I ran across a remarkable article
by Christopher Hitchens called Papal Power, John Paul II's Other Legacy. It was posted at Slate on April 1, 2004, while the pope lay on his deathbed. The article appears to be a rather meandering and unfocused piece. Hitchens manages in a single article to:
- mock the Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit guides the cardinals in the selection of a new pontiff;
- insinuate that the short reign of John Paul I was due to murder or "celestial pique;"
- denigrate the heroic personal struggle of John Paul's final months in office;
- an extraordinary accusation that John Paul II was directly involved in covering up the priest scandal in the USA;
- attack Catholic clerics for trying to prevent Terri Schiavo's judicial execution;
- assail the (Catholic) President Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam;
- lay into the (Catholic) Kennedy brothers and accuse them of murder;
- denigrate Cardinal Spellman and "various Catholic Cold-War propagandists" from Clare Booth Luce to William F. Buckley;
- focusing his venom on Bernard Cardinal Law; and
- accusing the Vatican and John Paul of frustrating the attempts to bring Cardinal Law to justice.
You might think this is too large a meal to consume at one sitting, and you are right, but this is not due to sloppy writing. It is deliberate on Mr. Hitchen's part. The cascade of accusations against individual Catholics and Catholic beliefs in general is intended to fling enough mud to try and make something stick. Individual targets don't really matter. It is the Church in particular, and religious belief in general, that he is attacking. Note the tone.
This is yet another of the self-imposed tortures that faith inflicts upon itself. It means that you have to believe that the pope before last, who held on to the job for a matter of weeks before dying (or, according to some, before being murdered) was either unchosen (sic) by God in some fit of celestial pique, or left unprotected by heaven against his assassins. And it means that you have to believe that the public agony and humiliation endured by the pontiff was also part of some divine design.
But there could obviously not have been any graceful retirement in the case of John Paul II. The next vicar of Christ could hardly be expected to perform his sacred duties knowing that there was a still-living vicar of Christ, however decrepit, on the scene. Thus, and as with the Schiavo case, every last morsel of misery has been compulsorily extracted from the business of death. For the people who credit the idea, apparently, heaven can wait. Odd.
Not so odd really, Mr. Hitchens. Heaven can indeed wait. And whatever you may think of John Paul the Great, humiliation is not a word that attaches to his person. He was grace in action. It is clear why Hitchens missed the point. Grace does not appear to be an attribute he possesses himself.
I must make two other comments points on his diatribe. Had he merely mounted an attack on Cardinal law I would not have posted on his article. I don't defend Cardinal Law's cover up of homosexual priestly abuse of adolescent boys. As the father of two young boys myself I'm enraged by such things.
Nor do I think it proper that Cardinal Law should have been permitted to say a memorial mass for the late pontiff. If he had any sense he would not have celebrated the mass, but if he had any sense the abuses committed under his leadership would have been much more limited. He's a disgrace to the Catholic priesthood and should retire to a monastery to do penance for the rest of his days.
But Christopher Hitchens goes too far when he says the Vatican is undermining justice in the United States. There is no impediment that I'm aware of that would prevent American prosecutors from laying criminal charges against Cardinal Law, if such charges are warranted. They have not done so, despite Hitchens obvious yearning for them, so how is the justice system being impuned?
The second and more serious matter is the following allegation by Hitchens.
Even before this, he [Cardinal Law] visited Rome on at least one occasion to discuss whether or not the church should obey American law. And it has been conclusively established that the Vatican itself - including his holiness - was a part of the coverup and obstruction of justice that allowed the child-rape scandal to continue for so long.
Now if Hitchens wants to assert in an article that the late beloved pope is guilty of this charge it is incumbent on him to provide the evidence. He chose not to do so, although he went on about everything from the Terri Shiavo, to the Kennedy's, to Diem, to Clare Luce Booth. In my view, his omission is dishonest and unethical.
No obituary about John Paul II, for example, will omit to mention that he exerted enormous force to change the politics of Poland. Well, good for him, I would say. (He behaved much better on that occasion than he did when welcoming Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein's most blood-spattered henchmen, to an audience at the Vatican and then for a private visit to Assisi.)
But let nobody confuse the undermining of a Stalinist bureaucracy in a majority Catholic nation with the insidious attempt to thwart or bend the law in a secular democracy. And
let nobody say that this is no problem.
My, my. What is Hitchens saying here? He isn't specific, so refutation of the charge is highly problematical. If he is referring to Terri Schiavo, is he saying that it is illegitimate for American Catholics to make use of the American political system, or to have recourse to the American courts, in order to further their cause? If he is referring to the Vatican, we need specifics.
He doesn't say, but when one is engaging in a smear, specifics are rather inconvenient.