The Magazine

A Global Papacy

From the April 18, 2005 issue: . . . And its foes.

Apr 18, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 29 • By JEFFREY BELL
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THE FIRST READING OF THE Catholic Church's daily Mass for Friday, April 8, 2005--the day of the funeral in Rome for Pope John Paul II--comes from the Acts of the Apostles. It describes a meeting in Jerusalem of the Sanhedrin, the highest council of the ancient Jewish nation. Peter and several of the other apostles have been arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, and have announced their intention to continue preaching the good news of Jesus Christ. The Sanhedrin's initial reaction? "When they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill them."

The Friday reading describes how one of the most respected members of the Sanhedrin, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, rises to speak, asking that Peter and the other apostles be taken outside for a time. Gamaliel, a doctor of law identified later in Acts as the mentor of Saul of Tarsus, recounts the fate of two Jewish rebels of earlier decades, Theudas and Judas the Galilean. Each of them had made an initial splash--in the case of Theudas, Gamaliel says "a number of men, about four hundred, joined him"--but after the rebel leaders were killed, their followers "dispersed and came to nothing." In the light of these precedents, Gamaliel advises prudence:

"So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even find yourselves fighting against God."

The reading ends with the Sanhedrin grudgingly taking Gamaliel's advice. Peter and the others are recalled to the council room, where it is ordered that they be flogged and then released.

This reading was not heard in St.Peter's Square on Friday; it was preempted by readings more appropriate to a requiem for a pope. But if it had been read, it is hard to resist the thought of a chill running down the spines of the hundreds of thousands crowded together in the vast square, not to mention the estimated two billion television viewers--one third of the world's population--of the funeral of Peter's successor. By the criterion laid out by Gamaliel, is the Church of today more likely to be the product of men or of God?

The papacy of John Paul marked the first instance in human history of a spiritual leader who achieved global recognition and impact in his own lifetime. He went to more than 100 countries, drew by far the biggest crowds in history--an estimated six million in a single outdoor Mass in Manila--and was the pivotal figure in the cracking open of the Iron Curtain, beginning with his first papal visit to Poland in 1979. The most brilliant and dangerous of all Soviet dictators, Yuri Andropov, sensed this threat from the beginning.Almost certainly, he approved the attempt on John Paul's life by Mehmet Ali Agca in May 1981, more than a year before gaining supreme power on the death of Leonid Brezhnev. If that shooting had succeeded, world politics would surely have taken a different and more ominous turn.

The array of political leaders present in St. Peter's Square last week was a testimony to John Paul's political consequence, just as the presence of so many non-Catholic religious figures was a testimony to his relentless, decades-long ecumenical outreach to the world's other faiths. The presence of these leaders felt appropriate, even inevitable, yet it represented a stark contrast to the last two papal funerals in 1978, when the Carter administration was represented by the first lady, Rosalynn Carter, Vice President Walter Mondale, and the president's mother, Lillian Carter. The full measure of John Paul's achievement was the contrast of his standing at his death to that of Paul VI, who in his last, passive years often appeared the personification of a papacy under siege.

There is of course no shortage of observers--many of them seemingly on the roster of "consultants" hired as commentators for the funeral mass by David Westin of ABC News--who are ready to explain that the global elevation of the papacy under John Paul, while in some sense undeniable, will soon prove something of an illusion. They argue that for all the pope's triumphs in the realms of political change and personal charisma, he was as isolated from the modern world, and even from his own church, as his predecessor, and for pretty much the same reason: his failure to adapt to the sexual revolution, and particularly his refusal to budge from Pope Paul's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae and its widely ignored ban on artificial contraception. The symptoms, they argue, are as clear as ever: The decline in vocations to the priesthood and the religious orders has left a church that, while expanding significantly in total worldwide membership, is only beginning to feel the consequences of a stagnant and aging clergy, particularly in its core areas of Western Europe and the Americas.