Friday, April 08, 2005

Mixed Feelings About John Paul II

The pope’s funeral took place today. Dignitaries from all over the world attended, and the media shared it with all of us who weren’t there. What I saw of it was majestic and moving. It seems that countless Catholics and non-Catholics alike admired and adored John Paul II, and the television media has been singing virtually non-stop praises of his person and papacy ever since it became aware that his death was imminent.

While the pope lie dying, countless millions all over the world prayed for him to die peacefully and for his soul to rise to heaven. But doesn’t the Church teach that God is supremely wise, loving, and merciful? Then why pray to God to either do what he, for his own reasons, had already decided to do with the pope or, for his own supremely good reasons, had decided not to do? Did the praying multitudes believe that their prayers would or even should persuade God to do what he wasn’t, in his infinite wisdom, planning to do already?

I’m inclined not to believe that people’s souls live on after bodily death. But if they do, I hope, although I do not pray to a biblical god, that John Paul’s soul has found peace and joy in its new life. And if there is no personal afterlife, I’m glad that the pope’s suffering has dissolved into painless oblivion. Nevertheless, I have mixed feelings about his papacy and his church.

On the one hand, I believe that he did his best to serve an institution in which he believed and which he loved with all his heart, and I respect and admire him for this as well as for his intelligence, erudition, and enduringly charismatic presence on the world stage. Yet, I also believe that while he and his church have done great good in this world, they have done an equal if not greater amount of terrible harm.

My ambivalence is well represented by two articles I read online today. The first is by the Reverend Jim Wallis who lauds John Paul II for his steadfast and inspiring commitment to a “consistent ethic of life” that all of us, especially those on the religious right and political left, would do well to emulate.

The second article, by Christopher Hitchens, argues that when the pope’s formal pronouncements were consistent with traditional Church teachings on such issues as sexual morality, contraception, and the right to die, they and he have been consistently and often devastatingly wrong, and that there was sometimes grave and sometimes ludicrous inconsistency between his words or the Church’s teachings on the one hand and his deeds in terms of his handling of such matters as child abuse by priests, genocide in Rwanda, his opposition to the liberation of the Kuwaiti and Iraqi people from the clutches of Saddam and of the Afghani people from the Taliban, his speedy beatification and canonization of such dubious figures as Cardinal Stepinac of Croatia and Jose Maria Escriva respectively, his complicity in the idolization of the Virgin Mary, and his silence in the face of the Assad regime’s blatantly anti-Semitic remarks during his visit to Syria in 2001. Hitchens ends his article with these harsh words:

“Unbelievers are more merciful and understanding than believers, as well as more rational. We do not believe that the pope will face judgment or eternal punishment for the millions who will die needlessly from AIDS, or for his excusing and sheltering of those who committed the unpardonable sin of raping and torturing children, or for the countless people whose sex lives have been ruined by guilt and shame and who are taught to respect the body only when it is a lifeless cadaver like that of Terri Schiavo. For us, this day is only the interment of an elderly and querulous celibate, who came too late and who stayed too long, and whose primitive ideology did not permit him the true self-criticism that could have saved him, and others less innocent, from so many errors and crimes.”

I don’t know who the new pope will be, but I’m sorry to say that I suspect that he will be just as flawed a representative of a flawed institution as was his predecessor, if not more so. Nevertheless, I hope that he can do some good in a world that desperately needs it.

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