The splendor of truth

Posted: Apr 06, 2005 12:00 AM

The name Goldberg might be a hint: I'm not Catholic. But that didn't stop me from loving this pope. So much has already been written about the humble man appointed to the most awe-inspiring job in the world, it seems silly to repeat all of the encomiums and accolades. Karol Wojtyla was a funny, lighthearted man by all accounts, so I think he'd get it if I merely said "ditto" to all of the wonderful things said about him.

But given the often abysmal discussion of the John Paul II's legacy and thought, what I think is worth noting is how childish phrases like "left" and "right" are when describing such a man and the institution he represents. After all, the designations of "left" and "right" come from 18th-century France, and the Catholic Church was already a couple centuries from its 2,000th birthday by then.

In the secular vernacular, the pope was a "social conservative" - even, shudder, a "theocrat" - because he opposed many things secular liberals favor: state-supplied condoms, state-funded abortion, euthanasia, etc. I'm not stealing an intellectual base here. JPII disapproved of non-state-funded abortion and condoms, too, but it was his role as a worldwide political force that irked so many of his critics. In other words, it was the fact that his words had real power that bothered some and terrified others. The terrified ones were most famously in Moscow when they realized that his admonition, "Be not afraid," was the most devastating thing a pope from a captive nation could say to the millions of people terrified into submission by Communism.

The irked folks are those who think it is a sign of enlightenment to compromise one's faith in an immutable truth (if that truth is something the Enlightened Ones disagree with). According to Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian, when the Pope was confronted by a friend who wanted him to change his anti-condom policy, the pontiff replied, "I can't change what I've been teaching all my life." For John Paul II, to teach otherwise precisely because his teaching had newfound global strength would be like saying you can no longer proclaim 2+2=4 because those who disagree are suddenly paying attention.

The most fascinating disconnect between our political categories and the reality of John Paul II was the fact that he was perhaps liberty's greatest champion in the 20th century. That story is well known and needs no repeating here.

But what gets less attention is the fact that it was the Catholic Church that launched the very notion of a sphere of liberty and morality not bound to the state. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Fareed Zakaria recounts in "The Future of Freedom," the Catholic Church remained as an imperfect conscience for rulers who would define the rules of kings as synonymous with the whims of kings. When Emperor Theodosius slaughtered the Thessalonians, Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, was so repulsed he refused to give the emperor Holy Communion. The emperor cried, No fair! He argued that David had done worse in the bible, to which Ambrose replied, "You have imitated David in his crime, then imitate him in his repentance!" Off and on for eight months, the most powerful ruler in the entire world mimicked the biblical David, dressing in rags like a beggar in order to plea for forgiveness outside the Ambrose's cathedral.

Over time, the papacy's moral authority increased. Pope Leo III may have been forced to anoint Charlemagne as Roman Emperor, but by doing so he also cemented the notion that even kings were answerable to a higher authority. When Emperor Henry IV challenged the Pope's power of investiture he ended up, as legend has it, kneeling in the snows at Canossa to beg for forgiveness. It was only in modern times, best symbolized by Napoleon crowning himself Emperor of the French, that this external authority was firmly rejected in favor of his own will-to-power. It is no coincidence that Napoleon is widely considered the first modern dictator.

This raises one of the great ironies John Paul pushed onto the consciousness of the world. The Catholic Church was the first real advocate of globalization. Communism was another globalizing force ("Workers of the world unite!" and all that). Even though Stalin's ghost still mocked that the pope had no divisions, Karol Wojtyla pitted his universal creed - the splendor of truth! - against the crust of Communism's lies. And, with the aid of other lovers of liberty, this pope won.

Some of John Paul the Great's detractors saw his "social conservatism" as a contradiction to his criticism of capitalism run amok, or regarded his opposition to the death penalty as at odds with his opposition to abortion. John Paul confounded so many because his views on these and other issues were unswervingly consistent with a vision of the world bound not by the ideological categories of the moment but by the standards of eternity. My guess is his vision will be debated long after words like right and left have melted away like the snows of Canossa.