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Future of the Past

By Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; Page A19

At first glance, it looked to be a triumph of the human spirit. There, at a joint news conference last week in Jerusalem, stood the patriarchs of the rival faiths of the Middle East -- Israel's chief rabbis, the deputy mufti of Jerusalem, leaders of the Catholic and Armenian churches -- Jews, Muslims and Christians, together at last.

And the cause that had united them? A gay pride festival scheduled for August in Jerusalem. The leaders of religious orthodoxy had come together to help ban the festival. Interreligious harmony reigned as historic enmities gave way to a common loathing of homosexuals.

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We have seen the future of the past. The photograph of the clerics that ran in the newspapers may some day be viewed as an artifact of the founding of the Orthodox International. Globalization is bringing modernization and the demand for equality to the doorsteps of the most traditionalist societies and enclaves. Orthodox faiths are not accustomed to interreligious cooperation -- there is no God but their own, after all -- but in the threat of secularism, they find themselves with a common enemy and a range of common hatreds.

If Orthodox International had a founding father, it was John Paul II, who spent much of his papacy endeavoring to reconcile the various orthodox Christian faiths. When such churches threatened to forsake orthodoxy for the siren call of human equality, he did not hesitate to intervene in their deliberations -- warning the Anglicans, for instance, not to ordain gay priests.

John Paul's orthodoxy, I fear, will quite overwhelm the humanistic aspects of his legacy. In Africa, John Paul's church is a tribune for economic justice -- for debt forgiveness, for a global economic order that seeks to enhance, not destroy, workers' rights. It is also a vehement opponent of birth control and condom distribution, even as an AIDS epidemic ravages the continent. That such a church could call itself "pro-life" is sophistry of the highest order.

The church that John Paul took over in the late '70s was home to many priests, theologians, bishops and even cardinals who were seeking the common ground between church traditions and modern egalitarianism. The church that John Paul made and leaves is home to no such discussion. The vibrant intellectualism of the Vatican II era has been driven outside the church walls. Where once the Catholic Church had such engaged and vigorous leaders as Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, today it is suffused with John Paul's party-line hacks.

The effects of such hackery are already apparent. A veteran union organizer I know, who has worked over the years with any number of bishops and priests on behalf of low-wage workers all the way back to the farm workers' grape boycott, tells me that he's now encountering Catholic clerics who are withholding their support from such struggles. The problem, it seems, is that the organizer's union backed the pro-union but pro-choice John Kerry for president. Though John Paul is identified with the cause of workers' justice, the church he built is increasingly willing to discard such concerns when they run counter to the strictures of orthodoxy.

Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington has argued that we are now engaged in a clash of civilizations that pits the liberalism of the West against the orthodoxy of Islam. Huntington's on to something, but I think he has located his fault line in the wrong place. The opposition to liberalism -- Jeffersonian liberalism, with its belief in science and, correspondingly, human equality -- extends well beyond the backwaters of Islam. It includes the church that the pope bequeaths us, the Protestant Christian Right, the Orthodox rabbis of Israel.

The blue state-red state division in the United States is increasingly a global reality as well, and just as it sunders nations, it can also at least partially erase some preexisting borders. In the Middle East, it's not just onetime orthodox rivals who look increasingly alike. My friend Jo-Ann Mort, one of the keenest observers of Israeli society, has noted the similarities between the young, nightclubbing, pro-democracy demonstrators in Beirut and the young, nightclubbing, pro-peace demonstrators in Tel Aviv. The real Green Line in Israel and Palestine may one day separate the red and the blue.

A specter is haunting modernity. Powered by tradition, by a misogyny and homophobia for which a future pope will one day apologize as surely as John Paul did for the church's anti-Semitism, the Orthodox International marches forth to do battle against liberalism, invoking ancient beliefs against the claims of a common humanity.


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