Fighting Words

On Not Mourning the Pope

Thoughts over the grave of John Paul II.

Praised for his apologies

It seems only a year or so since every talk-show host and pundit in the country was telling us that Ronald Reagan had personally demolished communism in Eastern Europe. Now we come to the end of an entire week when the mass media behaved as if we all lived in a Catholic country and were united in mourning the Dear Leader, in which this historic achievement of freedom was credited to “the Polish Pope.” That isn’t necessarily a contradiction: The two men might possibly have shared the work. And it’s perhaps thinkable, though not apparently mentionable, that the Polish workers and Warsaw’s dissident intellectuals might have had some part in the victory. I can even remember visiting one or two of the latter, such as Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, who operated in a mainly secular and partly Jewish milieu, and who thought of Cardinal Glemp of Warsaw as one of their main enemies. But I’ll have to postpone this reflection to another time, when we are less servile and less saturated with the notion of deliverance from on high.

What strikes one now is the similarity between the predicament of the Vatican and the predicament of the Kremlin about 45 years ago. Between the death of Stalin and the end of Khrushchev, the crucial question was: How much heresy and revisionism and autonomy can be permitted, without endangering the entire ideology of the regime? We know now how that issue was decided in the material world. Is the supposedly spiritual world immune from similar strains?

Without, it seems, quite noticing what they are saying, the partisans of the late pope have been praising him for his many apologies. He apologized to the Jewish people for the Vatican’s glacial coldness during the Final Solution, and for historic filiations between the church and anti-Semitism. He apologized to the Eastern Orthodox Christians, and to the Muslims, for the appalling damage done to civilization by papal advocacy of the Crusades, and by forced conversion and massacre in the Balkans during the church’s open alliance with fascism during World War II. He apologized to the world of science and reason by admitting that Galileo should not have been condemned by the Inquisition. These are not small climb-downs, and they do not apply just to the past. They are and were admissions that the Roman Catholic Church has been responsible for the retarding of human development on a colossal scale.

However, “be not afraid.” The God-given right of the papacy to make and enforce absolute judgments is not at all at stake. Popes may have been wrong on everything, but they were right in general. By the time the church apologizes for saying that condoms are worse than AIDS, or admits that it was complicit at best in the mass murder in Rwanda, another few generations will have died out. This is almost exactly the sort of stuff with which Communists and their fellow travelers once had to content themselves. There had indeed been “spots on Stalin’s sun,” as one hack so prettily phrased it. But the leading role of the party was still a sure thing.

Sensing, perhaps, that so many admissions and confessions might sow doubt and unease, Pope John Paul threw himself into the sort of reinforcement that unifies and heartens the flock, or the base. The special sign of this was the mass production of saints and the removal of all obstacles to near-instant canonization and beatification. This is especially handy for beefing up the faith in outlying regions, where a local hero is considered good for morale. Alas for those who value consistency, some of those canonized were at odds with the larger purpose served by the famous apologies. Cardinal Stepinac of Croatia, for example, had been a clerical ally of the Nazi puppet regime of Ante Pavelic, and had known full well of the vile treatment of Orthodox Christians and Jews under this dispensation. Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, the creepy founder of Opus Dei, was celebrated for his closeness to Gen. Franco. To make saints of such riffraff is the most obvious form of opportunism.

Seeking to cloud a difficult situation with even more of the fragrance of obscurantism, the pope also resorted to an almost wholesale appropriation of the cult of the Virgin. He openly announced that the bullet that hit him was prevented from taking his life not because of the skill of his physicians, but because its trajectory had been guided by Our Lady. She let the assassin fire and hit, in other words, and only then took action. (This reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s comment on the practice of placing covers on the baths in convents so as to avoid offending the sight of God. The creator can see through the roof of the convent, and down into the bathrooms in the basement, but is hopelessly baffled by a sheet of canvas.) Sites such as Fatima, which had been frowned upon by serious Catholics for some years, became objects of adoration and pilgrimage and hysteria. The veneration of the Virgin, and the endlessly repeated mantra of “Totus Tuus” (“Everything for Thee”) seemed to many veteran believers to depose Jesus in favor of a Marian idolatry, and even to violate the commandment against graven images.

Finally, if the pope is to have so much credit for the liberation of Eastern Europe, he ought to accept his responsibility for the enslavement of the Middle East. He not only opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but the use of force to get him out of Kuwait in 1991. I have never read any deployment of Augustinian argument, in the latter case, that would not qualify it as a just war. Moreover, the pope made a visit to Damascus not long ago, and sat quietly outside the Grand Mosque while the Assad regime greeted him as one who understood that Muslims and Catholics had a common enemy—in the Jews who had killed Christ. (That he may already have been senescent at this point is not an answer: It is a problem, though, for those who believe that he was Christ’s vicar on earth.)

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.