The Pope's disappearance from the world stage after 26 years leaves many people wondering who, if anyone, can fill his shoes. In an age during which religion, or at least religious difference, seems to be assuming greater significance, Karol Wojtyla held what was arguably the world's second most important office, subordinate in influence and global power only to that of the President of the United States. This alone makes it of enormous relevance to all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian, who the Catholic Church chooses as its next leader.
John Paul II governed his fractious billion-strong flock with a singular brand of charismatic authoritarianism. This was absolutism tempered with a human face. The total confidence with which he once confronted both the Nazi and the Communist rulers of his native Poland made him equally fearless in confronting what he saw as the evils of Western liberal society, above all its moral relativism on life, death and sex. Not for him the Church of England's fudges over contraception, abortion, homosexuality and divorce. To the Pope, they were simply wrong; bishops and theologians who failed to toe his rigid line on such matters, or on clerical celibacy, were slapped down and silenced, if need be.
This tone of moral certainty made John Paul II a profoundly awkward figure in Western Europe and America, even if the view was markedly different elsewhere. Cross the Oder River or the Adriatic Sea and one entered a different environment, for it was not only in Poland that the Pope was popular and widely revered. The huge crowds mourning the Pope in Croatia yesterday demonstrated how, for the peoples of the old Communist bloc, the first Slav Pope remained a beacon right to the end. To them, he was a huge source of national pride as much as spiritual guidance.
Yet the overwhelmingly positive view of John Paul II's papacy in parts of Eastern Europe is no more valid than our rather more critical view here in the West. Societies in different conditions, facing different challenges, naturally interpreted the Pope in different lights. In Britain, we could hardly be expected to empathise entirely with the mourning of peoples who regarded him as a historic figure who had rescued them from Soviet hegemony.
When he was elected in 1978, there was talk - even in an increasingly secular Britain - of a new golden age for the Catholic Church. Comparisons were swiftly drawn between the apparent vigour of the Church of Rome and the decrepitude of the Church of England.
It was all a chimera. The globe-trotting and soil-kissing had little lasting impact and the vast crowds who flocked to his open-air masses melted away. Even in Catholic strongholds such as Ireland, priestly vocations and church attendances plummeted during the reign of John Paul II. It was much the same story in the once-Catholic strongholds of Spain and Italy. There, too, the story of the past quarter of a century has been one of dwindling congregations, churches and monasteries boarded up or sold, and the priesthood increasingly confined to an elderly rump. The religious orders, whose great decline commenced in the 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council, continued to shrivel under John Paul II.
Already, much has been made of the Pope's unremitting hostility to contraception and the consequences of this in the Third World in assisting the spread of HIV/Aids, which now has up to one third of the populations of some sub-Saharan African countries in its grip.
The Pope's apologists have argued that his opposition to any form of birth control was simply consistent with those Catholic theological principles concerning the sanctity of life that he was in no position to alter. But it should not be forgotten that millions have died in Africa as a result of this theological rigidity.
Equally indefensible was his handling of the paedophile scandals that wrought catastrophic damage to the Catholic Church's standing in the United States, not to mention its finances. Faced with clear evidence of shockingly improper conduct towards children by hundreds of clergy over several decades, the Pope did no more than deliver a mild wigging to a group of cardinals he summoned to Rome in 2002. This failure to engage dismayed many of America's 65 million Catholics. They received the impression that when it came to a choice between the individual's demands for justice and the needs of the Church as a clerical institution, the Pope sided with the institution.
The next pope faces a Herculean task, not only in matching the late Pope's global role, but in restoring trust in, and respect for, the clergy, which is at an all-time low. Even outside the West, where conservative commentators often declare Catholicism is growing, there are disturbing developments on the Church's horizon which are the results, in part, of John Paul II's policies. In Central and Latin America, which Catholics once had virtually all to themselves, evangelical Protestants have made massive inroads. In Africa, the Church faces a rather different challenge from resurgent Islam. Throughout the Third World, the Pope's insistence on upholding a celibate, male-only, priesthood has left the Catholic Church chronically short of the clergy it needs to carry on its life and work.
The days before the funeral will, naturally enough, be filled with eulogies for a man who unquestionably threw a long shadow over the era in which he lived. But in seeking a candidate who can match John Paul II in terms of charisma and leadership, it is to be hoped that the cardinals do not make the mistake of choosing a leader cast entirely in his image.
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