It’s not really fair to compare Peggy Noonan to Maureen Dowd. One is an intelligent, insightful observer of events and a graceful writer; the other is a New York Times columnist. Clearly, it’s like staging a duel between d’Artagnan and an unarmed man.
Still I couldn’t help noticing that each lady wrote a column about Sunday’s canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II that was indicative of her political philosophy. The center-right Noonan was warm and wise; the leftist Dowd was ridiculous.
Now let me say that my interest in Vatican matters is only that of a friendly outsider. I have many Catholic friends and have read a lot of Catholic theology with awe and admiration but I don’t have much of an emotional connection to the church part of things. In fact, when I heard there was an event involving cannons and Roman numerals, I figured it was a replay of the Super Bowl. (Hahahaha. Ah man, I crack myself up sometimes!)
But I did live through the Pope-hood or Popedom or Popitude or whatever it is of John Paul II, and I thought he was one of the greatest heroes of the second part of the 20th century, a giant among men. It would be wrong to say he brought down the Soviet Union single-handed, but (as with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher) it’s perfectly fair to believe that that massive, murderous and imperialist slave state might well not have fallen without his efforts. That’s, like, 300-million people set free. I don’t need the church to tell me the guy was a saint.
It’s also true that the church’s horrifying child abuse scandal broke on his watch and a lot of people thought JPII under-reacted.
So Noonan wrote a Wall Street Journal column celebrating this great man’s life and achievements and pointing out reasons why he might not have done all he should have about the scandal she rightly calls The Great Shame.
He was a crucial actor in defeating the Soviet Union…. After he was shot and almost killed in 1981, he made a point to go to the would-be assassin’s prison cell to assure him that he was personally forgiven, and that God loved him. He wrote and spoke in a new way of the true nature and meaning of the Catholic faith from its beginnings to its missions to its meaning in the world…. He stood for the powerless, from the unborn to the unwell to the aged… He stood—and fought—for human rights, for the existence of truth and the right of every human being to be exposed to it. He hated war and called it “always a defeat for humanity.” Like John XXIII he was committed to closer relations with Judaism; he called the Jewish people “our elder brothers…”
Noonan adds that a pope who had lived through, and heroically defied, the Nazis, and had heard them and the Communists defame the church with false accusations of child molestation, would be slow to believe those charges that reached him. But she says everything in the man’s history and philosophy suggests he would have acted more strongly if he had known and believed the horrid truth.
The title of Dowd’s Times column — “A Saint, He Ain’t” — perfectly captures the writer’s smug, simplistic and cheap-jack snarkiness. (Note the typically unfunny joke about the Communion wafer — meaningless mind-acid passed off as wit. “Doesn’t have a prayer.” Her columns are full of this stuff.)
His defenders say that the pope was kept in the dark, and that he believed that the accusations were phony ones, like the efforts to slime the church in his homeland, Poland, during the Cold War.
Given the searing damage the scandal has done to so many lives and to the church, that rationalization doesn’t have a prayer. He needed to recognize the scope of the misconduct and do something, not play the globe-trotting ostrich.
The church is giving its biggest prize to the person who could have fixed the spreading stain and did nothing. The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer, doesn’t stop here. There is something wounding and ugly about the church signaling that those thousands of betrayed, damaged victims are now taken for granted as a slowly fading asterisk.
But the argument is absurd. The pope was either kept in the dark or he wasn’t, knew the truth or didn’t. The amount of “searing damage” the abuse did (no doubt tremendous) doesn’t change any of that one way or the other. If Dowd’s emotionalism were backed up with facts, it would almost be journalism. As it is, what charge is she making and on what grounds? It’s all just leftist bitterness against a great man who didn’t agree with her.
It is the same with anti-freedom leftists who dismiss George Washington because he owned slaves, or condemn Harry Truman for dropping the A-Bomb — or with rightists too who condemn Abraham Lincoln for preventing the secession of the slave-holding states.
A man has to make good and bad choices with the knowledge he has, given the facts on the ground in the time he lives. The possibilities are not infinite; the way ahead is unclear; and not all paths to righteousness are always available. If a man as great and good as George Washington owned slaves, it is safe to assume that someone less great and good (you or I, for instance) would have done worse, much worse. Likewise, if a moral titan like JPII failed to do all the good he might have, then perhaps it should humble us with thoughts of how much less mere mortals like ourselves would have done in his place — and how much less we have done in ours.
When Dowd has taken a bullet in the course of confronting a world-devouring tyranny with the cross of Christ, when she has inspired millions with the heart of defiance, and given them the voice to cry out to their atheist slavemasters, “We want God!” — cry out until the wall that imprisoned them fell like Jericho’s, in just as great a miracle — when she has done even a fraction of that amount of good in the world, then she can write her smarmy column about a great man’s failings. Until then… well, a moral voice she ain’t.