Polls and Pontiffs

Monday, April 04, 2005

Polls and Pontiffs

When CNN-Gallup released a poll showing that two-thirds of U.S. Catholics believed that Pope John Paul II will be remembered as one of the greatest popes ever, it seemed to fit neatly into the hours upon hours of praise that TV's talking heads heaped on the deceased pontiff.

Of course, any Catholic under the age of 50 scarcely remembers any pope other than John Paul II so that poll response carries a little less verve than it might otherwise hold.

In some respects, John Paul II is due a little praise. He encouraged Solidarity and other home-grown, anti-communist movements in the 1980's. Over the objections of his top advisers, the pope appropriately apologized for the church's anti-semitic past.

John Paul II certainly changed the papacy in some significant ways. Vatican City used to be viewed as the pope's home, but this pope was constantly on the go and his immense public profile at least suggested that he believed a pope needed to be more accessible (perhaps even more accountable?) to the millions of Catholic faithful around the globe.

But while John Paul II changed the face of the papacy, he did little to change the church itself. Under this pontiff, the church dug in its heels. Divorced Catholics, women, gays and many others continue to wear the church's scarlet letter. The church, in my view, missed an opportunity at reconciliation.

Whatever vague admiration Catholics may feel for John Paul II, those who live in the industrial nations of the world continue to embrace positions and lives that are at odds with the church's rulebook.

Indeed, John Paul II's 27 years at the helm of the church did little or nothing to dissuade U.S. Catholics from the views they hold on artificial birth control and other issues. As a new CNN-Gallup Poll of Catholics in America reveals:
  • 78 percent said the next pope should allow Catholics to use birth control.
  • 59 percent said the next pope should allow women to become priests.
  • 63 percent said the next pontiff should permit priests to be married.
  • 59 percent said the next pope should have a less rigid policy on stem cell research.
John Paul II granted sainthood or beatified more than 1,800 people -- a number that exceeds that of all of his predecessors combined. On the surface, this may seem like an insignificant statistic. But, as we all know, life is a zero-sum game. The amount of time and energy John Paul II devoted to creating more saints necessarily lessened his ability to take other actions.

And it's reasonable for Catholics to ask: Did the creation of all of these saints do anything of substance to improve the physical or spiritual lives of humanity? The church has never had a shortage of saints, ceremonies and icons. Perhaps John Paul II's successor will recognize this.

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