Along the Tracks

Thursday, April 07, 2005
 

The power of religion


From the April 4 Northwest Signal:

Just hours after Pope John Paul II passed away, I was watching a movie at home, “The Flight of the Phoenix.” One of the characters, a vaguely Middle Eastern gentleman, was delving into pop philosophy as his group of fellow airplane crash survivors prayed they would be rescued.

“Religion only divides people. Spirituality unites them.”

A throwaway line from an utterly throwaway movie, but in various forms, often heard.

This sentiment, commonly propounded by Hollywood and much of the media, appears painfully accurate to the unattached observer: Hindus fight Muslims, Muslims fight Christians, Christians fight Jews, etc., etc., etc. Yet if one is willing to look deeper - and today’s cultural elite clearly is not - it rapidly becomes clear the dividing lines are created by people. The religions themselves are merely organized expressions of the spirituality we all share as a human birthright.

It is no more fair to blame religions for divisiveness than to blame a city charter for a gang operating in the town. People make mistakes; flocks stray; evil can creep in to steal away righteousness.

Perhaps Pope John Paul’s greatest contribution to our world - and his contributions were innumerable - was his commitment to “religion.” None of that squishy “spiritualism” for him; rather, the pope demonstrated with words and actions his deep commitment to the scriptures and traditions upon which his faith, Roman Catholicism, rests.

What’s more, John Paul reached across the “divisive” lines of religion to those of other faiths, offering a sincere hand of friendship and calling for rights and respect regardless of differing identities. The pope stood firm on what it means to be Catholic; he also stood firm on the equal value of all souls on earth, Catholic or not.

Looking back at John Paul’s service, it is apparent most disagreements did not come from outside the Catholic faith, but from within. Almost invariably, these confrontations concerned social issues, where the pope was unapologetic in standing for what he saw as the permanent doctrine of the Church: opposition to abortion and birth control, refusal to allow ordination of women and the consistent declaration homosexuality is a sin.

Less noted is how John Paul fought vigorously for the protection and support of impoverished children, demanded the equality of women in society and kissed and blessed those stricken with AIDS back when most feared to even touch the infected.

John Paul was human, as we all are, and there are dark spots on his record. His inability to recognize the scope of sexual abuse of children by some American priests, and the cover-up executed by a number of bishops, resulted in a scandal which has damaged the American church in both finances and in trust of the faithful. In Europe and the United States, the number who count themselves as Catholic has continued a steady decline.

Yet today, the church as a whole is stronger than ever, with an explosion of new Catholics in Latin America, Africa and Asia. John Paul’s stand for humanity and dignity has opened doors to conversion to Catholicism and Christianity in general. Christian readers will recognize that this was Christ’s Great Commission. The pope has answered.

I am not a Catholic, and growing up Lutheran, I was perhaps especially sensitive to the historical controversies surrounding the papacy. Yet the power in this pope won my admiration and appreciation. Many in the coming days will point out the line of papal office-holders stretches back, by tradition at least, to the Apostle Peter. Fewer will add the pope is to live as the representative of Jesus Christ on earth.

John Paul’s life will be regaled in its successes on the world political stage, including his partnership with the West to end communism. He will be eulogized for his strength of will which carried him through years of physical decline. He will be appreciated for an unflinching opposition to war and outspokenness against capital punishment.

Yet his commitment to accept the role as Christ’s representative - the servant of all Christendom, without reserve, doubt or pride - demonstrated the potential of “religion”: “Spiritualism” may make people feel better; “religion” can change the world for the better.


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