The Post-European Pope
I struggled all weekend to find something distinctive to say about the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II, and have a hypothesis to offer. In the end, what Karol Wojtyla will be most remembered for is not his role in the end of the Cold War, or the formidable windbreak he built against the storms of doctrinal change initiated by the Second Vatican Council. His most important legacy, I surmise, may be as the key transitional figure in the transformation of Roman Catholicism specifically, and Christianity generally, from a "Western" tradition rooted in Europe to a truly global faith centered in the South rather than the North.
This may seem counter-intuitive, since this Pope was himself pre-eminently European, with a faith and outlook shaped by the twentieth century's struggles against European totalitarianism, and a life that personified the destruction of the divisions between Eastern and Western Europe. Moreover, he went a long way towards healing European Christianity's most shameful historical disease, its murderous intolerance of religious minorities, most notably Jews.
Yet nearly everything about the powerful and perhaps irreversible trajectory he set for the Church points South, to the Third World, and away from Europe and the United States. Many obituarists of this Pope have struggled to categorize him ideologically as "conservative" on faith and morals yet "liberal" or even "radical" on issues of globalization, poverty and war, even as they acknowledge the unity of his own thinking.
But these are Eurocentric ways of looking at his teachings, which may confuse and distress American Catholics and what's left of the faith in Europe, but make perfect sense to most Catholics in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
A deeply illiberal approach to issues involving sexuality and gender; a rejection of capitalism as a necessary counterpart to democracy; and an abiding hostility to U.S.-European political, military, economic and cultural hegemony: this is a consistent point of view with strong support in the global South, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Indeed, in many respects what John Paul II represented was a living link between the pre-modern traditions of European Catholicism and the post-modern realities of much of the rest of the world.
And in that respect, John Paul II was following, not just leading, the faithful. As will be pointed out often during the next couple of weeks, there is now a Southern majority in the College of Cardinals that will elect this pope's successor. Most of the Church's growth is in the South, or among southern immigrants to the North (most notably the Latin American immigrants to the U.S.). John Paul II's peripatetic travel was notable not just in its pace, but in its scope, especially in Latin America and Asia. And it's no accident that the short list for the successor to the first non-Italian pope in half a millennium includes serious candidates from outside Europe for the first time ever.
Sure, John Paul II clamped down on the "liberation theology" popular in some elements of the Latin American clergy, and reined in some of the more exuberant liturgical experiments underway in Africa (as well as in the U.S.). But such actions should be understood as steps to consolidate the South's position in the universal church, not as efforts to impose European norms.
This is, of course, just a hypothesis, and perhaps I am being unduly influenced by the North-South struggle underway in my own faith community, the Anglican Communion, where African and Asian bishops are headed rapidly down a path that may soon lead to the isolation and/or expulsion of their U.S. and Canadian brethren, with the Church of England itself probably next in line for punishment for its "modernist" heresies.
But the case for John Paul II as the crucial figure in the Roman Church's non-Roman, non-European, non-American future seems more compelling to me than a lot of the competing interpretations. And this possibility should especially give pause to the American conservatives, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and irreligious, who are outdoing each other this week in viewing this pope's legacy through the lens of their own cultural and political obsessions. This pope's opposition to "American exceptionalism" invariably embraced opposition to the death penalty, to capitalist triumphalism, and to George W. Bush's unilateralist foreign policies, as well as to abortion or birth control or the removal of feeding tubes from the hopelessly dying.
Many conservatives accuse John Paul II's American flock of practicing a "Cafeteria Catholicism" of selective obedience to Rome. But the American Right, I would argue, is practicing "Cafeteria Conservatism"--an equally selective interpretation of this pope's teachings and legacy, which lead not Right or Left but South. --