John Paul II : Empire of the Spirit

In a time of moral confusion, John Paul II is resolute about his ideals and eager to impose them on a world that often differs with him

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John Paul was not in Cairo, but he kept in constant touch with his delegation. Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls recalls the Pope's reaction to Paragraph 8.25: "He feared that for the first time in the history of humanity, abortion was being proposed as a means of population control. He put all the prestige of his office at the service of this issue." For nine days the Vatican delegates, under his direction, lobbied and filibustered; they kept their Latin American bloc in line and struck up alliances with Islamic nations opposed to abortion. In the end, the Pope won. The Cairo conference inserted an explicit statement that "in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning"; in return the Vatican gave partial consent to the document.

In public relations terms, it was a costly victory. There he goes again, the standard argument ran, imposing his sectarian morality on a world already hungry and facing billions of new mouths to feed in the coming decades. One Spanish critic said the Pope had "become a traveling salesman of demographic irrationality." Says dissident Swiss theologian Hans Kung: "This Pope is a disaster for our church. There's charm there, but he's closed-minded." The British Catholic weekly the Tablet summed up Cairo, "Never has the Vatican cared less about being unpopular than under Pope John Paul II."

Cairo perfectly crystallized reciprocal conundrums: the problem of the Pope in the modern world and the problem the Pope has with the modern world. The conflict boils down to different paths of reason and standards of truth. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul locates the source of the great schism between faith and logic in the writings of the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes, particularly his assertion "Cogito ergo sum" (I think; therefore I am). The Pope points out that Descartes's formulation turned on its head St. Thomas Aquinas' 13th century pronouncement that existence comes before thought -- indeed, makes thought possible. Descartes could presumably have written "Sum ergo cogito," but then the history of the past 300 years might have been profoundly different.

Although not the only one, Descartes was a major inspiration for the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. Truth became a matter not of doctrine or received traditions but of something materially present on earth, accessible either through research or sound reasoning. "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan," Alexander Pope wrote in 1733-34. "The proper study of Mankind is Man."

The human intellect, thus liberated, proved prodigious; the fruits of its accomplishments are ever present in the developed world and tantalizingly seductive to those peering in from outside the gates. John Paul is not a fundamentalist who wants to repeal the Enlightenment and destroy the tools of technology; the most traveled, most broadcast Pope in history knows the advantages of jet airplanes and electronics.

Instead he argues that rationalism, by itself, is not enough: "This world, which appears to be a great workshop in which knowledge is developed by man, / which appears as progress and civilization, as a modern system of communications, as a structure of democratic freedoms without any limitations, this world is not capable of making man happy."

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