Monday, April 04, 2005


The Gathering Storm

PSAYINGS.5G.18-19. It seems that only in the case of movie stars do we roll back the clock at the moment of death to see the departed as they were before age and illness eroded their physical bodies. Most of the footage we'll be seeing in the next week will show us John Paul II as an enfeebled old man. This is no conspiracy, in my opinion, but it does serve to undermine one of this Pope's most outstanding attributes -- his extraordinary strength. The image shown above is meant as a small reminder.

Others are much better equipped to discuss his role in history and in the spiritual realm. The first two articles I looked at this morning, by Charles Krauthammer and Richard John Neuhaus, used the same reference point to establish the scale of the Pope's stature: Stalin's dismissal of the power of Rome -- "The pope? How many divisions does he have?" Stalin didn't get an answer in his lifetime, but rather in the posterity that toppled all of his monuments to himself, aided considerably by the strong right arm of Pope John Paul II.

Yet for all the talk of greatness we shall be hearing in the next week or two, I suspect that there are forces at work to make sure that the next pope is not a titan but a mere mortal. Why? Several reasons, both general and specific. Greatness tends, however much we admire it, to abash and even fatigue us. Nature or providence often tenders the relief we yearn for, in the shape of a smaller, less intimidating successor. Washington retires on horseback, bequeathing us the bookish Adams. Lincoln is assassinated to promote the hapless Andrew Johnson. Churchill is rudely turned out of office at the very moment of his supreme victory in favor of Clement Atlee (who?!). Franklin Roosevelt carries his vast Patrician iconography with him to the grave, and his people inherit the decidedly plebeian Harry Truman.

The Catholic Church actually has a saying that captures this phenomenon: "A fat pope is followed by a thin pope." While I'm sure the adage is not meant to suggest that a good pope must be succeeded by a bad pope, it may well portend that a strong pope is often succeeded by a weak pope.

Other, more topical factors -- perhaps in reflection of the larger principle -- also support the notion that the cardinals may move in a different direction this time. It is clear, for example, that the Europeans have developed a preference for leaders who are, in every real sense, impotent. We can see their vision of the future in the presidency of the EU, a revolving door of faceless obfuscators who remain acceptable by saying and doing nothing that could be called brave, let alone strong. Many countries around the world seem to approve the European model; outside the U.S., Kofi Annan's pitiful stewardship of the U.N. has generated enough fondness to make it likely that he can survive the corruption of his administration merely by reaffirming his mild lack of interest in making a difference anywhere on earth.

In contrast, note the ceaseless hateful rhetoric that issues from the worldwide chorus because the United States has contrarily opted for a strong president. Is this a lesson that will be lost on the College of Cardinals? Time will tell, but there are signs that even within the Church, there already exists an academic foundation capable of rationalizing the deep emotional need for relief. In this morning's L.A. Times, there is a column by Michael McGough titled "Should the Papacy be Down-Sized?" McGough cites a book by John R. Quinn, archbishop of (where else?) San Francisco, which argues for a Vatican more along the lines of the E.U.:

Paradoxical as it seems, the larger-than-life pontiff, whose "popemobile" ran up mileage around the world, issued an encyclical in 1995 expressing interest in a quieter papacy, in finding "a way of exercising the primacy, which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nevertheless open to new situations."

The encyclical, "Ut Unum Sint" (That They May Be One), is the starting point for Quinn's critique of Vatican over-centralization. Perhaps its most startling feature is the suggestion that the pope might return to the lower-profile job of bishop of Rome, as it was understood in the first 1,000 years of Christianity, before the schism with Eastern Orthodoxy. In those days, John Paul noted, the bishop of Rome merely "acted by common consent as moderator" when Christians disagreed about beliefs or practices, rather than as an ecclesiastical micromanager.

What would a papacy shaped by the encyclical look like? For one thing, it would be more parochial, more local, with, most likely, an Italian pope who tended to his Roman flock and didn't stride so much on the world stage.

Yup. Us post-modern folks don't much care for lots of striding on the world stage. Slinking and sneaking and drinking tea with visiting despots will do.

Thankfully, I know next to nothing about Vatican politics. So, I'm most likely dead wrong about what's going to happen in the next few weeks. That's the good news.

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