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Seen but not heard
By standing in opposition to modernity, the pope made himself an irrelevant — if beloved — figure in the West

IF POPE JOHN PAUL II could be said to have a conflicted relationship with modernity, then modernity had a conflicted relationship with him, too. Consider, for example, this past Sunday’s New York Times. On page one, in an eight-page special section, and on the front of Week in Review, the pope was given a grand sendoff, replete with heroic photos and respectful, even rapturous, prose. POPE JOHN PAUL II, CHURCH SHEPHERD AND A CATALYST FOR WORLD CHANGE was the headline atop the obituary written by Robert D. McFadden, which filled five advertisement-free pages and ran to more than 13,000 words. McFadden did not ignore some of the less-than-stellar aspects of John Paul’s 26-year reign, such as the crackdown on liberation theology in Latin America, the contempt for lesbians and gay men, and above all the refusal to deal seriously with priests who rape. The emphasis, though, was more on the triumphant than the tawdry, and especially on the pope’s role in bringing about the end of Soviet-style communism — for which John Paul does, indeed, deserve the thanks of a grateful world.

But even a pope has his place. So it was instructive to turn to the front of the Times’ Sunday Styles section, which celebrated a very different sphere from that occupied by the pontiff. Dominating the page was a feature on Jonathan Adler, a well-known decorator and furniture designer who’s gay; he was photographed playfully leaning his head on the shoulder of his partner, Simon Doonan. Below that was a piece on The Hookup Handbook: A Single Girl’s Guide to Living It Up. (It turns out to be not quite the endorsement of promiscuity the title would suggest. But still.) There were no same-sex couples on the Weddings/Celebrations pages, but that makes this week’s section the exception, not the rule.

This juxtaposition of the otherworldly and the worldly, of the ethereal and the earthbound, was telling. John Paul’s message, however resonant it may be in certain circles — among ultraconservative Catholics, across the traditionalist Third World, or within the corridors of the Vatican — was almost entirely irrelevant in the Western culture that produced him, and that he railed against for the entire length of his 26-year papacy. The person was hailed; the message was ignored. And how could it be otherwise? In the United States, Europe, and other enlightened precincts struggling to reach a more complete understanding of what it means to be fully human, the man born Karol Wojtyla sounded a consistent cry against all that — against birth control (the surest way to reduce the number of abortions, which of course he also opposed), against homosexuality, against stem-cell research, and against married priests and the full equality of women within his own church.

"He could be called the Pope who won the world but lost the West," wrote Barney Zwartz last week in the Age, of Melbourne, Australia. Or as James Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist, author, and former priest, put it in a 1999 Frontline documentary on John Paul, rebroadcast this past Saturday: "Well, the man is nothing but contradictions. He’s the most political pope in modern history, but he won’t allow priests to be in politics. He is the great protector of the Church, yet seems blind to the way the priest sex-abuse scandal undermines the spiritual and financial health of the Church. He is broadly compassionate, yet seems more concerned with protecting the institution than with consoling the victims of priestly abuse or changing the clerical culture that made it possible. He is a defender of the marginalized and the oppressed, yet he is deaf to the voices of gay people, who want only justice. He is devoted to the blessed Virgin Mary. She’s at the center of his piety. But he’s suspicious of women as equals. He’s contemptuous of, especially, contemporary consumerist culture, and yet he’s the master of the consumerist media and has become a world celebrity because of it."

John Paul was a great man, a good man, and a deeply flawed man. The greatness will live on: the end of Stalinist totalitarianism, a vastly improved relationship with the Jewish community, and a renewed commitment on the part of the Catholic Church to social-justice issues, especially abolition of the death penalty. Unfortunately, so will the flaws. And that is acutely evident in Boston, which remains at the heart of the pedophile-priest scandal.

THE DYSPEPTIC British expat Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for Slate last Friday in which he accused the pope of harboring a fugitive from justice. Now, Hitchens once wrote an entire book — Missionary Position — dedicated to the proposition that Mother Teresa, of all people, was a loathsome old hag. With respect to John Paul, though, Hitchens got it exactly right. You may recall that Bernard Cardinal Law, who resigned as archbishop of Boston in late 2002 amid a sea of evidence that he had covered up and facilitated the misdeeds of his pedophile priests, is now safely ensconced in the Vatican. If Law were to show his face in Boston, and if the civil authorities here had any guts, he would be subject to arrest and prosecution. As it is, Law will get to vote on who the next pope will be.

This past Sunday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, host Tim Russert (who all but declared his own candidacy for the papacy) asked Illinois appellate court judge Anne Burke, who’d served on a Church-appointed review board, to assess the pope’s response to the crisis. "Well, I’d have to give him an A-plus," she chirped. No doubt Cardinal Law would give Il Papa high marks as well. But it’s not borne out by the evidence. Indeed, when the US bishops attempted to deal with the problem by announcing a tough new zero-tolerance policy, the Vatican itself intervened, ordering that it be toned down so that some priests could have another chance.

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Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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