Give ’em hell, son!
–Thomas Wolfe in Of
Time and the River (1935)
There he is, Time’s “Man of the Year,” staring boldly (with an ever so faint smile) from the magazine’s December 26, 1994, cover: his holiness John Paul II, the holy father, supreme pontiff, and pontifex maximus (a pretentious title borrowed from the ancient emperors of Rome, meaning “the supreme bridge between heaven and earth”).
Why did Time select John Paul II for its annual honor? Was it admiration for a man “whose words have global authority,” a man (and an institution) with well honed public relations skills? Or was it from a wish to promote an institution and its official point of view? We may never know, but Time president Elizabeth Valk Long’s editorial comment that in 1870 “Italy seized from the Vatican both Rome and the papal states” suggests a lot: the papal states, including the city of Rome, were probably the worst run country in Europe, and the people voted overwhelmingly for absorption of the country into the kingdom of Italy.
(Remember also, by the way, that back in the late 1970s Time made a nasty editorial attack on humanism and then refused to print a mild letter of pro test submitted and signed by every member of the American Humanist Association board of directors.)
Time could not point to anything about John Paul II except for his “charisma,” popularity, single-mindedness, piety, and linguistic abilities. Time did report, citing a recent Yankelovich poll, that half of U.S. Catholics regard John Paul as “too conservative” and not in fallible when pronouncing on matters of faith. The poll also showed that 56 per cent of U.S. Catholics say that the pope is not infallible “when he teaches on matters of morals, such as birth control and abortion”; 89 percent believe it is possible to disagree with the pope and still be a good Catholic; 66 percent favor allowing priests to be married; 59 per cent favor allowing women to be priests; and 70 percent favor allowing divorced Catholics to marry in the church.
Time summed up John Paul’s 1994 “accomplishments” as including slamming the door on the possibility of al lowing women to be priests and going all out to prevent the U.N. population conference in Cairo in September from recognizing that women have a fundamental right to abortion. A Spanish critic said that the pope has “become a traveling salesman of demographic irrationality” John Paul also continues to enforce the official teaching that all effective forms of birth control are immoral.
Most Catholics in the United States and elsewhere are pretty much like non-Catholics. Politically, American Catholics are as progressive and interested in civil rights and civil liberties as the rest of the population, and they and their church have certainly made great contributions to the common good. At the same time, however, John Paul’s Vatican bureaucracy and its appointed prelates in the United States and other countries all too often use their enormous influence and political clout to deny women their rights of conscience on reproduction. The Vatican has also sought–with varying degrees of success–tax support for the church’s distinctive institutions (the Clinton administration proposed in January that the United States and the Vatican cooper ate formally in international war and disaster relief, a topic beyond the scope of this column); and it has sought to block efforts by the United Nations and the nations of the world to deal effectively and humanely with the population ecology crisis. Vatican intransigence on these internal and external issues, in turn, is responsible for massive defections from the Catholic church in the United States and other countries.
If the Catholic church could only democratize itself (which is not likely), its resources could make a tremendous contribution to solving some of the world’s real problems.
This brings us to John Paul’s best selling 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf). The aggressively marketed book was released in 21 languages in 35 countries, with first printings of an estimated 20 million copies, and is expected to bring the Vatican profits of between $100 million and $200 million (which will not diminish the Vatican’s perpetual craving for public funding from tax sources). The book’s publishing his tory is interesting. It was unveiled last fall in Milan, though that city’s arch bishop, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini–considered a strong possibility to be the next pope–was pointedly “uninvited” to the ceremonies. Martini, a biblical scholar and author of nearly 50 books, a Jesuit, and a moderate, was apparently persona non grata to one of the speakers on the platform, 32 year old Irena Pivetti, speaker of the Italian parliament and a member of the Northern League party, one of the pillars of Silvio Berlusconi’s neo-fascist government. Cardinal Martini has criticized the league, while Pivetti herself has declared that she wanted to found a “papal party” but would have to make do with the Northern League.
Two more interesting facts: John Paul’s book was published in Italy by Arnaldo Mondadori Editore, which has worldwide rights to the book. Prime Minister Berlusconi owns 47 percent of Mondadori. Also, the book was edited by journalist Vittorio Messori, who is probably a member of Opus Dei, the ultraconservative, largely secret organization that John Paul favors and which is answerable only to him.
As for the book itself, Catholic columnist Coleman McCarthy wrote in the Washington Post that it is less a book than “superficial jottings,” which would have been better entitled “Random Thoughts I Dashed Off While Not Busy Running the Church” He added, “The pope’s language ranges from the wooden to the stilted,” and the book “trades in put downs of other religions.” McCarthy was also concerned by the pope’s decision to make the lucrative deal in the first place: “By accepting a big bucks deal for a paste up book, the pope is just another pseudo author let tiny some agents and publishers cash in on his celebrity. The papacy has been cheapened.”
As I read Crossing the Threshold of Hope for myself, I was struck by the book’s superficiality, its pretentiousness, its fuzzy thinking, and its author’s narrow-mindedness and lack of concern for real people in the real world. As John Paul tells it, the papacy is a “mystery,” as is God and the “trinity,” or there would be no need for “revelation” God, supposedly omnipotent, “could not go further” in revealing “his mandates” John Paul knocks “fundamentalist move meets” while pushing his own brand of fundamentalism. He says nothing useful or even really intelligible about human rights and encourages fatalism by saying that “everything He does or allows must be accepted.”
John Paul knocks Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Protestantism, and Enlightenment humanism. He refers to the “martyrs of the Spanish Civil War” while ignoring the far more numerous victims of Spanish fascism. To top it off, he notes that the Reformation, which cost the Catholic church most of northern Europe, coincided with the “discovery” of America (by Europeans, not by the indigenous inhabitants) which permitted “the evangelization of that entire continent.” He neglected to mention that much of that evangelization was accomplished at the point of a sword and that the “discovery” resulted in the deaths of about 90 percent of the original inhabitants within a couple of generations. But, what the hell, at least they weren’t victims of communism.
The book contains the expected denunciations of the right of women to choose to end problem pregnancies, in language that tends to reinforce extremists who justify intimidation and violence against clinic personnel.
Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a disappointing book that does not merit serious attention.
Back to the last word in the title of this essay. Reiver is a Scottish word for raider. John Paul II would raid the credulity of the uncritical. He would raid the rights of women and the right of all people to truly free inquiry. He would raid the world’s attention and give in return only a pottage of outworn mysticism and authoritarian posturing. Most Catholics and other Americans care little for this.
Edd Doerr is a member of the board of directors of the American Humanist Association and executive director of Americans for Religious Liberty.
COPYRIGHT 1995 American Humanist Association
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group