The Pope, the Church and Change

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No wonder, then, that the Vatican continues to have something of an odd relationship with its flock in the United States. By character, America is widely religious but none too fond of the doctrinaire. When the pope comes to the States, nuns argue with him, liberal Catholics tug at their collars nervously, and liberated women grouse. On an American political spectrum he is hard to pin down -– his individualism-before-God is a consistent but many-edged philosophy that covers absolutist papal stands against the death penalty and abortion.

The U.S. is the Catholic Church’s land of greatest dissent, but fortunately for the church the Vatican is a long ways away, and to a TV nation, twinkling, populist John Paul II is simply irresistible. Not much agreed with, he is nevertheless almost universally loved, a celebrity -- an evangelist in a funny hat. Americans take the parts of the pope they like and leave the rest in Rome, and the church, for stateside Catholics, is something like that too.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt in the West that the pope from the East was in many ways a Cold War compatriot. Guided by his rigorous philosophy of individual supremacy above all (except, of course, God and his Vatican), John Paul stood against the totalitarianism of the Nazis and the communists alike. In Poland, this Pope’s church and its outspoken leader was both a rallying point and safe harbor for the communist-collapsing Solidarity movement. At one point, the story goes, John Paul informed Poland’s Moscow-controlled potentates that if the Soviet tanks rolled into Warsaw, he would be obliged to return to his homeland so that the tanks would have to roll over him. They never did.

But do not mistake John Paul's church for the Church of Greenback Dollar; in the vacuum left by communism, he has grown increasingly troubled by capitalism and its excesses. A false idol is a false idol, and the pursuit of self-determination does not absolve the Catholic or anyone else of his duty to his soul, his fellow man or his God. In 21 years under this pontiff, the Vatican has grown a social and political voice previously unknown to it, and its still-rich baritone is not quite as Western as the West sometimes likes to think. In Cuba he stood with Castro against the U.S. trade embargo. In Mexico he shamed the capitalists for not making room enough at prosperity’s table. In Poland, on the grueling pilgrimage this June that served the world warning about his faltering health, he told his emerging-market countrymen that materialism and freedom are rivals, not friends. It's a subject about which the next popes, for the next decades, will have plenty to talk -– if they so choose.

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