Friday, February 11, 2005

I know you're not supposed to pick apart sentimental fluff like this Peggy Noonan column about the Pope, but I don't get it.

The main thrust of the column is that God is keeping Pope John Paul on earth, miserable in infirmity, in order to teach lessons: Love the elderly and weak; love one another as the Pope, who shows his love by regularly dragging himself painfully before the public, loves you.

OK. But if being a public figure who's floridly ill makes the Pope a walking reminder from God of our duty to love, why not say the same thing about, say, Yasser Arafat in his last days? Why not Christopher Reeve testifying in Congress in favor of the embryonic stem cell research Noonan hates? Why not, in a lesser way, Janet Reno?

And what exactly is it that the Pope inspires? Noonan saw him speak in 2003; prior to his appearance in the hall, she saw evidence of, I guess, his transformative power in the behavior of the audience waiting with her:

The room rocked. Cheering here, drums there, an American spiritual crooned somewhere in the back. The choruses would pick up each other's sound, so that a group from Santo Domingo would sing, and as they finished a young male choir from Poland, in white tie and tails, would take up the song, and then as they finished a group of American Indians--in native dress and full headdresses they looked like beautiful peacocks--would break into native drums. I thought the disparate but unified members of the audience, as they echoed and supported each other, were like a living symbol of the church every day in the world.

Er, it sounds to me like an international version of the parking lot at any Grateful Dead concert during the last 25 years of Jerry's life.

To Noonan, the Pope is a monumental figure in history -- but she never really tells you why she believes this. Maybe this is because her weekly Wall Street Journal column is a sermon preached to the conservative choir, which already regards the Pope as one of the two great men of the twentieth century, a sort of anti-Martin Luther King to Reagan's anti-FDR. Conservatives give the Pope more credit for the end of communism than they do, say, the actual shipworkers at Gdansk. But Noonan doesn't discuss any of this. Nor does she talk about what, exactly, the Pope says or does to nourish his followers' souls.

This reminds me of The Passion of the Christ, a movie Noonan loved. The Passion gives you next to nothing of Jesus' teachings or the things he did as a spiritual leader. Its message -- like Noonan's about the Pope -- seems tautological: Jesus was great because Jesus was great. Why worship him? Well, he's just ... monumental. And (like Noonan's Pope) he suffered -- a lot.

This brings us to Noonan's George W. Bush. He too, in her eyes, has suffered -- he's an ex-drunk (though he never seems to have truly touched bottom) and he's the man history has burdened with the task of leading the war on terror (calm down, I'm just trying to see the world as she sees it). And he too is great because he's, well, great.

It's almost like a 50s hipster's take on hard bop or action painting: He suffers. His suffering led to this. And it sends me. If you need me to explain it to you, you just wouldn't understand.


UPDATE: William F. Buckley has also decided to write about John Paul this week, but he has a slightly different take:


At church on Sunday the congregation was asked to pray for the recovery of the pope. I have abstained from doing so. I hope that he will not recover....

Wow. Let's start with headline: Does anybody remember the howls of outrage in 1991 when a film studio dared to release a movie called The Pope Must Die? I guess, on that score, there really is blanket immunity for Republicans.

But that's a side issue. Buckley's point, of course, is that the Pontiff is very, very sick -- too sick to be effective and too sick not to be in extreme discomfort:

...the progressive deterioration in the pope's health over the last several years confirms that there are yet things medical science can't do, and these include giving the pope the physical strength to coordinate and to use his voice intelligibly.

So, what is wrong with praying for his death? For relief from his manifest sufferings? And for the opportunity to pay honor to his legacy by turning to the responsibility of electing a successor to get on with John Paul's work?

Noonan, by contrast, seems to think God is doing the right thing by leaving the Pope on earth to suffer. Rather like Kathy Bates in Misery, she acknowledges her beloved's distress, but seems to think it's OK as long as it means she (and others) can dote on him.

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