While most religious leaders and figureheads are well-known primarily among their own followers, Catholic Pope John Paul II is a unique case.
Consistently throughout the past month, John Paul II’s deteriorating health has received prominent attention as a lead international story by broadcast and print outlets alike the world over, including, or perhaps especially, in the United States.
At the least, the media attention and Catholic outpouring of support for the 84-year-old pontiff — who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, has recently been hospitalized several times following difficulty breathing, and underwent a tracheotomy just last week — serve as reminders as to the size, scope and significance of the Catholic community in our nation.
With 60 million practitioners, the United States is the third most populous Catholic nation in the world, according to 1998 Catholic Almanac statistics, surpassed only by Brazil and Mexico, respectively. Worldwide, Catholicism makes up the world’s largest Christian community, according to a February report by the BBC.
But in addition to reaffirming the visibility of the Catholic community, such media focus and community support on John Paul II’s behalf reveals a far more interesting phenomenon — American Catholics’ willingness to continuously rally behind a leader whose policies and values largely do not mesh with their own.
In a short background summary, John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla before assuming the head position in the Church, was elected pope in 1978 at age 58, becoming the first Pole ever to hold the post, as well as the youngest pope of the 20th Century.
Perhaps the attention paid to John Paul II derives from the fact that even divided groups tend to come together in unity when an outside force, in this case illness, threatens one of their own. But Catholic support for John Paul II, though not universal, has been relatively strong throughout his papacy and before his illness became a factor.
According to a Feb. 21 report by the National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood which gave the latest statistics on Catholic young adults, younger Catholics are surprisingly less critical of the pope than are older Catholics, as far as his “understanding of the American Church” and his “attempts to improve the status of women in the Church” are concerned.
The reality is that although John Paul II has made worthy efforts to connect with the Catholic community worldwide during his 27-year papacy, such as through his extensive travel to more than 100 countries and by taking a vocal role in heading the Vatican, the very policies he has vocalized and the views he has pushed have failed to reflect the changing values of Catholics, and thus have failed to truly better or advance the Church.
According to 1992 Gallup poll statistics, 80 percent of American Catholics said they supported the use of birth control. An additional study by the Parish Evaluation Project in 1996 reported that a small 9 percent of American Catholics opposed the use of birth control. Given the practical necessity of family planning in the United States, these numbers have likely continued to rise.
John Paul II, however, has maintained a strongly anti-birth control stance, which he initially articulated in the Vatican’s “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” which he wrote in 1981. In this work, John Paul II states that “total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception … (and) this leads not only to a … refusal to be open to life, but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love.”
Furthermore, a recent six-nation study by priests Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout on the topic of laity and reform in the church reported in summary that the majority of U.S. Catholics support reforming the Church to allow the popular election of bishops and the pope, as well as to allow priests to marry.
But the over-the-top reverence and focus on John Paul II’s every move over the past weekend would suggest otherwise.
That American Catholics have not spoken up in protest of John Paul II and the current Vatican shows a mind-boggling lack of concern over being represented by a pontiff and hierarchal system that does not accurately reflect their position on important issues. While the nation’s Catholics are flocking to churches in prayer and lighting candles as part of mass prayer services, it makes little sense that the community even supports in the slightest a leader whose policies and principles are so sadly archaic in nature.
In addition to the fact that he has spoken out against stem-cell research, divorce, all instances of abortion, and homosexuality, John Paul II’s leadership has been especially ineffective in that he has really done absolutely nothing to advance the role of women in the Church, as women still cannot be ordained, and implements that are vital to women’s health and equality, including the use of birth control, are slammed by the pontiff. And despite the ongoing controversy regarding a link between priestly celibacy and instances of sexual abuse, the Vatican has scarcely addressed the issue, other than to condemn the priests’ actions, thus falling short of offering any real solutions or true acknowledgment that a serious problem exists.
While other religions, including Judaism, have split into branches and denominations in order to accommodate the more and less traditional factions of their practitioners, Catholicism continues to plod along at far less than a snail’s pace, leaving the Church more and more out of touch with modern times.
While I certainly do not advocate the demise of John Paul II, I can only hope the next Church leader will take more significant steps toward not only modernization, but a more accurate representation of what today’s Catholics believe.
Just as a legislator is called upon to speak to the desires and beliefs of his or her constituents, so is it the job of a religious leader to support and advance the needs of his or her followers. An out of touch pontiff may adequately fulfill the role of a figurehead, even a well-known and well-traveled figurehead like John Paul II. But being a true leader of a people requires far more of a genuine ideological connection than comes through mere physical presence and visibility.
It is in fostering this genuine understanding of his followers that John Paul II has failed miserably.