Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Death, the Pope and evil

The death of John Paul II left me saddened. I am a Catholic--it was preparation for the seminary that led me to philosophy and even now there are days when I wonder whether I shouldn't have entered the monastery--so there was the loss of the head of Catholicism. I was only five years old when Karol Wojtyla was elected pope and became John Paul II, so there was the loss of a figure who, in some sense, defined my childhood and young adulthood and whatever it is that I am in right now (pre-middle-age, mid-adulthood?). He was only two years older than my grandfather and died on what would have been grandfather's 82d birthday; his death made me revisit my grandfather's death, so there was a sort of contact grief in his death. His last years were tortured; demonstrated a noble, dignified suffering, a suffering that wasn't hidden, that witnessed to the heights of human possibility even within the limits imposed by a dying body. Seeing his battle end brought out a happiness mixed with sadness.

But at the same time, I am among those that the pope, particularly in his last years, saw as the vanguard of a new, horrible evil, opposed to Christ and Christianity and the very foundations of civilization. As a gay man, I am hardly among those that the pope would have thought an ally.

Now, of course, there is a certain skewed vision of the papacy filtered through the American media and mindset. What is rarely discussed is the emphasis the pope put on the inadequacies and evils of capitalist societies--while the pope was praised here for his opposition to communism, little is ever made of his vehement condemnations of capitalism. He was an enemy of materialism in all its forms; materialism is, he thought, necessarily opposed to spirituality and humanism. Since capitalism is materialistic, it, too, is inconsistent with authentic Christianity, he thought.

In other words, there were many aspects of his social thought that would have made us natural allies, that would have made him allies with a lot of gays and lesbians, in fact. But, instead he saw us as part of a vast evil movement undermining the very society and community onto which he put so much emphasis.

There are different ways to respond to this. One could just dismiss the pope and the Catholic Church as irrelevant to the modern world. While this might be tempting for a lot of people, particularly those with a secular bent, it ignores the fact that Catholicism is the largest denomination within Christianity, that there are a lot of Catholics out there and, if nothing else, gays and lesbians need to work out a modus vivendi with them. (And, as recently happened here in San Diego, when the bishop initially forbade the funeral of a prominent nightclub owner, the Church can even be made to see the errors of its ways.) Ignoring Catholicism and its response to homosexuality is as dangerous as ignoring the continually growing tide of fundamentalisms of all flavors.

One could simply write the deceased pope as an old man out of tune with the direction of the contemporary and future world. There is also something tempting in this option. Personally, I was able to excuse a lot of the pope's disdain of gays and lesbians by thinking about other people I know of his age. If my grandfather were still alive--and assuming he didn't know about me--what would he have been like? Well, he, too, probably wouldn't have had a lot to say in favor of gay marriage or gay adoption. I'd like to think I'm wrong about this, but he grew up in a different world and, without personal and direct and positive experience of gays, he wouldn't have been swayed to our cause (whatever our cause may be). More on this very point below. However, writing the pope off as just an old man out of step with the world is itself very myopic. It simply is not the case that most of the world sees sexual liberation and the celebration of divergent sexual orientations as ideal. If anything, social liberals in the European and American mode are out of step with the rest of the world. So, while this option might be tempting, it will lot serve our interests for long.

Instead, the right tack to take seems to be to engage Catholicism (and Islam and other religious traditions). But engaging a group doesn't mean (just) protesting their gatherings or meetings or establishments. It means to enter into dialogue with them, try to understand the background for their beliefs and ideas and judgments and present ourselves in a way that is understandable to them--being understandable is not the same as being acceptable. I can understand things I can't accept, but it's hard to imagine how I could accept something I couldn't understand. Engaging also means considering in what ways another's perception of one reflects shortcomings. Now, of course, ideally the Catholic Church and the next pope would want to engage in these ways with gays and lesbians. Rome moves slowly, though. Still, this doesn't mean that gays and lesbians shouldn't engage with Catholics and other religious believers on the ground.

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