by Victor Davis Hanson
Tribune Media Services
During the papal interregnum, divided Catholics await the new Holy Father to guide them in their third millennium, in which clergy in Roman-era headdresses send press releases via e-mail. Can conservatives save the Church by sticking to 20 decades of received tradition? Or will liberals energize an embattled global parish only by ending priestly celibacy or seeing condoms as a tool in stopping AIDS?
Yet the new pontiff, both his personality and ideas, will affect even those of us who are not Catholics.
The pope is not a CEO who serves at the pleasure of his board. Nor like a president or prime minister does he come up for periodic re-election. The pope in modern times is not often impeached like an errant judge to save the reputation of the judiciary. For better or worse, he is permanently indistinguishable from the Catholic Church—and with a billion followers, the idea of Catholicism, if not Christianity itself, waxes or wanes along with him.
A magnetic pontiff galvanizes the wavering. But a colorless bureaucrat or a right- or left-wing radical cannot only lose believers, but with in a few years literally could end the Church as we know it.
Critics of Catholicism may believe that, in a globalized world of 6 billion, a single old man in robes is irrelevant, but why then in 2005 did his death draw the largest funeral in recorded history?
John Paul II was a savvy leader in ways that transcended his personal magnetism and institutional authority. He stood by 2,000 years of tradition in not budging on abortion and gay marriage. That way he kept conservative Catholics in the fold who otherwise might have been puzzled by the pope’s adamant opposition to the armed removal of Saddam Hussein, capital punishment and Western consumerism.
Yet if liberals were chagrined that he would not even give in on sanctioning contraception, they appreciated his concern for global poverty, third-world debt relief and ecumenical bridge building.
Meanwhile, John Paul II’s masculine and sterling character helped get the Church through the priestly sex scandals that threatened to bankrupt many American parishes and drain the priesthood of recruits. So the stakes are high in an increasingly secular West to find a successor to a renaissance figure like Karol Wojtyla.
One mere individual matters far more than we imagine. After the embarrassing revelations about the ex-storm trooper Kurt Waldheim, the United Nations did not get restoration from a Pope John Paul II-like figure, but instead the likes of Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan. Both deeply flawed secretary-generals only reinforced the image of an irrelevant and corrupt bureaucracy. And were Prince Charles more like his mother than his aunt Margaret, the British monarchy would not now stand in such disrepute.
The pope is also not merely the head of the Catholic Church. Unlike even a Billy Graham, he is more internationalist and emblematic of the West itself, given the Church’s numbers and institutions that go all the way back to our civilization’s adolescence during the Roman Empire. Latin, the architecture of the cathedral, neo-Platonism, 2,000 years of European intellectual and political history—all that and more are embedded in the Church.
The current crisis in Western culture is not over the famine or pestilence of the past but the boredom of an affluent and leisured populace—at once yearning for transcendence beyond its rich but ultimately unsatisfying material world, and yet so skeptical of anything not explicable by pure Reason, the source of all its worldly pleasures. An inspiring pontiff challenges modern Western man to rethink that the world is only what he can see or hear; an irrelevant pope confirms cynics’ smugness that religion is an unnecessary and superstitious creed.
Europe, the ancestral home of the papacy and the cradle of Western civilization, has also engendered the worst ideas of the 20th century, from fascism and Nazism to Marxism and communism. Currently, it faces a demographic crisis, unassimilated Islamicist minorities and lavish entitlements that will soon prove unsustainable.
A strong pope—as in the case of John Paul II, who boldly opposed Soviet totalitarianism—can provide a bulwark for an agnostic European culture at large increasingly adrift. A caretaker pontiff will only worsen the continent’s disturbing lack of confidence in its own origins and once hallowed values.
Apart from his political skills, language fluency and vitality, the pope was a man of letters who still believed in what he could not prove by physical evidence. Thus he reminded all of us that reason and faith are not incompatible but are symbiotic and were always at the heart of our very culture.
So John Paul II was a powerful reminder that intellectuals can pray, while churchgoers should cultivate the mind. And at this late age, at this troubled time, he was thus a rare gift out of the long past to a now increasingly uncertain West.
Atque in perpetuum, pater, ave atque vale.
©2005 Victor Davis Hanson