Reflections on John Paul II in America: The New Provincials

To Those Who Believe in the Superiority of the Present Cultural Epoch, the Pope is a Stumbling Block

The Pope has come, the pope has gone, but we haven’t heard the last of him. And as we assimilate the trip and the many separate messages he delivered, the full import of his visit will over time gradually reveal itself.

In the meantime we must have the humility to acknowledge that our own observations are partial at best — as partial as many of those whose responses are faulty or misguided. We must also, however, have the courage to make our own observations, as thoughtfully and effectively as we can.

Like many who followed the pope’s tour, I reacted initially to the strong visual images: John Paul II on his arrival unconsciously upstaging the president of the United States (no small achievement), moving easily among Hispanic workers, embracing a handicapped “thalidomide baby” guitar player, greeting an amphitheater of teenagers, giving moral cultural injunctions to Hollywood gliterati, moving gently to the liturgy performed by black Catholics, listening with deep inwardness to those who delivered messages to him. These visual images, fleeting as they were, are not to be dismissed. They reveal a person who can move easily with authority among different kinds of people, who are eager to see and hear him.

But, of course, the trip to the United States was only one of many for this activist pope. When we couple these American scenes with those of John Paul in other countries, the phenomenon is truly remarkable. Is there another person on the world scene today who can move from continent to continent, country to country, group to widely divergent group and find such warm acceptance? There is not. (I would be surprised to find I was the only Catholic with the narrow but satisfying feeling that comes from being able to say, “All that attention and he’s the leader of my church.”) This attention is all the more remarkable when one considers that his acceptance rests not on those characteristics associated with high recognition and popularity (he is neither political leader nor entertainer) but on the moral and spiritual authority of his office and person.

These visual images also serve as a vivid reminder that the pope acts as the leader of the church universal, even as he speaks in different countries to different groups. What he says in each country, speaking to its particular circumstances and concerns, will be heard in other countries, often with very different understandings of the issues addressed. Of course, the pope must face this difficulty whenever he faces particular groups that have their own special concerns and interests. But the difficulty is compounded in a country so vast as the United States, which is highly pluralistic, with many subcultures some of which do not understand just how “sub” they are. But is often the very subcultures who are the most extreme, most flamboyant, and who most naturally lend themselves to the media’s natural and insatiable demand for the new and sensational.

Case in point: the small group of oddities designated as The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, whose nun-like garb became, as they intended, the frequent focus of the television eye.

Case in point: the novelist, propelled into public opinion forums on the basis of literary talent, who asserted that as a result of his meeting with Waldheim the pope had “lost all moral authority.”

Case in point: those who found it anomalous that the pope and others could express compassion for those suffering from AIDS and yet continue to find morally unacceptable those practices that are the most common means of transmitting the syndrome — and made their confusion the basis of unenlightening complaints.

But if such negligible or misguided responses to the pope drew more attention than they deserved, they did not obscure the more significant events and exchanges that took place on this trip. For there were exchanges between the pope and the different people he addressed and that, in itself, is noteworthy. Those with short or non-existent historical memories may not recall the elevated distance that the immediate predecessors of John XXIII placed between themselves and other bishops, not to mention the laity. In this perspective the meetings in the United States between John Paul and diverse American Catholics are the beginnings of a new process and should be regarded as such.

As a beginning, then, how did they go? Were they a learning experience for American Catholics to whom this Polish pope brought sometimes astringent formulations of the gospel message? And was it also a learning experience for the pope, to whom so many were eager to bring the experience and reflections of Americans, both Catholics and others? It’s too early to give a definitive answer to either of these questions. Quiet meditation, examination of texts, comparison of notes, and prayer must precede such a possibility. However, a few reflections on two related but philosophically disparate topics that threaded their way through much of the commentary: authority and sexual matters.

Speaking to John Paul, Cardinal Bernadin was admirably direct in defining one aspect of what troubles and roils current debates within the church. Speaking specifically of Americans he said: “We live in an open society where everyone prizes the freedom to speak his or her mind. Many tend to question things, especially those matters which are important to them, as religion is. They want to know the reason why certain decisions are made and they feel free to criticize if they do not agree or are not satisfied with the explanations.” He then added that such issues have ecclesial implications, which apply to “our exchanges with the Holy See.” Then he added a sound cautionary note: “Even if our exchange is characterized by some as confrontational, we must remain calm and not become captives of those who would use us to accomplish their own ends.”

The portions of his text that were the most quoted, however, were just those that many were pleased to describe as confrontational. There was little acknowledgement on the part of those who noted the Cardinal’s comments that not all the injunctions of the Gospel admit of satisfactory explanations, not that the lack of such explanations allow ready disagreement. It was the pope who asserted that “It has never been easy to accept the Gospel teaching in its entirety, and it never will.”

Archbishop Rembert Weakland also addressed the issue of authority, in overlapping but yet different terms. “The faithful are more inclined to look at the intrinsic worth of an argument proposed by the teachers in the church than to accept it on the basis of the authority itself.” The word “argument” is made to carry a possibly undue weight here. In the untechnical terms the archbishop used, the statement is unexceptionable. But if we replace the word “argument” with the word “teaching,” real problems emerge. These problems are given greater definition by the archbishop’s subsequent comment that “an authoritarian style is counterproductive, and such an authority for the most part then becomes ignored.” So rapidly then do we move from “authority” to “authoritarian,” quite overleaping the use of the term “authoritative.” There is a difference between justly authoritative teaching and an authoritarian style, in which the teaching may or may not be delivered. Again, it was the pope who made some necessary distinctions: “The service of our pastoral leadership, purified in personal prayer and penance, far from being an authoritarian style in any way, must listen and encourage, challenge and at times correct.”

Not long ago Fr. Charles Curran recalled that the traditional Catholic approach is not the either/or of some denominations; it is, rather, a both/and. Thus we depend upon both tradition and Scripture, revelation and reflection — and, in the matters to which the archbishop alluded, on both traditional authority and intelligent inquiry. It cannot be a question of choosing one or the other.

The other topic that occasionally threatened to overwhelm all others was sex and its attendant features. Again a little historical memory is called for. Not many decades ago, this culture condemned or looked askance on many sexual practices that today are easily accepted and even promoted by different sectors of our society. And there are respected educators who would make them the subject of school curricula for students from kindergarten on up. Our culture, from a questionable high to low, is saturated with sexual referents. As the rock lyric has it: “Sex is natural/sex is good./Not everybody does it/but everybody should.”

The church — need it be noted? — has not advanced along the broad “progressive” path that American culture has prepared for those unencumbered by the moral restrictions which has long informed Western civilization. It continues to find that fornication, sodomy, adultery, and abortion fall short of what is morally indicated. As the preeminent messenger of the traditional teaching, John Paul was frequently and harshly criticized for bringing that teaching to these shores and, possibly more frequently, condescended to by commentators who spoke with the authority of the high office. At his door were laid the charges of insensitivity, sexism, uncharitableness, blindness, rigidity, and — well, the list is long. For some people all of this was subsumed in one term. The pope was “provincial.” He brings to this country, it is said, an outworn, outmoded moral perspective, uninformed by the insights, compassion, and high-mindedness with which his critics know they have been blessed.

The charge of provincialism should more properly be levied against those who think that this present culture so far surpasses those of other times and places that we can judge them from a secure height of moral superiority. We have yet to measure the personal and societal consequences of the present American culture. At the moment, we would seem to have reason to pause, to reflect and, possibly, to anguish over at least some of its consequences. It is far too early to conclude that those who abide by codes, mores, and moral beliefs that have guided many Christian generations are less enlightened, less sophisticated than our more “advanced” moral advisors. This is at least one of the messages that I draw from the pope’s visit. What makes it difficult for me to assimilate this message completely is that I recognize that it is also directed at me.


  • James Finn

    James Finn is author of Protest: Pacifism and Politics, a study of the Vietnam peace movement, and, when Crisis was originally published in 1982, he was editor of Freedom at Issue, the bimonthly journal of Freedom House.

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