I keep thinking I should write something about Pope John Paul’s passing, and I’m really at a loss for words. My feelings are somewhat a reflection of my deep ambivalence about my faith these days. On the one hand, I feel very proud of being a Catholic, and I am very passionate about the Pope’s message of creating a “culture of life.” On the other, I find myself in disagreement with the Church on several matters of politics, including the Church’s role in politics.
I’m 28, so I’ve never really known another Pope. John Paul is the face of the Church for me. I went to World Youth Day twice – once in Denver in 1993, and again in Rome in 2000 – just to be within a few miles of him. He engaged the young people of the Church in a way that is hard to comprehend, especially since he was not a young, spry man for much of his Pontificate. I grew up in what I’ve always considered a lukewarm parish, so I admired his forcefulness and witness to the truth. I also loved the way he approached ecumenism – always ready to talk, but never ready to compromise the doctrine of the Church. He was a powerful witness to the dignity of the elderly, and a tremendous critic of the godlessness of both Communism and capitalism. In no small part because of his teachings and his example, I grew into my twenties as a fairly pious, conservative Catholic.
Nonetheless, I find myself at odds with the Church, especially here in the U.S., more and more these days. I don’t know how much of that is due to the Pope’s influence (or lack thereof). I am an ardent pro-lifer, but even I thought Terry Schiavo should be allowed to die. I have too many friends who are gay to be completely comfortable with the Church’s teachings there. And I especially dislike the Church’s direct meddling in politics in the last decade, from the continual lobbying for school vouchers to the not-so-subtle intimidation of “voting for John Kerry is a sin.” I think, in their zeal to end abortion, bishops here in the United States are aligning themselves too closely with the Republican party, and making the Church a pawn to be used by the GOP, just as the evangelical churches have already become. I think a lot of this comes from John Paul’s passive nature as an administrator of the Church combined with his highly conservative theology. It has created a generation of bishops who are radically conservative, but also given nearly free reign in pastoral practice.
(One thing you’ll notice here is that I don’t lay the abuse scandal at the Pope’s feet. For one thing, I’m not convinced that the occurrence of pedophilia is any higher among priests than among ministers of any other faith, or even lay people such as counselors and sports coaches. I also don’t think the Church should be held responsible for every case. We don’t expect any other employer to watch their employees that closely, not even other religious institutions. I think the spotlight has been on the Church for two main reasons: one, its perceived deep pockets, which act as an incentive either to publicize abuses or invent them; and two, the media’s fascination with attacking centers of power, be they political, religious, or financial.)
I think what it comes down to for me is this: I remain an ardent admirer of Pope John Paul the man, of the way he lived his life and testified to the presence of Christ in the world, but I am somewhat distressed by some of the fruits of his Papacy. I do not doubt that he will (and should) be canonized. We will be lucky, as Catholics, to have a new Pope with half his gifts. I have to wonder, however, if his final decade as Pontiff, while a powerful testament to the dignity and value of the elderly and infirm, didn’t damage his legacy because he lacked the strength to do the job as effectively as he could when he started.
As a postscript: I could write a whole other entry on my strong belief in the separation of church and state, for the protection of both. On that, I think the President ordering flags to be flown at half-staff, and “dropping in” on mass the day the Pope died, reeks of politics, and I am highly offended. I’m not saying the Pope doesn’t deserve the honor, but we don’t lower the flag for any other head of state, or for any other religious leader. Bush’s sickening attempt to curry favor with Catholics in swing states by making himself chief mourner, while his party still rakes in donations from the Bob Jones (the Pope is the Antichrist) crowd, stinks to high heaven.