The Papacy and the road ahead

Posted: Apr 05, 2005 12:00 AM

We journalists relish the opportunity of raising binoculars to eyes, scanning the road ahead and hollering back to the customers word of what we see. It seems to fulfill us -- like now, as we sort out the varied challenges awaiting the next pope. Poor guy, we might add, given the responsibilities we are heaping upon him already.

Just to name some: Islam, American pluralism, European secularism, the pedophile scandal, a shortage of priests and stem cell research. The New York Times throws in for effect the economic rise of China and India. And so on.

 One of these days, when I'm in charge of journalism curriculum for the whole planet, I mean to position history at the center of our studies for the large view it affords -- larger than is obtainable with binoculars.

 History would show us right away how rarely the Catholic Church has managed to rest from major challenge. There's always something -- sweeping up after the Vandals and Goths; fending off the Northmen and the Moslems; the Crusades; the Black Plague; the Reformation; scientific materialism and atheism. As my sainted mother was given to saying: "Just one 'd' thing after another!"

 But it's not history alone to which we wrongly deny a role in proportioning our assessments of the church. Even more fundamental is the nature of the church -- not just the Church of Rome (as we Episcopalians sometimes say, a little sniffily), but rather the church that daily unites itself to Christ's birth, baptism, crucifixion and resurrection. We have here, under a variety of names, a supernatural enterprise, not a human one. That makes it very different from, say, the Republican Party or the Sierra Club.

 Testaments to the witness of the late John Paul II are all over the place, and rightly so. Attention must be paid, to paraphrase Arthur Miller, when an extraordinary man of God exerts on his time such extraordinary influence as did this pope. However, the way to understand any pope, it seems to me, is to assess him chiefly as steward of a great mystery -- the mystery of what God has prepared for his people.

 No telescope, however powerful, shows us. We see through a glass darkly -- the more so, possibly, because of that secular materialism mentioned earlier. We seemingly cannot as a society contrive to take with exhaustive seriousness that view of life which the pope propounded -- life, all life, as the gift of God, to be lived out under his authority. We can consider the physical church and its challenges in the way we can consider the challenges that a state and nation confront. We don't get far, though, without recollecting what Christ said to his chief apostle, a hasty, hot-tempered fisherman named Peter. He said to Peter that against the church the gates of hell itself would not prevail. That would seem definitive -- a nice balancing item on the next pope's worry list.

 The thing is, good old secular materialism -- which all but fancies itself a new religion -- closes off, in the interest of something called "pluralism "or "diversity," too public discussion of the church's prospects, obligations and mission. We're constantly advised as to the baneful effects of preferring one view of truth to another.

As it happens, society's reluctance to give Christianity its old-time due (lest we seem to disparage others' differing convictions) may show the direction things will go under the next papacy. Secular materialism -- the view of man, and man's works, as central in the human narrative -- challenges God's own well-authenticated claim to centrality. From which challenge, you might say, all other challenges proceed: rampant disregard for the sanctity of life, lack of priests to administer the sacraments of a fading church, and the growing success of alternative faiths like Islam.

 The next pope may discover his calling is to demonstrate tellingly that, in man's affairs, man doesn't come first, God does. A truly daunting task. But if it could be brought off, well, for one thing, we'd need no binocular-toting journalists to spread the news.