Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Dying on the Job

Being a soldier or a sandhog is dangerous work, but there are few occupations in which you are routinely expected to die on the job. Cops, cab drivers and drug dealers accept some risks, but not a 'til-death-do-us-part employment contract. Mob capos plan to retire, perhaps only stepping back once in awhile to settle a dispute. Even dictators for life leave an escape hatch and fund their future with foreign bank accounts.

No, it's a very short list: Slave laborer and Pope. At an age well past when many Americans dream of kicking back, cardinals are lining up for the one last job interview.

You may sense a certain irreverence toward institutionalized religion here. It's irreverence of the sort that can only be shaped by long exposure to nuns and cemented by sufficient repetition of the Confiteor so that it can still be recited four decades after the end of the Latin mass. Because it can be mistaken for hostility to all religion, it is usually only hauled out for those with similar experience.

But the death of a long-serving Pope is a special occasion, and you want to set out the good china.

So there we were, two strong-minded and unchurched friends, arguing about the Pope. It was the sort of contretemps that occurs after too much wine and before actually knowing someone as well as you imagined.

She, a Canadian whose father emigrated from Poland, was crediting John Paul II for the downfall of communism and bettering the lives of her Russian and Polish relatives. I took up the side of the global environment, African AIDS victims and women and poor everywhere. I got a bit carried away questioning the redemptive power of a papal stand against communism, and overplayed my point that communism never truly threatened the wellbeing of the planet the way consumptive capitalism does. The Pope spent his time preaching to the poor, not persuading the captains of industry to share the wealth or reduce exploitation of the planet.

Even without the That's Enough rays emanting from a spouse just out of kicking range, I should have realized this was not simple after-dinner bantering. I was arguing against a local hero, which always trumps the starving childen in Africa angle. Tossing in the Pope's tacit support of pedophilia would not help my case that his moral leadership credentials were rather ambiguous. Instead, it would be seen as trying to avoid the main point: The Pope defeated communism, and my relatives say life is better.

Impossible to contradict that, but still, I pressed on.

Yes, it was important for the anti-leftist leader of the Church to encourage Solidarity's strike against the communist masters. However, without the Reagan defense build-up and continuing pressure on the "evil empire," the Poles might well have ended up like the Kurds after the first Gulf War, or the Czechs in 1968. The Pope gave hope and encouragement, but that is what leaders are supposed to do. It is not the same thing as being courageous, and for this reason, I gave more credit to the Gdansk shipyard workers than to the head of one of the world's largest and most powerful institutions.

The Pope's moral leadership helped shore up opposition to a corrupt and weakening communist regime, but toppling it required men and women willing to risk everything for the cause. We saw the limits of morality without action by how far the Pope's opposition to the Iraq invasion got against the good Christians in the White House.

The real measure of courageous moral leadership is not simply doing your job. It is taking a stand where there's a real chance you might lose your job, your wellbeing or your life. On this score, the record is mixed, and for every Russian who can buy toilet paper without standing in line, there will be a child in a Third World country who will never have a chance.

Now the cardinals convene to elect a new Pope. Rome is Washington squared, with its provincialism and insiderhood unmitigated by democratic elections and new, outside influences. Under John Paul II, the Church accomplished much of what our own Party in Power aspires to — one world of red states, where progressive voices are silent and the ballots go up in smoke.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Morality without action" as you say, seems a hallowed privilege of figureheads, and a prodigious waste of muscle and mindshare. On the opposite, secular end of the dais, we find our Hollywood celebs: those whose free-floating personas make them desperate to gain credibility by latching on to causes they profess to believe in, but seem seldom to understand. Bono
not included.

7:01 PM  
Blogger Charlie Quimby said...

Your comment about celebs leads me to expand my point. Seeking a veneer of credibility certainly seems part of it. Another factor may be the impact of material success. Some believe they have earned it and blissfully spend. Others understand what they've been given is out of proportion, and they seek confirmation of their worth by striking a pose — but one that won't actually jeopardize their acquired comfort.

The papacy allows a personal vow of poverty without renouncing the benefits of tremendous wealth. Service in US government is capitalism's shorter-term version of renouncing earthly riches for reward in the hereafter. We pay the president and staff less lower than many small business owners earn, with the understanding the earnout will come after leaving office.

At a time of life and in a position of power when they should be most free to do good for the world, too many are content to just put on a show.

John Paul II certainly did more in his life than most figureheads, and though ineffective, his opposition to our rush to war was resolute. But like too many leaders, his devotion to institutions seemed greater than his devotion to individual human beings.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Charlie Quimby said...

See Culture of Death for a quick summary of what else I left out of my dinner conversation.

8:36 PM  

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