In the wake of John Paul II’s death, the Associated Press did what the American media always do as great historical events shake the world. They took a poll. The verdict? Americans and American Catholics want change. It is hoped a more open-minded pope will take the reins. He was a great pope (you know, resisted the Nazis and the Communists and all that), but he failed to adapt to the times. What a pity. He could have capitulated to all of the demands of liberal Western democracy and really burnished his legacy. Oh well, missed opportunities …
We shouldn’t be surprised by the poll results. One of the great themes in popular coverage of religion is “Religious Leader Bravely Modernizes.” That’s the glowing profile a cleric gets when he decides to jettison a highly cherished tenet of the Christian faith as a tribute to some abstract concept of religious progressivity enabled by “new” knowledge about the human condition. There have been several cycles of this particular story including clergy endorsement of deconstructionist readings of the Bible, liberalized abortion laws, the acceptability of sex beyond the confines of marriage, and radical re-configuration of ordination requirements. John Paul II had little interest in making the church a servant to fashion, political or otherwise. Thus, a poll undercuts glowing tributes.
The coverage for breaking taboos of the Christian faith has been uniformly positive in secular media, which is good because enthusiastic press is typically the only reward one should expect based on recent historical trends in the Protestant world. Since the time of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s and ’30s, in which fundamentalists decisively lost the battle for control of the Presbyterian and Northern Baptist denominations, the conservative offshoots (fundamentalist, charismatic, and evangelical) have far surpassed their home churches in numbers, activity, and cultural influence. The reason for the long recession of the liberal church is easy to explain. When the church conforms itself to the prejudices of the popular, it resembles culture rather than standing as a powerful critic of it. As such, it becomes another boring non-profit operation sending forth useless platitudes. (“Here’s one to grow on!”)
The question for the accommodating churches becomes how long the thrill of breaking down a major taboo can sustain an enterprise sitting on a limb cut from its tree? After transitions have been made and parishioners have enjoyed a brief charge from the nice story in the Times, there is really little point in taking out Sundays or any other part of the week for church. Once the victory seems final enough (a few lesbians are consecrated and even the most patient foes find their way to more sturdy communities of faith), the clock once again begins ticking in earnest on the future of the church-in-name-only. The golf course and the agreeable scriptures of the swollen Sunday New York Times beckon those who see no more acts of liberation to perform. Meanwhile, ministers with little to proclaim help ever-dwindling flocks understand that they must get over their need for a savior.
Heedless of the latest poll by the AP or, well, anybody else, Pope John Paul II insisted on orthodoxy over focus group feedback. Though many liberal American Catholics desired a series of newspaper-happy taboo busters after Vatican II, the great Bishop of Rome refused to oblige. He lived through terrible periods of fascist and communist oppression and knew that only a church built on a firm foundation of historical claims and supernatural revelation could stand against the machinations of “scientific” ideology gone mad with power.
After the threats of Nazis and Communists receded, he was similarly unimpressed by therapeutic Christianity wherein the woman at the well, the cheating tax collector, and the woman caught in adultery do not experience being fully known and moved to righteousness by Jesus. Instead, they encounter him and are simply told they are okay. That Christ is less a savior than the coolest, gentlest guy who ever lived. It might be fun to roll joints with him instead of drinking from his cup of sorrow. His image stands in stark contrast to John Paul’s more traditional Jesus bruised for our iniquity and flogged for our sins. For the pope and the rest of us still able to recall this second Jesus, it is not so simple a thing to declare by majority vote that an offense against God is no longer to be so considered. In his stalwart stand, John Paul endeared himself to once suspicious conservative Protestants, some of whom had once declared “Romanism” to be as great a threat as communism in world affairs.
Part of the genius of this pope was that he understood the reasons why men and women have sought out the church through the ages. Christianity addresses itself authoritatively to the most pressing existential questions human beings face. Why are we here? Is there a God? How shall we live? Why is there evil in the world? And perhaps most importantly, what happens when we die? The last is most important because death is the greatest mystery of our existence. We do not feel as though we have been created only to cease to exist. Yeats captured something of the feeling when he wrote that we are “sick with desire … fastened to a dying animal.” Though we can sense the flesh succumbing to entropy, our spirits rebel and feel that we should continue on. Certainly, John Paul II must have felt it in the infirmity of his last years. It is to these common crises of humankind that the Christian Church speaks. In the process, the Christian faith has won the adherence of millions upon millions from virtually “every tongue, tribe, and nation” on the globe.
John Paul II stood for a church that insists on a real God and a real savior who gives absolution from real sin. He would not exchange it for any quick mess of pottage offered even in times of scandal. The dead pope is a hero of the faith. Let us pray there are many more like him.