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Pope on a slope
The Roman Catholic papacy has lost its moral authority. Will the Church of England and its new leader, Rowan Williams, take over as the voice of Christendom?

THE TWO IMAGES appeared within hours of each other on television. First there was Pope John Paul II, frail and ill, trembling with Parkinson’s disease as he slowly made his way down the steep steps of his airplane, which had just landed in Toronto for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Youth Day — a celebration he inaugurated in the mid 1980s that he almost always attends. In shocking contrast, viewers were then treated to clips of Rowan Williams, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. With shaggy white hair and a slightly unkempt beard, he looks, at 52, like an aging hippie, despite his neat black suit and clerical collar. Indeed, he refers to himself as an old "peacenik" and is not afraid to voice extraordinarily liberal views on everything from homosexuality to the Bush administration’s apparent plans to bomb Iraq.

But the differences between these two religious leaders do not simply come under the headings of conservative and liberal, old and young, Roman Catholic and Anglican. Rather, their contrasts point in two opposite directions: the past and the future. The enormous chasm between them — unmistakable not only in their physical presences, but also in their views of the world — may very well capture a unique historical moment: the twilight of the political and moral importance of the modern papacy, shadowed by the rise of a new, vibrant, and more compelling voice of Christian moral counsel for our times.

AS THE PONTIFICATE of John Paul II draws to a close, it is becoming increasingly clear that this pope — despite his extensive world travel, his shrewd use of new communications technologies, and his penchant for speaking out boldly on certain issues — is presiding over the waning years of the Roman Catholic Church’s influence and power. It isn’t his fault — although, God knows, he hasn’t helped the situation much — for the power of the Vatican has been in serious decline at least since the second half of the 19th century. At that time, when faced with democracy and a new wave of learning and scientific discovery, the papacy executed a frenzied retreat from modernity, what you might call a Counter Enlightenment. And John Paul II has continued in that tradition.

Under the guidance of Pope Pius IX (1846-’78) — who was "emotionally unstable" and "evinced the symptoms of a psychopath, according to Catholic theologian and historian Hans Kung — the Vatican became increasingly insular and reactionary. Democracy was viewed with deep suspicion, and freedom of religion was outright condemned. More and more books — by Hugo, Dumas, Zola, Flaubert — were added to the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of books Catholics were forbidden to read. When moderate and liberal clergy complained about dubious theological and political statements made by Pius IX, the pope cleverly pushed through the Doctrine of Papal Infallibility at a time when a recently convened Vatican Council was half-empty. As though mocking this show of arrogance, two months later the Risorgimento (unification of Italy) brought an end to the Papal States, and thus to the pope’s temporal power base. None of these rapid changes stopped the papacy from retreating, turtle-like, into its own increasingly empty shell. The Church’s moral authority reached a breaking point — active, dire, and irreversible — when Pope Pius XII (1939-’58) failed to speak out clearly against the Holocaust.

Since 1945, the Vatican has made one serious misstep after another. It has been consistently hostile to almost all forms of contemporary modern art and culture. In 1968, Pope Paul VI capitulated to the Church’s right wing when he reaffirmed (against enormous pressure from many theologians) the stand against birth control. The Vatican has blocked research in its archives on the Church’s actions during the Holocaust, and it has dangerously, and disingenuously, backtracked in its well-publicized renouncement of its anti-Semitic history. The list goes on.

As a result, the papacy no longer exerts the moral or temporal leadership it did only 50 years ago. Sure, the Vatican has done some serious spin control. One of the most widely accepted PR jobs is that the current pope was instrumental to the fall of Communism and Soviet Russia. But this is a false claim. By the mid 1980s, Communism was in such a state of semi-collapse that its demise was inevitable; since he was elected only in 1978, John Paul II had little time to affect events one way or the other. No, the fact is that the Roman Catholic Church has simply lost ground — not least because of the Vatican’s intransigent pig-headedness. Evangelical Protestantism, for example, is wildly spreading throughout Latin America — historically one of the Church’s strongholds — at least in part because of John Paul II’s hostility to the economic changes promoted by liberation theologians popular among Catholics in that region. Most Latin-American Catholics also reject the Church’s stand on birth control and, increasingly, abortion as well. Since the pope has not wavered from his conservative stands against homosexual behavior, gay rights, birth control, abortion, divorce, and pre-marital sex, he has simply lost these battles all over the world. Hardly anyone listens to him or obeys the Church’s teachings anymore — not even those who consider themselves Catholics in good faith.

The pope and the Roman Catholic Church simply are not up to the challenge of moral leadership in an increasingly complex and complicated world. One need look no further than Rome’s statements on the current clergy sex-abuse scandals. After avoiding the issue as long as it could, the Vatican called the US bishops to Rome for what turned out to be a quick PR job. It then issued a press statement pitting canon law against US civil law — clearly a sign of Vatican officials’ complete unwillingness to grapple seriously with the modern world.

Finally, at World Youth Day, the pope — after simply ignoring an issue that, to say the least, had great implications for his young audience — made the following earth-shattering statement: that the scandals brought sadness to the Church and that people should not forget how many good priests there are. Sure, the crowds in Toronto went wild for the pope, showering him with cheers and tears. But as the New York Times noted in its headline of the story, for many, pope’s frailties now define papacy. And let’s face it, being defined by one’s frailties in show business, politics, or even religion might get sympathy, but it is no way to move into the future.

Of course, Pope John Paul II never had any intention of moving into the future; rather, he has done everything in his power to continue the Counter Enlightenment launched by Pope Pius IX. Not surprisingly, his pontificate has done much to counteract the spirit, and sometimes the letter, of Vatican II’s liberal reforms. He has refused to allow open discussion of theology or to foster debate on issues of ethics and morality, and he has consistently threatened any Catholic theologian who has dared voice a dissenting opinion. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church has abdicated its responsibility to speak knowledgably on a huge range of contemporary topics, including new reproductive technologies, cloning, embryology, and birth control, as well as a myriad of other complex issues. But hey, that’s no big surprise: the Church is so profoundly clueless about feminism that it still insists — and expects its argument to be taken seriously — that women can’t become priests because Jesus and the apostles were men.

None of this means that the papacy will completely fall apart, or that the Roman Catholic Church will come to an end, or that people will stop being Catholic or lose their deeply felt faith. Nor does it mean that all the Church’s basic beliefs are wrong. Indeed, its positions on war, the death penalty, social welfare, caring for the economically disadvantaged, and treating the poor with basic respect highlight the intense inhumanity of most of the policies of the Bush administration. But it does mean that to a very large degree, the papacy has lost its premier moral standing in the world.

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Issue Date: August 1 - 8, 2002
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