Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More Reflections on John Paul II's Canonization: The Cult of Personality

I’m grateful to the many good readers who logged in yesterday to respond to my reflections about the movement to canonize John Paul II subito. In particular, I’m struck by the number of you who noted something to which I hadn’t given any attention in my statement of dissent—the personality cult that JPII built around himself as pope.

Fran speaks of JPII’s “rockstar status,” and Joseph O’Leary of “the disgusting cult of personality that John Paul II encouraged to the great detriment of the Church.” For Terry Weldon, the “personality cult” that developed around JPII was problematic and destructive to the church. Colleen states that “JPII turned Roman Catholicism into one big personality cult focused on himself and his pronouncements.”

This is clearly a strong theme that deserves further attention, and which should be engaged, I would hope, by those now pushing the canonization of John Paul II forward quickly. And I agree with the critique, as I think about it. I see several facets to this critique that, in my view, deserve further exploration.

As I noted in a posting back in February, I’ve long been struck by parallels between JPII and Ronald Reagan, and the way that the neoconservative movement, which was in the ascendancy when they both came to world prominence, and which lionized both men, sought to turn both into glamorous icons of the new right. As many commentators have noted, both Reagan and JPII were actors par excellence. (By speaking of their willingness to act par excellence, I'm speaking of their intent to act, rather than commenting on the quality of their execution as actors.) Both knew how to work a crowd, buss a baby, turn a phrase.

Both were well aware of their charm and charisma, and both used their charm and charisma shamelessly to promote the causes in which they believed. In the Catholic church, this trust in charismatic charm to carry the day led JPII, I believe, to place unfounded hope in the ability of the world youth day event he instituted to reach a generation of Catholic youth who are quickly moving away from the church.

I suspect that the only youth being reached by this glitzy, pastorally ambiguous yearly media circus are true believers who would be fans of the papacy regardless. The members of the next generation who need to be reached by the church, those walking away fast and furious because 1) the church is not even attempting to meet their serious intellectual needs, and 2) the moral example the church’s pastors have given in the abuse crisis is atrocious—these folks, the world youth day events will never reach. No matter how much money the Catholic church keeps shelling out on these media circuses.

I think the media analysis of JPII, and what it implies for the kind of church he sought to build, deserves attention for another reason, too. Image-making is obviously important to any organization that hopes to succeed in our image-driven contemporary world. But when image-making takes precedence over the substance to which images ought to point, if images are not to be lies, something begins to be seriously awry with an organization. Particularly with an organization that claims to have a moral center . . . .

One of the primary ways in which organizations market themselves successfully in a capitalistic economy is by encouraging us to react to images and forget about substance. React, don't think. Buy, rather than asking questions. In my view, there was such strong emphasis on image-making in the JPII papacy, that many of us were mesmerized by the façade and forgot to think about what was underneath the façade.

One of the images the JPII papacy sought to market with alacrity was the image of the manly-man priest. The heavy, and at times ludicrous, emphasis on this image in JPII’s papacy reflected, it seemed to me, the growing insecurity of church leaders about the public image of the church as abuse revelations began to break during JPII’s papacy.

The more these revelations broke, the stronger the macho-priest images became, the more they poured forth from the right-leaning Catholic media machine: Franciscan priests in traditional habits lobbing footballs, sleeves rolled up, to show us that real priests are real men and real men can become real priests, etc. I doubt that anyone with much of a brain was convinced by these images. Those who gave thought to these images and the psychological needs that lay beneath their dominance in the JPII papacy were surely struck, as I was struck, by the almost pathological need from the center of the church to lift machismo up as the answer to the abuse crisis, and, in doing so, to suggest that the abuse crisis was all about the growing lavender mafia in the priesthood.

And all this image-making deliberately and quite self-reflectively drew on the iconography of JPII, whose macho personality cult the mainstream media began to massage as soon as he was elected: JPII the skier, the manly man who climbed mountains and engaged in rugged sports, the man about whom there was not the slightest whisper of effeminacy or homosexual weakness. All this was clearly seen as a corrective to some strong subliminal message of weakness right-wing Catholics believed Paul VI and John Paul I had communicated.

It’s interesting that this particular part of the papal personality cult did not survive the papacy of JPII. Benedict, and the new concern with cappae magnae and lace, present something of a challenge for those who want priests to be manly men, I suspect, and so we now hear less than we did a few years ago about manly priests and their redemptive role in healing the wounds of a church taken over by priests who are not bona fide men.

At a deeper level, the media representation of JPII—the deliberate choice JPII made as pope to lend the papacy to a media-driven cult of personality—troubles me tremendously because of what it communicates (to me, at least) about a hard-nosed market-driven decision the Catholic church seems to have made during the papacies of JPII and Benedict. I’ve alluded to that market-driven decision by noting that, in my view, the Catholic church is working very hard at an official level today to rebrand itself as the preeminently anti-gay religious institution in the Western world.

In market terms, I see the Catholic church making a rather hard-nosed decision simply to write off most Catholics in the developed sectors of the world, in order to court Catholics in developing parts of the world whose embrace of modernity is, church leaders believe, less ardent than the West’s embrace of modernity. Underlying this market move is a theological penchant for pre-modern social norms and pre-modern social institutions. JPII and Benedict are both anti-modern thinkers, in key respects. The critique of modernity in the last two papacies is, in key respects, not so much a commitment to engage a very ambiguous set of ideas and institutions dialogically, salvaging what is valuable in that set of ideas and institutions while challenging what is dross.

It is, instead, a wholesale rejection of modernity (even as both popes, like their evangelical counterparts, accept some aspects of modernity altogether uncritically). Following in JPII’s footsteps, Benedict would very much like to turn the clock back to pre-modernity in some key areas, and he is willing to risk the church’s future on the wager that this market hunch—the hunch to trust the repudiation of modernity by developing nations rather than the embrace of modernity by the developed world—will pay off in the long run, even if it means the short-term sacrifice of millions of believers in the Western world.

As I’ve thought about this move on the part of JPII and Benedict, what strikes me more and more is the strong, almost cynical faith of the religious right at this point in history in the ability of its market-driven images to carry the day for the future. Built into the alliance of some Catholic leaders with many evangelical leaders represented most recently by the Manhattan Declaration is a belief that Christianity vindicates itself by showing that it can win.

The religious right increasingly seems to me blatantly concerned with numbers, with being on the winning side, with having dollars on its side. The religious right seems to me increasingly blatant about using the wealth provided to it by its powerful allies to win political battles (e.g., the battle against same-sex marriage) by buying votes rather than by appealing to conscience. And by disseminating poisonous media images everywhere possible to keep hateful stereotypes alive. And by coercion and the enforcement of parochial religious views in the political arena, where moral example and reasoned appeal to moral positions have failed to convince.

Underneath all of this—the way the Manhattan Declaration immediately began to count and crow about the numbers of those who logged in to support the Declaration—there seems to be a rather frank avowal that what counts more than anything else in the worldview of many Christians of the right today is success. Power. Having a bigger market share than one's perceived enemies.

The religious empire our brothers and sisters of the right are trying to build today is, in many ways, a mirror image of the market-driven system of capitalism with which it is deeply interwoven, even as the leaders of the religious right claim to reject modernity with a vengeance. It is to a tremendous extent image-driven, with little substance to match the image it seeks to project.

In my view, JPII had a great deal to do with pushing the Catholic church in this direction, and this is, indeed, another reason I find it impossible to support the drive to have JPII canonized immediately. The generation of bishops JPII and his right-hand man Ratzinger have empowered are among the least intellectually astute, the least pastorally sensitive, bishops the Catholic church has seen in a very long time. In the U.S., many of the JPII bishops are frankly allied with neoconservative political leaders and all that those leaders represent economically.

Many of the bishops now serving the American Catholic church are far more at home in corporate board rooms than they are with the least among their flock. As their atrocious response to the abuse crisis has demonstrated over and over, their ears are tuned to the voices of the powerful, not to the least among us.

The Catholic church is in serious trouble, and its future in the West is endangered, due to the indefensible choices JPII and Ratzinger-Benedict have made in the area of episcopal appointments. While the image is clean and, to the minds of a select few, compelling, fewer and fewer people are buying—not now that the veil has been lifted and we see the actual substance behind the image.

And all of this was, to a great extent, crafted by the man powerful political forces now want to canonize immediately . . . .