Those who don't 'get' religion didn't get John Paul

Pope John Paul II is dead, but his challenge is very much alive. Cynics might struggle to explain all the fuss over an admittedly charismatic old Polish guy in a funny hat who talked to God a lot. The rest of us are confronted with the possibility that there might be truth. Or rather, that there must be. It would be silly to lay entirely aside his particular understanding of truth. But the larger question that draws millions to Rome, including a buzzing cloud of some 3,500 journalists, is whether anything can be true in the way that he said Roman Catholicism was.

We're a bit like Marlon Brando's character Johnny Strabler in 1953's The Wild One: "What're you rebelling against, Johnny?" a girl asks and he replies, "Whaddya got?" Aside from the Pope the shelves are a bit bare, intellectually speaking.

People might seem to have all kinds of philosophical grounds for rejecting the claims of conservative Roman Catholicism. But speaking of bare, if you listen closely, virtually every criticism of John Paul's views concerns what one theologian called "pelvic issues."

A baffled editorial in the April 4 Globe and Mail asked "But can a church that calls all homosexuals sinners really claim to be modern?" Evidently the writer did not realize the church calls all people sinners, including the Pope. Or that to someone who thinks truth is as real, unchanging and solid as, well, a rock, the problem is not whether Christianity is modern but whether modernity is Christian. But he or she did notice the sexual-restraint bit.

Why? There are seven deadly sins and John Paul II was against them all. I understand why the slothful were too lazy to protest, and when he talked about greed people thought he meant somebody else. But why aren't the wrathful angry? Why instead the biggest flap about God and groins since Jehovah explained circumcision to the Israelites? Why did that same Globe editorial, after gays, rattle off ordaining women, condoms and the rhythm method? It's like the guy who thinks every Rorschach ink blot is a naked woman and when the psychiatrist says he's obsessed with sex he replies, hey doc, you're the one showing all the dirty pictures.

As Malcolm Muggeridge wrote, "Sex is the mysticism of materialism. We are to die in the spirit to be reborn in the flesh, rather than the other way around." A passionate defence of any other deadly sin, in theory or practice, requires intellectual adherence to some putative truth. But lust comes from the brain stem. Orgasms feel good even if you're Jean-Paul Sartre. But then the feeling goes away and you're left thinking: Is that all there is? John Paul said no. And we can't look away, not so much from the content of his belief that Jesus was "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6) as the fact of it.

To a post-modern world intellectually inclined to put mocking "scare quotes" around any hint of Truth with a capital T, this assertion is like a car wreck: horrifying yet fascinating. For people, even in this Age of Anxiety, not only hunger for truth, they instinctively believe in it. It is one of J. Budziszewski's Things We Can't Not Know. Logically speaking, the statement that there is no truth can't be true. The statement that there is truth is in many ways puzzling. But it's not self-contradictory. Indeed, as C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, it is an empirical fact that you believe it. Yes, you. Look inside your own head and you will find belief in right and wrong.

Some materialists admit to an inborn sense of moral truth but claim theirs, like mine, yours and everyone else's, is just a trick of the genes: It is evolutionarily advantageous to act as if we believed in justice, so we are hard-wired to. In short, they claim not to believe what they believe. Passionately, in speeches, letters, columns and books.

Like the Globe editorialist. That piece ended "John Paul was right to restore the Church's moral compass. He was right to fight for human dignity. He was right to underline the sanctity of life. He lit a moral beacon in a changing world. But his successor must find a way to adapt to that world, or the Church that John Paul strove so hard to raise up will slide into irrelevance." Feeble.

We can't not know we need a moral compass. And deep down we can't not know it doesn't point to our own navels or slightly south.

John Paul's first words as Pope were "Believe! Do not be afraid to believe." They still echo.

Do we dare to believe anything? And if so, whaddaya got?

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson