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Conversations with John Paul 

Amonth before Pope John Paul II died, the book Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium (Rizzoli International) was shipped to reviewers and bookstores in the United States. Memory and Identity originated in 1993 when two Polish philosophers taped a series of conversations with Pope John Paul II on the impact of Nazism and Communism on Polish history. When the transcripts were done, the pope decided to delay publication until after 2000 to refine his views, resulting in the new book.

A number of long passages on Polish history may be only of passing interest to American readers. However, John Paul's central concern is riveting -- especially so since the extraordinary response to his death. He mourns the way Western countries have embraced secular humanism, a political liberalism that he disparages as a product of the Enlightenment. He does not, however, discuss the French Revolution as a response to the Inquisition or the tight alliance between church and crown in France before 1789.

John Paul's cri de coeur calls for a return to natural law as propounded by St. Thomas Aquinas -- the truth of God as basis for the common good. The villain here is Descartes, whose famous consideration of the psyche, "I think, therefore I am," prompts the pope to say: "The God of Revelation had ceased to exist as 'God of the philosophers.' All that remained was the idea of God, a topic for free exploration by human thought. ... If man can decide, by himself, without God, what is good and what is bad, he can also determine that a group of people can be annihilated."

John Paul gives no examination of why church influence waned in Europe -- a phenomenon several centuries in the making. As a result, his attack on the Enlightenment rings hollow. The roots of anti-Semitism that led to the Third Reich, for example, lie more in the European church than in Voltaire. In one paragraph, John Paul draws a line from Nazi concentration camps to "the extermination of human beings conceived but unborn. ... Nor are other grave violations of God's law lacking. I am thinking, for example, of the strong pressure from the European Parliament to recognize homosexual unions as an alternative type of family, with the right to adopt children. It is legitimate and even necessary to ask whether this is not the work of another 'ideology of evil,' more subtle and hidden, perhaps, intent upon exploiting human rights themselves against man and against the family."

We expect popes to defend teachings of the church, but when the moral logic makes a breathtaking leap from Nazis (who exterminated gays) to homosexual relationships as an "ideology of evil," we end up in a swamp of denial about free will. If gay people are not free to choose their sexual orientation, what right has the church to deny them intimacies of human love?

In the early 1990s, John Paul wrote and spoke with great eloquence about rampant materialism in Western democracies. There is little of that clarion call to examine, say, the greedy fuel of globalism in Memory and Identity. John Paul's focus on family life puts abortion, divorce, birth control, homosexuality and euthanasia under a huge shared blanket -- and leads him to say: "Sadly, one could describe Europe at the turn of the new millennium as a continent of devastation. Political programmes, aimed principally at economic development, are not enough to heal wounds of this nature."

Europe indeed has never been more prosperous. Has wealth caused a debasement of moral values? Or does the long erosion in Mass attendance, and in church influence in politics, stem from a historical memory of conflicts in which the church bears some responsibility? Whatever the answer, "a continent of devastation" is hyperbole. The great issue in Europe -- most of whose leaders joined John Paul in opposing the invasion of Iraq -- is a swelling Muslim population, instability and rising anti-Semitism.

The pope is eloquent in reflecting on his Christmas 1983 in the prison cell of the terrorist who shot him. Other passages show the flashes of brilliance that marked John Paul's triumphal presence after the Soviet Empire fell.

In fairness to the pope, abortion is a profound civil rights issue. Liberals deny the humanity of the fetus, presupposing one civil right for another. But political morality is more complex than issues of the body. How strange now to watch President George W. Bush praising Pope John Paul II for his spiritual integrity; the social Darwinism of the Christian right extends from an anti-abortion agenda to shredding social services to the poor, executing prisoners, and myopia on pollutant industries that profane the meaning of Genesis. John Paul's Jesus was a god of peace; the political Jesus of the Christian right is a god of war. Perhaps the next pope will find a way to address the internal chaos of Catholicism, and Christianity, as a crisis produced not by long entombed French humanists, but zealots of our disinformation age.

click to enlarge In the new book Memory and Identity, the late John Paul II mourned the way Western countries have embraced a political liberalism that he disparages as a product of the Enlightenment. - EPA PHOTOS/OSSERVATORE ROMANO POOL
  • EPA Photos/Osservatore Romano Pool
  • In the new book Memory and Identity, the late John Paul II mourned the way Western countries have embraced a political liberalism that he disparages as a product of the Enlightenment.
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