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World’s applause hides church flaws

We once may have thought that he appealed to the masses because he was robust and energetic, knew how to use the camera to his advantage and how to use that schooled voice to move us. For a pope, he was refreshingly young and outgoing.

Maybe that was a large part of his appeal at the time. But now he is frail and stooped, his voice is slurred, the camera no longer does him any favors, no microphone can filter out the age or the infirmity. No longer moving with grace or power, he shuffles.

But then God is paradox. And perhaps it is fitting irony that Pope John Paul II, this representative of the ultimate paradox, should show in his diminished state the real power of his papacy.

It has been both the prerogative and the privilege of this papacy to wade into cultures around the globe and speak truths that, in local circumstances, often go unsaid.

We saw the power of such pronouncements in Poland and throughout the communist bloc. We saw it again and again in his repeated passionate statements on behalf of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable; in critiques of dehumanizing economic and political systems, including unfettered capitalism.

Now, in what presumably was his last visit to the Americas, this suffering figure, like a global teacher rehearsing his class one more time, went through the staples of the curriculum: protect life at every stage; do justice, especially to the poor; end abortion; cease execution, even of those who have done “great evil”; stop the economic exploitation that often accompanies globalization; end environmental degradation.

There is no arguing with the basic impulse, even if the devil is in the details, particularly of the thorniest issues. What political agenda, for instance, will inspire the broadest consensus while diminishing the numbers of abortions? Do all the zygotes in a lab really “have souls” as one archbishop exclaims elsewhere in this issue? Do spontaneous abortions in the earliest stages of pregnancy involve “persons?”

Those are just some of the questions confronting Catholics of conscience, legislators and those involved in the medical sciences. But who can argue with the basic impulse that sees abortion as an evil -- even if one views it as a necessary one -- that diminishes us all?

So it is with capital punishment. It is no secret that many who ardently oppose abortion just as ardently uphold the state’s right to kill those who murder. And what about the pope’s uncompromising opposition to the U.S. embargo and military attacks on Iraq?

Can the business leaders among us hear his call for justice in the Third World, can we allow his powerful, if economically uncomplicated, challenge alter the way we exploit business opportunities?

Prophets rarely provide the blueprints along with their goading. John Paul II speaks broad truths to the world’s cultures in a way that no one else can at this time. That will certainly be a major part of his legacy.

But it would be incomplete to limit a discussion of this giant late 20th-century figure to his role on the world stage, for powerful as he might be even the pope can’t deliver on his own.

The evidence strongly suggests that John Paul will leave a church deeply divided, with an infrastructure in serious decay and a growing cabal of narrow-minded bureaucrats in charge.

If he has challenged the world at large to think, he has largely sent his own thinkers cowering and scurrying for safe theological terrain.

His governance has become characterized by harshness and a quick resort to punishment.

If trends continue, the sacramental nature of the church will be in jeopardy, hostage to an absolute unwillingness to alter the tradition of male celibate clergy unless one comes from another tradition, such as Lutheran or Anglican.

John Paul’s latest visit to the Americas shows once again that the church has significant truths to convey to the rest of the world. The church of the future, however, will have to be as bold in assessing its own internal weaknesses as John Paul is in his approach to the wider world. A broader application of collegiality on all levels and greater participation by non-ordained men and women are among the institutional changes that will be essential to bringing those truths to life.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999