The Pope, the War, Modernity, & Sex

Rabbi Arthur Waskow *, 4/7/2005

What did John Paul II intend, and what did he accomplish, in his long reign?

First, a personal vignette of my own. During the pre-war crisis of early 2002, some American activists who opposed the war knew that the Pope was condemning the plans to attack Iraq. But we felt there needed to be a dramatic act or focus — something much stronger than the Vatican or the American bishops had yet ventured — to give weight and bite to that condemnation.

So in January and February 2002, I was among a network of religious folk who tried to persuade the Vatican to send the Pope to address the United Nations and then to meet with American religious leaders. In this way he could express far more publicly, dramatically, and in the United States itself his strong condemnation of the onrushing war. He could play in America the kind of role that he had played in Poland.

Indeed, when I was invited to speak on February 14, 2002 — the famous weekend of world-wide opposition to the war — at a huge antiwar gathering of Italian Catholic social workers and activists in Rome, I made this plea both in public and in private.

No act by anyone would have better galvanized the effort by Americans of every religious and ethical tradition to prevent the war.

But he, and the Vatican, did not take that step

When he faced the Soviet Union, John Paul II proved the stupidity of Stalin's old challenge, "How many divisions does the Pope control?" But not when he faced the United States.


To answer that question, I think we need to look more deeply at the question he himself posed as the overriding issue of the century: How should the Catholic Church deal with Modernity, in both its capitalist and communist variants?

All the religious traditions on our planet have been upended by Modernity. The Modern project has brought into human hands enormous power over the earth and the human future that once were beyond us, in the hands of a King/ Lord. (For example: the power to wipe out life on earth, to create new species, to overthrow tyrants, to have sex without children, to have children without sex.)

There have been three major responses of the religious communities to this wave of expanded Control:

Surrender: Modernity brings more human weal than the old traditions; so we keep only shreds of the old patterns. Maybe one or two festivals a year, maybe marriage, probably death rituals. Little else. The domain of religion dramatically shrinks.

Restoration: The whole Modern project is disgusting and destructive, from the H-bomb to the shattering of families and neighborhoods. Go back to the 17th century, or as close as possible. Put women, the earth, and other traditions back in their place: subordinate.

Renewal: Some important aspects of Modernity are destructive; some are new forms of holiness. Instead of being swallowed up by Modernity or vomiting it out, taste it with care, digest what is sacred, eliminate what is disastrous. Among the new forms of sacred practice; the equality of women, and recognition of profound holy wisdom in traditions other than one's own.

John Paul II pursued the Renewal path in regard to other communities than Roman Catholicism. - That is why many Jews have been grateful to him, and why Arab television carried the news of his death with such respect. This was an important step forward, and deserves admiration and emulation.

But when it came to the role of women, not only in his Church but beyond it, and when it came to issues involving sexuality, he made every effort to Restore the past.

His opposition to women or married men as priests and his failure to move swiftly and vigorously to squelch those powerful prelates who had tolerated the sexual abuse of children by priests have debilitated his church. His opposition not only to abortion but to most forms of contraception, not only for his own church but for all peoples, overrode his respect for other life-paths. - And his actions in these regards have been affronts both to the moral dignity of women and to the world's efforts to meet the dangers of the overproduction of human beings and the shattering thereby of ecological balance.

Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, though John Paul's writings sketched opposition to the run-amok capitalism of the triumphant West, he did little to mobilize the Catholic Church against the evils he decried: consumerism, oppression of workers, and poisoning of the earth.

He and the Vatican did far more to mobilize the Church against abortion, contraception, the full equality of women, and public respect for gay and lesbian relationships.

For the Pope to have taken his opposition to the Iraq war into the teeth of the Bush Administration itself in 2002, and to have turned his theoretical opposition to runaway corporate capitalism into a real campaign against it, would have meant weakening the same forces in American society that agreed with the Pope about issues of sexuality and gender.

To have mobilized such efforts might also have required unleashing a grass-roots movement of Catholics that would have vastly weakened the top-down power structure of the Church itself.

Pope John XXIII began to take that risk. Paul VI was moving more slowly in the same direction. John Paul I in his three-month Papacy showed signs of a similar willingness.

Not so John Paul II.

Now the Church must choose: Restoration, or Renewal?

Given the overwhelming domination of the College of Cardinals by men (!) named by this Pope, it would take something of a miracle to renew the Church on issues involving sexuality and women. (By "renewal" on these issues I do not mean simply bowing to Modernist approaches to sex — e.g., the Playboy "philosophy." I do mean renewing biblical views of the spiritual joyfulness of sex even when it does not make babies [see the Song of Songs] and broadening our understanding of family as a sacred community.)

Perhaps there is more hope of renewing the Church when it comes to issues of globalized corporate capitalism, oiloholic addiction and its threat to scorch the planet, and the tendency of the present US government and of some elements of the Muslim world to ignite a shattering war between the US and all Islam.

More hope that the Cardinals will see these questions as both more urgent and more consequential than their desire to put women and sex back in their subordinate places.

As the Cardinals meet, sealed off for the moment from our planetary earthquakes, let us pray.

Shalom, Arthur


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: