Are we hypocrites to mourn the Pope?

How can Western civilisation have held this man in such high regard, while thumbing its nose at his advice?
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The Independent Online

The death of Pope John Paul II has quickly inspired a consensus as to what his 27-year pontificate represented. This pope was conservative and progressive, he was a modernist and a traditionalist, he was against Communism and against capitalism, he gave the Catholic Church back to the people and he further centralised its power in the Vatican. And so on.

The death of Pope John Paul II has quickly inspired a consensus as to what his 27-year pontificate represented. This pope was conservative and progressive, he was a modernist and a traditionalist, he was against Communism and against capitalism, he gave the Catholic Church back to the people and he further centralised its power in the Vatican. And so on.

He may not have been all things to all people, this pope. But it turns out that he was multi-faceted enough to be many things to many people. Everyone, it seems, Catholic and non-Catholic, is at pains to emphasise the significance of this man, his charisma, his presence, his faith, his ability to inspire, and his spiritual resilience.

His funeral on Fridayis being described already as the greatest act of collective mourning ever seen on the planet. It appears, then, to be something of a missed opportunity that people, let's face it, mostly ignored and often entirely contradicted his teachings while he was actually among us and available for guidance.

It's a sobering and depressing thought that this quarter century of galloping materialism, increasing inequality, continual war, institutionalised corruption, pathological narcissism and paralysing self-regard, has managed to be what it is, even with a towering spiritual and moral presence among us, preaching against all of it, travelling the world tirelessly to spread that message, and never wavering in his expression of those core beliefs.

And that observation is not meant cynically. It is serious. Something doesn't add up. How can Western civilisation have held this man in such high regard, while pretty much thumbing its nose at all of his most deeply felt advice? Are we a planet of total hypocrites? Or are we just confused?

After all, it's not only that the world we have collectively fashioned and the values that dominate it bear no resemblance to the world imagined by Pope John Paul II. It's also that in all countries except Africa and Asia, people have been actively moving away from Catholicism itself. And if the crisis in church attendance looks bad, then the crisis in recruitment to the priesthood looks even more alarming to the faithful.

Many attest that this failure to hear the message of the prophet was the fault of Europe's liberal intelligentsia, who carped endlessly on about his traditionalist stance on all matters concerning human reproduction and homosexuality and his lack of sympathy towards female ordination.

Certainly, for a lot of people including myself, this stuff is a problem. The rest is more debatable. But the stricture against contraception is, to me, patently absurd. John Paul, apparently, believed that contraception should not be allowed because that would allow sexuality to be defined in terms of pleasure alone. This is so wrong.

Only a person who had no family and no enduring sexual relationship could fail to understand that intercourse is the glue and balm that cements and soothes the relationships of mothers and fathers, and secures their family units, even when intimacy, and comfort - as well as pleasure - is sought without making another child. The Pope may have been right about many things, but fundamental misunderstandings such as this one alienate many otherwise sympathetic people who crave spiritual leaders, whatever tradition they may emerge from.

Catholics themselves, many assure us, simply turned a blind eye to this sort of thing. It wasn't worth getting into a tizzy about. Those who felt particularly strongly about these matters, in point of fact, sometimes moved away from Catholicism into the right-wing evangelical branches of the Protestant church, where they could remain untroubled by such annoyances as the Pope's more liberal views about humans and their frailty, war and its undesirability, trade unions and so on. Such has been the contradictory nature of Catholicism in the past 27 years.

Perhaps it will turn out that the Pope's great achievement was merely that he was able to maintain a period of relative stability for the Catholic church in which all these opposing issues failed to erupt in a decisive fashion. But that isn't what the crowds are thronging the streets for, building their shrines, leaving their teddies, their postcards, their poems, their candles and their flowers.

Partly, the crowds are coming because the pomp and ceremony employed by the Catholic Church to awe and captivate its followers is quite equal to its legend. And for many, assuredly, gestures of grief and faith are sincere.

For others though, thrilled to find themselves so easily assimilated into a big-ticket event, a historical happening, this outpouring of grief is not so very different to that displayed for a dead princess, a deceased Beatle or a pretty murdered child. It is a selfish ritual, to be taken part in not to honour the dead, but instead to flatter the individual taking part that he or she is part of something large and important.

At least, though, in this case, such an outpouring is entirely appropriate. It is the job of a pope, or part of it anyway, to make people feel that they are part of something large and important - a religious community, a moral universe, God's plan. Far better, then, that the crowds come to mourn a pope than a pop star.

I think that John Paul II would imagine this to be the case. Praised for his showmanship since early on in his pontificate, he never shrank from employing modern methods to project his personality and his charisma. Even the visibility he maintained in his final days, now being hailed, with some absurdity, as a personal calvary, was the act of a man who understood and fully exploited the power of personal connection. There is no contradiction in that, after all. Christianity is itself a great and powerful cult of personality.

But the huge and terrible irony is that this spectacle, of a papacy hailed by more individuals at its end than any before it, yet at the same time less able to influence the actions of so many of those same individuals, is nothing less than a grotesque illustration of the great shadow that falls between what Eliot called "the desire and the act".

There is indeed a huge yearning for meaning and for spirituality in the human heart. but it is a shallow desire, more easily sated with a long and sombre silence in Tesco's than with a bit of a think about Fides et Ratio (1998), in which the Pope, I'm told, rails against the same individualism that will draw many to his funeral, keen to make the event "all about them".

No matter anyway, perhaps. Even before the festival of sadness has been indulged in, we eager modernists are speculating excitedly about who the new pope will be. In our tokenistic age, what we want is novelty. We want a black pope this time, and we're agog to see how the cardinals vote. We want fireworks, too - clash, disagreement, argument, schism. But first, we want a bloody good funeral.

As for forging a lasting intellectual or spiritual legacy, an honest attempt to find a common ground that might bind us philosophically to each other and to the world, we want that too, but only if it's available on eBay and we can get it with our credit cards. In the meantime, weeping for a man whose words we never read will do.

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