Friday, April 01, 2005

Pope John Paul II: Faith, love, justice

POPE IN GRAVE CONDITION: So says the "Breaking News" on CNN. I am compelled to say something about this great man, but, I ask, who am I to say anything. This is a man whose life speaks for itself, one of the most significant and influential figures of our time. The end is obviously near, and the coming together of people around the world to pray and, soon, to mourn -- Catholics, mostly, but people of all faiths -- is itself a sign of the hope that the Pope personified.

But what of us who aren't Catholics or who aren't active members of organized religious institutions or in fact who aren't particularly spiritual? It is easy to find fault with the Pope. Nourished by Vatican II, he has been a visible and socially active pontiff. And that, needless to say, has opened him up to criticism. His firm stance against Communism during the '80s was as important in bringing down that odious ideology and freeing the peoples of the former Soviet Union and its orbit of satellite states as anything done more directly in the political sphere. Yet his equally firm stance against abortion, contraception, and euthanasia -- all in the name of the very "culture of life" that motivated the obsessive defenders of the "life" of Terry Schiavo -- likely has done more harm than good. In this sense, he was a friend -- perhaps the best friend -- of much of the developing world, yet the political consequences of his faith meant that much of that world remains in a state of stagnation. As a social liberal in this regard, I have long objected to many of the regressive social policies of the Roman Catholic Church.

But let us not go in that direction. The battle for succession -- and all that that means -- will begin soon enough, and the Church will be compelled, at an official level, to examine its very soul.

For now, let me focus on the good and positive:

From the Pope's 1993 World Day of Peace Message:

"The number of people living in extreme poverty is enormous. I am thinking, for example, of the tragic situations in certain countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There exist vast groups, often whole sectors of the population, which find themselves on the margins of civil life within their own countries. Among them is a growing number of children who in order to survive can rely on nobody except themselves. Such a situation is not only an affront to human dignity but also represents a clear threat to peace. A state, whatever its political organization or economic system, remains fragile and unstable if it does not give constant attention to its weakest members and if it fails to do everything possible to ensure that at least their primary needs are satisfied."

That is an incredible statement of social justice, and one with which I agree wholeheartedly. I have long thought that a society (or a regime, to use current political parlance) can be judged by how it treats its weakest members: the young, the old, the infirm, the mentally and physically challenged, the poor, the helpless. A civilized society -- and a government that acts justly -- cares about -- and for -- its weakest members. The Pope was speaking about the developing world, but let us not forget that poverty lies at our own doorsteps in even the wealthiest of places, however much we look straight through it and go on with our daily lives. Whatever else might be said about the pope's perhaps extreme definition of the "culture of life" (although I'll take that over the many dehumanizing cultures of death around the world: North Korea, Sudan, etc.), his commitment to the weakest members of society cannot be questioned. It lies at the core of his greatness, and of his place in history.

Finally, from the Pope's 1987 Address to Catholic Charities (in California):

"In the final analysis,... we must realize that social injustice and unjust social structures exist only because individuals and groups of individuals deliberately maintain or tolerate them. It is these personal choices, operating through structures, that breed and propagate situations of poverty, oppression, and misery. For this reason, overcoming "social" sin and reforming the social order itself must begin with the conversion of our hearts."

"Choice" is a complex matter, I acknowledge. So many simply know not what they do. But let us never forget the Pope's call to responsibility, both personal and social. Let us neither maintain nor tolerate the social injustice and unjust social structures that breed poverty, oppression, and misery. However much we may disagree with one another, is that not a just common cause?

People of all faiths, of all kinds of faiths, are soon to be in mourning. The promise and hope embodied by the Pope throughout his life, however, will live on and continue to inspire.

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