On moral authority

April 14, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - While we are in this interregnum between the funeral and the election, the pause between the personal and the political, may I take a moment? Since Pope John Paul II's death, I have thought about the way the international eulogies focused on his character, indeed, on the courage of his convictions more than the content of those convictions.

On television, the fly-in stars found an ecumenical way to talk about the Catholics' Holy Father by praising the man for his bravery in confronting communism and his humanity in confronting Parkinson's disease. Again and again, I heard leaders and commentators say that whether you agreed with the pope or not, you had to admire his unshakeable belief. Whether you were Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, liberal or conservative, they said, you had to honor a man who held fast against the winds and polls of change.

But in fact, many of the people who came to praise Pope John Paul for standing firm did not always stand with him.

This was a pope who labored to create "a seamless garment" of right and wrong. Yet world leaders and church followers and the media mainstream seemed to pick and choose pieces of the garment to adorn their praise.

When President Bush said it was time to "honor and celebrate the life of a truly great moral leader," he was talking about the pope who spoke of a "culture of life." What about the moral leader who opposed the war in Iraq?

When others talked about Pope John Paul as a man who focused on the world's poor, they were applauding the church's remarkable care for AIDS patients in Africa. What about church opposition to condoms for that continent?

This is by no means the only time we have seen this sort of abstract support for conviction. Nor is it the first time we have seen a kind of disconnect between the admiration for a man's certainty and the nature of those certainties.

We saw it when Ronald Reagan was eulogized for his profound self-confidence. Right or wrong. We saw it in the last presidential election, when Americans chose the candidate who seemed more sure of himself. Sen. John Kerry countered: "You can be certain and be wrong." But he was indelibly imprinted with waffle marks.

There is no secret to the attraction of unwavering authority figures. When we are sick, we want doctors who exude confidence. When we don't know what to do about the kids, we want Supernanny on call. In times when the world goes on fast-forward, we look for eternal verities. When everything tilts, we find comfort in the parent, preacher or president who is sure of where he or she is going and - therefore? - sure of where he or she will lead us.

But at the same time, conviction is not always a virtue. The Taliban have the courage of their convictions, tyrants are sure of themselves and dictators know where they want to lead us. To remain unswayed may also be to remain untouched by the people around you.

So the cardinals who are preparing to vote for the next leader may find that some of the praise for Pope John Paul made for better eulogies than future guidelines. After all, the Italians who stood in line for hours to say farewell to their Holy Father have contracepted their way to the lowest birthrate in the world. So, too, many American Catholics approach church teachings as a buffet in which priestly celibacy is one option and divorce should be another.

Today "moral relativism" has become a kind of intellectual whipping boy. It's regarded as a weakness. But for many, moral authoritarianism is a strength admired best from afar. As for self-doubt? With all its difficulties, doubt may be the crack in the door that makes way for understanding and even change.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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