What Will They Make It All Mean?
(The Remnant, April 15, 2005)As I am writing this brief piece, on the morning of April 6th, literally millions of pilgrims are streaming into Rome to view the body of the late John Paul II. Italian authorities say that an end to the arrivals is still nowhere in sight. We seem to be witnessing one of the largest outpourings of religious feeling that the world has seen in recent times. The big question—one which, admittedly, is difficult to handle in all of its complexity now, when Catholic attention should primarily be directed towards prayer for the repose of the soul of the Holy Father and the swift election of a good successor—is what this mass phenomenon ultimately means.
That John Paul II’s death touched a chord in many mens’ hearts is clearly undeniable. I myself have received phone calls regarding his passing from people, both in the United States and Europe, who have not contacted me for ages. All these long-lost acquaintances apparently felt the necessity of speaking with someone whom they knew to be steeped, regularly, in Catholic matters, even if in a way that was very critical of the Holy Father. Their tone was reverent in the age-old definition of that word. A glance inside my parish church revealed the presence of many men and women engaged in what anyone from 1058 or 1958 would recognize to be deep and serious prayer and meditation. All of this is objectively good and hopeful, both as a sign of continued recognition of the dramatic reality of one person’s confrontation with eternity, as well as as an admission of the importance of the Roman Catholic Church. But, again, what will it mean for the future, once the inevitable contemporary proclamation of "closure" is issued, and the demand for "moving on" takes its tyrannical hold?
One local guide to grasping its long-term significance, at least for me in Manhattan, is the daily edition of The New York Times. A reading of the paper’s news items over the past few days has yielded numerous indications of honest religious reverence regarding the papal passing on the part of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Nevertheless, examination of these truly pious expressions of faith and love, when combined together with a study of Letters to the Editor and the articles on the Op-Ed page, can give rise to a real and justifiable anxiety. Reporting and commentary together make it abundantly clear that the Pope who is being honored is a Pope fashioned according to the particular wills of each of the individuals revering him, as well as those relatively few who openly took this rather inopportune moment to revile him. John Paul II, in the eyes of the ordinary and learned people speaking through The New York Times, was everything from the model of a concerned, charitable pastor of souls to a Dostoievskian Grand Inquisitor; from a tolerant progressive to a to a twenty-first century Torquemada; from a prophet-patriot carrying out the sacred Polish duty to aid humanity with a capital H by liberating it from Godless Communism, to a Lady Di-like "peoples’ pontiff" who finally understood that the God of Jews, Moslems, and Christians was one and the same rather formless and indulgent being. That the dead successor of Peter is being revered by millions is undeniable. Still, the biography of the man before whose life and actions they are bowing and expressing admiration is being written according to a thousand willful visions that conflict with one another. They cannot all be true and they cannot all win out in the end.
Unfortunately, it is precisely this sort of intellectually indefensible and contradictory willfulness which has most corrupted the life of the Church during the past half a century, the last twenty six years included. That willfulness, insofar as it can be spoken of philosophically, comes from the influence of what is broadly referred to by historians of thought as Vitalism. Modern Vitalism, one of the heirs of the Enlightenment, reduces all of nature and nature’s laws to that which is deeply, sincerely felt by "honest", "non-hypocritical" individuals and peoples. The Vitalist knows that his willfulness is correct merely through its ability, "vitally", to impose itself.
Such Vitalism entered into the life of the Church with Lamennais and Liberal Catholicism in the 1800’s. Its advance was temporarily halted at the time of the Modernist Crisis of the turn of the Twentieth Century. Regaining its strength with the aid of everything from Fascism to Personalism and post-Second World War Pluralism, Vitalism was victorious at the Second Vatican Council. It has tyrannized Catholicism ever since. True to form, it reduces all dogma, liturgy, and history to the dictates of the "felt" will of those strong enough to impose themselves on everyone else. Catholic Vitalism endlessly redefines the meaning of Christianity and the actual events of Christian History according to the commands of the momentarily most "vitally" powerful individuals and groups. It brooks no opposition, and allows its critics merely the privilege to have their consciousness raised to what "nature" wants of them. Being "Catholic", it also baptizes its contradictory, changeable demands as the unappealable edicts of a Spirit more Nazi in character than Holy.
What all this means is that the hopeful outpouring of popular religious feeling occasioned by the death of Pope John Paul II is, in the long run, going to signify whatever it is that these strongest, "vital" wills interpreting popular sentiment desire it to signify. Forget about learning the message of their presence from the millions of pilgrims streaming into Rome. Once the willful have spoken, popular "feelings", good or bad, which are contrary to what powerful men will say that they should be, will count for nothing whatsoever. Moreover, even these ordinary people possessing these contrary "feelings" will forget them. They will allow their consciousnesses to be "raised" to whatever the powerful tell them they must accept. They will eventually deny that they ever even felt anything different The history of these days in Rome will fall into the black hole constructed by the more determinedly willful and the spin that their word merchants can put on their arguments.
The millions of pilgrims present in Rome today will be used in the United States to indicate support for either Liberal or Conservative American Catholic views. John Paul II’s life and legacy will be whatever they wish them to be. Perhaps they will be correct in identifying their related, Enlightenment visions with those of the late Pope. Perhaps not. Reality, in any case, will be of secondary importance to the victorious vision of the pontiff’s work anyway. It is the Triumph of the Will and the Triumph of the Will alone which will determine the meaning of his thought and action and their relation to the history of the Catholic Church, alongside their judgment of the import of the present sorrow.
I came across one interesting example of what this means in following up a comment regarding John Paul II that I found in the Manchester Guardian. That comment led me to the Internet and the usual conservative suspects, men like George Weigel, John Neuhaus, and Michael Novak. Here one found boundless praise of the Pope in his extraordinary accomplishment of a long overdue break with "the Constantinian model of the Church".
By "Constantinian model of the Church", what our conservative friends wanted to portray was that abusive union of Church and State representative of the wicked old Catholic establishment of the medievals and obscurantist admirers of the Syllabus of Errors. By "breaking with the Constantinian model" they signified acceptance of the glorious, liberating, American system which they themselves fall down and worship.
That Constantinian model was one which bent religion to fit the needs of the powers that be. It was not a true Catholic vision of union of Church and State, as SS. Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers recognized. Constantinan Church statesman were men like Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, both of whom divinized the existing system, its leaders, its wars, and its abusive use of religion, silencing and destroying opponents with accusations of treason and hostility to the will of the Spirit expressed through the Emperor.
It was precisely the work of the Medieval Church of St. Gregory VII and the Counterrevolutionary Church of Blessed Pius IX that sought, often successfully, to break with the grotesque aspects of the Constantinan model. It is precisely modern American conservatives do uphold it. Their opposition is not to the model as such, but to Emperors and Constantines. Replace the Emperor with an American President and a Constitution behind him; replace a Constantine with a George Bush, and let the perverted union of Church and State freely roll! The name of God has been used by conservatives in vain in conjunction with America more than the Divinity has ever been falsely invoked throughout the long history of Christendom.
With such Eusebiuses interpreting the Pope’s legacy, that legacy will include the raging chauvinism, imperialism, and capitalism that these men admire as the height of Christian crusading behavior. Papal criticisms of these phenomena will disappear down the black hole. Sorrowful crowds in Rome will be indicative of the huddled masses longing to be freed with depleted uranium. Those seeking to correct the record, and who, admittedly, criticized John Paul II for aiding the Vitalism allowing distortion of dogma and liturgy to flourish, will be silenced. Willfulness will pass as the sort of common sense and deep wisdom allowing Christians to begin their ascent of Mount Carmel. The whole message of the pope and his mourners will be "live free or die". One might just as well play Stars and Stripes Forever at the funeral. If liberals prove to be willful enough to gain control of the interpretation of the events of April, 2005, then, mutatis mutandis, some similar distortion of Reality will take place.
These are dramatic times for the Church, Catholics, and the world as a whole. This year may be the definitive one for the future of ravaged Christendom. Let us dedicate these days until the meeting of the conclave to acts of fasting and piety. Pope John Paul II, rest in peace. We pray for your eternal repose. We pray for a good successor. But we admit a human fear for a Church in the clutches of a Vitalism with fifty years of rampant success behind it.
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