TCS Daily

Greatness Is By Nature Enigmatic

By Paul J. Cella - April 8, 2005 12:00 AM

It is understandable that there would be serious confusion in properly evaluating a man such a Karol Wojtyla. For one thing greatness is by nature enigmatic -- and there can be no doubt that John Paul II was a great man. But more importantly, this confusion derives from the decay and dissolution of our politics, which accompanies the decay and dissolution of the modern age. Thus we discover (or at least, the media has discovered) that while John Paul was fairly orthodox in his theology, and while he firmly opposed Communism, he also tended toward a certain religious or sentimental Liberalism. Theologically John Paul II was indeed orthodox, which in the dominant terminology of Liberalism can only mean that he was a "traditionalist." In fact theological orthodoxy is not traditionalism but simply Christianity.

But outside of core Catholic doctrine -- doctrine, it should be noted, that a pope has no authority to change -- it is difficult to call him anything but a Liberal: While no pacifist, and loyal to the Just War tradition, his pronouncements on war placed him squarely in opposition to most conflicts. His apologies for past Christian sins, though in many ways magnificent and wholly just, were extravagant gestures indeed, leaving one with the impression that the Church had condemned events that needed no condemnation. When visiting the United States he argued that mass immigration was a duty for wealthy countries like America, and that the Culture of Life required solidarity with not only "the elderly, the infirm, the unborn," but also, discordantly, the immigrant. He was a tireless ecumenist, both within Christianity and outside it, which caused many to wonder whether he was minimizing theological and philosophical differences of the utmost gravity, and attenuating, ever so slightly, the imperative distinction between truth and falsehood. His particular solicitude for Islam, at a time when Christians everywhere need to be reminded of the great struggle their fathers waged against this most relentless rival and foe, from Manzikert to Jerusalem, from Tours to Vienna, in retrospect seems unfortunate and demoralizing.

In short, John Paul seemed to embody the kind of disorder that the end of the modern age augurs for our politics. Conservatives adored him despite his Liberalism, even cited his Liberalism as justifying their admiration; while Liberals, ignoring his agreement with them on so much, despised him for his unwillingness to open the Church to the full "spirit of Vatican II." As a friend put it to me in correspondence, he was a progressive all right, but a progressive of his own sort, with views not always consonant with the progressive consensus.

But I think much of this is secondary -- not unimportant but secondary. John Paul was at his greatest as a traveler and singular evangelist. In all the history of the world, as his biographer George Weigel points out, it is probably true that no man has been seen by more people than Pope John Paul II. And what they saw, what drew them to him, what made him so beloved, was, I think, his tangible goodness. If, as many have conjectured, he is indeed a saint (which would make the grumbling about hagiographic coverage rather quaint), he is a saint not so much because he was right where others of his age were wrong, or because the burning zeal of his claims for truth subjugated some fashionable and dominant error -- for though to have defeated one great fashionable error in Communism, he lived to witness the ascendance of a host of others, less blatant but perhaps more insidious -- but because of his goodness and love, which was palpable most consistently to the simple, the poor, the vulnerable. He loved Our Lord and he loved His children; and all the cynicism of a base age, all the sophisticated sophistry of the faithless, all the clever subversion of treason from within, cannot overcome the love that Jesus showed, and that John Paul II reflected.

The great saints who have carried Christ to the world have often done so not by words but by example, heeding the famous the admonition of St. Francis: "Preach the gospel always; if necessary, use words." The Irish monks under St. Columbanus astonished the Franks of the sixth-century with their simplicity and humility, though Columbanus himself had to contend with authorities ecclesiastic and royal his whole life. Of St. Francis Xavier, another great evangelist, one novelist wrote, that he "lived always, sustainedly, at the highest imaginable level of moral beauty." Such men, such saints as these showed their sanctity through their example -- their endurance of suffering, their patience and modesty and generosity, their simple holiness. Their politics were secondary.

So while it is inevitable and necessary that we grapple with assaying and understanding his politics, which of course must be recognized not (or at least not merely) as the sordid enterprise that our parlance ascribes to it, but as the high adventure of governing the oldest and largest and greatest institution ever constituted of men -- such an assaying, I say, is inevitable and necessary, but it should not detract from the majesty of Pope John Paul II, which consists not of his politics or his administration, or even his theology, important though those things were and are. It consists in his moral beauty, his approach to that astonishing picture of love which the Apostle Paul gave us in 1 Corinthians 13: "And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing."

A great Christian man is gone, and we are bereft.

Paul J. Cella III writes from Atlanta. He runs the web-log Cellas's Review.


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