Irrational Enquiry

Did Pope John Paul II get what he wanted?


Just seven days earlier he had opened his morning newspaper on the headlines announcing the Russian-German alliance. News that shook the politicians and young poets of a dozen capital cities brought deep peace to one English heart… The German Nazis he knew to be mad and bad. Their participation dishonoured the cause of Spain, but the troubles of Bohemia, the year before, left him quite indifferent. When Prague fell, he knew that war was inevitable. He expected his country to go to war in a panic, for the wrong reasons or for no reason at all, with the wrong allies, in pitiful weakness. But now, splendidly, everything had become clear. The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.

That's Guy Crouchback, an English Catholic from a declining landed family, at the start of Sword of Honour, Evelyn Waugh's great World War II trilogy. For Crouchback (and presumably Waugh himself), the battle lines as drawn from 1939 until June of 1941 offer blissful clarity: godless modernity ranged against the reawakened traditions of the West. His thwarted desire for an uncomplicated fight against the twentieth century's blistering errors, a fight in which liberals, aristocrats, and men of faith find common ground and discarded institutions are renewed, gives the books their poignancy. Midway through the series, after Crouchback has encountered unpatriotic and pro-Axis priests, gotten tagged as a potential Fascist sympathizer, been unfairly disgraced in a mission where his own behavior was heroic, endured various sexual humiliations, and finally escaped the disastrous evacuation of Crete in an open boat, he discovers that the Soviet Union has improbably become Britain's most important ally. His entire reason for joining up has vanished; from here the story reveals secular liberals and outright communists ascending to influential ranks in the English army, and winds up with a shameful episode in Croatia where the hero's solemn gesture at a wartime good deed backfires tragically. Offstage, godless fascism has been knocked out, but front and center, godless leftism is rising. It's a rare view of the Second World War as a gigantic exercise in futility.

Coverage of Pope John Paul II's death understandably focused on the old pope's role in bringing down the Soviet Union, but I wonder if in his final passion, Karol Wojtyla didn't feel a little like Guy Crouchback. Having put his faith into the struggle against the greater evil of communism, he emerged into a world governed by the culture of death and the logic of the market, where people are aborted, euthanized, cloned, and starved to death for the convenience of the living, where Catholics largely ignore their church's teachings in the bedroom and the voting booth, the priesthood is a disgraced profession, and men, in St. Paul's memorable phrase, have left the natural uses of women and burn in their lust one toward another. From the pope's standpoint, the years since 1978 have not been an uncomplicated triumph but a draining, ambiguous effort that served the interests mainly of secular sybarites. Worst of all, these same worldly secularists now claim the pope as one of their own, invoking his victories as something we can all share.

News events like this one reopen the question of whether the media are too contemptuous in their coverage of religion or too reverential. I'd take a third position: The media don't hate religion or love it; they patronize it. You could see that in the long hours of the deathwatch, as the news channels ground through their A, B, and C lists of commentators and worked their way past the M, N, and O lists of folks who may once have been on the same continent as the Pope; virtually none of these people ventured beyond the same talking points about the man's blinding charisma, the thrill of meeting the pontiff in the flesh, and so on. A wonderfully arcane and medieval spectacle, the most dramatic death of a monarch the new century has seen (or, given the ailing Prince Rainier's quieter throes, is likely to see), became just another tastefully handled celebrity news story. (Christopher Hitchens, whose papal takedowns are always a breath of fresh air at moments like these, barely registered with a tirade about the Vatican's continued harboring of Cardinal Law; it's a legitimate complaint, but somehow too minor for the moment.) Only on the Fox News Channel, which takes the institution seriously enough to ask the odd impertinent question, did the rule of respectful elision sometimes break down: My favorite moment was a bemused discussion of the tradition of thumping the pope on the head with a hammer, to make sure he's really dead.

This last tradition, thankfully, appears to have been discarded, and it is a mark of the progress made in John Paul's papacy that his death took place in a remarkably open and accessible atmosphere. Paul VI and John Paul I, by comparison, died in a Brezhnevian haze of obfuscation, mixed signals, and a lingering sense that the leader may have been dead for weeks before we actually knew about it. Still, the impression that Rome's ways are not our ways was hard to shake. By the time the Pope's body was lain in state in what can only be described as a Father Christmas robe, you had to wonder what kind of saltpeter the anchormen take to keep their faces straight. Had the defunct leader of some obscure religion in Bhutan or upstate New York been presented to us in this way, he would have been the day's lead item in News of the Weird.

The spirit of non-questioning condescension extended to larger matters. Most observers have been content to make polite observations about the late pope's vigorous witnessing and leave alone the matter of how unwell his church is around the world. AP's Rachel Zoll notes that the American church is sickly, but this is a misleadingly small part of the story. A favorite fiction spun by the church's defenders holds that only the fat and smug sensualists of the developed world are abandoning Roman Catholicism. In fact, the Catholic Church is withering even in former strongholds like Latin America, where evangelical churches are poaching members at a rapid clip. Sub-Saharan Africa is now said to be the church's real growth engine, and considering the alternative I hope that's true, but with the example of Rwanda before us, this sounds like wishful thinking.

Press incuriosity included even the one area where the pope's role is neither exaggerated nor ambiguous—his motivation of Poland's population to oppose their Soviet occupiers. The significance of the Vatican's support to the Solidarity labor movement has always been subject to debate, and will be again in the next few weeks, but among the people who actually participated, the issue is long settled. Lech Walesa spoke of the movement from the beginning in religious terms, and reiterated the Pope's importance in his kind words last week. In his book Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II, Jonathan Kwitny goes further, positing the Vatican as Solidarity's most important source of support at a time when Washington policy poobahs were barely aware of the movement's significance. To diminish John Paul II's anti-communist credentials at this point is pure cant.

But just what does it mean when press reports say the pontiff's "great faith" (understood by Americans as a loose combination of self-confidence and trust that a benevolent deity is paying attention) allowed him to stand up to the Kremlin? In the event, John Paul II was a firm believer in the hoary anti-Soviet prophecies of Our Lady of Fatima and attached great numerological significance to the fact that the attempt on his life took place on the anniversary of the Virgin's appearance in an obscure Portuguese village. It's one thing to note that the pope felt the Virgin Mary aided him in his hour of need, another to consider that his political crusade was bound up in the apocalyptic history of Marian anti-communism and may have been closer in spirit to Hal Lindsey or L. Ron Hubbard than to George F. Kennan.

Media reticence on these matters—and for that matter on the pope's opposition to capitalism and the Enlightenment, his failure to address the clerical sexual abuse issue in any serious way, his incomprehension of the way priestly vocations have almost disappeared, and a host of other issues—indicates more than just a desire to speak well of the deceased. The power positions in the media (and in fact in most of the country's institutions) belong to secularists, rationalists. These people are not necessarily indifferent to religious belief; they just aren't equipped to deal in the non-rational, unscientific, non-empirical (or more often, selectively empirical) interests of religious believers. The things that are of vital, world-beating importance to people of faith are items that the average media personality (or pundit or politically motivated blogger) is incapable of treating except in the tones TV meteorologists employ while tracking Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve.

Is one of these two sides right and the other wrong? In the smart media, and certainly at this publication, it's popular to lament the powerful irrationality of the faithful, and note that faith in miracles and dispensations is a constantly losing battle against facts and logic. Against that, I'd only say that I would not want my country defended by an army of rationalists, nor would I like to live in a society governed to the specifications of social scientists (even libertarian social scientists), nor do I think the head of UNICEF or a Harvard president or two former Beatles would have been as effective in opposing the Jaruzelski regime as was John Paul II.

There's something of a bait and switch at work here. We're happy to let the religious put bodies on the line against colossal enemies or provide the charity work a secular state can't handle, but we're so stingy we won't even let them mount a City Hall nativity scene or a courthouse display of the Ten Commandments. There are legally sound reasons for that stinginess, but legal soundness is not the only ingredient in a successful culture or country. Without the irrational energies of religious believers, the Russians would still be in Afghanistan and Poland, and separate but equal would still be the law of the South.

It shouldn't be surprising that religious believers sometimes feel they're getting less than a full return on their investment, or that that feeling occasionally boils up in strange resentments. The recent writings of the late pope, in which he inveighs against secular notions of progress and seems to contend that Voltaire had a hand in the Katyn forest massacre, are a relatively harmless species of that resentment. But then nobody gets all the results they want. However murky his motivations may have been, John Paul II left Europe a better place than he found it. That alone is reason to be grateful as he ascends either to a Heaven with Mary and all the angels and saints, or (if he was backing the wrong horse all along) to a Paradise with 72 virgins.