Tuesday, November 15, 2011

More on the Papacy of John Paul II

the Cardinals file into Saint Peter's Basilica in the
procession bringing the body of Pope John Paul to the
Basilica for the lying in State.
I have been thinking about John Paul and his papacy since I wrote the last entry. While I had seen Paul VI during my first visit to Rome several months before he died, and I have seen Pope Benedict  numerous times both as Cardinal Ratzinger and after his election as pope, John Paul was the only pope I have ever actually met.   He was a charismatic man and even though I was long critical of his papacy, I always found it tremendous—in the classic sense of that word—to be in his presence, sort of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans in his own right.  But as a historian I am troubled by his papacy.  I can’t say that he left the Church better than he found it. Of course, to make such an evaluation one has to first select the criteria by which the papacy should be evaluated and one simply cannot find a consensus on that subject these days. But that is precisely the problem.  I think in 1978 when John Paul acceded to the Chair of Peter it would have been possible for scholars—historians, theologians, sociologists,--to reach a consensus, at least sufficient consensus for a worthwhile discussion, on the qualities of a beneficial papacy.  (I want to avoid words like “good” that are too value weighted.  Good is balanced by bad.  There is no room for nuance. Between beneficial and detrimental there is a considerable middle ground.)   I think even the folks in the pews, or at least the more thoughtful and well read of them, could have had intelligent and worthwhile discussions on the pros and cons of a particular papacy.  Today I think the Church, like the larger society, is far too polarized for there to be significant communication among the various factions that call themselves “Catholics.”  That polarization may not be John Paul’s fault—in its entirety.  It certainly isn’t his fault—in its entirety.  But did he contribute to it?  Did he make dialogue obsolete by insisting on a one-way chain of communication?   He showed a remarkable friendliness to the larger world, but did he show an openness to other sources of insight?   I think—and the 20th century papacy is not my field of historical expertise—but I think that even Pius XII showed a respect for the opinions of the bishops of the world in making his pronouncements.  In fact, re-reading his encyclical letters such as Divino Afflante Spiritu, Mediator Dei, and Mystici Corporis I sense a tone of proposing doctrine to the Church rather than imposing it.  I should probably check the Latin text for subjunctives and not just rely on the English translations but I think John Paul actually envisioned a papal autocracy far stronger than pre-Vatican II Catholicism.  And I think he picked bishops, at least for here in the United States, that would fall like wheat before the wind to his authority rather than speak to him their thoughts and the faith of their flock.  The model seems to have been three hundred little gilt chairs in the Clementine Hall and John Paul would come in and tell the bishops what he had to say.  And then those bishops would come back to the States and come into a parish hall with three hundred aluminum chairs and tell their priests what he, the bishop, had to say.  And then the priest would get up in the pulpit and tell the people what he, the priest, had to say.  But this was where the wrinkle came into the process—on their way out of Church, or by a drop (or increase) in the weekly offering, or by dwindling attendance the people did talk back.  They had a voice to send their agreement or their disagreement.  But there was (is) no channel for the priest to bring the message back to the bishop, nor the bishop to the pope.  And so the voice goes nowhere.  The frustration of not being heard eventually disheartens, the sense of belonging fades.  What is worse is that one of the sources of revelation—the consensus fidelium—is bottled up with a stopper.  The system is broken and over the last forty years or so the “system” has gradually lost its force.  And all the Raymond Burkes and George Pells with their trailings of scarlet silk won’t bring it back.  And all the screaming harangues and pulpit pyrotechnics of the birettaed neo-con priests won’t put the toothpaste of moral authority back in the Catholic tube.   Don’t get me wrong—I am a historian, the Church will survive.  The papacy will survive—and flourish.  But the particular institutional model with which we have been familiar won’t.  It is already dead,  a hollow shell.  
The crowd was diverse but young
     One of the most interesting things about the papacy of John Paul II was the phenomenon of his funeral.   I was living in Rome at the time—and had been for several years.  The street I lived on was closed to traffic because the lines to enter the basilica to pay respects snaked past my door.  (I had a pass that enabled me to enter the Basilica through the sacristy and so I didn’t have to wait.)  The night he collapsed in his apartment I had been getting ready for bed—around eleven thirty in the evening—and one last check of the internet revealed that he had suffered a serious medical crisis.  I immediately got dressed and walked over to Saint Peter’s Square.  There were about a hundred people there at the time—and lots of police starting to set up barricades and get ready for the crowds that they knew would begin to gather at dawn when the word began to spread.  As I stood at the railing looking up at the windows of his apartment the man next to me pulled out a microphone/recorder and asked if he could interview me.  He did and then asked for my card.   The next morning I had a call from the BBC radio asking for a meeting and they brought me on as a commentator.  Before I knew it I was on all the major networks, radio and television, in the UK the US and Ireland.  One of the funniest stories was my sister-in-law was fixing dinner and said to my brother—“who’s your brother talking to in the family room?”  She heard the voice from the television and thought that I had come home unexpectedly and was in the next room talking with one of my nephews.  It was only when she started listening to what I was saying she realized I wasn’t there but on the television.  All this is prelude to sharing my impressions of the crowds.  It was a young crowd—I am sure that 70% of those lined up were under 30.  “Why did you come?”  I would ask and the people would say how much John Paul meant to them.  They would say how much they loved him.  They told me how much they admired him.   Now these were almost all Europeans—French, Germans, Italians, Poles, English, Irish, Scots—Canadians, and Americans.  They were there in their jeans and their halter tops or their t-shirts and they were chatting away and exchanging emails and phone numbers and taking each other’s pictures.  And I am sure that they did love John Paul and admired him.  Despite their very casual dress and buoyant attitude there was nothing disrespectful.  They had, most of them I am sure, interrupted trips to various parts of Europe to converge on Rome for this massive event.  They were orderly, if not well dressed.  They would break into prayer or religious songs as well as chatter and picture-taking.  “But,” I asked myself, “while they have come out of admiration for this man like an old uncle or grandfather—do you think they take him seriously about birth-control? Or homosexuality?  Or pre-marital sex?  Or even about the legal status of abortion?” 
     John Paul left a very different Church than he found.  The brief pontificate of John Paul I aside—it is only a blip in history—the Church itself had seemed old and discouraged with the final years of Paul VI.  John Paul was just as old by the time he died and yet he left a Church that cherished him as an old man.  But while the Church cherished him personally, did he have the same moral authority as had his predecessors?   For all his efforts to strengthen the papacy, I think it lost ground—and with it authority of the Church itself lost ground—in his pontificate.  I think his pontificate will be a significant marker in the historical evolution of the papacy.   

No comments:

Post a Comment