Two dead men have been in the news this week, though neither on the front pages. Both have been portrayed rather broadly as heroes, though for very separate causes. Both have been the subject of Hollywood films of limited historical accuracy, made mostly to energize the believers in their causes. Both have been subject to critique from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Both deserve the deepest of respect for confronting injustices in the sixties, achieving unexpected global celebrity for their causes in the seventies and winning decisive victories in their fields in the eighties. Both also deserve to be critiqued for their human failures, however, in ways that may make them less useful as icons for their causes.
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m referring to Karol Wojtyla and Rubin Carter, better known respectively as Pope John Paul II and The Hurricane. The Hurricane died this last Sunday, just shy of 77 years old –– a respectable level of seniority for a man whose fame was based on his reputation for violence of all sorts. Pope John Paul II died 9 years ago, just shy of 85 –– also a respectable level of seniority for a man who had stood up in opposition to both Nazis and Communist totalitarians, and then took an assassin’s bullet to the chest in later life and lived to tell about it. The final official touches on his sainthood are taking place on Sunday, April 27.
Back in the 1960s Wojtyla was one of the radical young intellectual archbishops sent to Rome to stir things up at the Vatican 2 conference (in part just as an excuse to get the trouble maker out of Poland for a few years), which permanently changed the public face of Catholicism: eliminating claims of an exclusive institutional right to declare who could have God’s grace and who couldn’t, with all those not explicitly submitted to papal authority being damned to hell; embracing freedom of religion and rejecting the doctrine that all good Catholic rulers and political leaders should work to eliminate people’s freedom to worship in non-Catholic ways; expanding the role given to active participation by the laity in Catholic rituals in general; and somewhat in counter-balance to all of these liberalizing tendencies, explicitly emphasizing the church’s right to regulate people’s sex lives.
Back in the 1960s Rubin Carter was building a reputation for being everything that middle class white Americans feared about young urban blacks: a gun-toting, hard partying fighter who had been dishonorably discharged from the Army prior to the Viet Nam crisis. Carter was pulled over one hot June night in 1966 for “driving while black”. Circumstantial evidence from that contact with the police was used months later to convict him and the friend he was riding with that night of shooting up a Patterson, New Jersey bar, resulting in 3 deaths.
In the 1970s Bob Dylan wrote an extended ballad about Carter’s case that drew international attention to the matter. In 1976 Carter was given a retrial, which he also lost, but not without a lot of international attention being drawn to the problematic issues involved in the case. In 1978 Wojtyla became Pope –– the first non-Italian to get the job in over 400 years. In the process he managed to draw a great deal of international attention to the problems of official anti-religious actions being taken by governments under the Soviet sphere of influence.
In the 1980s both men “won” their battles, sort of. Carter’s convictions were overturned on procedural grounds and the Soviet bloc discovered that “Glasnost” – openness – was more than their oppressive systems could handle, leading to its systemic implosion. Carter, living out his remaining years in Canada, and John Paul, living out his remaining years in the Vatican, had gained the status of moral heroes of the oppressed in the countries they had left behind. Both continued, in their own humanly flawed ways, to fight for the rights of those they saw as oppressed for the rest of their lives.
Their epic struggles not withstanding though, both men suffered from a certain credibility deficit with regard to key aspects of the causes they came to represent: Carter in terms of being violence-prone; Wojtyla in terms of personifying the Catholic Church’s head-in-sand approach to sex problems. No one can credibly accuse Carter of being any sort of urban warlord, and no one can credibly accuse Wojtyla of not having kept his pants zipped, but in their respective zeals for their causes both can be said to have overlooked major issues that some “normal people” have a certain justification in feeling angry about or threatened by.
It is true that many young black men who have been raised under circumstances of systematic injustice and oppression become dangerously violent and disrespectful of any abstract concept of the rights of others. Just because they are victims themselves does not mean that they are not dangerous. Carter’s case and his work over the course of the last third of his life, after his convictions were overturned, seem to belittle these risk factors.
It is true that emotionally meaningless recreational sexuality has got grossly out of control in the past couple of generations, and that some form of deeper motivational force for personal restraint in that regard may be in order, but that does not make it safe for any authoritarian religious organization to claim the right to control people’s sex lives. This is especially the case when isolated individuals within such organizations’ ranks are prone to use their position of power to sexually dominate vulnerable individuals under their charge, and this is especially objectionable when the vulnerable individuals in question are (pre-)pubescent children. John Paul’s obsession with maintaining a hard line on issues related to sexual control, together with his inability to deal effectively with matters of priestly abuse of power and especially pedophilia within his organization, have seriously sullied his saintly reputation in ways that his conservative fans largely fail to grasp.
Those who would wish to use these men as saints of their respective causes –– fighting against racial prejudice and abuse within the criminal justice system of the United States in particular, and maintaining an emphasis on sexual moralizing over social justice issues within the Vatican hierarchy and the American Religious Right respectively –– would prefer that their heroes continue to be presented in as sympathetic and unsullied a light as possible. It is far easier to promote their causes if they don’t have to content with attack sound-bites and negative talking points from their opponents. Neither group can be accused of being excessively honest and open about their heroes in this regard. Yet meanwhile the general public seems to realize that both heroes had their serious weaknesses; thus the public enthusiasm for both hagiographies is running rather thin this spring, keeping either Carter’s death or Wojtyla’s canonization from being front page news.
I have read far more of John Paul II’s writings than I have the Hurricane’s, so I’m in a better position to deconstruct that hagiography than the other. For the casual reader here though, suffice it to say that by the end of the first Bush presidency the Pope’s political sympathies had been thoroughly co-opted by his Cold War comrades in the United States, with Ronald Reagan as their own patron saint. This can especially be seen in John Paul’s supremely naïve statement in the encyclical Centesimus Annus, where he says (in § 41), “Exploitation, at least in the forms analyzed and described by Karl Marx, has been overcome in Western society.” It can also be seen in the complete absence of concern for the poor in his encyclical writings from that point onward.
It wasn’t that these problems were all magically solved once the Cold War was over; it was merely that the Pope had become convinced that after playing a role in defeating communism he now needed to focus his energies on defeating all forms of promiscuity an unauthorized sex. Abortion was part and parcel of this evil, and a particularly conspicuous issue to be raised politically, especially in the US political market. It might also be said to have served as a convenient form of PR offensive by which the church could attempt to draw attention away from scandals regarding cover-ups of priests’ pedophilic practices, which may have been going on since time immemorial, but which came to light in steadily increasing ways over the entire course of John Paul’s papacy.
The relevance of all this is not in terms of reducing Wojtyla’s personal historical significance, or discrediting him as a virtuous and intelligent human being. The point is more to say that a continued emphasis on his moralistic “pro-life” heritage is problematic at best, and trying to maintain momentum in that movement on the basis of his personal heroic stature is looking like less and less of a winning strategy. His shift of emphasis in his post-Cold War years away from “social issues” and towards “moral issues” –– arguably due to the influence of American political conservatives on his thinking –– has probably done Christendom in general and the Catholic Church in particular far more harm than good. Pope Francis’ primary historical role thus far has been to push the boundaries of how far he can take the matter of shifting the emphasis back in the other direction. This in turn has won Francis blanket condemnation from those within the US Religious Right, and universal praise from pretty much every other possible source. This makes his presiding over John Paul’s canonization this weekend all the more ironic.
As for the Hurricane, it doesn’t take too much research to reach the conclusion that when Denzel Washington claimed that he was “all love”, that was more than a little bit of an exaggeration. Carter certainly had a lot of love of various sorts within him, but there was a lot of ugliness as well. How far that ugliness goes in justifying the actions of the US “prison-industrial complex” that he spent the last half of his life fighting against is another question. Unlike John Paul, however, the Hurricane achieved no major shift in the status quo from which the pendulum might now swing back the other direction. There are still many people who resent the extent to which darker skinned people can be treated as their equals, but there is no sense that now we’ve got to the point that we’ve been doing too much for black people and now we have to start working on putting them back in their “natural” inferior position. Thus Carter’s human failures cannot be taken as a valid excuse for re-enslaving black people or otherwise reducing the civil rights they have been fighting to gain recognition for. The problem is just that, given his mixed legacy, Carter’s death will probably have little effect in terms of energizing people to fight for the cause he has represented for the past 40 years.
The lessons in all this? Choose your heroes and icons carefully, and be prepared to be disappointed by them; but regardless of this risk, seek inspiration for the courage to change this world for the better wherever you can find it, and don’t let your heroes’ failures keep you from fighting for worthy causes which they stood for.