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Honored Most By His Critics

sure, JP2 will be missed, but by those who disagreed with him the most

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, April 06, 2005.

There is a reassuring feel to Tolstoy’s short stories. One recalled with affection if not total accuracy concerned a monastery on some obscure island, and one day the bishop paid an obligatory visit, where he was greeted with great respect but little correct procedure. The Bishop was aghast at the way the monks prayed, and although they and everyone in their care seemed happy, the Bishop and his retinue spent time carefully instructing them, very dull knives indeed, in the proper trivia of correct prayer and service. The monks were overwhelmed and thanked the bishop and begged his forgiveness for their ignorance. Quite pleased with himself, the bishop started to sail away.

Almost immediately, the boat’s crew noticed a group of the monks running after them across the water. Catching the boat, they climbed aboard, apologized, and asked for clarification on some obscure point. The Bishop, knowing a slap upside the head from the Big Guy when he felt one, apologized to them, and said whatever they had been doing was correct and to forgive him his arrogance and, obviously, inferiority in the eyes of their god. Tolstoy wrestled with his faith a lot, but clearly, he had the priorities right, and felt the Orthodox, with relics and smoke pots, did not. So in the East.

In the West, there is a deep confusion, perhaps innocent like the monks’, perhaps not. This might explain why a recent poll of American Catholics said they wanted a new Pope just like John Paul II, only one who would clean up the College of Pedophiles, increase the priesthood by letting them marry, elevate the status of women, approve birth control, and crawl into the real world just a bit. That John Paul disapproved of most of that doesn’t seem to register. Not sharp knives, one supposes.

Catholics are in for a shock, or at least these American Catholics. Having a Pope for twenty-six years is extremely unusual, and few have the energy or charisma to attract much attention even from the devout. John Paul II took his name from his immediate predecessor, who lasted all of two months.

JP2 was unusually young when he became Pope, and a tough bird. He lived through Nazi occupation, and faced down the Soviets in Poland, plus survived a bullet wound. He was an athlete, an actor, a scholar and – may I? – clearly a man’s man in swagger and demeanor. Absent calling to the church, he would have succeeded at any number of careers. He was an actual learned scholar, and although I agreed with him little, I liked him.

He was genuinely conservative, almost reactionary, but he was just as clearly sincerely compassionate. Few bear the comparison. Most religious conservatives are dishonest. Either they are the sort of people who want to be told what to do, and have every aspect of daily routine pre-approved, and every degree of sin tabulated and payable by certain formula or exorcised by certain procedure, or they’re hypocrites and enjoy telling others what to do, hoping to surpass rivals real or imagined by superior if drone memorization of text and rules. By such standards, people who memorize baseball stats are great athletes. Trivial detail can intimidate others, and cover up one’s own deficiencies and hollowness at the core. That’s why I am hesitant to accept religious authorities as educated, much less experienced, at all.

Seeing photos of the old, old man, mouth opened and unsuccessfully trying a squawk out a final passage only last week, no doubt in great pain, was both awful and typical. This guy went down fighting, but declined to go to the hospital, declined to prolong to no point. This does not invalidate critics who point out that, among other things, he removed Cardinal Law of Boston to the Vatican, where that worthy is invulnerable to secular courts in this nation.

Americans are all now, Catholics and everyone, engaged in a debate over what is life, who can take life, who can live at the expense of others to no known point of enjoyment, and what authority governs such decisions. Governor Owens has vetoed a bill that would have required the dissemination of information on alternatives to people in need of it about birth control. In aggregate with pharmacists who don’t want to have to sell certain drugs or procedural kits that violate their beliefs, conservative religion is making a direct attack on the secular by also refusing information in an attempt at behavior modification in others. A modification that thousands of years have proven we are unable to accomplish, don’t actually want, and wouldn’t tolerate inflicted on us.

And while he would have been opposite the table from me, it would be nice to have someone you can trust on the other side like JP2. He will be missed longer by those who disagreed with him than by his successors, whose affection is for power alone.