I struggled all weekend to find something distinctive to say about the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II, and have a hypothesis to offer. In the end, what Karol Wojtyla will be most remembered for is not his role in the end of the Cold War, or the formidable windbreak he built against the storms of doctrinal change initiated by the Second Vatican Council. His most important legacy, I surmise, may be as the key transitional figure in the transformation of Roman Catholicism specifically, and Christianity generally, from a “Western” tradition rooted in Europe to a truly global faith centered in the South rather than the North.This may seem counter-intuitive, since this Pope was himself pre-eminently European, with a faith and outlook shaped by the twentieth century’s struggles against European totalitarianism, and a life that personified the destruction of the divisions between Eastern and Western Europe. Moreover, he went a long way towards healing European Christianity’s most shameful historical disease, its murderous intolerance of religious minorities, most notably Jews.Yet nearly everything about the powerful and perhaps irreversible trajectory he set for the Church points South, to the Third World, and away from Europe and the United States. Many obituarists of this Pope have struggled to categorize him ideologically as “conservative” on faith and morals yet “liberal” or even “radical” on issues of globalization, poverty and war, even as they acknowledge the unity of his own thinking.But these are Eurocentric ways of looking at his teachings, which may confuse and distress American Catholics and what’s left of the faith in Europe, but make perfect sense to most Catholics in Africa, Latin America and Asia.A deeply illiberal approach to issues involving sexuality and gender; a rejection of capitalism as a necessary counterpart to democracy; and an abiding hostility to U.S.-European political, military, economic and cultural hegemony: this is a consistent point of view with strong support in the global South, among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Indeed, in many respects what John Paul II represented was a living link between the pre-modern traditions of European Catholicism and the post-modern realities of much of the rest of the world.And in that respect, John Paul II was following, not just leading, the faithful. As will be pointed out often during the next couple of weeks, there is now a Southern majority in the College of Cardinals that will elect this pope’s successor. Most of the Church’s growth is in the South, or among southern immigrants to the North (most notably the Latin American immigrants to the U.S.). John Paul II’s peripatetic travel was notable not just in its pace, but in its scope, especially in Latin America and Asia. And it’s no accident that the short list for the successor to the first non-Italian pope in half a millennium includes serious candidates from outside Europe for the first time ever.Sure, John Paul II clamped down on the “liberation theology” popular in some elements of the Latin American clergy, and reined in some of the more exuberant liturgical experiments underway in Africa (as well as in the U.S.). But such actions should be understood as steps to consolidate the South’s position in the universal church, not as efforts to impose European norms.This is, of course, just a hypothesis, and perhaps I am being unduly influenced by the North-South struggle underway in my own faith community, the Anglican Communion, where African and Asian bishops are headed rapidly down a path that may soon lead to the isolation and/or expulsion of their U.S. and Canadian brethren, with the Church of England itself probably next in line for punishment for its “modernist” heresies.But the case for John Paul II as the crucial figure in the Roman Church’s non-Roman, non-European, non-American future seems more compelling to me than a lot of the competing interpretations. And this possibility should especially give pause to the American conservatives, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and irreligious, who are outdoing each other this week in viewing this pope’s legacy through the lens of their own cultural and political obsessions. This pope’s opposition to “American exceptionalism” invariably embraced opposition to the death penalty, to capitalist triumphalism, and to George W. Bush’s unilateralist foreign policies, as well as to abortion or birth control or the removal of feeding tubes from the hopelessly dying.Many conservatives accuse John Paul II’s American flock of practicing a “Cafeteria Catholicism” of selective obedience to Rome. But the American Right, I would argue, is practicing “Cafeteria Conservatism”–an equally selective interpretation of this pope’s teachings and legacy, which lead not Right or Left but South.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.