When Pope John Paul II was named “Man of the Year” in 1994 by Time Magazine, I cut off the cover, framed it, and put it up in our apartment. We kept it up, from one apartment to the next, for a couple of years, and even at one point had a framed photo of President Hinckley on the wall next to it as well. (No visitor ever commented on our arrangement, though I often wonder what some of them may have thought.) So yes, you could say I was a major fan of the Pope. I mourn his passing, and I was glad to hear President Hinckley’s kind comments about the man. He deserved nothing less–and indeed, probably deserved much more.
Am I saying that we owe something–something beyond simple respect, perhaps–to this pontiff, whether as a man or as a leader of the Roman Catholic faith, or even both? Yes.
I don’t say this as a major fan of Roman Catholicism. I was educated in part at Catholic University of America, spent many thoughtful hours at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception located just next door, and have a profound admiration for the culture of beauty and piety which the Catholic church has built and preserved over the centuries. I strongly suspect that at the Day of Judgment, God will receive believing Catholics and the worship and service they have performed in Jesus’s name with open arms. Still, in the end, I consider many of their doctrines of Christ to be misguided at best and idolatrous at worst; Catholic teachings often leave little room for grace, and consequently misunderstand the theological importance of justification in how we make covenants, enter into a relationship with the Savior, and thus receive God’s gifts into our life. I’m moderately more appreciative of Catholic theology as it pertains to church life and living a life of holiness, but not excessively so. There has been, in recent years, a number of educated Mormons who have turned to Catholic thought in addressing any number of philosophical and moral dilemmas, but (unless you consider continental philosophy as essentially Catholic endeavor–a strained but not impossible argument to make) I’m not one of them. Though he has been terribly abused by his intellectual heirs, I’d still rather sit and talk with Martin Luther in the afterlife than Thomas Aquinas.
Plus, I’m agnostic on Catholicism’s impact historically and socially. While I think I hear more anti-Protestant feeling amongst my fellow Mormons today than anti-Catholicism, I know the latter is still around, frequently as a result of rough encounters with Catholic opposition in the mission field in Western Europe or Latin America. (My older brother, who served a mission in Argentina, once told me he considered Catholicism “just plain evil”; my older sister, who served a mission in Paraguay, described the nuns she knew there as “witches and vultures.”) I’ve never experienced any of the kind of corruption which these and other stories attribute to Catholic environments and leaders, but I’m sure their accusations are not groundless. As far as organizations go, Catholicism probably has more to answer for than most (but then, it’s been around longer than most too).
But Catholicism is greater than the sum of its theology and its institutions; it is, most importantly, a practice, a way of making the principles of Christianity work in the world–and, as is often necessary, making them into a defense against, or an alternative to, a world that has for the better part of four centuries equated “progress” and “modernity” with the rejection of religious authority and collective concern. In this particular matter, I fear that Mormon culture today for the most part flails around with minor league stuff. Of course, 19th-century Mormonism, with the united orders and occasional gestures in the direction of outright theocracy, was about as radical a “counter-culture” as America has ever seen, but when hard social and economic realities intruded–in the form of the federal government as well as the railroad–that counter-culture was for the most part abandoned. Since then, while some prophetic voices have continued to hold out the promise of a true Mormon economic, social, and artistic alterantive to modern life, it seems to me that even those Mormons most educated in and concerned about these problems can see no other alternative than to engage in some thoughtful nostalgic mourning, and then continue on with being “in but not of” the world. Which means, as I see it, that the serious work of creating a broad and living response to a world whose wickedness we want to reject but whose basic economy and sociality we cannot avoid remains to be done.
Which is where Pope John Paul II, and the Roman Catholic church under his pontificate, come in. In a number of insightful and important encyclicals–especially Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (“On Social Concern”) and Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”)–John Paul laid down a set of principles which forced Catholic teachings beyond the antimodern conservatism of earlier pontiffs and instead presented them as an alternative modernity, one which was arrayed against the dominant trends of modern life in every particular. The “culture of life” denounced both the right and the left; it was pro-life and pro-labor, anti-abortion and anti-acquisitiveness. More than just a “third way,” this pope’s “new evangelization” was a radical call to embrace the fundamentals of Christ’s witness–speaking love to power–in the most everyday of struggles: in linking justice with the broader culture, in renouncing war and proclaiming peace, and most of all in defending the poor, the weak, and the defenseless as the most representatively human of us all. The force of this call, over the decades, created a “Catholic moment” that brought Protestants and others flocking to the Catholic banner, sometimes just stragetically but often literally as well.
I remember seeing these energized flocks up close and personal early one cold February morning, streaming off the Washington DC Metro at the CUA stop. Old and young, of all races and nationalities, they gathered at the National Shrine and turned it into a base camp. They were there to participate later that day in the annual March for Life, the protest which clogs the streets of the capital on the anniversary of the despicable Roe v. Wade decision. I spent an hour walking through that cavernous basilica, eavesdropping on parish priests performing masses, activists and veterans counseling young volunteers, students carrying clipboards and practicing cheers, organizers running through plan after marching plan, feeling the energy and righteous joy of the participants build to a cresendo. And what I thought was: “This is like the MTC–only more.”
What I’m saying, in other words, is that when it comes to how a Christian should and must respond to this world, Pope John Paul II was a prophet, and one who put forward more thorough responses to the complexities of modern life than any Mormon leader since perhaps Brigham Young has felt inspired to give. Obviously, only a small minority of Catholics and others have responded this pope’s call with anything approaching true comprehensiveness–though I think that lopsidedness had more to do with the left’s tragic rejection of this message than with anything inherent to those who have striven to respond to it. And to be sure, more than little hypocrisy and self-indulgence have taken shelter in the skewed shadow cast by the pope’s misinterpreted teachings; many of the politicians (and that includes church leaders and intellectuals) who talk about the “culture of life” today clearly don’t share even the basics of this vision, but rather just crave the support and votes of those who do. Still, I doubt the partiality, selfishness and inconsistency of many of those who have claimed to follow this pope is much of an argument in favor of more typically Mormon pragmatic, small-scale, and mostly inwardly directed counsel. I don’t think, and don’t want, it turn out to be the case that Mormonism can be fully lived without demanding of us a bit of Mormon social and economic world-making. But I suppose that it’s just not our moment at present…which means that, to the extent that as Christians we Mormons need recourse against the world (against poverty and inhumanity and materialism and despair), the path charted by Catholics inspired by this pontiff will remain the one most used by publicly engaged Mormons. And for that, our whole church owes this great, charismatic, wise man an enormous debt.
I don’t mean to demean our own priesthood leadership in comparison to those currently gathering at the Vatican. As was pointed out during this general conference, President Hinckley is not just a prophet, but also a seer and a revelator, something Pope John Paul II never was and never could have been. So assuming we take the Book of Mormon at its word, President Hinckley is greater than John Paul. But insofar as the calling to speak truth to the world goes, and speaking so that all can hear, I don’t think our church has yet produced his equal.
But give us time.