Saturday, December 11, 2010

Another Blast from the Past: Reflections on the Legacy of John Paul II, Superstar

Another blast from the past.  This journal entry is one I wrote on 13 April 2005, following the death of John Paul II and in the midst of the deliberations about the pope to succeed him.  It's one that seems to me still pertinent: 

Encounter at newspaper kiosk: I want to buy the issue of Newsweek commemorating John Paul II.  My friend Ralph has told me it has articles about his suppression of theologians:

Kiosk lady: Whatcha lookin for, hon?

Me: The issue of Newsweek commemorating the pope after his death.  But (pointing to the issue on the newsstand) I'm not sure it's this or the next issue.

Kiosk lady: What's the article about?

Me: Well, an assessment of his legacy.

Kiosk lady: Yeah, they're saying he cured that guy of cancer.

Me: Uh, huh.  But the article I'm looking for is about his effect on theologians.

Kiosk lady: Blank look.

What does it mean, in this age of mass media and image manipulation, to be made a saint?  JPII and the circle around him used the media more adroitly than any other pope throughout history.  Already there are cries for his canonization--for the church to bypass its five-year rule and make him an instant saint.

It will happen, by hook or by crook.  The curial leaders need a saint now--desperately so.  The Catholic right does--its carefully tailored, carefully sanitized view of JPII that purges from his moral witness any of his numerous references to the evils of capital punishment and rapacious unfettered capitalism.  Mater si, magistra no.

Today's paper has an essay about a recent meeting of Christian-right bigwigs that included Ms. Schlafly.  One of those in attendance quoted Stalin with approval re: Justice Kennedy, who's now the target of right-wing ire for casting the swing vote on "their" issues on the Supreme Court.  Stalin once said, vis-a-vis an opponent, "No man, no problem."  The context of the quote clearly indicates that Stalin was referring to an actual purge, an execution of his critic.

This gathering of the Christian right went on record fiercely opposed to making adolescents immune from the death penalty.  In the name of protesting a culture of death, the Christian right is deeply invested in death--the death of its enemies.

The attack on the judiciary has deep symbolic import for the future of the American democratic system and of American culture.  That system was set up with checks and balances in which an independent judiciary plays a key role.  Judges are supposed to be above special interest.  They are supposed to be immune to being bought.

Unlike elected officials, who are susceptible to pressure from the electorate they represent, judges are supposed to apply legal principles fairly, impartially, even when those principles are unpopular or inconvenient even for the judge to follow.

Abolishing an independent judiciary and compelling judges to adhere to religious orthodoxy oaths would turn American into a theocracy.  This is what the religious right wants, and, as with any fascist movement, when it cannot attain control by fair means, by democratic process, it's willing to remove the velvet glove and reveal the iron fist.

Segue to Rome and the canonization of JPII: throughout the reign of JPII, we witnessed a clumsy step-dance in which church leaders alternately cozened the masses with bread-and-circus imagery, and took off the velvet glove to show the iron fist.  Fascism intertwined with the soul of Catholicism.  It has always been a welcome guest at the table of Catholic leaders--the sometimes errant relation who is nevertheless always welcomed with open arms, when he shows up again at the door, home from his travels.

With socialism, it's not so, though he may with more justification claim to be the true heir of the Christian tradition.  He's the disreputable shirttail cousin the church claims not to recognize on the street.  But that's another story . . . .

The tremendous irony of the papal reign of JPII: in the name of defending tradition, he eviscerated key aspects of the tradition.  His was a fascist reign, one that can justifiably claim an authentic Catholic lineage (but as with fascism) one that betrays key principles of that lineage.

JPII made decisions by mere fiat.  Those close to him say that his decision-making style was not to read carefully composed documents providing him with detailed information about the nuances of difficult situations.  These he waved away . . . and went into the chapel to pray, emerging with a decision.  The decision.  His decision.  His decision as God's word.  His word as the exclusive word of God for the church.

JPII as John Paul Superstar: the media star who bussed babies and stopped to kiss the ground of every country he visited was, in his secret chambers, a benign dictator.  Or perhaps not so benign.

When God spoke from the mouth of JPII, swords flashed forth--for some people.  Theologians felt the lash of his words: you may not discuss women's ordination; your show is over--go home.  Women felt the sting: accept your second-class citizenship in church and world; God (who speaks exclusively through men) so ordains it.

Gays and lesbians suffered under this man: you are intrinsically disordered; you represent an incomparable threat to the wholesomeness of Christian culture, because you are polluted and stinking of corruption.  The poor seeking better lives through political action in Latin American watched with dismay as one progressive bishop after another, who had dared to raise his voice against ruthless regimes as no poor person might raise his own voice, was replaced by bishops who regularly dined at the tables of dictators.  

And survivors of clerical abuse . . . !

The disconnect between who JPII in his actual practice of the faith as leader of the church and representative of Jesus in the world, and the media superstar image so carefully groomed by his advisors and the media, is astonishing.  One wonders why church leaders would even try, now.

Why the sudden push to canonize JPII?  At least two factors are at work, I suspect.  One is the deeply repressed awareness that the media circus will end.  There will inevitably be assessments--sober, honest ones--of this man's legacy, which point to his betrayal of key Catholic values.  In authentic Catholicism, no one is the exclusive voice of God.  God speaks throughout the community, often in those despised by the community. Bishops, who are church-leadership-on-the-ground, have a crucial role in discerning the Spirit throughout the church.  Their voices should count, too.  Canonizing JPII immediately would be a preemptive strike that would choke unsettling questions about his leadership style . . .  choke refractory and embarrassing conversation before it finds its feet.

The other impulse for JPII's immediate canonization is fascist.  Continuation of fascist control requires, well, more fascism.  It is in the nature of fascism to keep extending its control.  It cannot brook opposition: no man, no problem.

There is a possibility, with a new pope, that JPII's betrayal of key Catholic principles--collegiality, for instance--will be recognized and addressed.  If that occurs, what else will become apparent, once the JPII Superstar mask is removed?

What else lurks within the deepest recess of church leadership, that would prove extremely embarrassing if allowed to surface?  The abuse crisis is an indicator of what more remains to be recognized.  The choice to give Bernard Law a high profile in the ceremonies commemorating JPII was deliberate: it was a statement that, if Ratzinger and his cronies have their way, the fascist legacy will continue.

Those calling for exposure of the scary underbelly of the Roman church must be checked at all costs, many of those in the papal conclave will no doubt conclude.  What the whistle-blowers have the ability to reveal is too stark, too damning.  Now if ever, is the time to strike: the iron is hot.  It will cool eventually.  Already, secretive organizations seeking to thwart new revelations from the inside, heavily funded by well-heeled fascist Catholics, are cropping up.  They are modeled on other secretive fascist organizations.  Opus Bono Sacerdoti is one of them.  Ostensibly, this organization arose as a grassroots response of Catholic laity concerned about giving accused priests a fair hearing.  Its ability to garner immediate high-profile support in the church--Richard John Neuhaus, for instance--and to gain national media attention, says otherwise.

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