WHILE POPE JOHN Paul II was on the East Coast last week offering hope in and beyond this life, a group of people who still believe in the power of man to fix what's wrong with humanity and the planet gathered in San Francisco.
Led by Mikhail Gorbachev, who finds more favor among the intelligentsia in this country than he does in Russia, the San Francisco group included scientist Carl Sagan, who believes nothing exists outside of the cosmos and this physical life is all there is; actress Shirley MacLaine, who thinks she has lived previous lives, and singer John Denver.
The occasion for this gathering, which also included Mayan leader Rigoberta Menchu and the spiritual heads of India's Sikhs and Mongolia's Buddhists, was a State of the World forum.
It sounded depressing. Ted Turner, who should be optimistic after his cable company announced plans to merge with Time Warner, said of the world's condition: "We now have a chance to starve to death in a desert." Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was even more pessimistic: "We have to face the fact that global philosophical emptiness will become pervasive." Did people pay to hear this? They would have done better to try to angle for free pope tickets.
While John Paul judged Americans for our materialistic attitudes and selfishness -- which have promoted divorce, abortion and personal and corporate irresponsibility -- he preached a message of love and hope. He urged Americans to return to God and the virtues to be found only in a relationship with Him.
One of the attractive qualities about this pope is his unchanging certainty. He doesn't consult focus groups or opinion polls. He doesn't shy away from saying difficult things. It helps that he's not running for re-election. His is the ultimate lifetime appointment. He enjoys widespread approval, even from those who might not agree with all of his beliefs and teachings, precisely because he never wavers.
Leadership -- of the church or of the state -- is about telling people what you believe to be true and urging them to explore the wisdom of what you are saying. Remain consistent, and some people will discover that truth for themselves.
With more than 40 percent of U.S. marriages ending in divorce and 28 percent of all families with children headed by single parents, who has a better solution to what ails America? Mr. Gorbachev and his pessimistic friends in San Francisco, or the pope and what he represents?
While John Denver was singing a song ("All this joy, all this sorrow, all this promise all this pain . . . Such is life, such is being, such is spirit, such is love"), the pope spoke to the United Nations about freedom and moral truth. "Freedom is not simply the absence of tyranny and oppression," he said. "Nor is freedom a license to do whatever we like. Freedom has an inner 'logic' which distinguishes it and ennobles it: freedom is ordered to the truth, and is fulfilled in man's quest for truth and in man's living in the truth." In Baltimore, he elaborated, saying freedom is not doing what one wants, but what one ought.
Implying that America had separated itself from certain truths about the human person, the pope added that, when detached, "freedom deteriorates into license in the lives of individuals and, in political life, it becomes the caprice of the most powerful and the arrogance of power." He added that the moral law "written on the hearts of all is . . . the guarantor of freedom's future."
Didn't our founders share a similar vision? How did we become so blind to it?
The pope could not have picked a better time to visit. In the aftermath of the cynicism unleashed by the O. J. Simpson trial, John Paul II brings an eternal message that has always worked for those who seriously try it. It takes less faith to believe what the pope said than to subscribe to the worldly view of the San Francisco crowd led by Mr. Gorbachev. Do he and the rest of them have anything to offer that is as compelling and transforming as the visitor from Rome?
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.