Following my conversation with Hugh Hewitt on the media's conclave coverage, I thought I'd dust off some similar observations I made at the time of the last change of Pope - the death of John Paul II. The passage about The New York Times is as timely as ever. What follows originally appeared in The Irish Times and The Daily Telegraph, and is adapted and anthologized in my book Mark Steyn's Passing Parade:
"How many divisions has the Pope?" sneered Stalin of Pius XII. Uncle Joe's successors lived long enough to find out. John Paul II's divisions were the Poles who filled the streets to cheer him on his return as pontiff to his homeland in the summer of 1979, and the brave men who founded the Solidarity union 18 months later, and began the chain of events that within a decade swept the Communists from power in Central and Eastern Europe and finally Mother Russia itself. One day we will know the precise combination of Bulgarian Secret Service, East German Stasi and Soviet KGB that lay behind the 1981 assassination attempt on the Holy Father. But you can see why they'd be willing to do it. By then the sclerotic Warsaw Pact understood just how many divisions this Pope had.
Twenty-six years ago, one young physics student summed up the hopes he and his compatriots had invested in that Papal visit in this simple declaration: "What I want to do is to live without being a liar." The Soviet Union and its vassals were an empire of lies, and, while you can mitigate (as many Poles and Russians did) the gulf between the official version and grim reality with bleak jokes, living an epic lie day in day out is corrosive of human dignity. That Polish physics student had identified instinctively what would be the great over-arching theme of John Paul II's papacy: to quote the title of his later encyclical, Veritatis Splendor â€“ the splendor of truth.
Der Spiegel this week published a selection from the creepy suck-up letters Gerhard SchrĹ‘der sent to the East German totalitarian leadership when he was a West German pol on the make back in the Eighties. As he wrote to Erich Honecker's deputy Egon Krenz, "I will certainly need the endurance you have wished me in this busy election year. But you will certainly also need great strength and good health for your People's Chamber election." The only difference being that on one side of the border the election result was not in doubt.
When a free man enjoying the blessings of a free society promotes an equivalence between real democracy and a sham, he's colluding in the great lie being perpetrated by the prison state. Too many western politicians of a generation ago â€“ Schmidt, Mitterand, Trudeau â€“ failed to see what John Paul saw so clearly. It requires tremendous will to cling to the splendor of truth when the default mode of the era is to blur and evade. And, when it came to veritatis splendor in the western world, the Pope had a tougher sell. If I were pontiff â€“ and no, don't worry, I'm not planning a mid-life career change â€“ but, if I were, I'd be a little irked at the secular media's inability to discuss religion except through the prism of its moral relativism. In an hilarious self-parody of the progressivist cocoon, on Saturday afternoon the New York Times website posted its obituary of John Paul II as follows:
Etc, etc, etc, detracting away all the way to the foot of the page. Given that the press had been dying for John Paul to die for days, to the point where many papers were running the Pope's-life-in-pictures specials while he was still alive, you'd think by the weekend the Times would have had the basics covered. But no. The pontiff's many "detractors" were all lined up and ready to go, but, despite over a billion Catholics in the world and millions of evangelical Protestants throughout America who also admire him, the paper somehow failed to notice till the last minute that they'd overlooked something - "NEED SOME QUOTE FROM SUPPORTER". That's as memorable a line as The New York Times will publish this year: they should nominate it for a Pulitzer. (Since they probably won't, the eagle-eyed chaps at the Powerline website who spotted it have preserved it for posterity.)
As for the "passion" of the Holy Father's "detractors", that had the soothing drone of bien pensant autopilot:
Shocking: a Pope who's opposed to abortion, homosexuality and contraception; what's the world coming to? The Guardian's assertion that Karol Wojtyla was "a doctrinaire, authoritarian pontiff" at least suggests the inflexible authoritarian derived his inflexibility from some ancient operating manual â€“ he was doctrinaire about his doctrine, dogmatic about his dogma â€“ unlike the Times and The Washington Post, which came close to implying that John Paul II had taken against abortion and gay marriage off the top of his head, principally to irk "liberal Catholics". But, either way, the assumption is always that there's some middle ground a less "doctrinaire" pope might have staked out: he might have supported abortion in the first trimester, say, or reciprocal partner benefits for gays in committed relationships.
The root of the Pope's thinking â€“ that there are eternal truths no-one can change even if he wanted to â€“ is completely incomprehensible to the progressivist mindset. There are no absolute truths, everything's in play, and by "consensus" all we're really arguing is the rate of concession to the inevitable: abortion's here to stay, gay marriage will be here any day now â€“ it's all gonna happen anyway, man, so why be the last squaresville daddy-o on the block? We live in a present-tense culture where novelty is its own virtue: The Guardian, for example, has already been touting the Nigerian Francis Arinze as "candidate for first black pope". This would be news to Pope St Victor, an African and pontiff from 189 to 199 AD. Among his legacies: the celebration of Easter on a Sunday.
That's not what The Guardian had in mind, of course: they meant "the first black pope since the death of Elvis" â€“ or however far back our societal memory now goes. Yet, if you hold an office first held by St Peter, you can say "been there, done that" about pretty much everything The Guardian throws your way. If your papacy is founded on veritatis splendor, all you can do when you seek consensus between truth and lies is tarnish that splendor. But to the modern secular sensibility truth has no splendor: certainly there is no eternal truth; instead, it's eternally up for grabs. Once upon a time we weren't cool about abortion: now we are. Soon we'll be cool about gay marriage. And a year or two down the line we'll be cool about something else that's currently verboten.
When Governor Jim McGreevey announced last year he was stepping down, he told the people of New Jersey: "My truth is that I am a gay American." That's a very contemporary formulation: "my" truth. To John Paul II, there was only "the" truth. To the moral relativists, everyone's entitled to his own â€“ or, as the Governor continued, "one has to look deeply into the mirror of one's soul and decide one's unique truth in the world." That sappy narcissism is what the New York Times boilerplate boils down to: "abortion, homosexuality and contraception" is an alternative Holy Trinity for the church of the self. Whatever one feels about any of those topics, they seem a bizarre prism through which to judge the most consequential Pope of the modern era, a man who unlike Pius XII was not swept along by the times but instead shaped them decisively. Given that "abortion, homosexuality and contraception" boil down to the prioritizing of sex as self-expression over everything else in the world, even as a criticism of Karol Wojtyla's papacy the charge is shriveled and reductive, reflecting mostly the parochialism of western secularism.
When the Holy Father created new cardinals in 2003, he held one name back, keeping it secret or in pectore â€“ "in the heart", the words used for a cardinal in a state where the church is persecuted. Which country is it? Some say China, the great growth area for Christianity. Think of that: a Chinese cardinal providing one of the 118 votes for John Paul's successor. Among liberal "Catholics" in Manhattan and Boston, the pontiff may be a reactionary misogynist homophobe condom-banner but, beyond those stunted horizons, he was a man fully engaged with the modern world and shrewder at reconciling it with the splendor of the eternal truth than most politicians. Western liberals claim the Pope's condom hang-ups have had tragic consequences in Aids-riddled Africa. The Dark Continent gets darker every year: millions are dying, male life expectancy is collapsing, and such civil infrastructure as there is seems likely to follow. But the most effective weapon against the disease has not been the Aids lobby's 20-year promotion of condom culture in Africa but Uganda's campaign to change behaviour and to emphasise abstinence and fidelity â€“ ie, the Pope's position. You don't have to be a Catholic or a "homophobe" to think that the spread of Aids is telling us something basic â€“ that nature is not sympathetic to sexual promiscuity. If it weren't Aids, it would be something else, as it has been for most of human history. What should be the Christian response? To accept that we're merely the captives of our appetites, like a dog in heat? Or to ask us to rise to the rank God gave us â€“ "a little lower than the angels" but above "the beasts of the field"? In The Gospel Of Life, the Pope wrote:
Had the Pope signed on to condom distribution in Africa, he would have done nothing to reduce the spread of Aids, but he would have done a lot to advance the further artificial separation of sex, in Africa and beyond. Indeed, if you look at The New York Times' list of complaints against the Pope they all boil down to what he called sex as self-assertion.
Thoughtful atheists ought to be able to recognize that, whatever one's tastes in these areas, the Pope is on to something â€“ that abortion et al, in separating the "two meanings" of sex and leaving us free to indulge in one while ignoring the other, have severed us almost entirely and possibly irreparably from traditional impulses, like societal survival.
Karol Wojtyla was the third longest-serving pontiff of all time, after Pius IX, Pope from 1846 to 1878, and the first Pope, St Peter, whose papacy lasted from AD 30 to the mid-60s. When you hold an office held by St Peter, you're not operating on media time. If the progressivists' assumption is that gay marriage, like abortion, is inevitable so the Pope might as well sign on, why bother with religion at all? The difference between the modern west's Church of the Self and John Paul's church is that the latter believes in the purpose of life. The Church of the Flavoured Condom, by contrast, believes that man is no more than the accumulation of his appetites, and so you might as well license them. Given what Aids has done to African mortality rates and what abortion has done to European demographics, John Paul II's eternal truths look a lot more rational than those of the hyperrationalists at The New York Times. John Paul II championed the "splendor of truth" not because he was rigid and inflexible, but because he understood the alternative was a dead end in every sense. To Karol Wojtyla, truth was not just splendid but immutable: he proved his point in the struggle against Communism; one day the west will recognize that he got it right closer to home, too.
adapted from Mark Steyn's Passing Parade
from Mark Steyn's Passing Parade, March 15, 2013
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