Wednesday, July 31, 2002

The Pope Comes to Canada

Two things strike me about the recent visit by John Paul II to my native land to celebrate World Youth Day.

First: his stamina. The Pope was expected to show up a frail old shell of a man, an aged symbol of peace to be trotted out for small adoring crowds in Toronto. But by all accounts he turned out to be a vibrant and still determined champion of his faith who drew surprisingly large crowds in a nation where the federal government makes every effort to downplay religious devotion, especially Christian devotion.

From the Canadian government’s perspective, the Pope is a great human figure, a defender of the weak and a voice for reconciliation around the world. Certainly the Pope made some overtures to these values, making a statement about the importance of respecting the dignity of all cultures. But his real passion came through when he asserted, in no uncertain terms, that Jesus Christ remains the “only true master,” and that believing in him “means rejecting the lure of sin, however attractive it may be, in order to set out on the difficult path of the Gospel virtues.”

This sort of talk, about masters and sin and virtues, is not something the multicultural set likes to hear. And yet this message itself, this faith, must surely have something to do with the Pope’s long commitment to his work and his ongoing determination to serve his flock until his death. Here I see a parallel between the Pope and those Christian churches – mostly Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant – that are gaining so many converts in the developing world. While we hear so much about the decline in religious observance in the developed world, especially in Europe, religion in the third world is booming. At the same time, liberal Protestant denominations are dying out everywhere at a rapid rate.

The explanation for this phenomenon, it seems, is reflected in the Pope himself. To see this, we need to look at what the Catholics and the evangelical Protestants have in common. Under the current Pope, the Church has turned some corners. Where once it was an adamant opponent of liberal democracy, it now champions individual rights. Where once it was a stuffy old hierarchy, it now appeals more immediately to the spiritual needs of the faithful dealing with a modern world. Similarly, evangelical Protestants have also taken a turn to a more democratic, immediate religious experience that places emphasis on the believer’s experience.

To many this might sound a bit disingenuous. The Pope continues to oppose contraception, a married clergy and women’s ordination, while evangelical Protestants are notorious for their adherence to a literal interpretation of Biblical injunctions, especially regarding sexuality. But here precisely is the reason for their successes. The modern Catholic Church champions democracy and the evangelical Protestants embody a democratic equality in the very structure of their congregations. Still, with all this accommodation to democracy, these denominations continue to assert that there is a God who created, that there are humans who are created in the image of that God, and that therefore there is a form to human life. These religions, with all their conformity to democracy, still ask the question: What is man? - a question humans cannot help but ask.

Unfortunately, this is the one question liberal Protestants, along with their apologists in academic circles, never ask. Among liberal Protestants we hear nothing but social justice, community and relativistic banter. I know. I attended Harvard Divinity School, where I used to remark that I was kicked out of the Inclusivity Club for actually asserting that God might really exist and therefore humans might have certain obligations towards him. Apparently such a statement is not only oppressive, but racist, sexist, heterosexist, lookist, ageist and speciest. When the church has nothing more to offer than sentimental garbage it fully should expect its own impending doom.

But the liberal Protestants will respond that it is they who truly believe in democracy. It is they who espouse equality and the acceptance of all people and cultures regardless of their behavior. And yet, their democratic rhetoric fails to see one simple thing: there is nothing more oppressive, nothing more tyrannical than the refusal to ask the question, What is man? This was my experience at Harvard Divinity School. Amidst all those students and professors falling all over each other to proclaim the school’s openness, its multiculturalism, its acceptance, was the overwhelming and ever-present threat that any attempt to ask a question that represents the very distinctiveness of the human species would be met with the harshest attack and exclusion.

Whatever answer one supplies to the question, it is the very act of wondering about it that contributes to human freedom and human dignity. The Pope, it would seem, understands this. For all the adaptations his church has made to democracy, he has shunned the more banal democratic ideology that allows equality to devolve into relativism at the expense of freedom and truth.

This surely contributes to his amazing stamina in Toronto, as it sustained him throughout his pontificate. And this leads me to the second thing that struck me about his visit. History will remember the role John Paul II played in the fall of communism, especially in Poland. The stamina he now displays played no small part in his continual challenge to communist orthodoxy, an orthodoxy that made no allowance for questions regarding what is man, let alone God. It shouldn’t surprise us then that a handful of young faithful from communist Cuba used the opportunity to seek refuge in Canada, after evading the Cuban guards sent to Toronto to avoid just this scenario. It is, when you think about it, rather appropriate.

However, according to a report in the National Post, Paul Kilbertus, a spokesman for World Youth Day, didn’t see things this way. Speaking to a reporter he said, “This is not why we put on World Youth Day, and it’s disappointing that this would happen. You just do your best to have the best system in place.”

I suppose one could say that the communists in Poland and in Cuba did their best to “have the best system in place.” Apparently the Pope didn’t much like the system. The Cubans coming to Canada shared this view, and took his message to heart, as do many in the developing world who prefer a real faith to contemporary theological relativism. Oddly enough, even the people who built the system have their doubts. While World Youth Day was going on in Toronto, Alcibiades Hidalgo, former office manager to Fidel Castro’s brother Raul, was arriving in a raft in Miami after fleeing the great Cuban system.

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