The Long View 2005-04-02: John Paul II

Pope St. John Paul II

Pope St. John Paul II

Joseph Ratzinger was John's second guess for Pope following John Paul II. He was elected, and himself elected not to follow the path of John Paul II into public incapacity.

John Paul II

As recently as Thursday night, I was deploring the way that the Vatican was allowing every detail of John Paul II's last illness to be publicized. Whatever happened to the discretion the Vatican was famous for? I was particularly irked by a small picture of the pope that appeared on the frontpage of Thursday's New York Times, which showed him apparently howling in frustration at his inability to address the crowd. Why was a man in his condition insisting on continuing to appear before a crowd?

Friday, when the Vatican started to make the penultimate announcements, the penny dropped. What we have been seeing in the Vatican's public management of John Paul II's last illness is not a failure of romanitá: quite the opposite, in fact. John Paul II was always of a dramatic turn of mind. In these last weeks, the world has been presented with a production that might be called The Good Death.

John Paul II was not one of those people who could not imagine a world without himself. In fact, few popes have done so much to see that their policies continue to have effect after their pontificates. Rather, by continuing to appear in public and carry on as well as he could, John Paul II showed that death is not a medical procedure. Dying is a stage of life. It should be integrated as much as possible with the rest of our lives. Dying people are still people, who do not wholly leave society until they leave this world (and if you accept the doctrine of the Communion of the Saints, not even then).

There had been calls for the pope to abdicate as soon as the announcement was made that he suffered from Parkinson's Disease. I believe that, without exception, the calls came from people who disagreed with his interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (where he was the youngest bishop to attend), and hoped for better luck in a new papal conclave. The argument that the pope could no longer do his job was misplaced in any case. He does not sleep next to a red phone, with which to order instant retaliation if the Mormons launch a first strike. As a matter of political theory, the papacy is more like the Supreme Court than the presidency, but even that is an imperfect analogy.

The papacy is not a job. A pope generally rules, but the essence of the office is that he reigns. He is a legitimate monarch. Monarchs in general acquired a bad name when, beginning in early modern times, many of them tried to also be tyrants. The novelty of absolute monarchy led to the equally novel age of revolutions. The pope's monarchy is a symbol of the monarchy of Christ, which will be perfectly realized only eschatologically, and which is why political theocracy should always be regarded with suspicion. As Friedrich Heer noted (and Julius Evola deplored), the claim of the medieval popes for religious autonomy from the Holy Roman Emperors was the template for every other claim of civil liberty in the West. The pope reigns by occupying his place in the scheme of things, not by what he does.

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That said, of course, the great popes are not otiose, John Paul II least of all. Different things about the man seem most important to different people, but in his heart of hearts he was always a philosopher. When I reviewed his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, I noted how far beyond the ken of his critics the pope's keenest concerns really were. Actually, much the same could be said about his admirers. In that encyclical, the pope did not condemn postmodernism, as some of his more dunderheaded predecessors might have done. Rather, he explained why the skepticism it represented was untenable, and ultimately lethal. John Paul II became the most prominent defender in the world of the power of reason and the possibility of real knowledge. Outside of a few journals, I have yet to see any commentator appreciate that his effort to maintain the intellectual integrity of the West was among the most important things that John Paul II did.

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There is an item on my website that has been getting a great deal of attention of recent days, a review of John Hogue's The Last Pope: The Decline and Fall of the Church of Rome (The Prophecies of St. Malachy for the New Millennium). (Thanks for all the email, by the way.) We are, of course, going to be hearing quite a bit more about the (perfectly historical) St. Malachy and the (almost certainly forged) prophecies attributed to him. The interesting question is how long John Paul II's body will be cold before we hear further expresssions of the desire to destroy the Church that Hogue's book expresses.

Not long, I expect. In fact, I discovered that there is a also a novel called The Last Pope, and a movie in the works:

In Advance of Publication, Veteran Film Producer Martin Poll Snags Fiercely Competitive Motion Picture Rights to Sourcebooks' Vatican Drama The Last Pope...In this profoundly moving novel from [David Osborn], all the secret voting intricacies of a papal conclave are revealed for the first time as well as the cutthroat politics between the various factions among the Cardinals, each vying to promote its favorite and pitting the forces of reaction and humanity once again in moral battle.

Actually, since were are about to be told about the intricacies of the papal conclave again and again for the next month, I wonder how much public appetite there will be to see them on the big screen. Besides, there will be some modest dramatic production on cable television first. Watch. (Or don't watch, as you prefer.)

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Do I have any thoughts who the next pope will be? Not really, but that has never stopped a blogger yet. On the merits, I would vote for Cardinal George of Chicago, who is a theologian of parts, but he is also an American, which means he is a non-starter. I would like to see Cardinal Ratzinger elected, but then, many people think he will be chosen, because he is old and his reign likely to be short. Papal conclaves have a history of not electing the most likely candidates.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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