The Revealer: Written on the Body

The Revealer’s Jeff Sharlet, breaks through all the media hype on the Pope with an intriguing reflection:

There is another form of religious media to consider with the pope’s death, that of the body. More widely read than any of his books were the images of the suffering, dying man; a message, many believe, that was the pope’s final teaching. The pope wrote his theology on his own broken body, and reproduced it by means of millions of images carried by secular media. And yet, this suffering is not a text that should be too glibly read; we should not assume to immediately understand its meaning. If we take John Paul seriously as an intellectual — and we should — then we should take his last statement seriously, too, as a set of ideas. Those who’d reduce the pope’s suffering to an easily-translated political program are, literally, fools, clowning on a dead man’s body. Those who find in the image of the man a message as banal as “the triumph of the spirit” inadvertently make a humanist out of John Paul. And those who turned away from what they perceived as grotesque, whispering about vanished dignity, choose for themselves a kind of illiteracy.

I think there is a wider application of this insight as well. I have been puzzling about what the Pope means. I know what he did. I can retrace his actions that were divisive and his actions which brought people together. Politically I can sum up his effect both inside and outside the church in ways that I don’t think the mainstream media is exploring. But still the question remains: what does the big slavic man in the long white gown mean?

I think there are millions who have noted his image, have taken heart in his presence, without knowing or caring much about his message, except to acknowledge that it is spiritual. Karol Wojytla through the mediation of television cameras and photojournalists became the bodily imprint of this message of spirituality.

His smile, his apparent gentleness, his hulking stooped body came to mean something in direct contradiction, and unrelated, to his appalling attacks on the dignity of women, gays, lesbians and dissidents within his own church. To those who took note only of his image, and this group was perhaps his largest congregation, he stood for a different vision of the world: resistance, possibility, hope. That image brought comfort, insight, pause, to many who didn’t really know or care about the details of his theological positions. They were pleased that he was there. In this sense he was undoubtedly an innovative force for spirit and change in the confusion of the late 20th century.

But two cautions: there are those, his victims, (and throughout his authoritarian rule he most definitely collected victims) who are forever and only confronted with the image of an oppressor, and the ubiquity of his lauded image is a reinforcement of their own victimisation. Secondly: more than anything else his image is that of “Holy Father” and while he has managed to imprint on this masculine holiness an image of gentleness and a certain humility, the bodily spiritual image he projects is necessarily at some level an unhelpful reinforcement of dominant patriarchal religion.

I am not wanting to reduce Wojytal to any of these images or storylines. Sharlet is right about the complexity of images and the literacy of storytelling. Part of the power of images is their simultaneity, their ability to tell many tales at once.

JP II the accolades begin

When deeply conservative politicians like Australian PM John Howard start describing the Pope with loaded accolades you know immediately how to place JP II in the current political ecology. Howard told a Melbourne dinner last night:

“This wonderful man who has been not only an inspiring leading of the Catholic church, but he’s been a wonderful warrior for freedom and democracy.”

This of course is not the experience of those who have dared dissent within the church. Hans Kung summed it up well a number of years ago:

Instead of a modernization in the evangelic spirit, one has gone back to the traditional fundamental Catholic lessons – rigorous moral encyclicals, traditionalist-imperialist world catechism. Instead of a collegiality between the pope and the bishops, there is an authoritarian Roman centralism expressed in the nomination of bishops and the attribution of theological seats over the interests of local churches.

Instead of an opening to the modern world, there are complaints and scoldings about a supposed adaptation to it and the encouragement of traditional forms of piety. Instead of dialogue, there is more inquisition and a rejection of freedom of thought and teaching in the Church. Instead of ecumenism there is again emphasis on everything narrowly Roman Catholic.

In a look at the pope’s achievement prepared by CNN in 1999 to mark the JP II’s 20 years as pope one unnamed source noted that this pope grew up in Poland with a church under siege and he has never grown out of that siege mentality:

Part of his problem is also his strength: He grew up in Poland where the church was persecuted by the Nazis and then by communism. The church was always under attack, and he developed a siege mentality. He has never really lived in a pluralistic, democratic society.

So even after the fall of communism, the model of the church is still one that is under siege. But now it’s by secularism, critics in the church, consumerism or relativism. And he responds with this kind of siege mentality, where the church is at war over these issues. And when you’re at war, you don’t have democracy. You don’t debate what you’re going to do.

It’s that very experience that made him so good at helping the church’s suffering from persecution and gave him such a strong backbone in saying what he thinks. But it makes it very difficult to see the grays and the ambiguities, and that there might be a place within the church for (those who disagree).