the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2005 April 17


As a young adolescent, I engaged in sandlot role-playing games with a few friends; and unlike formal Dungeons and Dragons, the rules of the game owed a lot to the whims of the players. Like most fantasy since Tolkien, our world was an imitation of Middle-earth. As dungeonmaster for many of these games, I fashioned the world to my own specifications. This allowed me to hide, somewhere in (of course) a network of tunnels under the mountains, in (of course) a hoard of dragon treasure, a magical device made (of course) of gold. The device was a thought projector; and its function was to read the wearer’s mind and create those thoughts as reality. Powerful magic, needless to say: caprice inside caprice inside caprice; absolute instantaneous wish gratification and the perfect realization of will, three times over. It made Keaw the Elf a god, and me the god of a god. But my friends and I quit playing the game after a while. Omnipotence is boring.

The god of Christianity is omnipotent. So is the human manifestation of this god, Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish preacher who founded the religion. The two beings are identical in most accounts, though the latter generally speaks as if they are not. We might suppose that God set aside his omnipotence for a few decades to play at being human because omnipotence is boring. He put himself at the mercy of some of his less-merciful creations to get a feel for the powerlessness of humanity. It got him executed, and few ends are better evidence of impotence. But then he supposedly planned this all along.

This story comes to us courtesy of the greatest institution the world has ever known: the Roman Catholic Church. It is currently the largest voluntary organization in the world, second only to the quite-involuntary Máoist Empire of China. It dwarfs any comparable institution; with a billion and more followers it is larger than either Islam or the rest of Christianity, and neither of them has anything like a coherent structure, whereas the Catholic Church is a strict hierarchy commanded by the bishop of Rome, an office newly vacant with the death of Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II.

The Church’s authority as the sole institution founded by the sole God is immense; the pope’s authority as God’s vicar, the apostolic successor of God’s right-hand man Simon Peter, is likewise immense. And since Vatican I in 1870, official church policy has been that, whenever the pope himself so determines, he is infallible ― acting without the possibility of error. Every Catholic is bound to follow the Church’s teachings, and the Church is bound to follow the pope. And the cardinals who choose the pope are themselves chosen by the pope. John Paul’s extraordinary term in office means that he has appointed virtually all of the voting cardinals.

The pope specifically, and the Church generally, are mostly limited to the power they are granted by the flock. But the authority of bishops over priests, priests over parishioners, husbands over wives, and parents over children is all dependent on the perpetuation of authority in the abstract. Each person submits to authority in order to gain authority, except for those at the bottom who are generally powerless anyway. The system coheres; and while the authority of the pope is insufficient to do much in a short papacy, a very long papacy such as that of Wojtyla is transformative.

A saint must have two verified miracles to its credit. When I first heard the requirement, I was imagining serious miracles, New Testament supernatural tricks of the water-walking sort, and wondering how there could be any saints at all. It turns out that the standard is quite a bit lower, and generally consists only of the unexplained remission of some medical condition, a remission claimed to be coincident with some entreaty to the prospective saint’s spirit for divine intervention. (Why a monotheist would be praying to the soul of a dead person is likewise unexplained, and might count as the requisite second miracle. But then any dead soul who can persuade God to do something that God was not going to do anyway certainly deserves to be a saint, if not a minor god itself.) The verification of miracles has naturally been quite lax, even fraudulent, and this has not changed under John Paul. And John Paul has set a precedent for an expedited sainthood, using the case of his contemporary and friend Teresa of Calcutta.

John Paul will be named a saint, that is clear. The canonization will be expedited. Many of the mourners at his funeral were essentially moving that the rules be suspended and he be declared a saint by acclamation. It could well have happened. John Paul elevated more to sainthood than any of his predecessors, or by some accounts all of his predecessors. He clearly believed in the example of sainthood, and as the most famous recent example of Catholic piety, even Teresa notwithstanding, he must become a saint according to the standards he himself established.

Still others are insisting that he be called ‘John Paul the Great’. In the traditional sense of “highly significant”, he was certainly great, if perhaps not greater than all but two of his predecessors. (Peter himself is only implicitly great.) Those who want to call him such can do so, but the idea that persons become ‘the Great’ through an official act that can then be forced upon the rest of us is a folk belief. It compares to those children, some now grown old and dead, who were named something ‘Junior’, ‘the Third’, or ‘the Fourth’. Arguments have raged over whether a name thus suffixed can be passed on to nephews or grandchildren, or whether, as purists would have it, must only be passed on in direct patrilineal descent. But originally ‘Senior’, ‘Junior’, and the like were not formal parts of a name at all, but colloquial distinctions applied to those who otherwise had exactly the same name, ‘Robert Stanton’ followed by a son also named ‘Robert Stanton’, who must then be distinguished. But tell that to the middle-aged Robert Stanton IV who insists on signing his name with the Roman numerals. He certainly would believe that some church body can designate John Paul ‘the Great’ in such a way that the rest of us are bound to follow.

John Paul the Persistent, though, in any case. His longevity has given him an influence that cannot be denied, a chance to use the power of his office and his church the way they were intended. I would ask, though, if this is something the rest of us should be so sanguine about. Was Saint John Paul the Great also John Paul the Very Good?

He played a part in the fall of (part of) the Russian Empire, true enough; but since we have recently been asked to swallow the idea that Ronald Reagan was almost completely responsible for this fall, there is little credit left over, and there will now be none at all for the millions of individuals throughout the Russian Empire who defied the powers with their own bodies. It is hard not to suppose that John Paul’s zeal against the empire was a direct consequence of the empire’s suppression of Christianity, exactly like the current Evangelical interest in human rights in China. It seems fair to give John Paul credit for some sincere concern about human rights beyond the material interests of his organization. But he never produced a logically-consistent policy for the organization or its billion members to follow to improve the human rights of the oppressed around the world. Force was usually ruled out, which excluded not only any meaningful attempt to remove a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, but also any meaningful effort by John Paul’s many Latin American subjects to free themselves from rightist military dictatorships. Whether John Paul countenanced the recent invasion of Afghanistan because the war received such broad support elsewhere in the world, or because the Taliban were so very Islamic, is not clear. But in the absence of an integral policy some cynicism can certainly be inferred.

That he deified Mary in a church whose female members are perpetually subordinate was hardly a consistent message either; and this Marian ideology is great heresy to the other Christian churches with whom he was apparently seeking reconciliation. He was consistent on the subject of life and the biological processes, almost to the end. Life is God’s to create, and God’s to destroy (but did John Paul do everything he could to prolong his own spent life, as he demanded in the case of others?). He fervently defended the line that heterosexual activity in marriage is sacred, and all else is profane. From someone with so many poor followers, the prohibition against not only abortion but even simple birth control is cause for some condemnation. He was offering only the alternative of abstinence to all those poor people who could not really afford to have large families. That even the church’s most dedicated believers, its clerics, could not control their sexual urges, even where children were involved, should have been some evidence to John Paul that his policy was doomed to fail. Or perhaps not: uncontrolled reproduction gave John Paul a much larger church with a much younger and much poorer membership, thereby increasing the power of the hierarchy in the lives of the membership and the power of the church in the world.

Soon his personally-selected college of cardinals will select his successor. As the example of Karol Wojtyla shows, it is a selection on which rides the nature of the church and even the world. We should all be interested. But though I am an atheist and an opponent of faith in general, I think I can safely argue that even Christians of faith, even Catholics, should take the example of Wojtyla as cautionary, and should ask themselves whether this is an institution we want in our world. Far from celebrating the long reign of this man, we should be regretting it, and dreading the emergence of his successor. Though the Church is not the barbaric instrument of medieval Europe, still it is an institution that has kept its members subservient, tithing, and ever-reproducing, to the direct benefit of the institution at the direct expense of the members. It has stifled progress in society as well as reform within the church itself. It has continued to teach uncritical thought, and to perpetuate the idea of the personal entitlement of an élite to control the lives of others. It has embodied this all in the person of Saint John Paul the Great, at the implicit and explicit direction of this very same John Paul. Some would see the hand of God in all of this.

I see only the hand of Man. I see a dominion of mortals passed down through the generations, conservative and cynical. I see a cabal of dons, who established an organization, compiled its holy scriptures, made this organization a tremendous temporal force in Europe, and used the European conquest of the world to expand its own influence. I believe that the dons fabricated their deity ex nihilo; but even those who do not must admit that the dons have taught us of a deity who conveniently believes what they believe and endorses their right to apply those beliefs. They have created a world that operates according to their own rules. They have been doing this for two thousand years; aren’t they bored yet? Forget the popular-fictional intrigues of Opus Dei and the Knights Templar. A secret conclave is meeting in Rome this very moment. Its purpose is not to improve the lot of the many but to perpetuate the rule of the few. If this appeals to you, by all means give the new pope a warm reception, and celebrate the legacy of John Paul the Great. To me, the game has gone on quite long enough.


Original version


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