FAITH BASED BLOGGING
The exemplary Rittenhouse Review
(RHR) offers a spirited and spiritual defence
of Pope John Paul II. Now I acknowledge, it's hard to get into this without being seen to malign somebody's religious beliefs or without being thought of as being unfair to an extraordinary person. So noted, but here goes anyway. RHR was responding to this fairly unexceptionable assessment
of the Pope written by Matthew Yglesias
The Pope is in Canada bringing a message of hope and love to the youth of the world, but one thing he won't be helping the children out with is not getting raped by their priests:
His journey here brought him within a few dozen miles of the United States, where revelations of the sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests have thrown the church into crisis. But the pope made no mention of this, and Vatican officials did not offer any predictions about whether he would do so at the events that he planned to attend between today and Monday, when he departs for Guatemala and then Mexico.
Other point: Why does World Youth Day last a whole week? What kind of crazy religion is this?
Pretty stock standard stuff, but RHR over-reacts and as a result undermines his point, though not his faith:
Let’s see, now. A man of faith, love, hope, and conviction tirelessly supervises his flock, the largest single organized religious body in the world, for nearly a quarter-century.
Well, as Jesus himself might have noted, size doesn't matter and has no bearing at all on how we are to assess a person's faith, hope or love. True, it's a big organisation and I guess you could argue that this "says something about it" but only if popularity is your measure of truth and worth. As to "tirelessly supervising his flock", some would argue that this has amounted to an almost dictatorial control over his followers, on occasion amounting to a narrow-minded zealotry that borders on obsessive. His "adminstration's" treatment, for example, of Australian priest Paul Collins
amounts almost to persecution and it saw Collins leave the priesthood. In his resignation letter, Collins wrote
: "After thirty-three years I have decided to resign as an “active” priest to return to being an ordinary Catholic believer. Many people will justifiably ask: Why? The reason is simple: I can no longer conscientiously subscribe to the policies and theological emphases coming from the Vatican and other official church sources. While the reason is straight forward, the decision to resign is the result of a personal and theological process. This, of course, is not a step that I have taken lightly and I have been considering it for some time. I will try to outline the reasons in detail. The core of the problem is that, in my view, many in ecclesiastical leadership at the highest level are actually moving in an increasingly sectarian direction and watering down the catholicity of the church and even unconsciously neglecting elements of its teaching.
It was such views, developed in books
and articles that brought the Australian priest to the attention of the Vatican and drew their wrath.
RHR: He is the first non-Italian pope in more than 450 years.
This might indicate something extraordinary about the incumbent, though it sounds more like it says something about the prejudicial nature of the office. Though, if that's true, it might indicate something extraordinary about the incumbent. Maybe it says more about the declining number of choices for the top job and about the declining number of priests in general.
RHR: He overcomes a dramatic assassination attempt three years into his pontificate and later meets with the deranged gunman to express his forgiveness.
True, not every crime victim is so forgiving, but doesn't this pretty much come under the heading of doing his job rather than indicating anything exceptional? To have not forgiven would have been exceptional. But good on him, I guess.
RHR: He authorizes the first catechism in English since the 16th century.
Good, but also pragmatic and certainly not great. We might as well add he authorised the first Vatican website. And as the Pope himself acknowledged
, the idea of making "Christian doctrine...more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will" is something that dates at least to Vatican II.
RHR: He authors numerous profound encyclicals and groundbreaking documents, including (followed by longish list).
Again, part of the job description. Not to be under-rated, but not over-rated either. Personally, I'd like his research staff.
RHR: He writes a dozen or more learned apostolic letters and other documents, including.....(followed by longish list).
Bit of a fudge to give this a separate dot point. See previous point.
RHR: He plays a critical role in undermining communism in Poland.
Here's a nice little account
of the sort of contribution he made: "On June 2, 1979, one year after being named to the papacy, John Paul II returned to Poland. Despite Communist prohibitions against religious worship and public assembly, the Pope led Mass for a million people in Warsaw's Victory Square, inspiring the crowd with calls for religious freedom for all. The Pope's aim in Victory Square and in countless other pronouncements and deeds until the fall of Communism was to inspire the masses to believe in their intrinsic power to return Poland to democracy. With the simple words, "Don't be afraid," he gave them faith that they were not alone, the courage to stand firm, and the strength to press for change. Said one observer of that historic speech, "He suddenly turned up amongst these people and said, "Look, don't be afraid." And suddenly people stopped being afraid. It was like the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire. It was like the pinprick that burst the bubble. And that gave the strength for Solidarity and for the destruction of the whole Communist system."
RHR: He works closely with western leaders to help facilitate the demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European empire.
RHR: He displays a consistent, unwavering, and heart-felt concern for the poor, and unequivocally and vociferously supports social justice not only in the Third World but in the developed world, in the heart of Europe and even in the United States, where he chastises greed, selfishness, intolerance, and the indignity of the lives of the poor.
I hate to be narky, but would you honestly expect anything less? And really, to open this up is to open up a whole lot of questions about his role in demonising homosexuality, actively arguing against birth control, actively arguing against protection from sexually transmitted diseases, most obviously AIDS. And I'm always seriously troubled by claims about being against greed when I consider the absolute splendor within which the Pope lives. Vows of poverty look decidedly shaky and insincere, even for first-world Archbishops, let alone the Pope himself. I know many Catholics find this argument unconvincing, but for others it has been a reason to move away from the Church. I think of people I know like Nathan Sterling
, a former Catholic brother who couldn't reconcile his "poor" institutional lifestyle with his vow of poverty and left to form his own teaching and charity ministry. Such areas could be the Pope's greatest failings rather than a particular triumph.
RHR: He holds a doctorate in philosophy.
RHR: He is fluent in eight different languages.
He is a best-selling author.
No jokes about holy ghost writers, but what about his publicity department? Not to mention the ready-made audience.
RHR: He is named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1994.
Well, it's more than I could ever hope for in terms of recognition, but it puts him in some company that sort of takes the shine off the title. 1936
wasn't a great year. Nor was 1938
The year after John Paul II it was Newt Gingrich
RHR: He visits more than 125 countries and his very presence draws millions almost everywhere he goes.
This is the size matters argument again. And it just overlooks the fact that it says nothing much about the bloke himself, though maybe something about the office, the publicity machine and the captive audience.
RHR: Approaching death he canonizes two of the most worthy of the blesseds, now known as St. Pio of Pieltricina and St. Juan Domingo, traveling all the way to Mexico for the latter event.
These two worthies not withstanding, JP II has canonised more saints than any other Pope, I think more than many others combined (from memory), and has thus devalued this particular coin of his realm. Standards have been relaxed in the interests of "providing worthwhile examples." Sort of like what has happened with the honours list in Britain, where even Mick Jagger and Alan Greenspan have been deemed worthy of dubbing. This, to my mind, is a substantial failure of his Holiness.
RHR: Nearing death he travels to Canada for World Youth Day, an event of such significance and filled with so much activity that it lasts a week.
I know this is a direct response to Matthew Yglesias, but it's not much of a comeback. The "near death" appellation seems designed to add a bit of gravitas to a pretty stock standard Papal gig.
RHR: Is there another religious figure alive today whose accomplishments even approach those of John Paul II? To ask the question is to answer it.
Well maybe, but the competition isn't fierce. I really don't want to diminish a man who is genuinely extraordinary in some ways, but this sort of OTT one-eyedness does his cause no good. As Matthew Yglesias clumsily suggested, the Pope's handling of the current sex-abuse scandal involving the Catholic Church in the US (and most recently, Australia
) has left a lot to be desired and suggests an organisation out of touch with many of its own followers and hopelessly mired in an outdated and positively dangerous mindset that is driving even believers away in large numbers. For all his achievements, JP II will leave a Church weaker and more divided than when he took over 25 years ago. It's not all his fault, but you have to accept some of the blame when you are installed as the infallible (or pretty damn nearly infallible) head of such a powerful organisation.