"I love you, now change." A popular theatrical work employs a version of this emotional about-face in its title. A similar duplicity characterizes the comments of many Americans about Pope John Paul II.
They express admiration for the pontiff’s courage. They applaud his role in bringing down communism in Eastern Europe and Russia. They recognize his spiritual stature. But then they complain that he didn’t keep up with the times. "Why couldn’t he have been," they aver in tones reminiscent of Rex Harrison’s in ‘My Fair Lady,’ "more like us."
It is indicative of our cultural presumption that folks whose lives are virtually devoid of danger should cavalierly dismiss ideas refined in the crucible of Nazi atrocities and Soviet repression. It doesn’t cross the minds of theological prima donnas that random notions absorbed from episodes of "C.S.I. Las Vegas" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" might not measure up to the wisdom derived from decades of devotion to priestly duties within a religious institution whose roots go back to the beginnings of Western civilization. Indeed, it frightens them to think that John Paul was great precisely because he wasn't more like us.
To have a widely respected figure stand over against the spirit of post-modernity is disconcerting for Monday-morning Monsignors. The idea that something might be seriously wrong with an undemanding "be yourself" ethic is not a thought that go-with-the-flow spiritualists are inclined to entertain. Instead, their version of tolerance demands that all major institutions conform to the lax canons of secular orthodoxy--or else. Unfortunately for them, John Paul II was hard to vilify.
Aficionados of "The da Vinci Code" would have loved to slander this Polish priest as a cynical and intriguing "Godfather"--a hypocritical "Sin City" prelate whose fangs dripped with blood. Most critics would have settled for a pope whose pronouncements infallibly coincided with New York Times editorial sentiment on issues like abortion, homosexuality, female priests, and starvation-with-dignity. Instead, what they got was a vigorous defender of traditional church doctrine whose widespread influence made him a KGB assassination target.
It is hard to imagine such a desperate plot being hatched, much less carried out, to silence a vicar exhibiting the "progressive" traits so prized by the late pope’s unauthorized consultants. To what point? Why would the Kremlin want to muzzle a pope welcomed at Hollywood cocktail parties--a Neville Chamberlain in ecclesiastical drag whose prayers call for nothing more than political accommodation and moral acquiescence? Better he should be given a very large microphone and preside at all those fashionable forums cravenly dedicated to reducing international tension.
In the biblical book of Acts, Peter says to a lame beggar, "Silver and gold have I none, but what I have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus ... rise and walk." Several centuries later one of the apostle’s institutional heirs boasted that the Church could no longer say, "Silver and gold have I none"--to which comment a faithful critic replied, "But neither can it now say, ‘Rise and walk.’"
A similar fate will befall any church that heeds the advice of persons supremely devoted to worldly approbation--an attitude that arouses neither fear in the heart of enemies nor admiration in the eyes of disciples.