The pope's divisions The long view: John Paul's social criticism speaks to believers and non-believers alike

October 05, 1995

WHAT ACCOUNTS for the world's fascination with Pope John Paul II? His own church, after all, is bitterly divided -- on abortion, on contraception, on the celibate male priesthood. Yet the pope's global influence is as high as any statesman's, and higher than any pope's since the Age of Conquest half a millennium ago.

The Roman Catholic church has always had a foreign policy, a legacy of the days when popes ruled states of their own. For the last century, with the Holy See reduced to 100 acres in downtown Rome, Vatican foreign policy mostly amounted to denouncing materialistic ideologies like communism and defending the rights of Catholics where they were in minority or oppressed conditions.

At his election in 1978, there was some expectation that John Paul's experiences living under Polish communism would lead him to espouse a similarly conventional policy. Instead, he has imaginatively broadened the Vatican's reach. No statesman in history has traveled so much. But the pontiff has been more than a goodwill ambassador. He stood up for workers in Brazil and talked human rights to the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. He sent delegations to the U.N. conferences in Cairo on population and in Beijing on women.

In its 2,000-year history, the Christian church has seen empires and economic systems come and go. Polish Catholicism carried the nation's culture and heritage during the disappearance, for more than a century, of the Polish state itself. These experiences have given the church, and its Polish pope, the habit of taking the long view. Returning to Poland after his election, John Paul did not inflame his countrymen's resentments against communist rule. He asked them simply to remember their identity as Poles and Christians. He was confident that the people would prevail -- without bloodshed.

Thus the pope is political without appearing to contend for power. He addresses principles of human dignity, not political arrangements. The pontiff criticizes the "culture of death" in Western societies, where unchecked capitalist materialism breeds the "neopagan. . . virus" of consumerism and reduces working men and women to "instruments" of economic efficiency. These criticisms are heard by believers and non-believers alike. No doubt Baltimore will hear more of them Sunday.

"How many divisions has the pope?" a derisive Josef Stalin once asked. He made the mistake common to political actors of thinking that victory or defeat, loss or salvation, resides in politics. John Paul invites us to examine the more basic questions: What does it mean to be human? How shall we live?

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