To many of us in the West, Pope John Paul II was an enigma. Was he the progressive critic of capitalism who strongly opposed the death penalty, who greeted Castro as a brother, and forcefully spoke out against the war in Iraq? Or was he the arch conservative who held the line against abortion, birth control, and the ordination of women? Never has the dichotomy been more evident than in the days since his death on Saturday. I've heard progressives, inspired by his work for peace and justice, infer that he was forced to take a hard line against abortion by the exigencies of church doctrine, while conservatives blithely ignore his staunch opposition to preemptive war and the dehumanizing effects of runaway capitalism. Both are wrong.
John Paul II was passionately pro-life, but unlike many who make that claim, the pope's advocacy was not limited to the unborn. It was a generous and all encompassing belief that extended to those who had committed great evil, but were never beyond the possibility of redemption, to suffering civilians and innocent young soldiers who die together in wars waged by distant power brokers. It was a mystical belief that held life so sacred that no sexual act which held the possibiltiy of creating it was ever meaningless or profane, no hour of suffering ever bereft of dignity and power. Indeed, one of the qualities most universally admired about this pope was the faith and patience with which he accepted his own great suffering. In John Paul II's worldview, everything that God ordained was for a purpose. A purpose that frequently exceeded human understanding and judgment.
If I were to say that I entirely understood or agreed with his vision of life, I would be disingenuous. But then, I am a citizen of the West, increasingly influenced by the highly technological, secular society in which I live. I have never known the poverty or oppression
that informed the radical heart of the Gospels. At honest moments, I wonder if the Christ who came for the poor and the dispossessed would recognize me as I sit in my comfortable home, replete with technological wonders. Or if I, glancing up from my computer screen, or hurriedly going about my business in the world, would know him.
Indeed, how much can we in the West, who have lost much of our connection with the earth, who increasingly assert dominion over everything around us, from the resources we despoil with abandon to the right to decide which lives are meaningful and which are not, even claim to understand the meaning of the word "life?" It is very clear that our wisdom has not kept pace with our technology.
In an editorial in today's New York Times (Op-Ed Contributor: The Price of Infallibility) Thomas Cahill cites the John Paul II's conservative policies for the declining attendance at many Catholic churches in the U.S. But the liberal churches, which have been most adaptive to societal changes, have experienced even steeper declines. In many ways, the response has been: Thanks for agreeing with us; now remind us again: why do we need you?
As a young man, Karol Wotyla intimately experienced what it meant when humans claimed dominion over life and death. Undoubtedly, the horrors of the Nazi regime and the soulless vision of Communism under which he lived informed everything he did and everything he wrote. He dedicated his papacy and his life to an all consuming fight against it. Knowing what occurred when life was devalued, he would exalt it to the highest level of sacredness. In his seminal work, The Gospel of Life, he ardently defends the values that were formed in the furnace of the second world war and its aftermath. Whether we agree with him or not, it is worth reading.
In a recent episode of Frontline on PBS, John Paul II's life was considered in a measured way.
It ended by humbly confronting the enigma that he represents, particularly to the West. Was his life a futile fight against modernity itself? Or was he the prophet of our time, whose warnings about the culture of death go unheeded at our peril?
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