It had to happen, in this age of instant assessments and computerized survey data, where presidents and corporate chairmen alike live by the latest results of mass public opinion and market research samplings, that a pope would be rated by a pollster.
Two weeks have passed since John Paul II returned to Rome, and now we know what to think about his impact on America. George Gallup says the pope was smashing success, receiving "one of the highest ratings for personal popularity of any individual tested in the 28 years measurements have been made by the Gallup Poll." He arrived with an already highly favorable approval rating, Gallup adds and left with an even more exalted statistical standing -- some 86 percent of the people thinking quite well of him.
That, of course, does not close the chapter on the pope's emotional trip to the United States. In the days following his departure many more than the pollsters have been attempting to draw lessons from his visit.
Our Southern Baptist president, traveling the country, has been praising the pontiff's journey as both memorable and historic, and as speaking to something missing in America. Theologians, non-Catholics as well as Catholics, have been debating -- and differing -- over the ramifications of his message. Many, both in and out of the church, have condemned the media for either missing the point or misplaying the event. Letters-to-the-editor columns continue to be filled with strong reactions of private citizens.
For every positive reading, it seems, a negative one springs up somewhere else. Often the reaction against what the pope expressed here has been stronger than the praise for his stands. Despite the extraordinary poll figures, there appears to be universal agreement on only one thing -- the importance of the trip. Something happened, the disparate voices are saying but what?
Around the dining table at Georgetown University the other night, the conversation was brisk and animated among the people, clerical and secular, Catholic and non-Catholic, gathered to talk informally about the pope and America. There was little unanimity.
Depending on the point of view, the pope's personality had overshadowed what he said, or his words had been heard by those who were listening . . . the press had singled out his statements on sexuality at the expense of his strong remarks on social justice . . . the visit either was a passing phenomenon, the appearance and departure of a superstar, loudly cheered and quickly forgotten, or it touched profound personal emotions . . . the pope was misinformed about the attitudes of American Catholics, or he knew exactly to whom he was speaking and why . . . he was right, he was wrong, his philosophy was faulty, he failed to link over-population with world hunger, he addressed ancient yearnings eloquently. . .
Then someone, a Catholic, and a scholar, said:
"Every once in a while I have the feeling we who live on the so-called more intellectual level tend to put more emphasis on the impact something has on individual issues than most people. My impression was that the vast majority of the people who heard him, saw him, touched him or not, are not interested in individual issues. That makes for a problem. They should be interested in individual issues. They should be interested in how much grain goes to Russia and to whom it goes.
"But it also seems to me the vast millions were affected in a much more general way. They felt the impact of a world leader who is a good man, who loves them, who gives them a sense maybe there's something to be said about human living, that there's real hope for all of us, and that makes them feel good.How long is it going to last? Probably not long. For a vast majority of people, I don't think you can expect more -- and still it's a good thing. Somebody -- finally -- somebody has made them feel not more cynical but more hopeful."
In retrospect, one of the more interesting aspects of the pope's visit is that his views on such question as birth control, abortion, ordaining women priests, and homosexuality seemed surprising to anyone. He had been saying the same things, in the same unyielding way, for nearly a year before. He deviated not at all in America.
Nor does there seem any doubt that he knew exactly the nature of American Catholic attitudes on these questions -- and that they sharply differ from his and the church's traditional positions. (Another poll, by NBC and Associated Press, taken just before he arrived, clearly spelled out how nearly identical is Catholic and non-Catholic majority agreement on using birth control devices, on having abortions if wanted, and on becoming divorced.) "I'm amazed at the naivete in the idea you hear that he didn't really understand America," a leading Catholic educator says, "He heard it all before. I think he said precisely what he wanted to say, to audiences he wanted to address. Make no mistake about that."
Apparently the pope's personality was so appealing that many hoped he would some-how not prove to be as rigid as his reputation on matters of dogma. Even many liberals who were dismayed by his stand also felt a strong pull toward him.
No one expressed these paradoxical emotions better than the Episcopal bishop of New York, Paul Moore Jr. Moore, whose strong stands on civil rights and social justice have often put him at the center of controversies, found himself puzzled by these conflicting strains. He had been amazed, he said, at the reception given the pope. "I don't remember anything with such impact since Kennedy's funeral," he said.
From a personal standpoint, he found John Paul compelling -- the sort of person that makes you believe "in his total integrity" -- and who conveys the sense "of a strong warm, good person." And as far as the impact on organized religion, Moore sees the pope's visit as a great asset: "He gave a positive lift to all Christians. At a time when a lot of people are saying the role of institutional religion is ending, the pope shows that isn't true."
The same is true, in Moore's mind, of many of the pope's other stands -- the "very radical speech" to the United Nations calling for more equitable distribution of the world's goods, and the lack of cold-war sounds from someone who came out of the harsh climate of communist-controlled Poland. But, he, like others, wonders "how someone so warm and so open to people could come donw so hard on these other questions of celibacy, abortion, divorce, women priests, and homosexuality.It was absolutely slam-bang, the door was shut. It felt out of character to me, and, yes, I was upset about that."
Moore offered another thought worth pondering. "I found it a little scary," he said, "the way people responded to him -- not scary about him, but about us." Americans obviously deeply want someone to believe in, to follow, and are willing to give their emotions fully to the strong personality and strong presence. With the good pope, that's probably a good sign. But what about the wrong man, with the wrong message?