A conservative rebel and a moral compass for millions

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The Independent Online

It is tempting to those of a secular disposition to wonder if the outpourings of grief at the death last night of Pope John Paul II are out of proportion. Sad though the death of any individual may be, this was a man who could be said at the age of 84 to have enjoyed a long and fulfilled life. And, after all, only one in six of the world's population is a Roman Catholic, so while that community may mourn the loss of their leader, it does not much touch the rest of us.

It is tempting to those of a secular disposition to wonder if the outpourings of grief at the death last night of Pope John Paul II are out of proportion. Sad though the death of any individual may be, this was a man who could be said at the age of 84 to have enjoyed a long and fulfilled life. And, after all, only one in six of the world's population is a Roman Catholic, so while that community may mourn the loss of their leader, it does not much touch the rest of us.

Some would go further, pointing out the baleful influence of the Catholic Church under this theologically conservative pontiff on much of the world. While Aids swept Africa, this Pope maintained a hard line against the use of condoms, even when their primary intention was not to be a means of contraception but a barrier to the transmission of this terrible modern scourge. He would not abandon his stubborn defence of his church's philosophy on the sanctity of human life ­ "from conception to natural death" ­ even to sanction abortions for women raped in war.

Yet to say this is to focus on just one sphere of the influence of this extraordinary man, who dominated the international stage throughout the late 20th century in a way that no other public figure could rival. Presidents and prime ministers came and went, literally in their hundreds, yet seldom without seeking an audience with the Pope. His travels ­ 27 times around the globe ­ meant that he was seen by more people than any other human in history. And all of this was no mere token. His influence was real.

It is no exaggeration to say that his role in the collapse of Communism was pivotal. His speeches in his native Poland after his election, and his backing for the trade union Solidarity, gave the rebellious push to the first domino that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. His influence was felt in a wide range of areas: from the death penalty to Third World debt, from the international arms trade to his withering condemnations of what he called the "savage capitalism" of the new globalised economy.

For all his conservatism, John Paul II was the first pope to enter both a mosque and a synagogue, and the first to apologise for many of Christianity's sins in the past ­ the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Christian anti-Semitism in the Holocaust. Despite his resistance to ecumenism within the Christian faith, therefore, he showed an openness to other faiths, which played an important part in ameliorating tensions between different faiths that have been the badge of violent conflict in so many parts of the world. His opposition to the invasion of Iraq helped to avoid its being seen more widely by Muslims as a Christian crusade.

His stubborn obstruction of change was at a high price for the church. His insistence on celibacy precipitated a flight from the priesthood of thousands; his failure to respond more urgently to the shame of paedophilia among the priesthood undermined respect for the church's authority. And his teaching on birth control made it harder for the church to reach out beyond its historic boundaries in most of the developed world.

A N Wilson points out it is for the Catholic Church to decide now whether to cleave to tradition or to liberalise. For "non-Catholics, especially if they are Europeans", as he writes, this is the moment "to pause and consider what a powerful debt they owe to the church", and to its ultimately liberating, democratic idea of the equal worth of each soul.

The day after his death, it is right to dwell on John Paul II's commitment to that idea and to his role in promoting freedom and democracy for millions during his 27 years at the Vatican.

Although he was an authoritarian in his own church, the consistency of his moral thinking set a benchmark for many issues that a hedonist consumer society prefers not to consider. He was right, too, to warn the world starkly that "from now on it is only through a conscious choice and through a deliberate policy that humanity can survive".

He was a moral compass by which others could set their position, even if they did not agree with him. When he warned that our age had replaced the values of being with those of having, he said the kind of thing that it is well for the world to hear. Even those who disagreed with much of what Pope John Paul II asserted will know that in his passing the world has lost a significant figure.

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