It seems every time I’ve turned on the TV or radio since Saturday, it’s been round-the-clock hagiography of Pope John Paul II. In the midst of this unadulterated mass media worship, one of my favorite bloggers, Eliot Gelwan, remains skeptical:
“World mourns,” or something similar, most of the headlines say. Of course, I’m no Catholic, and I say this with all due respects to the feelings of my Catholic and other readers who may have felt in some sense that they have lost a spiritual leader of theirs. He was certainly a very pious man and probably a very nice person. But I’m sorry, I just cannot feel all that griefstricken about the death of the Pope. His greatness, such as it was, seemed to lie in having been some mixture of captive and facilitator of the reactionary ideology of a rapacious establishment that does little good for the world, in the process facilitating third world overpopulation and poverty, the epidemic spread of AIDS and unwanted pregnancy, and generally oppressing people on the basis of their gender, their sexual preferences and their level of susceptibility to guilt. I grieve for them; their funerals are far less lavish.
John Paul’s greatest papal role models were apparently a pope from the sixth century and nineteenth-century Pope Pius IX, who was disparaged by many as anti-Semitic but whom he beatified. It was during Pius’ reign that the Church had promulgated the doctrine of papal infallibility, which John Paul cherished. His conservative authoritarianism has polarized both the Church and the world’s view of Catholicism. He is celebrated for his inclusionism; he had to reach outside the Western world, where the Church’s grip is seriously eroded. He was the ‘rock star’ pope, a charismatic showman who did not so much embrace as seduce. He will be remembered for peddling the Church’s dogma by personal appearance, by travelling alot. You can’t blame a man for that; I wish my job involved more international travel. But it is not an achievement in itself, any more than there was any inherent heroism in being the first Polish Pope. Catholic intellectualism fared poorly indeed under this pope. He is credited with contributing to the downfall of Communism, which is quite a stretch in any sense other than that he came from a former Communist country. His greatest legacy, and it is a dubious one at that, may have been to hold the line against liberation theology. To put it simply, this was a papacy in which faith was stood to oppose both justice and thoughtfulness.
Especially because over ninety percent of the cardinals electing the next pope were appointed by him, he is likely to be succeeded by another who largely fits the very same mold, ad infinitum. The Catholic Church grows quickly bankrupt in the Western World. The next Pope, if not from the developing world himself (could the Church seriously entertain the idea of a non-white yet?) must be someone appealing to the heathens in the fertile Third World waiting to be converted and exploited for the continued sustenance and survival of the Church.
How much of a sober appraisal of the impact of Catholicism and the true significance of its leader for the latter quarter of the twentieth century, the only Pope half the world’s people have ever known, will we get in the orgiastic media frenzy covering his death?
I don’t know the validity of many of Eliot’s claims, but I appreciate that he bucks the status quo of the mindless media. As a non-Catholic Christian, Eliot’s concerns remind me that while I’m sure the pope tried to do good, he did so within the constraints of a fallen humanity.