If I were Pope - and no, don't worry, I'm not planning a mid-life career change - but, if I were, I'd be a little irked at the secular media's inability to discuss religion except through the prism of their moral relativism. That's why last weekend's grand old man - James Callaghan - got a more sympathetic send-off than this weekend's. The Guardian's headline writer billed Sunny Jim as a man "whose consensus politics were washed away in the late 1970s". Is it possible to have any meaningful "consensus" between, on the one hand, closed-shop council manual workers demanding a 40 per cent pay rise and, on the other, rational human beings? What would the middle ground between the real world and Planet Zongo look like? A 30 per cent pay rise, rising to 40 per cent over 18 months or the next strike, whichever comes sooner?
By contrast, the Guardian thought Karol Wojtyla was "a doctrinaire, authoritarian pontiff". That "doctrinaire" at least suggests the inflexible authoritarian derived his inflexibility from some ancient operating manual - he was dogmatic about his dogma - unlike the New York Times and the Washington Post, which came close to implying that John Paul II had taken against abortion and gay marriage off the top of his head, principally to irk "liberal Catholics". The assumption is always that there's some middle ground that a less "doctrinaire" pope might have staked out: he might have supported abortion in the first trimester, say, or reciprocal partner benefits for gays in committed relationships.
The root of the Pope's thinking - that there are eternal truths no one can change even if one wanted to - is completely incomprehensible to the progressivist mindset. There are no absolute truths, everything's in play, and by "consensus" all we're really arguing is the rate of concession to the inevitable: abortion's here to stay, gay marriage will be here any day now, in a year or two it'll be something else - it's all gonna happen anyway, man, so why be the last squaresville daddy-o on the block?
We live in a present-tense culture where novelty is its own virtue: the Guardian, for example, has already been touting the Nigerian Francis Arinze as "candidate for first black pope". This would be news to Pope St Victor, an African and pontiff from 189 to 199. Among his legacies: the celebration of Easter on a Sunday.
That's not what the Guardian had in mind, of course: it meant "the first black pope since the death of Elvis" - or however far back our societal memory now goes. But, if you hold an office first held by St Peter, you can say "been there, done that" about pretty much everything the Guardian throws your way. John Paul's papacy was founded on what he called - in the title of his encyclical - Veritatis Splendor, and when you seek to find consensus between truth and lies you tarnish that splendour.
Der Spiegel this week published a selection from the creepy suck-up letters Gerhard Schröder wrote to the East German totalitarian leaders when he was a West German pol on the make in the 1980s. As he wrote to Honecker's deputy, Egon Krenz: "I will certainly need the endurance you have wished me in this busy election year. But you will certainly also need great strength and good health for your People's Chamber election." The only difference being that, on one side of the border, the election result was not in doubt.
When a free man enjoying the blessings of a free society promotes an equivalence between real democracy and a sham, he's colluding in the great lie being perpetrated by the prison state. Too many Western politicians of a generation ago - Schmidt, Trudeau, Mitterrand - failed to see what John Paul saw so clearly. It requires tremendous will to cling to the splendour of truth when the default mode of the era is to blur and evade.
The question now is whether His Holiness was as right about us as he was about the Communists. The secularists, for example, can't forgive him for his opposition to condoms in the context of Aids in Africa. The Dark Continent gets darker every year: millions are dying, male life expectancy is collapsing and such civil infrastructure as there is seems likely to follow.
But the most effective weapon against the disease has not been the Aids lobby's 20-year promotion of condom culture in Africa, but Uganda's campaign to change behaviour and to emphasise abstinence and fidelity - i.e., the Pope's position. You don't have to be a Catholic or a "homophobe" to think that the spread of Aids is telling us something basic - that nature is not sympathetic to sexual promiscuity. If it weren't Aids, it would be something else, as it has been for most of human history.
What should be the Christian response? To accept that we're merely the captives of our appetites, like a dog in heat? Or to ask us to rise to the rank God gave us - "a little lower than the angels" but above "the beasts of the field"? In Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the Pope wrote: "Sexuality too is depersonalised and exploited: it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts. Thus the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the conjugal act, are artificially separated."
Had the Pope signed on to condom distribution in Africa, he would have done nothing to reduce the spread of Aids, but he would have done a lot to advance the further artificial separation of sex, in Africa and beyond. Indeed, if you look at the New York Times's list of complaints against the Pope - "Among liberal Catholics, he was criticised for his strong opposition to abortion, homosexuality and contraception" - they all boil down to what he called sex as self-assertion.
Thoughtful atheists ought to be able to recognise that, whatever one's tastes in these areas, the Pope was on to something - that abortion et al, in separating the "two meanings" of sex and leaving us free to indulge in one while ignoring the other, have severed us almost entirely and possibly irreparably from traditional impulses, such as societal survival. John Paul II championed the "splendour of truth" not because he was rigid and inflexible, but because he understood the alternative was a dead end in every sense.
If his beloved Europe survives in any form, it will one day acknowledge that.
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