On Saturday, in preparation for the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, Mark Steyn published this excerpt from his book Mark Steyn's Passing Parade. The "empire of lies," as Mr. Steyn indicates was not only the Soviet Union, but any totalitarian regime, such as the totalitarian liberalism that now dominates the West.
Truth and Consequences
"How many divisions has the Pope?" sneered Stalin of Pius XII. Uncle Joe's successors lived long enough to find out. John Paul II's divisions were the Poles who filled the streets to cheer him on his return as pontiff to his homeland in the summer of 1979, and the brave men who founded the Solidarity union 18 months later, and began the chain of events that within a decade swept the Communists from power in Central and Eastern Europe and finally Mother Russia itself. One day we will know the precise combination of Bulgarian Secret Service, East German Stasi and Soviet KGB that lay behind the 1981 assassination attempt on the Holy Father. But you can see why they'd be willing to do it. By then the sclerotic Warsaw Pact understood just how many divisions this Pope had.
Twenty-six years ago, one young physics student summed up the hopes he and his compatriots had invested in that Papal visit in this simple declaration: "What I want to do is to live without being a liar." The Soviet Union and its vassals were an empire of lies, and, while you can mitigate (as many Poles and Russians did) the gulf between the official version and grim reality with bleak jokes, living an epic lie day in day out is corrosive of human dignity. That Polish physics student had identified instinctively what would be the great over-arching theme of John Paul II's papacy: to quote the title of his later encyclical, Veritatis Splendor – the splendor of truth.
Too many western politicians of a generation ago – Schmidt, Mitterand, Trudeau – failed to see what John Paul saw so clearly. It requires tremendous will to cling to the splendor of truth when the default mode of the era is to blur and evade.
And in that respect, across a turbulent half-century, there's more continuity between John Paul II and John XXIII than you might expect, and, indeed, with the intervening papacy of Paul VI. Shortly after John XXIII's death, Pope Paul's Humanae Vitae predicted that artificial birth control would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality," the objectification of women, and governments "imposing upon their peoples" state-approved methods of contraception. You might conceivably claim that the collective damage they have done does not outweigh the individual benefits they have brought to many, but you can't argue that Pope Paul's summation wasn't right on the money - or that either his "liberal" predecessor or his "conservative" successor (after John Paul I's interlude) would have disagreed with him. It fell to John Paul II to defend veritatis splendor not only, politically, in the eastern bloc, but, culturally, in the western world, where it proved a tougher sell:
As The New York Times reported upon his death:
Among liberal Catholics, he was criticized for his strong opposition to abortion, homosexuality and contraception…
Shocking: a Pope who's opposed to abortion, homosexuality and contraception; what's the world coming to? The Guardian's assertion that Karol Wojtyla was "a doctrinaire, authoritarian pontiff" at least suggests the inflexible authoritarian derived his inflexibility from some ancient operating manual – he was doctrinaire about his doctrine, dogmatic about his dogma – unlike the Times and The Washington Post, which came close to implying that John Paul II had taken against abortion and gay marriage off the top of his head, principally to irk "liberal Catholics". But, either way, the assumption is always that there's some middle ground a less "doctrinaire" pope might have staked out: he might have supported abortion in the first trimester, say, or reciprocal partner benefits for gays in committed relationships.
The root of the Pope's thinking – that there are eternal truths no-one can change even if he wanted to – is completely incomprehensible to the progressivist mindset. There are no absolute truths, everything's in play, and by "consensus" all we're really arguing is the rate of concession to the inevitable: abortion's here to stay, gay marriage will be here any day now – it's all gonna happen anyway, man, so why be the last squaresville daddy-o on the block?
When Governor Jim McGreevey announced he was stepping down, he told the people of New Jersey: "My truth is that I am a gay American." That's a very contemporary formulation: "my" truth. To John Paul II, there was only "the" truth. To the moral relativists, everyone's entitled to his own – or, as the Governor continued, "one has to look deeply into the mirror of one's soul and decide one's unique truth in the world." Among liberal "Catholics" in Manhattan and Boston, the pontiff may be a reactionary misogynist homophobe condom-banner but, beyond those stunted horizons, he was a man fully engaged with the modern world and shrewder at reconciling it with the splendor of the eternal truth than most politicians. Western liberals claim the Pope's condom hang-ups have had tragic consequences in Aids-riddled Africa. The Dark Continent gets darker every year: millions are dying, male life expectancy is collapsing, and such civil infrastructure as there is seems likely to follow. But the most effective weapon against the disease has not been the Aids lobby's 20-year promotion of condom culture in Africa but Uganda's campaign to change behaviour and to emphasise abstinence and fidelity – ie, the Pope's position. You don't have to be a Catholic or a "homophobe" to think that the spread of Aids is telling us something basic – that nature is not sympathetic to sexual promiscuity. If it weren't Aids, it would be something else, as it has been for most of human history. What should be the Christian response? To accept that we're merely the captives of our appetites, like a dog in heat? Or to ask us to rise to the rank God gave us – "a little lower than the angels" but above "the beasts of the field"? In The Gospel Of Life, the Pope wrote:
Sexuality too is depersonalized and exploited: …it increasingly becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts. Thus the original import of human sexuality is distorted and falsified, and the two meanings, unitive and procreative, inherent in the very nature of the conjugal act, are artificially separated…
Had the Pope signed on to condom distribution in Africa, he would have done nothing to reduce the spread of Aids, but he would have done a lot to advance the further artificial separation of sex, in Africa and beyond. Indeed, if you look at The New York Times' list of complaints against the Pope they all boil down to what he called sex as self-assertion.
Thoughtful atheists ought to be able to recognize that, whatever one's tastes in these areas, the Pope is on to something – that abortion et al, in separating the "two meanings" of sex and leaving us free to indulge in one while ignoring the other, have severed us almost entirely and possibly irreparably from traditional impulses, like societal survival. Given what Aids has done to African mortality rates and what abortion has done to European demographics, John Paul II's eternal truths look a lot more rational than those of the hyperrationalists at The New York Times. John Paul II championed the "splendor of truth" not because he was rigid and inflexible, but because he understood the alternative was a dead end in every sense. To Karol Wojtyla, truth was not just splendid but immutable: he proved his point in the struggle against Communism; one day the west will recognize that he got it right closer to home, too.