Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Column 29: National - The Pope

An awful lot has been written about Pope John Paul II since his death last week, which I probably fitting given his long tenure and significant influence in the world. Much of what has been written, however, has, in my view, presented only half of the man, which does a disservice to history, and dishonors the man’s legacy.
If John Paul had been “just a pope,” perhaps this would not be so bad, but this Pope, like Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama took a position of world, not just religious, leadership. By taking strong and courageous stands on political issues, by his outreach to other faiths, by his willingness to take responsibility for wrongs committed in the name of the Church in the past, he distinguished himself from earlier Popes, who allowed the Church to ignore or even to appear to condone such wrongs as the Holocaust and the Inquisition.
This same courage and strength, however, informed the Pope’s intransigent conservatism on issues that many, even many Catholics, consider socially urgent. While at the same time demonstrating that the Church has made serious errors in its past doctrines and practices, he maintained its infallibility on current doctrines and practices such as pedophile priests, contraception, abortion, divorce, women in the priesthood, and others.
Every religious group has the right to set its own boundaries and to declare those who transgress those boundaries outside the fold. At the same time, all but the most conservative factions of most faiths in the modern world have made allowances for changing views of the world and exigent factors such as disease. The Pope often spoke of the need for a “culture of life,” but this is hard to reconcile with refusing to allow the use of condoms to prevent disease. The Pope was ready to admit the Church’s errors with regard to Galileo and the Inquisition, but seemed less willing to have the Church take responsibility for the many scandals regarding child molestation in the United States and many have argued that he aided and abetted Cardinal Law in escaping the consequences of his having protected priests accused of molestation and even having transferred known molesters into positions where they still had access to children.
None of this detracts from the Pope’s real accomplishments or from his commitments. He was a stalwart advocate of freedom and if he didn’t bring down Communism single-handedly, he certainly contributed materially to its demise. That there were modern errors he failed to acknowledge does not diminish the importance of his having apologized and taken responsibility for earlier errors. He was deeply compassionate for the poor and the downtrodden, and his lack of compassion for the sides of human misery of which he disapproved did not subtract from this.
However, when a religious leader takes on being a leader in the secular world as well, he makes himself liable to be held to a higher standard of integrity. This Pope, by taking a stand against authoritarian regimes makes his own authority subject to review; by reaching out to other faiths in a spirit of inclusion and collegiality, the integrity of his judging others’ morality by his own doctrine becomes questionable. When millions of Roman Catholics do not follow his teachings on birth control and divorce, his authenticity in proclaiming these teachings as universal is diminished in the world’s eyes. When he turns a deaf ear to the misery of those whose lives were damaged by priests and bishops operating under the mantle of ecclesiastic authority, his moral leadership acquires a hollow ring.
Pope John Paul II was one of the great spiritual, moral, and religious leaders of the 20th Century, and history will remember him as such, but history is not served by remembering only half the man – all of who he was and became made his contribution what it was. Let us remember the whole man.

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