- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

During the papal interregnum, divided Catholics await the new Holy Father to guide them in their third millennium, in which clergy in Roman-era headdresses send press releases via e-mail. Can conservatives save the Church by sticking to 20 decades of received tradition? Or will liberals energize an embattled global parish only by ending priestly celibacy or seeing condoms as a way to hinder the spread of AIDS?

Yet the new pontiff, both his personality and ideas, will affect even those of us who are not Catholics.

The pope is not a chief executive officer who serves at the pleasure of his board. Nor is he like a president or prime minister who has to face periodic re-election. The pope in modern times is not often impeached like an errant judge to save the reputation of the judiciary. For better or worse, he is permanently indistinguishable from the Catholic Church. And with a billion followers, the idea of Catholicism, if not Christianity itself, waxes or wanes with him.

A magnetic pontiff galvanizes the wavering. But a colorless bureaucrat or a right- or left-wing radical not only might lose believers but within a few years end the church as we know it.

Critics of Catholicism may believe that, in a globalized world of 6 billion, a single old man in robes is irrelevant. But then why did the last pope draw the largest funeral in recorded history?

John Paul II was a savvy leader in ways that transcended his personal magnetism and institutional authority. He stood by 2,000 years of tradition in not budging on abortion and same-sex “marriage.” Thus, he kept conservative Catholics in the fold who otherwise might have been puzzled by the pope’s adamant opposition to the armed removal of Saddam Hussein, capital punishment and Western consumerism.

Yet if liberals were chagrined that he would not budge on sanctioning contraception, they appreciated his concern for global poverty, Third World debt relief and ecumenism.

Meanwhile, John Paul II’s masculine and sterling character helped get the church through the priestly sex scandals that threatened to bankrupt many American parishes and damage recruitment to the priesthood. So tin an increasingly secular West, the stakes are high in the search for a successor to the renaissance figure of Karol Wojtyla.

One individual matters far more than we imagine. After embarrassing revelations about former General-Secretary Kurt Waldheim’s World War II service in the German military, there was no restoration of credibility for the United Nations from a Pope John Paul II-like figure. Instead, the U.N. got Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan. Both deeply flawed secretary-generals only reinforced the image of an irrelevant and corrupt bureaucracy. And the public standing of the British monarchy would be more secure if Prince Charles were more like his mother than his late aunt Margaret.

The pope is also not only head of the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike even Billy Graham, he is a more international figure and emblematic of the West itself, given the church’s huge membership and its institutions that date to our civilization’s adolescence during the Roman Empire. The traditional use of Latin, the architecture of the cathedral, neo-Platonism, 2,000 years of European intellectual and political history — all that and more have been embedded in the institutional church.

The current crisis in Western culture is not over past famine or pestilence but the boredom of an affluent and leisured population — at once yearning for transcendence beyond its rich but ultimately unsatisfying material world, yet so skeptical of anything not explicable by pure reason, which is the source of all its worldly pleasures. An inspiring pontiff challenges the modern West to reconsider the assumption that the world is only what one can see or hear; an irrelevant pope confirms the smug cynicism that religion is an unnecessary superstition.

Europe, ancestral home of the papacy and cradle of Western civilization, has also engendered the worst ideas of the 20th century, from fascism and Nazism to Marxism and communism. It now faces a demographic crisis, unassimilated Islamicist minorities and lavish entitlements soon to prove unsustainable.

A strong pope — like John Paul II, who boldly opposed Soviet totalitarianism — can provide a bulwark for an agnostic European culture increasingly adrift. A caretaker pontiff will only worsen the Continent’s disturbing lack of confidence in its own origins and once-hallowed values.

Apart from his political skills, fluency as a linguist and personal vitality, the late pope was a man of letters who still believed in what physical evidence could not prove. Thus he reminded us all that reason and faith are not incompatible but are symbiotic and were always at the heart of our very culture.

Thus, John Paul II was a powerful reminder that intellectuals can pray, and churchgoers should cultivate the mind. And at this late age, at this troubled time, he was thus a rare gift from the long past to an increasingly uncertain contemporary West.

Atque in perpetuum, pater, ave atque vale.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution (www.victorhanson.com.).

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