Journal: News & Comment

Friday, April 08, 2005
# 2:06:00 PM:

Detonating the detonator

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A few days ago I wrote about the death of Pope John Paul II, calling him "the detonator," and contrasting that with a photo of him and a dove, the symbol of peace. My article was a bit mixed (though, I think, subtly so), like the disjoint between those metaphors.

Polly Toynbee in The Guardian is blunt in her assessment:

Curiously, the celebrity nature of [the papal funeral]—a must-do for 200 world leaders—signifies the opposite of what it seems. It shows how far people have forgotten what the church really is, how profoundly ignorant and indifferent they have become to history and theology. Hell, he was just a good ol' boy, wore white, blessed folk, prayed for peace—why not? [...]

The Vatican's deeper power is in its personal authority over 1.3 billion worshippers, which is strongest over the poorest, most helpless devotees. With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. [...]

But genuflecting before this corpse is scarcely different to parading past Lenin: they both put extreme ideology before human life and happiness, at unimaginable human cost.

So who was the Pope? A promoter of peace and tolerance, an opponent of tyranny, or one whose ideology helped foster death, promote intolerance, and maintain a tyranny of its own?

Both. He lived and preached his principles, which originated in a small corner of the Middle East thousands of years ago and accreted in Europe since medieval times—ages before effective birth control, before AIDS, before civil liberties or personal freedom even made sense as concepts.

He interpreted them in the context of his deep understanding of Catholicism and its philosophies; his experiences with Nazism, Communism, and later global capitalism; and his complete lack of any significant personal experience with sexuality—but regardless of whether those principles made sense in every application to the diversity and sprawl of the modern world. For him, like many, they are clearly God's rules, not for us to decide.

Humanity has its giants, and the Pope was one: his achievements span chasms, from good to bad.


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