TO NOTICE, as many rightly have, that Americans are paying more attention to the pope than they are to his rigorous message is not quite to complete the analysis. Yes, it is true that those exhilarated crowds of worshippers and watchers are probably not on the verge of transforming their values and habits totally, or even partially. We are not about to witness a mass renunciation in word and deed of that insidious materialism that narrows the vision and deforms the social sympathies of so many among us -- all perhaps -- so much of the time. But John Paul II did not come here to work magic or effect a movie-type miracle or create, at a single stroke, the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. It is enough that he has been tireless in his stress on the need to combat social injustice and to share our luck and riches with others, and that millions heard him. Is it not as reckless to conclude that nothing and no one will be different as a result, as it would be to conclude that Americans are about to be completely transformed?
The secular stake in John Paul's journey is clear. Social, political and economic values have been repeatedly challenged by him. In a sense he is the Third World's best friend, and -- without any qualification -- he is surely its best spokesman. That is not just because the competition is so thin. Rather, it is because this pope conveys so much certainty and conviction and such unwillingness to be deflected on the subject of world wealth and world poverty, personal luxury and personal suffering.
This preoccupation, in a way, makes more credible, not less, the pope's simultaneous refusal to yield on questions of birth control, which have such a staggering impact on the very societies and lives he is trying to better. For non-Catholics or Catholics who resist the pope on this, a certain respect is still forthcoming. No one could fault him for indifference to the consequences of his belief or mental density as to what those consequences are. The depth of his Christian conviction concerning contraception may be measured precisely in the fact that he cannot and will not yield, even though the condition of the world's wretched poor in his prime and all-consuming social concern.
Those of us who respectfully and passionately regret his stand on this question nonetheless probably come away from our televised week-long encounter with the pope with a heightened appreciation of the religious and secular values he embodies. His orthodoxy on matters affecting the church itself -- the rules governing the clergy, forms of observance and so forth -- is not a public issue for others to decide. But watching the papal progress through America, people outside the church as well as those within it surely sensed the authenticity and benevolence of this man's Christian belief and his determination that the Catholic Church should lead in the social redemption of the poor and exploited in an unjust world.
True, Americans did not rise up as one and rennounce their earthly goods or their cultivation of some of the most ancient and least ingratiating of vices -- like gluttony and greed. And, if the past several thousand years of human history is any guide, probably they won't. But the people in this country are not clods; they are not dumb, and they are not morally dead. The pope spoke of universal values in a universal language, and he had the nation's attention. People heard him.