The Pope's Conscience, Part II
Anyone who needs reminding of where the truth ends and the Joaquin Navarro spin begins would be well advised to check this contribution from Bob Moynihan, editor of the aesthetically fabulous, superbly informed, quasi-theocon journal Inside the Vatican. I have to give Moynihan a tip of the hat as we share a teacher and mentor in the great historical theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, for whom I wrote a paper -- and with whom shared lengthy conversations -- on the communication of political ideas in the pontificate of John Paul II. Moynihan relates that the pope was, in fact, near fatal suffocation on the evening of 1 February, and only the persistent demand of Dziwisz got Wojtyla to the Gemelli.
Possible suffocation leads to the question of potential brain death and incapacitation beyond the point of dispute, but I'm not a physician and won't proceed to discuss the nuances of the medical situation.
As I said earlier, I could never get to a point through these years where I thought resignation a necessary option for JPII. But, given the comments of the day and having a better brief of what looks to come, it is time -- and it would, in the process, not dilute Wojtyla's diligent adherence to his mission, but enhance it. Here's why:
One of my great fears for the church after John Paul has always been the cult following among conservatives who have viewed him in a manner akin to how Rastafarians view Haile Selassie -- something more than human, more than mortal (and if the pope told them to light up, their children would never pass a drug test again). Let's face it, any successor who steps into the shoes of the fisherman will have a tough act to follow, but the Phil Lawlers, EWTNs, George Weigels ("VEEEE-gils," as senior curialists would have it) and other Papal Rockettes of this world have been so emboldened by the back-channels of the apartment in this pontificate that they will hunt down the successor and gladly serve as judge, jury and executioner if he dared do anything which didn't meet the litmus test they have established.
For them to declare obeisance to a pope who doesn't necessarily share their vision of what church is, and to be faithful to him, will be the test of their faith -- although, of course, they didn't stand with their "beloved daddy whom we adore to bits and pieces" on Iraq, strengthening the welfare state, working to curtail laissez-faire capitalism, advocating third-world debt relief, building a culture where life can be cherished and embraced at all socioeconomic levels, etc. etc. etc.
With that record, in essence, the papal cheerleaders have just served to make the church more insular and ostentatious. And if they're asked to do the work of Jesus for once, they'd shit. Just watch.
But these cultists will have a very hard time accepting any pope who isn't Ratzinger -- and even he has a few tricks (well-hidden, of course) up his sleeve that will cause some shock to the base. Were JPII to resign and be able to embrace and endorse his successor in life, then fade to the recesses, the message to the church (and especially to the polemicist choir) would be twofold:
1. A message of humility, that the papacy is bigger than any one individual, and it is not so much about the holder of the office as the one its occupant is believed to represent. One of the finest critiques of this pontificate came from the secretary to John Paul I, who said of the Second on his silver jubilee, "This is a pontificate where humility is trumped by zeal," and JPII would be seen as offering a final stroke of humility for the stability and vitality of the church.
2. A message of continuity. If a successor were chosen after the pope's death who had (even slightly) new ideas, the potential for a rupture in the Catholic world would be great, given the lack of ideological movement of the last quarter-century. Were a seamless transition to take place -- all details of interregnum would have to be worked out before all else, of course -- a new agenda, and a new torch-runner to carry it, would seem less drastic as there would be no real vacancy of office and things could have a more fluid path. There is the great possibility of a new generation of sedevacantists, and the only way they will stay within the walls is if the object of their devotion short-circuits them himself.
Every other bishop has to retire at 75 -- they may hand their dioceses to another, but fourty years of age limits has shown that a life's ministry is far from over when the administrative side ends. So it's a question of humility vs. zeal: Moses handed Israel to Aaron and went up the mountain, Jesus gave himself over to the cross. Will John Paul II follow their examples this time?
It's Wojtyla's (and Dziwisz's) call.