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ELLEN GOODMAN Content of pope's beliefs ignored



Published: Thu, April 14, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



BOSTON -- While we are in this interregnum between the funeral and the election, the pause between the personal and the political, may I take a moment? Since the pope's death I have thought about the way the international eulogies focused on his character, indeed, on the courage of his convictions more than the content of those convictions.

On television, the fly-in stars found an ecumenical way to talk about the Catholics' Holy Father by praising the man for his bravery in confronting communism and his humanity in confronting Parkinson's disease.

Again and again, I heard leaders and commentators say that whether you agreed with John Paul II or not, you had to admire his unshakeable belief. Whether you were Catholic, Protestant or Muslim, liberal or conservative, they said, you had to honor a man who held fast against the winds and polls of change.

In Rome, Bill Clinton said the pope would leave a mixed legacy, but lauded him as "a consistent person." On Air Force One, President Bush praised him for standing his ground. "Tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him," said the president, "but he stood strong as a rock."

International superstar

I suppose politicians and reporters in a multicultural world looked for a secular way to praise a religious leader. They paid homage as well to the international superstar quality of the man himself. But in fact many of the people who came to praise John Paul for standing firm did not always stand with him.

This was a pope who labored to create "a seamless garment" of right and wrong. Yet world leaders and church followers and the media mainstream seemed to pick and choose pieces of the garment to adorn their praise.

When the president said it was time to "honor and celebrate the life of a truly great moral leader," he was talking about the pope who spoke of a "culture of life." What about the moral leader who opposed the war in Iraq?

When leaders of the religious right in our country offered praise, it was to the man who preached abstinence and opposed gay marriage. What about the pope who had accepted the truth of evolution?

When others talked about John Paul as a man who focused on the world's poor, they were applauding the church's remarkable care for AIDS patients in Africa. What about church opposition to condoms for that continent?

This is by no means the only time we have seen this sort of abstract support for conviction. Nor is it the first time we have seen a kind of disconnect between the admiration for a man's certainty and the nature of those certainties.

We saw it when Ronald Reagan was eulogized for his profound self-confidence. Right or wrong. We saw it in the last presidential election when Americans chose the candidate who seemed more sure of himself. John Kerry countered to absolutely no avail: "You can be certain and be wrong." But he was indelibly imprinted with waffle marks.

There is no secret to the attraction of unwavering authority figures. When we are sick, we want doctors who exude confidence. When we don't know what to do about the kids, we want Supernanny on call. In times when the world goes on fast forward, we look for eternal verities. When everything tilts, we find comfort in the parent, preacher or president who is sure of where they are going and -- therefore? -- sure of where they will lead us.

Virtue

But at the same time, conviction is not always a virtue. The Taliban have the courage of their convictions, tyrants are sure of themselves and dictators know where they want to lead us. To remain unswayed may also be to remain untouched by the people around you.

So the cardinals who are preparing to vote for the next leader may find that some of the praise for John Paul made for better eulogies than future guidelines.

After all, the Italians who stood in line for hours to say farewell to their Holy Father have contracepted their way to the lowest birthrate in the world. So, too, many American Catholics who expressed enormous affection for John Paul nevertheless approach church teachings as a buffet in which priestly celibacy is one option and divorce should be another.

Today "moral relativism" has become a kind of intellectual whipping boy. It's regarded as a weakness. But for many, moral authoritarianism is a strength admired best from afar.

Washington Post Writers Group




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