Monday, April 21, 2008
The Pope prays at Ground Zero.
RENASCENT BARBARIANS. I was surprised this morning to discover that both the Drudge Report and RealClearPolitics.com had already moved on from the Pope's visit. The final day of campaigning before the Pennsylvania primary is clearly too fascinating to put aside for a moment, even though everything that could be said about it has already been said hundreds of times.
But I predict there will be more lasting impacts from the Pope's mini-tour of the east coast than from the PA primary. It's just that those impacts won't be easy to count or weigh. I'll mention a few of them here, and I'm sure you'll think of your own as well.
Christianity. The scoffers can't be impressed, but most Americans believe in God and recognize goodness when they see it. Brit Hume referred yesterday to the "beatific sweetness" of Pope Benedict. That was my own overriding impression of the 81-year-old man, fragile, vulnerable yet strong, who presided over a whirlwind of events that would have exhausted most people a third his age. He seemed to be continuously present, sharing his being with enormous crowds and individuals while also appearing to take it all in -- the liturgy, the people, the settings, the symbols, the meanings -- like a sponge. He knew that something deep was happening to the Americans who witnessed him, and he knew that something deep was happening in him. There was, quite appropriately, an air of spring about the proceedings, the renewal of old life after a long winter. It's not a surprise that it happens. What's surprising is the beautiful freshness of each new blossoming.
I think Pope Benedict's visit took everyone by surprise in this way. There are a lot of Roman Catholics in this country, and I'm sure they're more energized by their faith this morning than they were a week ago. There are also a lot of non-Catholic Christians in this country, many of whom are formally and theologically opposed to the papacy (as you can sample in the comments here), but at least a part of most protestant truculence about the pope has to do with the fact that he is the indisputable leader of Christianity in the world. (Not to be flip, but he's the NY Yankees of clerics; hence the aptness of the location of yesterday's mass.) For all but a few gnostic cults, he is the head of an ancient and sprawling family with many cadet and renegade branches, all of whom are nevertheless descended from the same source.
It therefore matters to all Christians who the Pope is, what he says, and how he interacts with us and the world. And when he is admirable and devout in his faith, we can all be proud of him. If we can dispense with denominational pride and jealousy, we can also admit that there is no single other Christian whose prayers at Ground-Zero would mean quite so much. When he is humbled and moved and stricken by the experience, he affirms and helps heal our own pain. That is what happened in the pit of the Towers yesterday. He spread his mantle over all of us and poured balm on such sores as this:
Liberation theology: A beam in the eye?
America. There's been a lot of America bashing in the years since 9/11. From the mideast, from Europe, and even from our own fellow citizens, much of it centered on the nation's role as the last but most potent outpost of devout Christianity among the world's major powers. Our exceptional "clinging" to religion when all the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe are virtually empty is supposed to make us backward, buffoonish, dangerous, stupid, and even contemptible. The fact of our continuing religious faith makes it easy to ridicule our lonely prosecution of the war on terror as a crusade launched from a Texas trailer park
Who knows what the Pope thought before he came here? He may have had as wrong an idea about us as we obviously had about him. Since his election, our own mass media have continuously portrayed him as a stiff reactionary academic, a cold and remote placeholder to fill the office while the College of Cardinals searches for a real successor to John Paul II. We learned differently by having the opportunity to see Pope Benedict in action. Why were his eyes so alight throughout the masses and meetings with real Americans? Was it because he, too, had been fed a load of nonsense about who we are? And because he had suddenly discovered that the river of faith flows here more powerfully and less polluted than he had been led to expect?
The Old World may be running out of faith, but we should consider the possibility that it isn't because they're smarter but only because they're exhausted with life itself. We're still the hope of the world because we still want to live, and we still believe life has meaning, as well as individual value. That's why it's doubly important that the Pope prayed at ground Zero. He affirmed that something very terrible had indeed been done to us and that the pain of it is amplified by the fact that we do care so much about every life.
Age. The Democrats and the MSM are readying us for an assault on John McCain's advanced age, which is supposed to make him obsolete, weak, and irrelevant. Pope Benedict drew huge audiences of young people who got to see a vivid example of the fact that age can also bring wisdom, authority, perspective, humility, and irreplaceable gravity. No, John McCain cannot be assumed to possess all these qualities because he is only ten years younger than the Pope, but he may merit a second look from youngsters who have never previously been taught to respect their elders.
There is another kind of age that matters, too. The Roman Catholic Church just proved (again) that it is still possesses mighty if intangible power in the world, even after two millennia that have seen the rise and fall of innumerable other institutions and empires. What does this mean to us? That the power of a beneficent idea can survive if it perseveres and chooses to rebuild and renew itself rather than destroy itself in penance for the mistakes and even crimes that any sufficiently long-lasting entity will commit. The church has not done this by recasting itself as its own opposite or dividing against itself into competing strains of vengeful vandals. It moves, however slowly, to accept responsibility for its own errors, corrects them, and renews its commitment to the core of its values. Pope Benedict could have made token acknowledgment of the sex scandals that have so scarred the American church and moved on. Instead, he brought the subject up with every audience, declared the responsibility of the church to care for the victims, and described the process for making sure it doesn't happen again. There's a lesson here for all institutions, including nations. Always preserve the animating idea and treat failures to live up to that idea as failures of individual people and systems, not of the animating idea. Never cease to aspire.
Obama. Perhaps not in tomorrow's primary, but the papal visit is going to hurt Obama in the general election. He, more than any other candidate, should have made an appearance at one of the events. Christians of all denominations have just been reminded of how much older their faith is than all of the grievances that drive the Obama campaign, which will further aggravate the effect of his remarks about Americans clinging to religion because the job market is bad. Further, the striking sensory phenomena of the Pope's visit -- the gorgeous choirs and singing, the reenactments of ancient liturgy, the sweetness and manifest love of the Pope himself, and the humble awe of the various audiences -- will contrast discordantly with the YouTube rantings of Jeremiah Wright and reverberate for months and years to come. Obama needs to be seen as a Christian, not the muslim of his name or paternity. At a single stroke the papal visit has made it clear that Wright -- and by implication his favorite parishioner -- is far closer to the warrior mullahs of Iran than to the Vicar of Christ on earth. As are the secular crusaders like Bill Maher who wish to demonstrate Obama's goodness by savaging the evils of traditional Christianity.
Maybe RealClearPolitics will get around to considering these intangibles on Wednesday, after the most important political event in the history of life on earth.