4/06/2005

Now that they’ve exhausted all the substantive news on the pope, there are stories in the paper about how the influx of pilgrims is making parts of Rome impassable. And? I mean, it’ll all be over soon and everything will be back to normal. Where’s the story?

The Americans, it’s all about what a deeply spiritual people we are. But almost every American interviewed was a nasally tourist who said some variation of ‘I'm here because this is probably something I’ll remember for the rest of my life!’ And many of them did say ‘probably’. And if you manage to remember it for the rest of your life? Then what? I mean, it’s a stupid, meaningless thing to say, isn’t it? But we are accumulators, collectors, and résumé-builders extraordinaire, aren’t we?

The main thing is, it’s all about us. We can’t experience something in the moment for what it is. We are too postmodern for that. It’s always with a mind for how it will look on the résumé of life when we hand it over to Saint Peter in the waiting room outside the pearly gates. For Americans there is no present, just an imaginary past and an imaginary future.

We really missed the boat on this pope. We will forever associate his papacy with the sex scandals that swept through American dioceses. But even now we complain that JPII was not liberal enough in his thinking, particularly about homosexuality and the ordination of women. These are primarily "first world" concerns, and they presuppose a degree of material wealth, a freedom from other, more vital concerns, and they are more about personal freedom of expression than social justice in the end. So they seem like slightly frivolous issues for the developing and third worlds.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the ordination of women. And I certainly think the Church would gain in the long-run by dispensing with its hypocrisy regarding gays and basically "coming out of the closet." Abortion will never be sanctioned by the Church -- it's absurd -- but a more realistic stance towards birth control is morally sustainable, I think. But the fact is, there are more pressing issues the Church could put its formidable authority and infrastructure towards addressing.

The real significance of this pope is precisely that he came from the Eastern Europe at a time when it was still firmly in Soviet grasp. When he visited Poland in '79 what you saw was truly rare and extraordinary -- the transformative power of the courage and conviction of one man. The papacy hadn't had anything like that for centuries. And for the future, only a second- or third-world pope can lend the kind of moral authority JPII did.

The pope's true constituency isn't in Western Europe or North America anyway. First worlders want religion to rationalize and justify. Only the poor can put religion to a purpose. The main concern of the Catholic Church in this new millennium should be social and economic justice in the third world.

Christianity is a revolutionary religion. It is the religion of revolution. Because it is the religion of the poor and the powerless. It promises to turn the world on its head, and has done. But it curdles in comfortable climes. Once it is installed as the official religion it is no longer revolutionary, and it ceases to be Christianity in all but name. This is why suburban evangelicalism rings hollow, morally speaking.

Christianity in the third world can still be a pure and revolutionary social force. In America, widespread prosperity and the materialism it engenders has transformed it into little more than a rich source of hypocrisy.

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