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.
TDS Strategy Memos
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
Amidst all the Republican attacks on voting by mail, something else was going on, which I wrote about at New York:
Republican state legislatures across the country recently launched efforts to restricting voting by mail in myriad ways. It’s generally understood that they are reacting to Donald Trump’s bizarre but incessant claims that massive fraud associated with expanded mail ballots in 2020 robbed him of a “landslide” victory. That’s not, however, the only voter-suppression measures the GOP is pursuing in states where they control both the executive and legislative branches of government. They are also returning to their pre-2020 agenda of restricting in-person voting in ways that disproportionately affect Democratic-leaning constituencies.
That’s most evident in Georgia, where GOP legislators are considering crackdowns on early in-person voting, restricting weekend voting opportunities, banning mobile polling places, and invalidating provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. But it’s popped up also in Iowa, where Republicans have sent their GOP governor a bill cutting back on early voting and even closing the polls earlier on Election Day (Democrats traditionally vote later in the day than Republicans).In both states, of course, these attacks on in-person voting are being combined with restrictions on voting by mail; one of the bills in Georgia would eliminate no-excuse absentee ballots — in effect since Republicans introduced it in 2005 — altogether. But there’s clearly a bait and switch going on, in which general-purpose attacks on the franchise, and particularly voting practices thought to benefit Democrats, are being hustled through even though they have nothing to do with the widespread Trumpian claims that liberalized voting by mail is a threat to election integrity.
This reality creates a bit of a strategic problem for Democrats. Should they expend their energy defending expanded (or even universal) voting-by-mail opportunities to the last ditch just because Trump chose to demonize the practice in one election cycle? In the past, after all, voting by mail was actually thought to favor Republicans in many states. Emory political scientist Alan Abramowitz has just published an analysis concluding that expanded voting by mail didn’t have much to do with Joe Biden’s victory, even in the pandemic-distorted atmosphere of 2020.
Certainly in many parts of the country — including Georgia — early in-person voting has been the favorite balloting method for Democratic-leaning minority voters. It was no accident that an early version of one of the Georgia bills banned in-person voting on Sundays altogether, which was a direct attack on “Souls to the Polls” — post-worship-service voter-mobilization drives undertaken by many Black churches (the provision was struck, as it sounds both racist and anti-religious, though it was replaced with restrictions on how many weekend days were available for early in-person voting).
We’ll never know why Trump spent so much time attacking voting by mail in 2020, absent any clear evidence it would benefit his opponent. My own guess is that all along he contemplated the “red mirage” strategy of claiming victory based on early returns and either stopping or delegitimizing mail ballots counted later — a strategy that depended on convincing his own supporters to vote in person, which they obediently did, relatively speaking. That he failed to competently pull it off is no evidence that this was not the plan. But in any event, absent an extended or future pandemic, unrestricted or positively encouraged voting by mail may not be as fundamentally essential to voting rights as it appeared to be when Trump and his allies were assailing it every day. At a minimum, voting-rights advocates should be vigilant about a return to systemic voter suppression aimed at other — or all — methods of balloting.