Notes on John Paul II

9 05 2020

The whole difficulty is that in this Age of Kali there is no sattva-guṇa and no clearance of the heart, and therefore people are making the mistake of identifying with their bodies. Even the big philosophers and scientists with whom we deal are practically all under the impression that they are their bodies. The other day we were discussing a prominent philosopher, Thomas Huxley, who was proud of being an Englishman. This means that he was in the bodily conception of life. Everywhere we find this same misunderstanding. As soon as one is in the bodily conception of life, one is nothing but an animal like a cat or a dog (sa eva go-kharaḥ). Thus the most dangerous of the dirty things within our hearts is this misidentification of the body as the self. Under the influence of this misunderstanding, one thinks, “I am this body. I am an Englishman. I am an Indian. I am an American. I am Hindu. I am Muslim.” This misconception is the strongest impediment, and it must be removed.

Srimad Bhagavatam, Purport to Canto 8

The above text reminded me that I have wanted to write a long and extensive blog post about Pope John Paul II. Pope John Paul II was Pope for the first quarter century of my life, and under his pontificate, I became super-devout, apostatized twice, became a seminarian, got “excommunicated,” reconciled with the Church, was tonsured a monk, etc. In other words, it was rather eventful for me. When he died in Easter Week 2005  I was a novice monk. That day, I was actually at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels taking a road trip with a friend of the monastery. I got to stare down Cardinal Mahoney when I saw him walking toward me. He must have wondered what some Orthodox monk was doing there and why he looked unhappy to see him.

But I am skipping ahead. My first memory of the Pontiff is when he visited my area in the 1980’s. It was such a big deal that you saw booklets at the back of the church commemorating the event for years afterwards. When I became a disgruntled teenage wannabe trad stuck in a liberal parish in the 1990’s, I really didn’t know what to think of the Pope. I remember when the new catechism came out and I got a copy. I thought it was interesting, but I liked my frail TAN Books copy of Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma better, to the point that I remember bringing it on a family hike (maybe it was Easter?) and I was reading it by a lake. I knew John Paul II loved Mary, and I loved Mary too, but something still didn’t sit well with me.

It’s hard now to remove oneself from the 24 hour news cycle, but back then, it was fairly easy. Except for being glued to CNN (which I was some days), you didn’t know what was going on “in the world” every waking second. Now, especially in the wake of this COVID 19 scare, you can pull out your personal Smartphone to see what’s going on in the world (supposedly) and people’s reactions in real time. That didn’t happen back then. So one could have a rather pious perspective of the Pope with no way of knowing if it actually conformed to reality.

I may have actually tried to read John Paul II’s encyclicals as a youth, but my impression of him is the same that I have expressed many times. Really, it’s an impression I got or get from a lot of “pre-Vatican II” clergy and faithful: they don’t realize that they’re still rebelling against something the subsequent generation doesn’t understand. I am less than a generation younger than the vernacular liturgy, the Vatican II documents, etc. Paul VI’s Missal wasn’t ten years old when I was born. Yet even I feel the gap between the pious world of previous generations and my own quasi-secular one.

John Paul II mixed an atavistic Marian piety with bottom-of-the-barrel phenomenological insights, and made some sort of weird Frankenstein monster of a Catholic ethos. I grew up around a liberal Catholic parish and Mexican charismaticism, so it’s not like I don’t get it. “What if I could get the sweet saccharine pious feelings without all of the triumphalist theology?” That is what John Paul II represents for me in a nutshell. Rosaries and World Youth Day, the Suffering Christ and rock music, traditional Eucharistic piety and grand gestures of ecumenism… Pope John Paul II was more about a mood than anything else. Some longing at the heart of one’s being spilling out into spectacle: The Big Pope Show. Yes, it totally turned me off.

What the Pope lacked in theological precision and competent governance, he made up for in charisma… I guess, because I never saw the charm in it. When I became a Lefebvrist at the end of the 1990’s, I wasn’t necessarily bitter against the Pope. I just didn’t care for whatever hybrid spectacle he was putting on. That’s the other thing: there was very much a “for or against” attitude with Pope John Paul II. You couldn’t partially endorse his church: it was all or nothing, as Lefebvre and various liberation theologians found out. He may have believed in a New Springtime for people he approved of, but he was “old school” towards those within the Church who crossed him. One could attribute his more temporal political successes to that traditional discipline, but in hindsight, there were a lot of bad things that came out of it (*cough, cough* Maciel *cough, cough*) For this reason, I am surprised at Pope Francis’ magnanimity toward his self-proclaimed enemies, some of whom are cardinals. John Paul would not have tolerated such open dissent.

As for the “New Springtime” itself, outside a small cadre of “JPII Catholics,” one can’t really say it made any real impact. One could argue that it “stopped the bleeding” that the Papacy of Paul VI caused, but that’s like trying to prove a negative. Those who loved him still love him, to those more lukewarm he may have provided an incentive to stay in the Church. But the vast majority didn’t care either way, and the Church continued to implode in the developed world (and parts of the developing world). Really, as in all modern social groups, it really boils down to an issue of fandom rather than culture.

In terms of theology, that’s where the quote above comes in. The only real engagement I undertook with John Paul II’s thought was reading the original discourses on the theology of the body years after his passing. You can search the archives of this blog to figure out what I thought about it (spoiler alert: not a fan). I only read them because people online and in real life kept telling me that if only I read the original discourses I would “get it”. I still contend that all of the post-conciliar Popes, from John XXIII to Pope Francis, are really theologically interchangeable, with certain differences of tone and inflection. They all still speak the same language. Vatican II is the marching order, and there is only a difference in implementing it. John Paul II was all about a “Culture of Life” vs. a “Culture of Death”, and theology of the body was the foremost theoretical foundation of his strategy.

I think this ideology is rather tragic, as is Catholic theology in general. In order to make people see the life beyond this life, they must profoundly identify with the body itself: the body reveals the self according to the theology of the body. The body shows the person, and God is a Person, so your body is key to your personhood. The body does identify something, but it is one’s illness that is caused by selfish and disordered desire. Yes, that makes me a dirty Gnostic, I barely consider that an insult at this point. On the contrary, John Paul II’s seeming hard line on sexual morality, to respect the “truth” of the human body and ergo of the human person, is a strange ideal. Pope Francis’s (apparent) wavering on certain aspects of sexual morality is indicative of how flawed John Paul II’s approach was. Sexuality can never speak a language that isn’t selfish. And saying that it can will just cause great consternation to those who struggle with it. It’s like trying to cure drug addiction with more drugs. I stated previously that many people feel uncomfortable in this skin, and no amount of theological posturing is going to make them comfortable in this mortal shell.

But honestly, I feel that Pope John Paul II won in my case and in the Church in general. For the Church, he has become kitsch before passing into the oblivion of just some saint things are named after. Many of the people content under the papacy of the Polish pontiff are sworn enemies of the Pope who canonized him: only in the Catholic Church, am I right? Natural family planning and theology of the body remain out there mostly out of bureaucratic inertia. In my case, I have found that I like people who like John Paul II, even if I personally don’t care for him very much. In general, I like “nice”, and everything about John Paul II was “nice”. So why not?

The main issue I suppose is that, if I were Catholic the way other people seem to be Catholic, I would still be in the Society of St. Pius X’s orbit, or worse. But as it stands, the only reason I am relatively sane when called upon to play the Catholic is because I don’t care. I don’t think the things “good Catholics” worry about are the things God worries about. Maybe I partially have John Paul II to thank for that. All of the anti-ecumenical posturing I did as a young man during his Papacy collapsed into itself like some cosmic singularity and I came out the other end a Hare Krishna (after many years and pit stops). The only way to save the best parts of having grown up in John Paul II’s church, Catholic traditionalism and the like was to jettison the Christian metaphysics of God and go for something more primordial. For all my youthful posturing, my idea of God is much bigger now.

One of John Paul II’s mottos was “Be not afraid”. I could not take shelter of Wojtyla’s Jesus to keep me from being afraid, but if others can, and they can be of some service, I say so much the better.




2 responses

9 05 2020

I’ve grown more lukewarm towards Pope JP2 over the years as well, and honestly to most Popes. I’d be honestly shocked if even the most hard-line popes over the centuries were quite ineffectual when it came to governance and that and success in reigning in error, rogue bishops, and new theological movements (sorry Jansenism), came downs to other actors (like popular movements against a bishop, good counter-marketing against Jansenism, etc).

I am trying to take the spiritual life seriously, but other than restating things, I don’t know what can top what has already come (Imitation of Christ, Sinners Guide, Spiritual Combat, My Daily Bread—the entire Confraternity of Precious Blood series really). Sometimes we get gems from popes (Francis has been on a bit of a role lately Re: usurers, bragging apologists/proselytizers). So I’m curious about having you expand on:
“I don’t think the things “good Catholics” worry about are the things God worries about.”

9 05 2020

I tried to read some of John Paul II’s encyclicals back in the day (never attempted The Theology of the Body), and even allowing for the Vaticanese, I never thought they were ever quite intelligible. Say what you will about Benedict XVI, including that he was a German professor (and we all know the reputation German professors have for impenetrable prose), I’ve read some of his stuff, and aside from the sometimes technical language, he’s actually pretty easy to read and pretty comprehensible. JP II tended to start a sentence, then get distracted, then go off down a back alley, and by the end of the paragraph you had no freaking clue what he was talking about.

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