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Pope Culture

A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.

By From the July 1995 issue

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LAST AUTUMN a senior writer at Time was advised to put the final touches on the obituary of Pope John Paul II. The pope’s health seemed to be failing, and like the rest of the media, Time was getting ready to wrap up his pontificate. Since then, however, he has, if anything, been moving even faster. John Paul has resumed his punishing world travels, drawing four million people in Manila -- the largest crowd to assemble in history. He has stepped up his literary output, feeding a sudden public appetite for papal books and documents. And he is talking about the year 2000 as though he fully expects to be there, having announced plans for a meeting of the great monotheistic faiths at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Enlightened opinion long ago wrote off the papacy as a quaint relic of the Middle Ages. When Pius IX barricaded the Church against all forms of liberalism a century and a half ago, it was widely held that the papacy was slated for a long slide into oblivion. But the papal chair is now occupied by a man who, alone among his contemporaries, has the international stature associated with the generation of Churchill and de Gaulle. And John Paul could not be more "modern" -- he is a survivor of two totalitarian regimes, a disciple of Scheler and Husserl, and an underground playwright and actor whose delivery on television John Gielgud once called "perfect."

That in a dreary decade of Clinton and Yeltsin the pope has a monopoly on public gravitas may partly explain the attention he now commands. But something deeper is going on here, a historical reversal whose drift is sensed even by the religiously tone-deaf media. After the European wars of religion centuries ago, faith was banished to the realm of private opinion. Thinkers like Spinoza, who was agnostic, maintained that we had to give up on the idea of religion as a bond between people; man-made philosophy would have to do the job instead. This of course was the project of the Enlightenment. It was in many respects successful, although its prophets did not appreciate the extent to which the modern state would have to draw on the reserves of Judeo-Christianity in order to survive and prosper.

John Paul II is not alone in thinking that the West is close to depleting its religious account. As Nietzsche said to the West: You have killed off God, but it will take a century for you to start behaving as though it were really true. This is the "culture of death" about which John Paul is so eloquent. And he is attempting a dramatic reversal. He is trying to put God back into the public discourse of the West, not as private opinion or under the sectarian banner of Catholicism, but as normative reality. No other antidote exists for the skepticism and moral relativism eating away at our democracies.

John Paul is urging on the West a Christian humanism that can be grasped by all but the most obdurate materialist. The United States and Western Europe are the only credible political and economic models left, but their cultures are another matter. A kind of soft nihilism has settled on the West, one that, in John Paul's view, does not differ radically from the hard nihilism of Marxism. Both treat man as a thing or, at best, a clever ape. Both deny to man mystery and transcendence. The pope, who is a great admirer of the West, believes that we can do better and that if we don't, we are headed the way of the late classical Greek and Roman cultures.

BORN IN 1920 as Karol Wojtyla, he came to maturity just in time for the Nazi occupation of Poland. During the early war years, he worked in a chemical factory and a stone quarry. He was placed on the Gestapo blacklist for helping Jewish families escape from Cracow, just a short distance from Auschwitz. After Hitler came Yalta, where, as the Poles say, they lost World War II a second time. Wojtyla was ordained a priest in 1946 after training in an underground seminary, and soon became an adversary of the Communist regime. The main lesson he drew from the Stalinist decades was that a political order based on a radical misreading of the human person will fail for reasons not purely technical or economic. Far from producing the New Socialist Man, the militant atheism of Marxism-Leninism created instead a hunger for religion that is now playing itself out in remarkable ways.

As pope, Wojtyla was a key player in the endgame of the Cold War. He and Ronald Reagan were the two forces that hastened the end of the Soviet empire. Western journalists and academics have not given either man proper credit. (Nor have they grasped the role that Christianity played in the Revolution of 1989. Those crucifixes and Madonnas in the Gdansk shipyard made our pundits uneasy, when they noticed them at all.) But it is premature to talk of a dramatic spiritual revival in the former Soviet bloc. Those countries are too busy playing catch-up with Western materialism. The pope has been very vocal about their new pursuit of consumerism. In his view, the Central European countries are simply trading one faulty anthropology for another.

John Paul’s criticisms of the Western democracies have been widely misrepresented in such places as the New York Times, which is always quick to run a headline like “Papal Encyclical Urges Capitalism to Shed Injustices.” The pope is actually a strong advocate of private property and individual initiative. In Centesimus Annus (1991), which marked a watershed in Catholic social thinking, he not only excoriated the modern welfare state but also closed the door on the so-called “third way,” that non-existent compromise between collectivism and capitalism so dear to left-wing Catholics. (As a Czech minister once snapped, the third way leads to the Third World.) But what concerns John Paul is not so much specific economic mechanisms as the cultural norms that support them. And this is where he is warning the East to keep a tactful distance from its new mentors.

FIRST AND FOREMOST, he points to the West’s loss of “the truth about man.” For those who don’t mind the Bible, the best way to get at John Paul’s thinking is to read his meditations on the opening of Genesis in books like The Original Unity of Man and Woman. Like St. Augustine, he draws from it lessons that make the most cutting-edge mildly quaint. He focuses on the second chapter, which depicts the original solitude of Adam and his finding himself in relation to Eve. This account, which obviously has metaphorical elements, points to the difference between man and beast: Man is a creature defined by interiority and inwardness -- and by the need to make a gift of self to another being. This, if anything, is what it means to be created in the image of God.

After making the case for the inviolable dignity of man, the pope makes a second point: Man, however noble, is not his own creator. This self-evident fact tortured the young Marx until he discovered Darwin. But even unaided reason, according to John Paul, does not support the idea of man as self-created and thus free of norms and obligations.

Above all, the pope objects to the notion of the individual conscience as a little god, a supreme tribunal making categorical decisions about right and wrong. Along with a new generation of Catholic intellectuals, he is suggesting that the modern world either rediscover the principles of natural law, found in documents ranging from the Declaration of Independence to Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, or prepare itself for an increasingly fragmented and unhappy existence.

The idea of natural law, an antecedent moral sense implanted in man and written into the nature of things, was last broached in public during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas. Educated in Catholic schools, Thomas was skewered by the Senate Judiciary Committee because he had once given a speech agreeing with Abraham Lincoln about the natural-law basis of the Constitution. Thomas did not help matters by backing away from the questions. He ought to have asked the senators where else one can find a basis for morality. The alternative is a legal positivism which keeps manufacturing “rights” with no reference to duties or obligations. The result is a splintered and demoralized social order. If God has created an objective moral order, it is beyond whim and manipulation. On the other hand, if there is no God, and man is the result of a blind, material process, there is no basis for constructing any moral order whatsoever. Sartre, modernity’s Village Atheist, understood this quite clearly. He was merely being consistent when he criticized the Nazi war-crime trials at Nuremberg, since “crimes against humanity” must be deduced from a natural law decreed by a Creator.

THERE IS A CERTAIN IRONY in a Polish pope suggesting that a democracy go back and read its founding documents. Fifty years ago, Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain expressed delight and amazement that the most powerful nation on earth should believe in limited, constitutional government based on natural law. The legal forms of this country worked because of the unwritten consensus that produced them. (Read Tocqueville, another insightful Catholic.) But that consensus has been replaced by a radical pluralism that obliges people to respect all views and honor no truths. Instead of values, frail humanity now has “options” and opinions to guide it.

John Paul has repeatedly warned, most recently in Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”), that the kind of pluralism now espoused in the West is a thinly disguised tyranny. Our liberal champions of pluralism do not want society to be truly pluralistic. That would leave too much room for people who believe in moral absolutes. What they want is that each person be a walking container of pluralism, so that religious values have no chance of reaching the public square. The new ground rules are odd by any historical standard: an unborn child is not sacrosanct, for example, but a plurality of views about the child’s worth is.

This absolutizing of the relative produces rich contradictions in the behavior of liberals. The English medical journal Lancet recently published an article which claimed that the unborn child, or whatever you wish to call it, experiences extreme pain during an abortion and so ought to be given anesthetic (we have yet to hear from the animal rights crowd). Similarly, in overturning the state of Washington’s assisted suicide law, federal judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that each individual has the right to define his or her own “concept of existence, meaning, and the universe.” If that is so, and Judge Rothstein inhabits a different universe from the rest of us, how does she come to be handing down legal opinions?

In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul makes the reasonable suggestion that we “call things by their proper name.” The advocates of abortion and euthanasia operate on a classic Orwellian principle: before engineering a social reality, you must first engineer the language. Phrases such as “reproductive health” and “safe motherhood” hardly do justice to what happens in a second-trimester abortion.

Fifty years ago, euthanasia was a Nazi war crime; now it is a desideratum of progressive opinion. Hidden in the Clinton Administration's health-care bill was a shocking money-saving device that got little attention. Medical care was to be denied to older persons who no longer enjoyed “quality of life.” This utilitarian approach to life has already been adopted in Holland, where many elderly are terrified of entering a hospital even for routine tests.

THE MAIN BATTLE GROUND of John Paul’s war against this “culture of death” has been the population conferences sponsored by the United Nations. These forums have been going on for decades, but it took the Clinton administration to make them dangerous. The one constant theme discernible in the twists and turns of the Clinton White House is support for abortion on demand -- at any stage of pregnancy -- and population control abroad. Led by Under Secretary of State Tim Wirth, the Clinton team wants to spend billions of dollars to spread its sexual philosophy to every corner of the globe.

The track record of the zero-population lobby that runs these forums is remarkable -- a perfect score of being wrong in their apocalyptic forecasts. First there was Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which forecast worldwide famines in the seventies; then the 1974 Club of Rome report, whose prediction of imminent scarcities of basic resources was laughably off the mark. Such Malthusian scenarios take no account of man’s ingenuity in using the earth’s resources. Since World War II the food output of the world has tripled while its population has doubled. The earth’s present population of six billion occupies less than two percent of the earth’s land mass; if every one of them moved to Texas, each would have the living space of the average American.

John Paul recognizes that there are places where demographics are a problem and the prudential spacing of children is in order. But he should make even clearer an obvious fact: wars and famines today are caused by ethnic feuding and socialism, not by population pressures. Birth rates in Europe, America, and even China are now below replacement level. Germany is offering cash rewards to married couples who have babies, since there are not enough children to fill the schools. At some point in the next millennium, every Italian will fit comfortably in a medium suburb of Rome. This “birth dearth,” in Ben Wattenberg’s phrase, is the geo-political story of the end of the century; if history is any guide, the coming decline of numbers in the West promises to be a devastating phenomenon.

“The evil nature” of the population control movement, writes Charles Rice of Notre Dame, “is one of the best kept secrets in the world.” This perhaps explains why the Vatican gets such bad press for its skirmishes against the radical feminists and eugenicists who are drafting documents for the U.N. Conference on Women in Peking in September. (China’s policy of forced abortions was apparently not a negative in the choice of venue.) High on the radical agenda is a proposal to expand the number of “genders” to five.

SEX, OF COURSE, is the engine that drives much of the hostility to the Catholic Church. In 1959, Wojtyla wrote a wise and densely philosophical book on the subject, Love and Responsibility. It influenced Paul VI’s arguments against birth control in Humanae Vitae, a document that does not look as retrograde now as it did in the early days of the sexual revolution. (Suffice it to say the pope has to contend with in this that the divorce rate among couples who use contraceptives is way above the national average). John Paul is anything but a puritan. But he does insist that having sex is not the same thing as shaking hands; it has consequences. Now that our society has become a hothouse of divorce, illegitimacy, and sexually transmitted diseases, it may be worth pondering his contention that the “trivialization of sexuality” is opposed to the truth about man. The Catholic Church does not assert that certain behavior is evil simply because it has bad consequences, but it does suggest that acts which violate objective norms inevitably have such results.

Mention of sex leads us to the situation of the Catholic Church in America. The whining and gnashing of teeth the pope has to contend with in this country stems from a widespread frustration at not finding loopholes in the Sixth and Ninth Commandments. Cardinal Ratzinger once dismissed American Catholic dissent as the expression of a “bourgeois” Christianity that seeks to make religion as undemanding as possible. He suggested that this Catholicism Lite does not have much of a future. He is right about that; but in the meantime, it is very popular in Catholic seminaries and universities, and its adherents make no secret of their impatience for a new pope, who, they presume, will canonize all their whims.

Still, a healthy populism has sprung up among Catholics in the United States; it communicates on the Internet, tunes in to Mother Angelica’s cable network, buys the Pope’s books and audio tapes, and reads the new Catechism, a volume that the official Catholic apparatus in Washington did not exactly welcome, since it makes crystal clear that the Second Vatican Council did not abolish any of the traditional teachings of the Church. This Catholic populism has connections with the new political populism; both are going to bring down cultural fiefdoms which have ruled since the sixties.

IT IS HARD TO CONVEY what this pope means to orthodox Catholics who for decades have suffered a catalogue of stupidities -- ranging from the new churches that look like auto-parts distribution warehouses to liturgical abuses whose purpose seems to be the inflation of the collective ego of the congregation. Apart from his forceful articulation of Catholic doctrine, this pope has an effect on people which Mikhail Gorbachev, who reportedly still visits John Paul when in Rome, calls “extraordinary.” The French journalist André Frossard probably expressed it best:

That October day when he appeared for the first time on the steps of St. Peter’s, with a big crucifix planted in front of him like a two-handed sword, and his first words, Non abbiate paura! (“Be not afraid”), echoing over the square, everyone realized then and there that something had happened in heaven: after the man of good will who had opened the Council, after the deeply spiritual man who had closed it and after an interlude as gentle and fleeting as the flight of a dove, God was sending us a witness.

The political sideshows ought not to distract us from the person and message of a pope who some day may be the third in his line to be called “the Great.” The West has come to a parting of ways. On the one hand there is an understanding of man that has sustained Christendom, however imperfectly, for two millennia; on the other, the way summed up by Pascal: Man without a Creator either becomes a deity and goes mad, or becomes a beast. The pope is a great friend of the West, and his warning ought to be regarded as coming from one who wants to see it stand for something beyond a morally vacuous “freedom of choice.”

Apart from a great man with a message, the same message of two thousand years ago, what does Catholicism have to offer the sole remaining superpower? Richard Rodriguez once observed that Mexico is Catholic and tragic, and everyone there is cheerful; the United States is Protestant and optimistic, and everyone is depressed. With the Cold War over, however, even our optimism seems to have faded a bit. The promised end of history, in which man, tired of ideologies, spends several millennia fine-tuning sophisticated consumer needs, is a dreary prospect.

1. Tad Szulc’s new book, Pope John Paul II: The Biography (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 542 pages, $27.50), gives a surprisingly good account of the pope’s life.


George Sim Johnston is a writer living in New York.

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