Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Tony Is Wrong About the Pope

In this space, I often have flattered Tony Pierce, and with good reason -- he's an incisive, witty writer with either an interesting life or an interesting imagination (either being about the same to me from here). But he's wrong about the Pope.

He cites the Boston Globe and Christopher Hitchens in Slate for the proposition that the late Pope does not deserve the inevitable posthumous snowjob in light of his, and his Church's, reprehensible conduct during the molestation scandals that have bedeviled the church for five years or so. I can't claim to be sufficiently knowledgeable to engage or refute this perception of the Pope's own degree of culpability in things. Surely, the bringing to the Vatican of the should-have-been defrocked Cardinal Law at the Vatican, which simultaneously rewarded his apparent misconduct and erected an additional hurdle (thousands of international miles) to bringing him to the justice he almost certainly deserved is a step worthy of adamant criticism -- and is an act one absolutely must assume bore the direct involvement and imprimatur of the Pope himself.

So here's what I'm going to do, for purposes of discussion: I'm going to grant Tony's premises. I'm going to accept at face value this general run of criticism:

the pope ran an operation where on one hand they said the only way to the Father was through the Son, and on the other hand they presented the baseless idea that the Pope had a direct link to God and was the head shepard in charge of the worldly flock.

the catholic church also made up non-biblical rules that prevented their priests from getting married or having sex, and the catholics were given rules against abortions, masturbation, and birth control. even the pontiff himself went to africa and told the people overwhelmed with overpopulation and AIDS that condom use was a sin - despite the fact that there was nothing in the bible to back it up.

and recently the lovable pope gave safe haven to an american cardinal who was deemed ultimately responsible and negligent as thousands of kids were being molested by Massachusetts priests.

First, I'm going to note that I think we need to separate Tony's criticism of Catholic orthodoxy and the Pope's own unique role in the events of the nearly three decades of his papacy. Surely, the Catholic Church's stand against all forms of contraception is frightfully naive and dangerous, and almost inescapably contributes to death, disease, and overpopulation in those areas of the third world where it exercises the greatest influence. Similarly, the idea of papal infallibility seems more historic artifact (and not of a good thing) than scripturally Christian. But neither of these things directly implicate Pope John Paul II. True, in theory, with one encyclical he could wipe out this whole unfortunate contraception thing, but let's be realistic here: that's been at the heart of Catholic teaching for a long long time, and to ask PJP to change that would be like asking him to change his position on homosexual priests or something. Not that he shouldn't, but that realistically he wouldn't, and that's in keeping with Catholic teaching such as it is. The Pope does not work in a vacuum; he works in the tall shadow of millennia of history, where the abolition of the requirement that mass be conducted in Latin is considered revolutionary.

My regular readers and friends know I am no Catholic. I have not paid a tremendous amount of attention to the Pope, and only kept one jaundiced eye on the abuse scandals that recently came to light. Furthermore, while my default position is to trust jury verdicts, and to view large civil settlements as evidence of probable guilt on the part of the settling defendant, I have not familiarized myself enough with the behavior of individual priests, cardinals, and the Holy See to claim much in the way of legitimate opinion.

But I do believe this: Pope John Paul II was a holy man, a man who believed in peace, a man who brought the Catholic Church forward in many ways. Like all men, and notwithstanding what Catholic orthodoxy would have me presume about his connection with God, he was flawed, his life was flawed, his acts flawed. But one must never forget: the Catholic Church is a massive bureacracy, and those at the head of such a bureacracy have a responsibility to act in its best interests, sometimes at the expense of various individuals. I think the Pope's conduct in the face of the abuse allegations reflected his dual allegiance: both to rectify improper conduct by his staff (as it were), and to minimize the damage, both as a matter of PR and as a financial matter, to the organization over which he presided.

In light of these things, and again in light of his flaws, I think his behavior is understandable -- not perfect, but understandable. Still, however, my understanding is that the Christian God recognizes sin in all mortals. The Pope is one. This may run counter to Catholic tradition, but I'm not interested in that: we all know the Pope was a man before he was Pope. To witness the power he has over people, however, is to witness something profound, something deeply spiritual, something one cannot but admire.

And in preaching his message of love and peace relentlessly for nearly three decades, I think the man did more than his share of good in the name of Christ. It's not hagiography to acknowledge this, and it seems to me a fundamentally Christian thing to forgive him his flaws and in reflecting upon his life to focus on all the goodness and love he offered his flock.

I believe that Pope John Paul II is probably the most important historic figure to perish on our generation's watch. And his import is not all, or even predominately negative. So in some relatively minor sense, I mourn his passing, and resist the tendency of some to highlight his failings over his successes -- though I lose sight of neither.

UPDATE: Since I wrote this this morning, I've come across a similar sentiment expressed with far greater sophistication and eloquence. And from Josh Marshall, in some respects an unlikely source. He appears to be inclined to take up the topic for similar reasons to mine: "John Paul II has simply been a towering figure -- a perception that I imagine will grow as he recedes into history."


Blogger tony said...

this is beautifully put. you're quite a writer and thinker. i appreciate the way you stated this.

11:38 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

awwww {blushes}. thanks.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Ignatius Loyola said...

This is indeed very well put. Very broad-minded, fair, and civil.

I think if the Pope had been younger he'd have acted with a firmer hand against predatory priests. Just a feeling. He had been so compromised by sickness and what I'm sure was the gaining in power of those around him during his illness that it was pretty much impossible to do anything remotely innovative.

Make no mistake, there are some pretty retrograde types running around in cassocks over there. (This is your point about bureaucracy, Moon.) So to the extent that he was helpless to reign in this massive and reactionary bureaucracy during his declining years, then he can be let off the hook.

Other than that, he probably was well aware of his failures. After all, this was a guy who told the College of Cardinals after his election to the papacy something about "God forgiving you for what you have done."

He was, all in all, a man. We won't look upon his kind again.

2:40 PM  

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