As secularization picked up speed in the 18th and 19th century and went into overdrive in the 20th, modern liberals militated to secularize and control everything, including the Catholic Church, which they regarded as the only cultural obstacle left to surmount. Enlightenment dilettante Denis Diderot spoke of strangling the last priest with “the guts of the last king.”
The Church had smelled a rat before the French Revolution. Pope Pius VI warned that the misnamed “Enlightenment” would destroy Europe’s God-centered culture, decimate its moral foundations, and turn government into a pitiless impostor god. For daring to see that the “Rights of Man” would mean eradicating real rights in the name of fake ones, and warning his clergy of the coming culture of death — “Beware of lending your ears to the treacherous speech of the philosophy of this age which leads to death” — Pope Pius VI was stripped of his liberty by Europe’s new forces of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” He ended up dying in Valence under French arrest. The French later arrested Pope Pius VII. Napoleon, the Enlightenment’s favorite strongman, seized papal territories in 1809 and had Pius VII imprisoned in Fontainebleau until 1814.
What’s the point? What does any of this have to do with the death of Pope John Paul II and the liberal elite’s reaction to it? A lot, actually. The Church remains the single most potent obstacle to the enlightened pretensions of modern liberalism, and the revolutionary children of Diderot still seek to control the papacy, evident in their envy masquerading as admiration and their angling disguised as advice to a “troubled Church.”
Since they can’t get away with imprisoning popes anymore — though a group of Dutch liberals did try to prosecute Pope John Paul II, declaring him a criminal for having violated a “hate crimes” code (he had simply reiterated the Church’s teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful) — they are reduced to controlling popes through media propaganda and pressure, which at the moment means mau-mauing timid or heretical churchmen into naming a liberal one. On the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times and other organs of predictable anti-Catholic bias has come a blast of unsolicited advice to a leaderless Church.
Why would people who hate the Church pose as reformers who know what’s best for it? Why would they care so passionately about the direction of a religion to which they don’t belong? For the same reason the French philosophes and revolutionaries monitored and pressured the Church: it is a force that they must either neutralize or hijack in order to achieve their designs for the world. Look at the immense, obsessional energy that the left spends on trying to pressure the Church into green-lighting their favorite sexual sins. Why do they care so much about what the Church teaches? The reason is that they know that if they could just get the Catholic Church’s imprimatur on the Sexual Revolution it would spread everywhere. A liberal Pope, as far as they are concerned, would be even better than a liberal Chief Justice on the Supreme Court.
Modern liberalism is an acid that burns through everything it touches. The Church has shriveled in proportion to its exposure to it. Now those who have long sought its death present themselves, carrying more of this acid, as its healer, and even, as Thomas Cahill wrote in the New York Times, finger Pope John Paul II, who resisted it, as the Church’s enemy. “He may, in time to come, be credited with destroying his church,” writes Cahill, who blames the Pope for “intellectual incompetents” and “mindless sycophants” in the episcopate. “The situation is dire. Anyone can walk into a Catholic church on a Sunday and see pews, once filled to bursting, now sparsely populated with gray heads.” He then proposes a “solution,” which amounts to trading the teachings of Jesus Christ for modern liberalism.
This Op-Ed is worth remembering when the liberals, both outside and inside the Church, begin their march for “reforms” on the grave of Pope John Paul II. The roses that they lay on it have many thorns.
George Neumayr is executive editor or The American Spectator.