Profile: The Vatican's compassionate reactionary: Pope John Paul II, a pugnacious globetrotter

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The Independent Online
THE POPE is facing up to the third and last great enemy of his career in the tour of America and the Caribbean that ends tomorrow. In the course of a long, pugnacious life, he has seen off Nazism; he has seen off Communism; now he does battle with liberal capitalism, the longest-lasting and most resilient of all the enemies of religion in this age. For the moment, capitalism seems to be winning.

Nearly one fifth of the world's population is reckoned to be Roman Catholic, but John Paul II has been, in many respects, the first global Pope. In 1986, at Assisi, he brought together leaders of all the world religions in an unprecedented, indeed previously unimaginable, day of prayer for world peace. He has been untiring in his insistence on the rights of the poor and the wretched of the earth, be they oppressed by Communism or capitalism. Yet this message has never been loudly heard in the West.

When first he came to the US, in 1979, he drew a crowd of 2.4 million in Boston. This time, the crowds will be smaller and less enthusiastic. This is partly because the novelty of a travelling Pope has worn off now he has visited some 106 countries - many more than all his predecessors put together. But there are profounder reasons. This Pope, however revolutionary he may seem from inside the Vatican, appears increasingly reactionary outside it.

His American flock believes him deeply mistaken in his approach both to sex and gender. According to polls taken before his arrival, five out of six reject his teaching on contraception; three-quarters want married priests and a majority favours female priests as well. Similar proportions might well be found in Western Europe.

His reaction to such a withdrawal of allegiance will be in character: subtle, closely argued and uncompromising. An encyclical letter, much leaked and widely dreaded, called Veritatis Splendor will be published this autumn. The details are still unknown, but broadly the encyclical sets out once more the claims of the papacy to a unique, wholly reliable supernatural access to dogmatic truth and moral understanding. Theologians who disagree with a bishop have a moral duty of silence. It is hard to imagine propositions more out of tune with the sceptical temper of a modern university.

On the other hand, they would be perfectly comprehensible in an ancient university, such as the Jagiellonian in Cracow, where Karol Wojtyla taught long before he became Pope. For, although he is a truly international figure, he remains a Polish one, too - one reason for his distinctiveness in a world where we expect international figures to be Americanised or possibly slightly Japanese.

The Pope's entire life before his ascent to the papacy belongs to a world very distant from modern North America. He was born in some poverty in 1920 in a small town outside Cracow. His mother died giving birth to a still-born daughter when he was nine. His father died when he was 21. By then he was studying in Cracow, under Nazi occupation. The nature of his resistance activities provide a clue to his character. He did not fight, although he was active in rescuing Jews; he worked as conscript labour in a quarry; he taught in an underground university based in the Archbishop's palace; and he acted.

Learning and the arts were necessary weapons against barbarism. But the acting was no accident. His voice and bearing were distinguished even then. He brings great natural talents to the theatrical side of a priest's role. It was during the war that he decided he should be ordained, as a consequence of reflection following two traffic accidents.

AFTER the Nazis withdrew, the new barbarians were Communists. Wojtyla was ordained in 1946 and left for Rome, for two years of study under a notably conservative French Dominican, from which he emerged with the highest honours. This was an intellectual training of medieval rigour, but also of a medieval distance from the modern, secular world. When he returned to Poland, he made a great impression as an ascetic, energetic and beloved parish priest. And he was promoted rapidly. By 1954, he was a lecturer in moral theology at the Catholic University of Lublin, the only officially permitted institution of higher education in Eastern Europe.

One cynical Anglican observer dates his implacable resistance to a married priesthood from this period. A man as attractive, distinguished, and authoritative as Karol Wojtyla must have been fairly tempted by all the female students who would have been attracted to him. So he is unlikely to be sympathetic to those who have fallen to lesser temptations. Almost the first act of his pontificate was to put a complete stop on the process of laicisation, by which priests who wished to marry were dispensed from their vows.

During the Fifties he published works of poetry, philosophy and plays, as well as completing his normal duties in an embattled church. The Polish Catholic Church is a remarkable institution. It has carried one of the dominant strands of Polish nationalism, for good and evil; it has survived great oppressions - 3,000 priests were killed by the Nazis. When Wojtyla was appointed to his lectureship in Lublin, the leader of the church, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, was serving two years' imprisonment for defying the regime. An organisation under such pressure could not afford to promote the wrong men, and Wojtyla's rise in it was rapid. At the age of 38 he was consecrated bishop. By 44, he was Archbishop of Cracow, and at 46, a cardinal.

The Poles see themselves as defenders of civilisation on the frontier with barbarism and Russia; the church does nothing to discourage this view. In certain strands of Polish Catholic thought, the vision of the church as a supernatural society, locked in perpetual combat with the forces of evil, merges into a vision of Poland as a similarly supernatural entity with a profound destiny laid out in God's plan of salvation history.

At this point, the gap between the Pope's view of the world, and that of most Western intellectuals, including the majority of Catholics, becomes apparent. No one denies his importance to the rise of Solidarity and the subsequent collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. His visits to Poland, and the huge popular fervour they unleashed, defined the agenda within which all politicians, including the government, had to manoeuvre.

This much is common ground. Yet he himself believes that the fall of Communism came about because he dedicated the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, at a ceremony in St Peter's Square on 25 March 1984. This had been requested by three Portuguese peasant girls who saw the Virgin Mary appear at Fatima in 1917.

This is the current - deep, strong and narrow - from which he emerged, astonishing the world as the overwhelming choice of his brother cardinals following the death in 1978 of his tragically overworked predecessor John Paul I after only five weeks. The Catholic church was rocking uneasily after the storms of the second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965) had opened it up to the world. The Council replaced or abolished almost all the old cultural certainties of Catholicism, starting with Latin Mass, and finishing no one knew where. It has largely been Wojtyla's task to define where the Council's new thinking did finish. He has not, as was feared, turned his back on the Council completely. But he has firmly repudiated the vision that many Catholics had of it.

The Council had seemed to promise to Western liberal middle-class Catholics a church that they could understand and be citizens of in the same way that they are citizens of their own countries. Polish citizenship is not like that, or has not been until recently. It is primarily a matter of loyalty and heroism, not democracy. And the virtues this Pope has demanded of the church are similar. The failures of his primacy are tragic because they are the consequence of these heroic virtues.

DISCONTENT with his leadership has taken two main forms. The first and most vociferous comes from the Western Catholic intelligentsia: theologians, journalists, moralists. Such people matter a great deal because in them are institutionalised Christianity's claim to provide explanations as well as codes of conduct. They still admire the Pope but in the sincere opinion of many, the greatest service he could now do the church is to die.

Their discontent started almost as soon as the Pope took office, when his centralising tendencies became obvious. The Council had highlighted the idea that the Pope exercised his authority when he articulated the mind of all the church's 4,200 bishops; and that these bishops, gathered into national conferences, shared some of that authority.

Almost at once, the new Pope started to curb the independence of national conferences with a policy of deliberately savage appointments. In Switzerland, one of his appointees was so unpopular that the faithful formed a human carpet in protest outside the cathedral at service time.

The crucial document of this disillusion was the 'Cologne declaration' of 1989, which made three main charges against his regime. As well as complaining about his appointments policy, it charged that the seminaries and theological colleges around the world were coming under ever tighter ideological control, according to a very narrow, Roman definition of orthodoxy. In a similar way, it claimed, the boundaries of infallibility were being widened by stealth.

It would be misleading to call theologians who signed it 'dissidents', since they represented an undoubted majority of educated Catholic opinion in the countries where they worked. But that will not have impressed the Pope: a man who has been both bishop and theologian will not view with undue reverence the theory that theologians, not bishops, are the unsung legislators of the church.

More serious in the long run are the disputes about sex, which are, however, intimately connected to the disputes about authority. The Catholic church as a whole has decisively rejected the teaching of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned artificial birth control. It is not merely lay people who judge it as interesting, profound and wrong. Yet, as Cardinal Wojtyla, the Pope was influential in its drafting, and he has been fierce in its defence. Sex, to him, has a clear mystical meaning: the acts of a husband and wife are directed by a higher purpose to a particular end, just as surely as was the Polish army that defeated the Russians in 1920 at a battle known as 'The Miracle on the Vistula'.

Even those of us who decline to be enrolled in such a supernatural army can ultimately only admire the vision, energy, and contagious humanity of a man who seems already to have been one of the greatest Popes in history.