May 24, 2001

An essay about His Holiness, Pope John Paul II.

Chicago, May 23, 2001. Pope John Paul II turned 81 last Friday.

My sister once remarked that she is 3 popes old. That's true for me too, but she has been three popes old even before her first birthday. Most of that time has been taken up by the current successor to Peter, about whom I hold many feelings, some contradictory. I do not aspire to resolve these contradictions in this essay. But I hope to present my feelings and discuss them openly, to hopefully improve my own (and maybe others') understanding of these contradictory dimensions.

Dimension One: Personal and Positive.

For as long as I can remember, Karol Josef Wotyla has been invoked, and will be invoked, as a source of chest-swelling pride in the Polish-speaking Catholic household where I grew up. An aspiring stage actor and published poet from Wadowice breaks a conga-line of Italian popes 456 years long. In 1987, my mother and grandmother saw Jan Pawel Drogi hold mass in the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan; that very same day, Miss Michigan, Kae Lani Rae Rafko, was in Atlantic City and was crowned Miss America. Years later, one Michigan sports commentator noted the following:

  • 1987: Pope visits Metro Detroit; within three years the Detroit Pistons win a pair of National Basketball Association championships, with the Detroit Red Wings winning two National Hockey League championships some years after that.

  • 1993: Pope visits Denver, Colorado. Colorado wins a hockey team and the Stanley Cup; the Denver Broncos win consecutive Super Bowls.

  • 1999: Pope visits St. Louis. They're not called the Miracle Rams for nothing.

[Note to Chicago Cubs fans: ~This~ might be the way to get rid of Fred Merkle's Revenge.]

And it so happens that I stand just two degrees of separation away from His Holiness: my Uncle Marian ~went to the same seminary with~ Ojciec Swietej ("holy father"); my family even has an enlarged full-color photograph of Uncle Marian meeting Uncle Karol.

Dimension Two: Political, yet still positive.

"A nation that kills its own children is a nation without future" (John Paul II, September 1st, 1996, Rome, Saint Peter Square)

The above epigram should echo profoundly to anyone who lives in the United States of America--a country where a fifth of the children live in poverty. The Pope has been decidedly vocal about other matters that all Americans should heed carefully, with words that, if decontextualized from who said them, would render him in the eyes of the U.S. media as an unruly radical extremist. The following are extended quotes from the Message of Pope John Paul II for the Celebration of World Day of Peace, given on January 1, 2000:

At the root of so much suffering there lies a logic of supremacy fuelled by the desire to dominate and exploit others,

The twentieth century bequeaths to us above all else a warning: wars are often the cause of further wars because they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice and trample upon people's dignity and rights. Wars generally do not resolve the problems for which they are fought and therefore, in addition to causing horrendous damage, they prove ultimately futile. War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.

...we can set forth one certain principle: there will be peace only to the extent that humanity as a whole rediscovers its fundamental calling to be one family, a family in which the dignity and rights of individuals - whatever their status, race or religion - are accepted as prior and superior to any kind of difference or distinction.

This recognition can give the world as it is today - marked by the process of globalization - a soul, a meaning and a direction. Globalization, for all its risks, also offers exceptional and promising opportunities, precisely with a view to enabling humanity to become a single family, built on the values of justice, equity and solidarity.

For this to happen, a complete change of perspective will be needed: it is no longer the well-being of any one political, racial or cultural community that must prevail, but rather the good of humanity as a whole. The pursuit of the common good of a single political community cannot be in conflict with the common good of humanity, expressed in the recognition of and respect for human rights sanctioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is necessary, then, to abandon ideas and practices - often determined by powerful economic interests - which subordinate every other value to the absolute claims of the nation and the State. In this new perspective, the political, cultural and institutional divisions and distinctions by which humanity is ordered and organized are legitimate in so far as they are compatible with membership in the one human family, and with the ethical and legal requirements which stem from this.

What is needed without delay is a renewal of international law and international institutions, a renewal whose starting-point and basic organizing principle should be the primacy of the good of humanity and of the human person over every other consideration. Such a renewal is all the more urgent if we consider the paradox of contemporary warfare in which, as recent conflicts have shown, armies enjoy maximum security while the civilian population lives in frightening situations of danger. In no kind of conflict is it permissible to ignore the right of civilians to safety.

Beyond legal and institutional considerations, there remains a fundamental duty for all men and women of good will, called to commit themselves personally to the cause of peace: that of educating for peace, setting in place structures of peace and methods of non-violence, and making every possible effort to bring parties in conflict to the negotiating table.

From the problem of war, our gaze naturally turns to another closely related issue: the question of solidarity. The lofty and demanding task of peace, deeply rooted in humanity's vocation to be one family and to recognize itself as such, has one of its foundations in the principle of the universal destination of the earth's resources. This principle does not delegitimize private property; instead it broadens the understanding and management of private property to embrace its indispensable social function, to the advantage of the common good and in particular the good of society's weakest members. Unfortunately, this basic principle is widely disregarded, as shown by the persistent and growing gulf in the world between a North filled with abundant commodities and resources and increasingly made up of older people, and a South where the great majority of younger people now live, still deprived of credible prospects for social, cultural and economic development.

In this context we also need to examine the growing concern felt by many economists and financial professionals when, in considering new issues involving poverty, peace, ecology and the future of the younger generation, they reflect on the role of the market, on the pervasive influence of monetary and financial interests, on the widening gap between the economy and society, and on other similar issues related to economic activity.

Perhaps the time has come for a new and deeper reflection on the nature of the economy and its purposes. What seems to be urgently needed is a reconsideration of the concept of "prosperity" itself, to prevent it from being enclosed in a narrow utilitarian perspective which leaves very little space for values such as solidarity and altruism.

Here I would like to invite economists and financial professionals, as well as political leaders, to recognize the urgency of the need to ensure that economic practices and related political policies have as their aim the good of every person and of the whole person. This is not only a demand of ethics but also of a sound economy. Experience seems to confirm that economic success is increasingly dependent on a more genuine appreciation of individuals and their abilities, on their fuller participation, on their increased and improved knowledge and information, on a stronger solidarity.

These are values which, far from being foreign to economics and business, help to make them a fully "human" science and activity. An economy which takes no account of the ethical dimension and does not seek to serve the good of the person - of every person and the whole person - cannot really call itself an "economy" , understood in the sense of a rational and constructive use of material wealth.

Which models of development?

The very fact that humanity, called to form a single family, is still tragically split in two by poverty - at the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than a billion four hundred million people are living in a situation of dire poverty - means that there is urgent need to reconsider the models which inspire development policies.

In this regard, the legitimate requirements of economic efficiency must be better aligned with the requirements of political participation and social justice, without falling back into the ideological mistakes made during the twentieth century. In practice, this means making solidarity an integral part of the network of economic, political and social interdependence which the current process of globalization is tending to consolidate.

These processes call for rethinking international cooperation in terms of a new culture of solidarity. When seen as a sowing of peace, cooperation cannot be reduced to aid or assistance, especially if given with an eye to the benefits to be received in return for the resources made available. Rather, it must express a concrete and tangible commitment to solidarity which makes the poor the agents of their own development and enables the greatest number of people, in their specific economic and political circumstances, to exercise the creativity which is characteristic of the human person and on which the wealth of nations too is dependent.

In particular it is necessary to find definitive solutions to the long- standing problem of the international debt of poor countries, while at the same time making available the financial resources necessary for the fight against hunger, malnutrition, disease, illiteracy and the destruction of the environment.

Ironic sidenote: The May 8, 2001 issue of the New York Times had two headlines. On page A3, "John Paul Prays for Peace in Former War Zone in Syria". On page A23, a jump-page from a front-page article, "Spreading The Word On Praying For Profit."

Dimension Three: Not so positive.

So I happen to have ties to one of the most famous and recognized human beings in history, who has repeatedly and loudly called out on behalf of justice and sovereignty. My idol, right?

I had a conversation recently with a friend who, like me, was raised a Catholic household in which JPII was unsurprisingly venerated. But in our talk she was not shy about her criticism. She understood and respected the causes that he has supported, but she raised the point that half of the population remains excluded from support in deeply entrenched ways. Women cannot become priests in the Catholic church (though the Pope can probably change that with the stroke of a pen). And the Catholic church has not given its imprimatur on contraception and birth control and the A-word, even though one can argue that women's reproductive freedom and control over their own lives more generally can prove highly beneficial to the causes so important to the Pope.

Surveys suggest American Catholics tend to disagree with the church on the politics of human reproduction. In one way, they may be subtly confirming what Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan made more concrete in an installation that just beckons the word "controversy." Cattelan made an installation called "The Ninth Hour" which depicts "a wax effigy of Pope John Paul II lying beneath a meteorite that has presumably crashed through a shattered skylight overhead." [The New York Times, Art and Leisure, May 13, 2001, pg. 25]

The unabashedly-pro-Pope household where I grew up was also a very female household. Since my grandfather passed on, it has been an ~all~-female household. For Mother's Day, I bought my grandmother (among other things) a book of interviews with the Pope in Polish. I would still side with my friend on matters of women's rights and reproductive rights, but I admit a bat could have flown into my open mouth when I saw the photo "The Ninth Hour" in the newspaper.

So I feel tugged by both sides of this matter. The controversy continues. What else is new? But hope springs eternal on this and on so many other things, as Karol Woytyla said in his Urbi et orbi message on April 15, 2001: "Rediscover today with joy and wonder that the world is no longer a slave to the inevitable. This world of ours can change."