»  National Review Online

April 7th, 2005

  Rearguard Pope


I am not a Roman Catholic. In fact, I was raised in the old English tradition to think of the Roman Church as a sinister continental conspiracy — hatchet-faced Jesuits in purple robes, lurking in dark corridors, muttering subversion in Latin — to deprive honest Englishmen of their liberties. A few years' acquaintance with the world showed me the absurdity of all that. Philip II of Spain has been dead for a very long time, and the great enemies of liberty in our own age have all been atheists. Hitler once declared his wish to hang the Pope in full pontificals from a gibbet in St. Peter's Square. Stalin sneered at the Pontiff for not having any divisions. I don't know what Mao Tse-tung, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Kim Il Sung and Pol Pot said about the Holy Father, but I feel sure it was not very respectful. Well, whatever side those guys are on, I want to be on the other side. Long live the Papacy!

And John Paul II was, as conservative obituarists of every persuasion have noted gratefully, one of the key figures in the fall of Russian communism and its East European empire. With Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan — they all came to power within a year or two of each other — he helped to rally the forces of civilization against our enemies. Vigorous, handsome, plain-spoken, clear in his convictions, and obviously afraid of nothing terrestrial at all, John Paul II shone like a lighthouse through the fog of fear, doubt, and defeatism that had shrouded the West and its values through the 1970s.

It is therefore sad to reflect that the quarter-century of his papacy was a terrible disaster for the Roman Catholic church. Regular attendance at Mass*  all over the traditionally Catholic world dropped like a stone all through John Paul II's papacy. Everywhere in the great Catholic bastions of southern Europe — Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal — the story is the same. In France, "eldest daughter of the Church," the only argument is whether regular Mass attendance today is just above, or just below, ten percent. In Ireland — Ireland! — the numbers declined steadily from the 90 percent of 1973 to 60 percent in 1996, since when they have fallen off a cliff, to 48 percent in 2001 and heading south. A hundred years ago the US Church imported priests from Ireland; now Ireland imports them from Nigeria.

And then of course there have been the scandals and the exposés, with their dire effects not only on the image of the priesthood, but on Church finances. Twenty-seven years ago, when John Paul II ascended the Papal throne, the natural reaction of a Roman Catholic on hearing that a young man had been ordained would have been: "His parents must be so proud!" Nowadays it is more likely to be: "Oh, I didn't know he was gay." And the most elementary duty of the Catholic laity, the making of more little Catholics, is now widely neglected: the old Catholic nations of Europe have the lowest birthrates in recorded history.

The debate among devout Catholics about this calamity, so far as I can follow it, is not very enlightening. Conservatives blame it all on the reforms of the Vatican II Council (1962-5); liberals blame it on John Paul II himself, saying that his firm traditionalist approach to core doctrines turned off the more open-minded Catholic laity. Both surely know in their hearts that the real culprit is the irresistible appeal of secular hedonism to healthy, busy, well-educated populations. We live, as never before in human history, in a garden of delights, with something new to distract and delight us every day. None of that is enough to turn the heads of those who are truly, constitutionally devout; but not many human beings are, nor ever have been, that committed to their faith. And so the flock wanders away to the rides, the prize booths, and the freak shows.

That's how it is in the wealthy, comfortable nations of Europe and the Anglosphere, in any case. I have been hearing for 30 years — since at least Paul Johnson's History of Christianity came out in 1976 — that hope for regeneration of the Church is to be sought in the Third World. Is it?

Contemplating some of my more devout Catholic friends, with their sober middle-class styles of worship, their comprehensive knowledge of fifth-century theological squabbles, their gloomy, comfortable old churches, their Teach Yourself Latin CDs, and then seeing TV clips of some huge African congregation joyfully swaying and ululating together in their gaudy new cathedral, I quietly ask myself: Is that really what you want? Paul Johnson:

Many of these religions or cults are associated with the desire for land, and reflect the traditional native leadership of priest-kings. In fact they are tribal churches. They are characterized by sacramental vomiting, water-rituals, and speaking with tongues, such as (a very common formula):

               Hhayi, hhayi, hhayi, hhayi,
               Sorry Jesus Sorry Jesus Sorry Jesus
               Spy spy spy, Naughty boy, Naughty boy
               Nhayi hhayi hhayi — Halleluja, hallelujah,

Well, at least we shan't have to learn Latin. All this talk about the Third World coming in to redress the balance of the First strikes me as irrelevant, anyway. Either the Third World continues to languish in poverty, corruption and disease, in which case we shall all do our best to continue ignoring it, expiating our mild guilt with a cash donation now and then, or else it will become stable, healthy, and prosperous, in which case the delights of hedonistic secularism will likely have the same effect on spirituality down there as they are having up here.

Conservatives are not supposed to believe that human beings are the helpless instruments of blind Historical Forces. We are supposed to be the people who celebrate humanity in all its knotty and unpredictable variety, and in the power of the individual human will to transform the world. Did not John Paul II himself challenge, and help defeat, those who claimed the mandate of History? Yes, but that only adds a gloss of irony to his larger failure.

Looking back across the past few decades, it's hard not to think that post-industrial modernism is headed all one way, everywhere it has taken a firm grip. Pleasure-giving gadgets and drugs are ever cheaper and more accessible. The distresses of life, especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed to the margins. As scientists probe deeper into the human genome, the human nervous system, and the biology of human social arrangements, that divine spark of person-hood that we all feel to be the essence of ourselves is being chased along narrower and darker passageways of the brain and the tribal folkways. Happiness itself, it seems, is genetic. And all this is headed … where?

We all know the answer to that one. It is headed to Brave New World. Our flesh is supposed to creep when our adversary in argument plays the Brave New World card. Brave New World! Empty and soulless! Eeeek!

This gravely underestimates the power of Aldous Huxley's tremendous novel, which he sat down to begin writing just 74 years ago this month. The issue posed by the novel, as every thoughtful commentator (Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass, to name two) has pointed out, is: What exactly is objectionable about the world of Year 632 After Ford? As Kass says, the dehumanized people of that world don't know they are dehumanized, and wouldn't care if they knew. They are happy; and if they feel any momentary unhappiness, a pharmacological remedy is ready to hand. If being human means enduring sorrow, pain, grief, envy, loss, accidie, loneliness, and humiliation, why on earth should anyone be expected to prefer a "fully human" life over a dehumanized one?

Most people won't. So far as it makes any sense to predict the future, it seems to me highly probable that the world of fifty or a hundred years from now will bear a close resemblance to Huxley's dystopia — a world without pain, grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility of spirit. It's not what I want, personally, and it's not what Huxley wanted either (he was a religious man, though of a singular type). It's what most people want, though; so if this darn democracy stuff keeps spreading, it's what we shall get, for sure. If we don't bring it upon ourselves, we shall import it from less ethically fastidious nations.

In that context, the late Pope will be seen — assuming anyone bothers to study history any more — as a rearguard fighter, a man who stood up for human values before they were swept away by the posthuman tsunami. There is great nobility in that, but it is a tragic nobility, the stiff-necked nobility of the hopeless reactionary. You might say that John Paul II (who, you do not need to tell me, would have pounced gleefully on that word "hopeless") stood athwart History crying "Stop!" Alas, what is coming down History Turnpike is a convoy of 18-wheel rigs moving fast, and loaded up full with the stuff that got Doctor Faustus in trouble — knowledge, pleasure, power. They ain't going to stop for anyone. Homo fuge!

* Figures for church attendance and other indexes of religious interest are much contested. Generally speaking, the least reliable numbers, though the most reported, are those where people are simply asked about their church-going habits. We seem to kid ourselves a lot about this. More reliable surveys use objective measures, like counting the automobiles in church parking lots — find the word "parking" on this web site. What seems to me like a fairly level-headed and comprehensive round-up can be found on ReligiousTolerance.org.