A curious mixture of tomorrow and yesterday characterizes the message of John Paul II. While the pope stands at the front end of modernity in the business of the world, he fights a rearguard action in the business of the church.
Most of us in different ways do the same thing -- hence the extraordinary appeal of the pope. But is the position tenable? Can the angel of progress advance on the wings of precedent?
The duality of the pope's thought hardly needs explication. John Paul II announces his commitment to the future of this world in hundreds of different ways. Not only does he jet across the oceans. Not only does he spend his time and affection on young people. More important, he identifies with the powers to be, as distinct from those that were or are.
In the global context, he stands with the underdeveloped countries of the southern continents -- the so-called Third World. Within the communist sphere, he favors the submerged nationalism struggling for expression. Within the realm of the developed countries, he sides with those who contest privilege in favor of a life that is spare.
But if few leaders are more advanced in temporal matters, the pope plainly looks backward in church affairs. As Holy Father, he has been far more disposed to expressions of personal authority than conciliar or collegial actions. He has been slow to embrace doctrinal change in the teaching of birth control. He clings to the celibacy of the priesthood. He finds that the place for women is preeminently in the home -- and not prominently in the church.
Because His Holiness is so elevated in office and so sweeping in his views, the relevance of this thought to everyday life may not seem immediately apparent. Without knowing it, however, many ordinary people draw a line between the temporal world and the spiritual world.
For most of us, the temporal world is the world of the community out there. We want things in that world to be modern and up-to-date and spic-and-span. We want the gasoline to be available and the cars to move through traffic and the planes to be on time. We want the phone system to work, and the teachers to teach and the doctors to heal. We want the taxes to be fair and the community services to be effective.
The spiritual world, for most of us, is the world of the family. There we want more humane values to prevail. We want children to be affectionate and joyous and parents to be loving and old folks to be cherished.
In striking a balance between these two worlds, most Americans now come down hard on the spiritual side. We favor progress. But not at the expense of social custom. We want change with a human face, technology cut to the measure of mankind.
The pope weighs up the balance and comes out in the same place. In "the relationship between spiritual values and material or economic values," he said in his address to the United Nations, "it is the spiritual values that are preeminent."
The spectacular success of the pope in this country finds at least part of the explanation there. He is not just a drawing card -- another rock star. Neither is he merely a simpy moralist talking of good and evil after the fashion of "Charlie's Angels."
On the contrary, the pope wrestles with the same problems most of us do. He faces our dilemma, and he articulates what we sense dumbly.
Still, that cannot be the final word. Progress has its claims and technology its logic. If mankind is to advance, custom must be made to bend. Standing up against the wave of the future is not the only heroism. Rather there is in adjusting to what must come -- a deeper glory, a truer renunciation, a kind of sainthood.