
According to Catholic tradition, mercy awaits us sinners-not the perverted mercy of the Dutch doctor’s needle, but authentic mercy, everlasting and undeserved.
John Paul lived his life in anticipation of mercy. Persuading us to live likewise, however, was an assignment that even he could not accomplish.