Saturday, April 02, 2005

The End of an Era

By: UnrepentantNewDealer

This afternoon, Pope John Paul II shuffled off this mortal coil and went to meet his Maker. His suffering is at an end now.

His papacy was the most remarkable in perhaps the entire 2000 year history of the Catholic church. He broke the mold in so many ways. John Paul II was the third-longest serving pontiff in history. He has been pope for my entire lifetime. John Paul II was also the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. He traveled to more than 120 nations, spreading the word of God from his familiar Popemobile. Not just a great leader of one Christian denomination, he was a great world leader.

Because I'm lazy, on this occasion, I'll partly just regurgitate what I said in a post a while back.

"Although I am not a Catholic, I have immense respect for the man. I consider John Paul II to be one of the truly great leaders of the past century. Remember, it was John Paul II and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa who, more than anyone else, encouraged the people of Poland to resist the Soviets."

For decades, the West and the Soviet Union stood at odds. Because both sides were armed with the most destructive weapons in the history of warfare, both sides reasoned that the Cold War could only end in the destruction of both nations in a nuclear holocaust, a possibility so horrific, the West pragmatically played the game of detante with the Soviets. If you can't beat 'em, at least learn to tolerate them.

The people behind the Iron Curtain were essentially written off by the Western powers. When Hungary had revolted in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets had brutally put down these surges of democratic spirit. As long as the Soviet leadership was willing to use overwhelming brute force to maintain its empire, any democratic revolution in Eastern Europe would amount to nothing.

Karol Wojtyla and Lech Walesa understood that things had changed. The old Stalinist ideologues were gone. The men who ran the Soviet Union and its satellite states were, similar to the rulers of China today, communist in name only. These scared old men wanted to maintain their material comforts and had little appetite for putting down rebellions in other nations in the name of preserving Marxism.

"When it became apparent that the Soviet leadership was no longer willing to use force to keep the nations of Eastern Europe in its despotic grip, the whole house of cards that was the Warsaw Pact quickly fell apart. Forget Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev; it was two Poles who brought down the 'Evil Empire.'"

It is to be ranked as one of the greatest miracles of recent human history that the Cold War ended in a nonviolent democratic revolution from behind the Iron Curtain, from the very people who had been written off by the Great Powers. That it did is largely a testament to the remarkable courage and faith of one Karol Wojtyla. His visit in 1979, in which he called for Poles to "transform this land", sparked the Solidarity movement, which the pontiff subsequently did much to support. As the Polish puppet government found itself unable to quell Solidarity and found the Soviet Union unwilling to get its hands dirty, a reverse domino effect ensued, leading in a few short years to the total collapse of communism in all the Warsaw Pact nations. Humanity owes Karol Wojtyla a debt it can never repay.

I have long been fascinated by the remarkable story of how two Poles brought down a despotic nuclear power. I'll probably write a book about it someday. This will do for a eulogy.

The Road Ahead

"John Paul II also did a lot to help mend relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, Judaism, and science. (He apologized for the Catholic Church's intolerance toward Galileo, an apology about 400 years overdue) But on social values issues (like allowing women to be clergy; making celibacy optional; and allowing the use of condoms and other forms of birth control to cut down on the number of abortions worldwide and, also AIDS cases in Africa) the Pope was inflexible. A mixed legacy, indeed, though overall, one any pontiff could be proud of."

Whoever emerges as the Pope's successor will have his work cut out for him. The Catholic church seems (to this non-Catholic, at least) to need major changes. The church's position on birth control, while principled, is responsible for an alarming increase in AIDS deaths in predominately Catholic African nations. The church's refusal to grant women and lay people a greater say in the future of the church is another gathering storm Rome will have to confront, sooner rather than later. The child sexual abuse scandals here in America have highlighted the dangerous shortcomings of the Vatican's culture of secrecy. Scarcely 40 years after Vatican II, it is becoming increasingly evident that a Vatican III is necessary. Any bureaucracy is hard to change, especially one as steeped in tradition as the Catholic church. But change it must if it is to continue to thrive and command the loyalty of more than 1 billion people around the world.

So, now the fun begins. The cardinals are gathering in Rome to select a new pope. The smart money is on the Italians, for the simple reason of every pope but the last one for the past almost 500 years having been Italian. Alternatively, an old pope could be selected to prevent another long-winded pontificate. Germany's Cardinal Ratzinger is 79. How much longer could he live? (Wait. Don't answer that.)

It would be refreshing, however, if the cardinals decided to favor another area of the world this time. Catholicism is a church of many different nationalities. It is a fast-growing faith in Africa and, admit it, it would be nice to see a black guy wearing the papal crown. Almost half of the world's Catholics live in the Americas and Brazil has the largest Catholic population of any nation. A Latin American pope would thus also be a good choice.

Recently, the pope appointed an unidentified person a cardinal. This has been interpreted by some to mean the appointment of a Chinese bishop. The reason for the secrecy is that the Chinese government forces Catholics to pray only in state-supported churches which do not acknowledge the authority of the pope. Personally, I'd like to see a Chinese pope. It would send the same signal to the communists in China as the appointment of the last pope did to the communists in Eastern Europe. What better way to honor Pope John Paul II?