Saturday, April 09, 2005

Pope's funeral a reminder that institutions can be revived


IT HAS been called the greatest funeral in history. With the experience of two millennia, the Catholic Church is a past master at ceremony. But no-one could have predicted the extraordinary way in which the funeral of Pope John Paul II dominated the attention of the whole world. It is not just the millions of Catholic faithful who have poured through St Peter’s Square. Or even the global billions watching on television. Over 200 of the world’s leading statesmen, including George W Bush and two former American presidents, dropped everything to attend the Pope’s internment. What does this extraordinary event signify?

Certainly John Paul II was an important historical figure. Certainly, it is the first funeral of a major pontiff to take place in the age of 24-hour global television news. But these factors do not fully explain the interest shown in this event. A better clue lies in the attendance at a papal funeral, for the first time, of dignitaries of the other traditional Christian churches - Orthodox and Protestant.

In the last generation, the historic divisions inside Christianity have suddenly weakened, in self-defence against the increasing secularisation of western culture. Even the fundamentalist evangelical sects in the United States find themselves making common cause with the Catholic Church - America’s biggest denomination - against abortion rights. As a result of this melting of the sectarian divisions, Rome is again recovering its status as de facto leader of the Christian world.

Pope John Paul’s contribution to this process lay in his fervent evangelical missions around the globe. He was not the first modern pontiff to travel abroad - his predecessor, Paul VI, had started the trend. But John Paul made his pontificate about preaching the Gospel in country after country. In doing so, he raised not only the profile of the Catholic Church, but also the profile of the spiritual dimension and religion as a whole.

On his travels, he was not as sectarian as many at first imagined. He went out of his way to build bridges to other faiths, especially Judaism and Islam. Which is why many leaders of non-Christian religions were in attendance at his funeral - another first.

Yet, despite yesterday’s sublime celebrations, there remains a large question mark over the future of both the Catholic Church and organised religion. For it is difficult to see what Pope John Paul’s successor can really do in practical terms to stem the advancing tide of secularisation. In Europe, Christian church membership is in free-fall. Across Europe and America, Catholics may have revered John Paul but they do not practise his teachings when it comes to artificial birth control. Even in Brazil, the country with the world’s biggest and probably most devout Catholic community, the birth rate has started to fall.

True, the Christian churches have collectively put abortion high on the political agenda. Yet in no western country is there anything approaching a majority willing to abolish divorce, recriminalise homosexuality, or do anything more than tighten the term limits on abortion. And most westerners, including many Catholics, see the Church’s ban on condoms in countries afflicted with AIDS as shockingly cruel.

Religion has certainly made a comeback as a moral force in an increasingly rootless western consumer society. But western nations are also grounded on pluralist democracy, freedom of the individual and respect for minority and women’s rights - popular values that can be at odds with any authority based on the claim of divine revelation and the requirement for universal obedience.

This is not a contradiction any pope will find easy to reconcile. In many ways, John Paul II chose not to try. His was a more spiritual calling, and in many ways it ensured that he eventually rose above politics, to be much loved even by those who disagreed with him on social issues. But the next pope, especially if he is a conservative from Latin America or Africa, will find political controversy harder to avoid. He might even accelerate the culture clash within the Church between the forces of western, liberal reform and third world fundamentalism.

If Catholicism wants to retain its historic base in the west, there is a case for saying the next pope should be someone like the original Apostle Paul - willing to explore how to reach out to the modern secular gentiles.

MEANWHILE in Britain, the Pope’s funeral has another layer of meaning. It marks a shift - perhaps long overdue - in the evolution of our political institutions. The roots of traditional British identity lie in our Protestant heritage: the Monarch is Defender of the Faith and there is a legally established Church. Yet, for the first time, not only the heir to the throne, but the British Prime Minister and the head of the Church of England have gone to Rome for the interment rites of a pope. Even 50 years ago that would have been unacceptable.

The response of Prince Charles, Tony Blair and the Archbishop of Canterbury is correct and a sign we have outlived the sectarian part of our national heritage. Indeed, it is high time the Act of Settlement was amended to allow a Catholic the right to ascend the throne. But there is one final, deeper lesson for Britain to learn from the passing of the Pope.

In recent decades, Britain has discarded many of its traditional institutions, and let others fall into disrepair. The monarchy, through its own self-indulgence, is in a sad state. The manner in which Prince Charles’ wedding has been handled has not improved matters. And our politicians have forfeited popular respect and trust - a key issue in the present general election.

The historic funeral of John Paul II is a reminder that great institutions can be revived, to universal acclaim - provided they have the right leadership. It is a lesson Britain should heed.

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