Saturday, April 09, 2005

So the World Appears

Here's a test: can you, off the top of your head, name 10 people who were born and died within the span of the 19th Century? Don't go to Google or wrack your brains too much! Just have a stab at it.1

The reason I ask is because I'm fascinated by the hype of legacy surrounding the death of the Pope.

Legacy, it strikes me, is something that happens, in an unpredictable way, across great spans of time. Perhaps we can predict who will be remembered as we live the moment. Hence childless, chaste Salieri's descent into madness in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: he could see Mozart's genius and, through Mozart, his own legacy slipping from his fingers:
I was to be bricked up in fame! Embalmed in fame! Buried in fame...

This was my sentence: I must endure thirty years of being called 'distinguished' by people incapable of distinguishing! ...and finally - [God's] Masterstroke! When my nose had been rubbed in fame to vomiting - it would all be taken away from me. Every scrap.

I must survive to see myself become extinct.

But mostly legacy just doesn't work like that. It is a far more fickle and serendipitous thing. How many of today's writers and thinkers will take their places in tomorrow's canon? Very few I suspect. And our current ideas of those who will be remembered may well be forgotten themselves.

What of John Paul II then?

Well, I think there are several elements to our idea of him now. There's his role in liberating the East of the continent from Stalinist rule. But will this be remembered as a footnote to the 1914-1989 post-imperial settlement of Europe, the short 20th century as Eric Hobsbawm calls it? Anyway, the Pope was one of many people who played a role in the collapse of Sovietism, from Gorbachev (hat-tip to Slugger) to, gulp, Reagan. Moreover, although he made many statements about the ravages of consumerism in the developed world and the (far more damaging) ravages of exploitative capitalism in the developing world, let's hope that he won't be the only person pointing that out before it comes to an end.

But what of his inadvertant role in spreading AIDS in Africa where, as he died, some areas had a HIV rate of 30% of more. Again, will the dead Pope simply be one other conservative, religious, governmental, whatever, who preferred moral certainty over the realities of others' lives?

And what of his non-response to child abuse allegations, and what they symbolised and entailed? I think I heard the Archbishop of Cloyne2 saying that, when he was sent back to Ireland from Rome, the Pope had expressed concern for the decline in faith across Ireland. I was struck that the clergy, including the Pope, seemed oblivious to their more than partial responsibility for this decline. Child abuse is just the most awful aspect of the clergy's misconduct in the using their power, in Ireland and elsewhere. Control over education systems that were designed more as recruitment vehicles for the priesthood rather than as means to prepare children for life, control over healthcare that had more to do with sexual neuroses than healing etc., might have come to an end, but these all played a role in people's turning away from the Church.

Filled with good and wonderful men and women, the church was systematically corrupt. John Paul II must bear some responsibility for this.

The modern idea of morality is rooted in behaviour, in the idea that we judge people as rational selves who either respond or don't respond to their duties and obligations. Given what I've just written about John Paul (not just me neither, Polly Toynbee and Terry Eagleton really laid into him in the Guardian), I think that he fails on these terms. He made a number of moral mistakes and these errors had real, tangible and catastrophic impacts on a vast number of people.

And yet.

But this is problem with my (charicatured, admittedly) image of morality. It leaves out the far more difficult concept of character. For example, it is at least theoretically possible to make the mistake of being a racist (believing that skin colour etc., has a bearing on the moral status of others) and yet to be distinctly virtuous, charitable, kind, selfless etc. The Pope, by analogy, might have failed a number of moral tests, or made a number of moral mistakes, and yet mostly, if not always, acted out of a deep concern for the welfare and well-being of others. In other words, he was a good person. And that might be the best we can say for someone.

And on the subject of legacy, well, I guess (literally) that John Paul II will be remembered primarily for his putting an end to proselytising to Jews. The implications of that are hugely important in the history of religion. As Clifford Longley put it in the Guardian,
[The Pope] has of course reiterated the teaching of the second Vatican council that the Jews cannot be blamed of the death of Christ, and that anti-semitism is a grave sin. But he has gone much further, coming close to declaring Judaism an open channel to God, a valid parallel to Catholicism. As a result the Catholic church has officially stopped evangelising the Jews. For them - and them alone, frankly - conversion is no longer deemed necessary for salvation.

This revolution was encapsulated in the few words of the famous prayer which he posted into a niche in the Western Wall in Jerusalem during his millennium year visit to Israel. This is the most solemn and serious method pious Jews use to communicate with their God. By his action, Pope was declaring that the method works. By his words, he was undoing 2,000 years of Christian supersessionism. No matter what generations of churchmen had written and said and the clear impression in the New Testament to the contrary, the ancient Jewish covenant with God was still in force. The prayer simply stated: "God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant." This was the high moral moment of his reign. If all else is forgotten, this deserves to be remembered in a thousand years.

I guess it will.

1 I should say that I failed this test myself! I could only think of six people, all British or Irish and all either politicians or novelists.

2 I could be wrong about this: I was half-listening and the comment just caught my ear.

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