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The Catholic moment

What evangelicals can learn from the lavish coverage of John Paul II

Issue: "The fewer and the proud," April 23, 2005

The pope's funeral was the biggest television event ever, attracting as many as a billion viewers. From the televised vigil over Pope John Paul II on his deathbed to the election of his successor, never has anything to do with religion received so much media attention.

All of this for a moral absolutist. He was rigorously pro-life. He fought against abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and what he called "the culture of death." He stood up against the sexual revolution, teaching the sinfulness of homosexuality, extramarital sex, pornography, and the culture's general disassociation of sex from procreation that has profoundly undermined the family.

He was also a theological conservative. He suppressed the Christian Marxism of liberation theology. He clamped down on liberal professors in Catholic universities. He said no to female priests, liturgical innovations, and the loosening of traditional church teachings that many Catholics were pleading for.

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Clinging to moral absolutes, theological doctrines, and traditional practices is supposed to make Christianity irrelevant to the contemporary world. And yet, apparently not.

It has been a long time since Christianity of any kind had this kind of cultural presence. Of course, when the pope was alive, the media routinely trashed most of what he stood for. And yet now, commentators and pundits from ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN, C-Span, as well as legions of print journalists, have been giving us respectful, positive, nonstop coverage of Catholicism.

Many evangelicals are probably envious, thinking no way are we ever going to get this kind of good press. Roman Catholicism-with its image-centeredness, visible worldwide institutions, and externalized rituals-is certainly more media-friendly than Protestantism, which is Word-centered, decentralized, and internalized. The media is oriented to celebrities, and in the pope they have one.

Still, this must be cognitive dissonance for proponents of the mega-church, accustomed to evaluating effective ministry by numbers. The pope's funeral was the biggest worship service in history. Four million pilgrims came to Rome, with hundreds of thousands attending the service and untold millions taking part via TV screens set up in sanctuaries around the world. This was not some contemporary service, but a very ancient one, in Latin, no less. And if you want a mega-church, Roman Catholicism claims a billion members.

Catholic churches in America are full of liberal priests, feminist nuns, sex scandals, and nominal, nonpracticing members. The kind of grand and impressive worship shown on TV is something only brought out on special occasions in American Catholicism, with shallow music, pop-psychology homilies, and watered-down liturgy being the norm in many American parishes.

But a revitalized Roman Catholicism may prove tough competition for evangelicals. The casualties of postmodernism yearn for "spirituality." Unlike modernists, they are open to the past. They do not prize abstract, rational arguments and formulas. Rather, they are attracted to mystery, mysticism, and the supernatural made tangible.

In one area, the late pope was not traditional at all. By emphasizing that good works are the fruit of God's grace, he had many Lutherans and evangelicals thinking that Catholics now agree with them on justification by faith. But the pope applied this principle to other religions, as well. If Muslims and Hindus demonstrate good works, that must be a sign of God's grace. Now, Catholics are teaching that not just other Christians but believers in other religions can be saved, even apart from conscious faith in Jesus Christ. This ecumenical theology tallies well with relativism, making Catholicism palatable to our new polytheistic culture.

Evangelicals watching the pope's funeral could only be glad to hear passages of Scripture translated in voice-overs heard around the world. They could enjoy the ethereal music of the Psalms sung to Gregorian chants and appreciate the commentators talking about Christ. But though the pope was eulogized for all of his good works, the prayers begged God to let him into heaven, calling on Mary and the saints to intercede for him. Sadly missing was the liberating gospel of salvation through faith in the free forgiveness won by Christ alone.

Evangelicals should take advantage of Christianity's current visibility in the public square. They can learn that moral absolutes are persuasive when presented in a spirit of love and that recovering Christian spirituality, not modernizing the faith, is the way to cultural relevance. But none of it will matter without the proclamation of the gospel.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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