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.
Especially humiliating, they argue, is the papacy's utter irrelevance to the religion and politics of today's Western Europe. The Catholic churches are still empty, vocations to the priesthood virtually nonexistent. Even more striking, the same pope who in his first 12 years in office helped transform the politics of Europe, ending the argument between democracy and communism with a decisive victory for democracy, has been utterly rebuffed by the continent's new political power, the European Union.
The pope fought fiercely, but in vain, for the new E.U. constitution to include a reference to the Christian roots of European culture. Not any present significance, mind you, but merely the roots. Any attempt to write this omission off as a harmless bit of cosmetic multiculturalism was shattered by the decision of the European Parliament last year to reject the first proposed cabinet of the E.U. solely because it included an Italian friend and biographer of the pope, Rocco Buttiglione, who was in the midst of a personal scandal. The scandal, in the eyes of the elected legislators of the new Europe? Buttiglione is a practicing Catholic who agrees with the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church on such subjects as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality as affirmed by Pope John Paul II.
At least in Western Europe, it is clear that secularism and its hallmark, the contraceptive society, is on the verge of total victory, Catholicism and traditional Christian morality on the verge of total defeat. What is only beginning to be realized by Western elites, including many Catholic churchmen in Europe, is that the cultures where this picture is accurate are also the cultures most likely to be in the process of liquidating themselves.
This is brought home by perhaps the most important book published in 2004, Phillip Longman's The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It. Longman, himself a secular liberal who worries about the rise of traditional religion as a side effect of the trends he sees, is nonetheless a detached and unsparing analyst of today's mushrooming demographic crisis. Among his findings is that the plunge in human fertility is a worldwide phenomenon, extending to strongly religious Muslim countries and to countries that are not only miserably poor, but show little sign of attaining Western-style affluence. Such affluence was previously thought to be a necessary precondition of the sharp declines in fertility already beginning to take a visible toll in Japan and the Western European welfare states, with their rapidly aging and heavily taxed work forces. The relentless effort of Western elites to impose a culture of contraception far beyond their own borders has been too successful to allow complacency or a tempting Schadenfreude on the part of conservatives like me who disagree.
It is perhaps fitting that the developing country where Western elites have had their greatest success in exporting contraceptive culture--the People's Republic of China, with its (according to Longman) nearly suicidal One Child policy--is run by the only government of any consequence electing not to send a representative to the funeral of Pope John Paul II. China, of course, does not recognize the Roman Catholic Church. It is also the only large country whose citizens were not permitted to view the pope's funeral on television.
In his 1988 essay "The Contraceptive Culture," conservative social and economic analyst George Gilder called Humanae Vitae "the great prophetic document of our time." Gilder, himself a Protestant, argued that widespread acceptance of abortion is the
unavoidable harvest of a society devoted to contraception as the favored condition of the act of love. . . . The Pope exactly identified its fundamental problem, and made a number of very specific prophecies about the result of its spread. He said that men would come to objectify women, that they would leave their families, that general immorality would emerge. He exactly identified the set of problems that currently is sweeping through the United States, and that pose the single most serious threat to the future of the nation.
Gilder predicted that quantum theory and computer technology were on the verge of discrediting the Newtonian physics that had given rise to materialism and the contraceptive culture in the first place. Gilder, who has more than once been vilified for being right much too early in a national debate, may have seemed a lonely voice in the context of 1988, and his essay was pretty much ignored. In the context of 2005 and our worldwide demographic meltdown, his analysis of the dangers of contraception is if anything too specific to the American scene.
The worldwide battle between the increasingly dominant contraceptive culture and the morality of John Paul (and the millions from other faiths increasingly likely to agree with him) is barely beginning, the ultimate outcome anything but clear. But back in the formerly Christian portion of Europe, it may begin to seem odd to dwell on the disappearance of priestly vocations in the coming generation, in the face of the disappearance of the coming generation itself.
Jeffrey Bell, a Washington consultant, is the author of Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality.