A Former Priest Turned Writer Who Says the Pope Was Suspicious of Modernity (Including Democracy)

Roundup: Talking About History

Virginia Heffernan, in the NYT (4-5-05):

The panoramic television coverage of the death of Pope John Paul II has represented him as an athlete, an actor, an enemy of totalitarianism, a world traveler, a polyglot, a pacifist, a penitent and an ecumenist. He has also been described, almost compulsively, as a rock star.

What has been harder to divine in all these television images is the pope's identity as a Roman Catholic....

But some programs have ventured to present John Paul II as, first and foremost, a Catholic, and one, furthermore, with grave reservations about American life. On Saturday, ABC's perceptive special, "John Paul II, Legacy of a Pope," featured an interview with James Carroll, a writer and onetime Catholic priest. While Americans have understandably found an anti-Communist ally in the pope during the cold war, Mr. Carroll suggested, they have sometimes failed to recognize that opposing totalitarianism does not always mean championing democracy or a free market.

Mr. Carroll said, "John Paul II has faithfully tried to preserve this medieval, absolutist notion of pope-centered Catholicism with everything going out from the Vatican."

This authoritarianism, Mr. Carroll said, has had dire consequences for Catholics in the United States, where criminal activity in the priesthood might have been brought to light earlier had the church not been so determined to close ranks.

This rigorous assessment was striking amid the pomp, the sketchy biographies, and the make-news of other television coverage. And while Mr. Carroll's arguments need not supersede the tributes to the pope, they do provide context.

Mr. Carroll amplified his arguments in "John Paul II: The Millennial Pope," an updated version of a documentary that first appeared on PBS in 1999, as part of the "Frontline" series. (PBS rebroadcast it on Saturday.) The program argued that faith was a sine qua non of personhood to Pope John Paul II, and that in his view atheism was incompatible with full humanity. Moreover, the documentary, which was produced by Helen Whitney, contended that the pope believed that humanity's complexity could only be revealed in the mystery of Jesus.

In a new interview done for the Saturday broadcast, Mr. Carroll also identified several contradictions at the heart of the pope's religion. He drew attention to the pope's devotion to the Virgin Mary, suggesting that it seemed to be at odds with his antifeminist positions on gender equality.

But Mr. Carroll's most forceful point is one that nearly all of television's elegies have obscured in all their effort to cast John Paul II as, above all, a rock star.

In short, he said the pope was always suspicious about-and often contemptuous of-the very basis of American life. As Mr. Carroll put it, "He's profoundly suspicious of democracy."

Mr. Carroll continued, "He's a man of tremendous modern sensibility, capable of being at home with rock musicians and young people, and yet he has staked everything on protecting a view of the church that has it roots in the Middle Ages."...

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