NO HALO FOR A REACTIONARY POPE
History is unlikely to treat the legacy of Pope John Paul II as kindly as his
contemporaries and his mourners. Historians are certain to ignore the pious analysis
of Vatican publicists and spin doctors who converted a reactionary pope - with
stubborn medieval ideas and virulent opposition to any kind of ecclesiastical reform â
€“ into a man who, apparently single-handed, defeated communism. Our mass
media, quick to leap on any bright idea peddled by â€˜expertsâ€™ and regurgitated
by politicians is now perpetuating this myth as a papal epitaph.
More sober assessments will find the Polish Pope was a man of
contradictions, some would say a hypocrite. Others have already argued he has
blood on his hands. John Paul II piously preached equality but denied the right of
dissent within his own church. He patronized the Marian cult and advocated equality
for women but denied women the priesthood and the pill. He pontificated about the
rights of the poor but closed the door to liberation theology and to contraceptive
devices (including prophylactics) so condemning millions of poor believers to large
families and worse, to infection and death by the AIDS virus.
Within the Church he made sure moral stains were camouflaged, the status quo
maintained. He whitewashed the financial manipulations of the Vatican Bank though
he often voiced opposition to materialism. For years he ignored charges of
pedophilia against the priesthood. Finally, instead of removing the unnatural bonds
of celibacy he reaffirmed this controversial practice, so assuring future abuses by
sexually deprived clergy.
This was a Pope who, as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, participated
and supported the Second Vatican Council. The Council intended to usher in a new
era of reforms, collegiality and transparency, an initiative he supported as cardinal.
But as Pope he erased the Councilâ€™s liberal intentions. Instead he steered the
church back to the centralized and autocratic rule of medieval pontiffs who
considered dissent an act of heresy. Some would argue this was a betrayal of the
infallibility of his predecessors, a betrayal so damaging, so heretic it should exclude
him from any chance of acquiring what some of his supporters already advance â€“
a saintâ€™s halo.
A man fascinated by mysticism and rituals (endemic to the Polish
Church) John Paul II adopted as his favorite order Opus Dei, a secretive and
zealous lay society whose members still flagellate themselves. He thus marginalized
the more worldly and intellectualized Jesuits. So great was his love for Opus Dei he
hustled through the canonization process of its founder, a Spanish priest notorious
for his support of General Francoâ€™s fascist regime.
What of his reputation as a charismatic communicator?
As a young man Karol Wojtyla dreamed of becoming an actor playing to an
audience. But as a priest, a bishop, a cardinal and eventually as pope his audience
became ever more numerous and was always devoted. The accolades were
As Pope John Paul II remained an actor, a savvy, accomplished
communicator who may have been antiquated in his interpretation of Catholic
doctrine but readily exploited the novelty of modern information technology to give
the papal charisma global exposure. His international pilgrimages, accompanied by
blanket media coverage, assured him an audience of millions thanks to the very
mystique of his office. In fact his popularity was based on this divine aura, certainly
not the content of his messages or a dogmatism many of those who came to see
and cheer him quietly flaunted (among them women who took the pill.)
Like all our politicians he reveled in spectacular gestures, among them
contact with other religions. These apparently innovative moves had no concrete
sequences or resulted in changes to church doctrine. The gestures remained faithful
to their intentions: Successful public relations coups. After all religious brotherhood
and human brotherhood was fine as long as all the brothers understood one of them
was more equal then the rest.
No doubt, as a traveling media star John Paul II became a 20th century
success story. He thrived in an era of ideological bankruptcy when people were lost
and in search of ideals and icons. But as leader of the worldâ€™s largest Christian
Church facing the challenges of a new millennium, an outcry for more internal
democracy and changes to dubious doctrines (like celibacy and women priests) this
Pope will be remembered as an abject failure.
(Uli Schmetzer reported from the Vatican as a journalist between 1977 and 1986)