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Moral Certitude Isn't Easy

By Samuel J. Rascoff

John Paul II did not need to stage a Million Man March in order to solidify his claim to spiritual and political authority. Many times that number of men--and women and children--showed up at ballparks, racetracks, and street corners on cold, damp days in order to catch a glimpse of the spiritual leader to the world's billion Catholics during his recent visit to the Eastern seaboard.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Americans were obsessed with the Pope throughout his stay. The New York Times created whole sections dedicated exclusively to reporting the details of the Pontiff's visit. Television and radio coverage throughout the New York metropolitan area exceeded that of the O.J. trial. The Pope simply transfixed this country: Catholics, Protestants and Jews alike.

At face value, it is difficult to understand why. Eighty percent of American Catholics, according to recent polls, disagree with the Pope's conservative stances on issues like abortion, homosexuality and the all-male celibate clergy. The unapologetic orthodoxy that Karol Wojtyla has made the hallmark of the church as it enters the next millenium does not play well to American Catholic audiences. Protestants and Jews, it would seem, disagree with his views that much more.

The Pope, however, has something very powerful going for him. Although his particular opinions may strike the vast majority of Americans as unrelentingly conservative, it is patently obvious that John Paul II actually believes what he says. The integrity of his faith and the purity of his conviction are beyond question.

That Americans of all faiths have come to revere the Pope because of his moral presence says as much about the state of American society as the magnetism of the Pope's personality. So starved are Americans for a moral message that smacks of authenticity that we will heed the call from wherever it comes.

The Pope has in turn accepted the responsibility to speak to, and on behalf of, all people of faith. Although he does not shy away from the nuances of Catholic theology, his message to the American people was more catholic than Catholic.

The Pope cautioned Americans about their responsibility to welcome immigrants from faraway lands, to aid the poor and to feed the hungry. In so doing, the Pope did more than make a plea for social justice. He reminded us all that religion, far from being hostile to social reform, can serve as the catalyst for social reform.

In a society where convictions are tried on like different costumes, it is a relief to confront the unwavering principle of John Paul II. Would that Louis Farrakhan and his cronies had learned a lesson from the Pontiff.

Farrakhan's Million Man March on Monday is being billed as a Day of Attonement for African-American men. It is an opportunity, or so the organizers tell us, for African-American men to confront their historic abdication of responsibility in keeping their communities strong and intact.

While the message appears decent, its bearers are anything but. Even granting that Farrakhan's Jew-hatred ought to be ignored in this instance, the leader of the Nation of Islam has proved himself uniquely capable at dividing the black community along just about every line possible. As it stands right now, black Baptist churches across America are boycotting the event, along with such mainstream organizations as the NAACP.

While the issue at hand is of vital importance, Mr. Farrakhan has left us little choice but to think that Monday's rally is ultimately more about his own self-aggrandizement than about collective soul-searching and moral responsibility.

Farrakhan needs to be reminded that the presence of such respected African-American figures as Harvard Professor Cornel West '74 and Maya Angelou does not make up for his own moral deficit. The American public knows the difference between men of moral integrity and men of moral pretense.

Samuel J. Rascoff's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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