Saturday, April 09, 2005

Paul Johnson: The Philosopher-Pope

The Philosopher-Pope
His love for life made him an unflinching upholder of Catholic teaching.
The Wall Street Journal
Saturday, April 9, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

LONDON--The death of John Paul II removes from the world a great force for order and rectitude. He was often presented as a conservative, especially by liberal critics within the church. But this was a misreading of his character and indeed of his record. This great pontiff was essentially a defender, promoter, protector and enhancer of life: life in all its forms, as God created them, but especially human life.

He sought to limit, almost to vanishing point, the occasions on which the state, let alone individuals, might legitimately extinguish or frustrate life. He had spent his manhood largely under the tyranny of the two vilest anti-life systems the world had ever seen: Nazism and Communism, together responsible for the unnatural deaths of over 120 million people in Europe and Asia. He had seen at close quarters the appalling consequences which inexorably follow when authority is directed by philosophy contemptuous of life.

John Paul was a philosopher by inclinations and training, and his philosophy was infused by reverence and respect for human life in all its multitudinous epiphanies. Humans, albeit fallible and often foolish, were made in God's image, and to take a life, without the strongest possible justification, was an assault on God.

The pope's love of humanity was expressed in many ways: by his constant travels to every corner of the world, so that he saw more of his billion-strong global flock than all his 263 predecessors put together, and was himself seen in the flesh by more people than anyone else in history. A formidable linguist, he took the trouble to learn a few phrases in nearly 100 different tongues so that he could communicate directly with the people who came to see him in St. Peter's Square from all over the world.

This love for life made John Paul a stern and unflinching upholder of traditional Catholic teaching in three important respects. He refused to countenance any form of artificial contraception, allowing Catholics to plan their families only by natural methods. As a priest he had made a special study of the medical sciences which affect families, and as Archbishop of Krakow he set up an institute devoted to the problems of conception, birth and parenting. He believed to his dying day that nature was the only reliable and health-preserving guide in such matters.

The pope was likewise a vehement opponent of any form of euthanasia, believing that life in the extremely old or chronically sick, even seemingly insensible sufferers, was just as precious--and to be defended just as passionately--as in the young and vigorous. To him, the battle to preserve life was all-important, uncompromising and perpetual.

In his last years, and especially his last weeks, he fought this battle himself with all the obstinacy of his enormous will. His struggle to perform his global duties right to the end was a painful but hugely effective demonstration against the iniquity of a compulsory retirement age, but also a gesture of protest against all those who would sideline, condescend to, and render impotent the very old. He reminded the world that the aged and frail might lack everything else but could be rich in the quality always in the shortest possible supply in the world--wisdom. His last gift to humanity was a moving and electrifying demonstration of what Christians call a bona mors--how to die.

John Paul was, perhaps, most vehement in his condemnation of abortion, especially when practiced under the sanction of law and on a huge scientific scale, in the clinics specially created to smother the spark of life before birth, which he compared to the death camps erected by Nazi and Soviet mass murderers. It was a sharp sword in his heart which filled him with righteous indignation that, after the world had been scourged for more than 50 years by the mass killings of totalitarianism, anti-life politicians, above all in the democracies, should have set up a holocaust of the unborn which has already--as he often asserted with awe and anger--ended the existence of more tiny human creatures than all the efforts of Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined.

But it should not be thought that John Paul's defense of life was conducted on principles seen as conservative. He was an absolute and implacable opponent of capital punishment, an issue on which he parted sorrowfully from many of his warmest admirers. He was most reluctant to admit the admissibility of war in almost any circumstances. He was wary of giving any kind of approval to President Bush's active war on terror, and plainly opposed the invasion of Iraq. It was his view that a righteous ruler, however tempted by the urge to end wicked regimes, should not set in motion events which would soon move out of control and perhaps cause evils far worse than those it was designed to end.

Not that the pope condoned terrorism in any form. He was never among those clergy in the West who mitigated their disapproval by pointing to legitimate grievances.

Indeed it would be hard to imagine a greater contrast between Pope John Paul, who spent his entire existence searching perpetually to prolong and preserve life, and that evil caricature of a spiritual leader Osama bin Laden, who from the moment he awakes, throughout the day, until he falls into a troubled sleep, directs his agents to end as many lives as possible, including their own (but never his). In their cataclysmic duality, these two men came as close as ever human beings do to embodying the principles of Good and Evil.

The pope was not content to speak out against political wickedness, and analyze it in his powerful encyclicals. Along with President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he played an active and leading role in the overthrow of Soviet Communism and its despicable empire. The three great leaders did it together, and it could well be argued that the pope was the most effective of them.

This was a struggle for freedom, but also for justice. The pope always put the two together in his mind. Shortly before he died, he authorized publication of a little book of his reflections. The key chapter in it is an essay in which he argues that humanity is right to seed freedom but only if that freedom is used to do justice. And the essence of justice is to confer, preserve, protect, prolong and give meaning and value to life.

John Paul's philosophy was thus all of a piece: it was internally consistent in all its parts, a little masterpiece of human thoughtfulness and sense.

We did not know this when he was elected. I covered the Conclave, as I have covered all those held since World War II. In each case, the outcome, in terms of the pontificate which followed, has been quite different from all the predictions made at the time. I have no doubt that the same thing will happen this time, too.

Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit is all-powerful but moves in ways often mysterious, especially in the election of a pope. More than a quarter-century ago, we were given a man of powerful intellect, courage and determination, who possessed wisdom and charity in ample measure, and whose patient and vigorous work for his Church, and for humanity as a whole, was crowned with unusual success. We must pray that his successor is worthy of so rich a heritage.

Mr. Johnson, a historian, is the author of, among others, "A History of Christianity" (Touchstone, 1979). His most recent book is "Art: A New History" (HarperCollins, 2003).

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