Pope John Paul II: Bad for the church but good for the world?

Paul Vallely studies the impact of a figure of paradox
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Reaction to the death of Pope John Paul II has been starkly polarised. Awed enthusiasts have been unstinting in their praise. Critics have been withering in their condemnation of his reactionary views, particular in sexual matters. But many within the church have been muted while the body of the Pope lay unburied.

Reaction to the death of Pope John Paul II has been starkly polarised. Awed enthusiasts have been unstinting in their praise. Critics have been withering in their condemnation of his reactionary views, particular in sexual matters. But many within the church have been muted while the body of the Pope lay unburied.

Now that the funeral is over, and as the 116 cardinal electors begin their secret discussions in the run up to the conclave to choose the next pope, evaluations of the last Pope's 26-year ministry will attempt to reach a more balanced picture. For from a considered verdict will flow the analysis of what is needed in John Paul II's successor as the Roman Catholic church's 265 th pope.

In an age of democracy when few international leaders remain for long in the public eye Pope John Paul II bestrode the world stage like a colossus across four decades. The statistics piled up in recent days have shown that by any standards he was an extraordinary figure. He was the first non-Italian Pope for 456 years. He travelled almost a million miles to 129 countries to visit the world's one billion Catholics. He set 1,351 individuals on the road to sainthood - more than all the other popes of the 20th century put together. He created 232 cardinals. He was one of the most prolific popes, with encyclicals, letters, sermons and speeches which fill nearly 150 volumes. He had a gift for memorable gestures from kissing the soil on his first visit to a country to inserting a prayer scroll into a crevice of Jerusalem's Western Wall. His was the third-longest papacy in the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church.

His impact on the secular world was far-reaching. He played a key role in the collapse of Communism, not just through his visits to his homeland in 1979 and 1983 but also through his support for the Polish independent trade union, Solidarity, which gave his countrymen a vehicle for resistance. Though it was not known at the time, the Pope wrote letters of support to activists imprisoned by the communists; and after private meetings with the US President, Ronald Reagan, he co-operated with the CIA in the supply of clandestine materials with priests and bishops, who were immune from body searches, acting as couriers.

But he touched world affairs far more widely. He had more than 1,475 meetings with Heads of State and Prime Ministers and sent envoys across the globe on the eve of wars. Small wonder that many tributes have described him as a "superpope".

Yet above all Pope John Paul II was a figure of paradox. A radical voice on social issues he challenged much that the secular world deemed as inevitable: the abysmal gap between the wealthy and the wretched of the earth, the scandal of the international arms trade, the death penalty, and the assumption that profit should take priority over people in the "savage capitalism" of the new globalised economy.

But in other things he was indeed deeply reactionary. His staunch defence of the Roman Catholic Church's hard line on the sanctity of human life - "from conception to natural death" - led him to decry abortions even for women raped in the Balkans wars, denounce the use of condoms in Aids-ravaged Africa and condemn attempts to introduce family planning despite a global population explosion.

The secular world never understood this man of contradictions. In part that was because much of his work was kept as hidden as the bare little third-floor room in which he lived for almost 30 years overlooking the baroque splendour of St. Peter's basilica. As spare as any monk's it contained a single bed, two straight-backed chairs, a desk and a floor which, apart from a small carpet near the bed, was bare; its walls too were unadorned apart from a few icons brought from Poland.

But from there Karol Wojtyla brought the long-term financial problems of the Vatican under control, promulgated a new code of canon law for the Catholic Church (supervised from his sick-bed while recovering from an assassination attempt in 1981), and oversaw the creation of its first new Catechism since the 16th century summarising all the essential beliefs and moral tenets of the church. Any one of these alone would have constituted an impressive legacy but John Paul II did much else, including the establishment of new rules for the election of his successor - making members of the College of Cardinals ineligible once they reached the age of 80. (At present that means there are 117 cardinals who will elect the next pope).

But there were other reasons the last pope was hard for our secular age to fathom - his Polishness, his profoundly pessimistic temperament, his distrust of democracy and his moral certainty. But, perhaps most perplexing was attitude of the Pope to the revolution the Church had made with its Second Vatican Council. His words always paid lip service to Vatican II's central aim of turning the Church towards the world rather than away from it. But his actions, increasingly so in his later years, seem intent on reversing many of the Council's changes.

In the 1960s, after 2000 years of talking to itself in Latin, the Catholic Church had decided it must stop focusing inwards on its sacramental life. Instead it was to embark on a strategy of "reading the signs of the times" to discover where God's spirit was at work in the wider world. As a bishop Karol Wojtyla had been part of that movement. He had even helped draft the council's radical new constitution Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World). But soon after becoming Pope he evidently decided that progressive ideas and practices had gone too far. A kind of post-conciliar drift had set in which had to be arrested.

Those who, after Vatican II, had hoped for a less monarchical and more collegial style of papacy were to be disappointed. Rome became more centralised. The papal role was slowly shifted from being first-among-equals with his brother bishops to one of absolute autocrat. The power of national conferences of bishops was undermined. Vatican II episcopal progressives were gradually replaced by bishops whose conservatism often outstripped their pastoral ability. Nuns were told to resume wearing their habit. Theologians were instructed to be docile. The faithful were simply to pray, pay and obey.

He had a stated commitment to ecumenism - the idea of bringing together Roman Catholics together with other Christians. Early in his pontificate he became the first pope to travel to the UK where he met Queen Elizabeth II, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and in a dramatic symbolic gesture knelt in prayer in Canterbury Cathedral with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. He gave higher priority still to conciliatory gestures towards the Greek Orthodox church so that the Church could once again "breathe with two lungs".

Even so the Pope clearly worried that too many concessions to ecumenism were blunting the edges of Catholic identity. And so he repeatedly stressed the things that separated Catholics from others: the Virgin Mary - to whom he had a special devotion - birth control, infallibility, the ban on communion between denominations, celibacy, women priests and so on.

The result was a ministry of contradictions which stretched throughout his reign. In search of rapprochement with the Orthodox he went to Athens and issued an unprecedented apology for 1000 years of bad relations - but then ruined the effect by insisting that they cannot be called a ‘sister church' since Rome has to be the mother. The result is that good relations with the Orthodox are further away now than they were when John Paul II was elected.

It was the same story with the Anglicans. He delighted them in 1995 by asking other Christian denominations in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint how the papal ministry could be exercised in ways more acceptable to them. But then he cold-shouldered or disciplined Catholics who took up the invitation and wrote on the subject and then in 1998 reiterated, with no apparent provocation, Rome's ruling that Anglican priestly orders are invalid.

There has been similar ambivalence towards other faiths. John Paul II became the first pope in history to enter both a mosque and a synagogue. He went to pray at the Western Wall and issued an apology for Christian anti-semitism at the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. But he irritated many Jews by blaming individuals rather than the teaching of the Church for centuries of hatred and suspicion - and he annoyed many more by supporting a Catholic convent at Auschwitz and beatifying Pius IX, the pope who kidnapped a Jewish boy. With other faiths too he has been equivocal, embracing the notion of inter-faith dialogue and inviting the leaders of other religions to prayer gatherings at Assisi, but then suppressing theologians working on it. It was a strategy which drove away as many as it attracted.

Those who dared to disagree were branded dissenters. Many of the church's leading thinkers - Hans Küng, Charles Curran, Leonardo Boff - were stripped of their official positions or silenced. The techniques used even led one troublesome theologian, Bernard Haring, to compare the questioning he underwent at the Vatican to the treatment he once received under Hitler. Liberation theologians were suppressed as ungodly Marxists; one, Father Tissa Balasuriya, a priest from Sri Lanka who had been engaged in dialogue with Hindus and Buddhists, was even excommunicated. Clerics and theologians were bound to a "loyal assent", as the gag was euphemistically called. Bishops, like the saintly Dom Helder Camera in Brazil, who strayed from the papal line, were systematically replaced.

Instead free reign was given to extremist right-wing movements like Opus Dei which saw unquestioning loyalty to the Pope as their first duty. (It was significant that the founder of Opus Dei, Josémaria Escrivá, was fast-tracked to sainthood, where Oscar Romero, the martyr of El Salvador, was totally overlooked, revealing how John Paul II's record number of saints were chosen to fit his ideological worldview.)

All of this was underpinned by Karol Wojtyla's cultural background. He grew up in Poland where the Church was persecuted first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. A church always under attack developed a cultural and spiritual laager mentality. That sense never left the Polish pope. Even after the fall of communism, he continued to see the Church as under siege - by secularism, materialism or relativism.

More than that, moving from Nazism, through Marxism, to the Vatican meant he never lived outside a framework of dictatorial absolutism. He never had any real experience of a pluralistic democratic society.

He tried to connect with the modern world, grounding his approach in the worldview that had most appealed to him as a philosophy don - a tradition of thinking called "personalism", a kind of Christian existentialism which insists that it is through creative action that human beings realise their potential. From this perspective he wrote some 60 major documents. These sought to embrace the notion of human rights (which the church had traditionally opposed) and create a Christian alternative to the philosophies of the 20th century - Marxism, humanism and post-modernism.

But Pope John Paul II could never overcome his suspicion of democracy. He was a strong advocate of it when totalitarian communism was the alternative. But its chief virtue for the Polish pope lay in the greater evil it kept out. Once communism had fallen, the faults of democracy were exposed. It might provide individuals with the freedom to make choices but it has no mechanisms to direct them to chose what is right. The will of the majority, he said, can enslave the truth.

This had implications inside the Church too. During the 20th century Catholicism had moved away from giving its blessing to authoritarian modes of government. Instead it had endorsed the participation of ordinary people which democracy provides. A previous pope, Paul VI, had begun to come round to the idea that Rome had to reconcile that with the Church's own internal governance.

John Paul II squashed that notion. Democracy was OK for the people of Communist Poland but inside the church it was a threat to papal authority. Instead he returned to the old incongruities which characterise the Church's idea of the good Catholic citizen. (When looking at the secular world he or she is supposed to be adult, active, well-informed, educated, critical of authority, sceptical, intolerant of injustice, ready to participate and take responsibility. Yet when faced with papal pronouncements he or she is expected suddenly to become deferential, docile, obedient and infantile.)

Much of this grew out of the Pope's profoundly pessimistic temperament. For all his embrace of the Christian virtue of hope, John Paul II was a man of deep personal and historical pessimism who was not at home with the mood of optimism, challenge and confidence which had characterised the Second Vatican Council. His theological outlook was Augustinian, it did not go in for fine distinctions but offered dramatic alternatives and highly charged opposing poles. The Pope wrote, as one theologian put it, "like Van Gogh paints: broad strokes, huge amounts of paint, strong colours". Wojtyla's church was no place for grey or ambiguity.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the metaphor which he frequently used towards the end of his life. The West, he said, was in the grip of "a culture of death". It was there in everything: consumerism, personal hedonism, sexual mores, medical ethics and the over-emphasis on economic efficiency, personal freedom and maximum choice which undergirds a lifestyle in which morality is down-played in all aspects of life under democratic capitalism.

As so often, the Pope over-stated his case. But he also put his finger on uncomfortable truths about the way we now live. He suggested that it was the greed of the rich world which talks about a "population explosion" and questions the right of the Third World poor to reproduce. He insisted that in a society dominated by materialism "the values of being are replaced by those of having"; people have become slaves to things. He repeatedly suggested that moral and technological developments are out of kilter. He warned of the danger of a liberal democracy elevating freedom and choice to be the only virtue. He cautioned against the interests of minorities becoming enslaved to the will of the majority. He constantly reasserted that rationalism is, by itself, not enough.

All these were messages unpalatable to the modern world. In re-iterating them across four decades Pope John Paul II became a contra-indicator to received wisdom of Western society and acted as a moral compass for believers and non-believers alike.

As he grew older his views changed. Previously he had shied away from an absolute condemnation of capital punishment, but later in life he seemed to acknowledge that this was inconsistent with his views on the sanctity of life; there were now no situations in modern life where the death penalty could be justified, he eventually said. As the Millennium Years of 2000 approached he became seized with the need for the Church to repent of past sins and apologised, among other things, for the Inquisition, the persecution of Galileo, the church's justification of slavery, the mistreatment of indigenous persons, and the Crusades. But in general, plagued by ill-health and dogged by speculation about his resignation, he became more doctrinaire and unyielding - stretching the idea of papal infallibility into unprecedented areas and attempting to bind the hands of his successors over the church's opposition to women priests.

In the early years his personal charisma and strong moral lead brought many to suggest that Pope John Paul II was good for the church but bad for the world. By the end of his long reign there were grounds for concluding that the Polish pope may, in fact, have been quite the opposite: bad for the church but good for the world. It may yet be some time before history will offer a verdict.