Of Time and the Reiver

Article excerpt

Give 'em hell, son!

--Thomas Wolfe in Of

Time and the River (1935)

There he is, Time's "Man of the Year," staring boldly (with an ever so faint smile) from the magazine's December 26, 1994, cover: his holiness John Paul II, the holy father, supreme pontiff, and pontifex maximus (a pretentious title borrowed from the ancient emperors of Rome, meaning "the supreme bridge between heaven and earth").

Why did Time select John Paul II for its annual honor? Was it admiration for a man "whose words have global authority," a man (and an institution) with well honed public relations skills? Or was it from a wish to promote an institution and its official point of view? We may never know, but Time president Elizabeth Valk Long's editorial comment that in 1870 "Italy seized from the Vatican both Rome and the papal states" suggests a lot: the papal states, including the city of Rome, were probably the worst run country in Europe, and the people voted overwhelmingly for absorption of the country into the kingdom of Italy.

(Remember also, by the way, that back in the late 1970s Time made a nasty editorial attack on humanism and then refused to print a mild letter of pro test submitted and signed by every member of the American Humanist Association board of directors.)

Time could not point to anything about John Paul II except for his "charisma," popularity, single-mindedness, piety, and linguistic abilities. Time did report, citing a recent Yankelovich poll, that half of U.S. Catholics regard John Paul as "too conservative" and not in fallible when pronouncing on matters of faith. The poll also showed that 56 per cent of U.S. Catholics say that the pope is not infallible "when he teaches on matters of morals, such as birth control and abortion"; 89 percent believe it is possible to disagree with the pope and still be a good Catholic; 66 percent favor allowing priests to be married; 59 per cent favor allowing women to be priests; and 70 percent favor allowing divorced Catholics to marry in the church.

Time summed up John Paul's 1994 "accomplishments" as including slamming the door on the possibility of al lowing women to be priests and going all out to prevent the U.N. population conference in Cairo in September from recognizing that women have a fundamental right to abortion. A Spanish critic said that the pope has "become a traveling salesman of demographic irrationality" John Paul also continues to enforce the official teaching that all effective forms of birth control are immoral.

Most Catholics in the United States and elsewhere are pretty much like non-Catholics. Politically, American Catholics are as progressive and interested in civil rights and civil liberties as the rest of the population, and they and their church have certainly made great contributions to the common good. At the same time, however, John Paul's Vatican bureaucracy and its appointed prelates in the United States and other countries all too often use their enormous influence and political clout to deny women their rights of conscience on reproduction. The Vatican has also sought--with varying degrees of success--tax support for the church's distinctive institutions (the Clinton administration proposed in January that the United States and the Vatican cooper ate formally in international war and disaster relief, a topic beyond the scope of this column); and it has sought to block efforts by the United Nations and the nations of the world to deal effectively and humanely with the population ecology crisis. Vatican intransigence on these internal and external issues, in turn, is responsible for massive defections from the Catholic church in the United States and other countries.

If the Catholic church could only democratize itself (which is not likely), its resources could make a tremendous contribution to solving some of the world's real problems.

This brings us to John Paul's best selling 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf). …