“A pope who will matter”

April 19th, 2005  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

Until now I have resisted the impulse to contribute to the flood of bits spilled in the wake of the recent death of Karol Wojtyla. In part I have kept silent because, as a confessional Lutheran, I have necessarily complicated feelings toward the bishop of Rome; I can agree with the confessions but still be deeply concerned when something happens that is liable to profoundly affect so many of my fellow Christians. In part I have been silent because I felt there was little meaningful that I could say. After seeing volumes of egregiously tone-deaf commentary on cable news and in newspapers, I’ve been a bit hardened against the prospect of speaking in public about the Pope, lest I sound like CNN:

I’m Anderson Cooper, here with Christiane Amanpour in St. Peter’s Square. We’re looking at the Pope’s pallbearers right now. Christiane, is it true that all of these men were hand-picked as a direct result of their staunch opposition to contraception and stem-cell research?*

CNN, the New York Times, and I all have something in common: our opinions about what the Vatican should do do not particularly matter to the Vatican, nor should they. (This is only fair, since CNN, the NYT, and I are not exactly taking marching orders from the Roman church, either.) One of the few things I have learned from my mistakes over the years is to keep my opinion to myself in nearly all situations where it is liable to be disregarded. Unfortunately, shockingly few people who speak in public seem to have picked up on this crucial point; yesterday, a sportswriter provided a near-perfect microcosm of the whole phenomenon.

Peter King, football columnist for Sports Illustrated, indulges his delusions of importance every week by including all sorts of random twaddle at the end of his column. (I’ve written about King before.) Frequently, his self-important logorrhea section involves a discussion of whether the Starbucks in Poughkeepsie is better than the Starbucks in Cherry Hill, endless gushing about some song that’s currently in a cell-phone commercial (“I smell a Grammy. Buy it, now.”), and terse, reductive, and enthymeme-laden analysis of political hot-button issues.

This week, King really oversteps the bounds of his competence. In the last page of his column, he says that his sixth “non-football thought of the week” is “Surprise us, College of Cardinals. Pick a pope who will matter.” That’s not really a thought so much as it is a command, but I’ll let that slide. King’s “thought” raises two huge questions:

  1. Did he assume that the sequestered College of Cardinals would be checking cnnsi.com on Monday morning and adjusting their votes accordingly?
  2. What the hell are his criteria for “a pope who will matter?”

The first question is barely worth treating: As the principals in the pope-election process are all forbidden to communicate with the outside world, King’s sage advice isn’t liable to reach the right ears. (This is the case, sadly, even for those cardinals whose Mondays normally wouldn’t be complete without a description of King’s latest caramel macchiatto or the most recent box scores from the Montclair, NJ girls’ lacrosse team.)

It seems that King is simply engaging in a time-honored American tradition: gain a soapbox because of some perceived qualification X, and abuse that soapbox to shoot from the hip about Y. It is unclear what King means by “a pope who will matter,” however. Any pope, by definition, “matters,” whether King likes it or not. The pope is a pastor to approximately one billion Roman Catholics around the world; some of them even (shock!) regard him as an authoritative figure whose pronouncements about faith and morals are normative.

The absurd thing about King’s “thought” is its apparent implication that Wojtyla didn’t “matter.” If we restrict our inquiry to the purely secular sphere, we are talking about a man whose contributions to world politics included no small part in architecting the fall of totalitarian Communism — the system responsible for the largest mass murder of the 20th century, for those keeping score at home. It is a safe bet that secular historians will remember John Paul II long after sports fans have forgotten Peter King.

The most plausible explanation I can find for King’s comment is that there is some issue about which he has a grievance with the Roman church (or, perhaps, with orthodox Christianity in general); the relevance of a “pope who will matter” will subsist in his willingness to submit to King’s magisterial authority on this matter. Perhaps King leads such a sheltered, narcissistic existence — surrounded by people whose thoughts, hopes, and desires move in lockstep with his own — that he assumes we all know precisely what he’s talking about. We don’t.

* This quote is “fake but accurate.”

I’m currently listening to Sonata no. 31 in A♭: II Allegro Molto from the album “Beethoven Piano Sonatas Nos 28-32” by Vladimir Ashkenazy