Faith & Reason: The paradox at the heart of this pessimistic Polish pope

John Paul II's 25 years in office are riddled with contradictions which reveal a tension in the pontiff's psyche

Paul Vallely@pvall
Friday 20 September 2013 02:27

It is commonly said, most particularly from a secular perspective, that Pope John Paul II is a contradictory figure since he is at once deeply reactionary and remarkably progressive. His conservative side is reflected in his authoritarian style and his embrace of traditional Catholic positions on contraception and abortion - to which he adheres with such strictness that he will not approve the use of condoms to prevent the transmission or Aids nor, we learned this week, make an exception on abortion for an 11-year-old girl impregnated by her father. His progressive side is demonstrated by his consistent anti-war stance, his routine appeals against the use of the death penalty and his extension of Catholic Social Teaching's concern for justice for the poor into the context of a globalised economy.

But looking back over the years since he became pope in 1978 contradictions of a different kind emerge right across his ministry.

Inside the Church he has brought the world's bishops and cardinals together more than ever before at synods, councils and conferences in Rome. But at such meetings the agenda is controlled by the Pope, speeches are delivered in random order, there is no chance for questions or debate and papal officials publish final reports often at variance with what bishops actually said. The principles of collegiality so central to the revolutionary Second Vatican Council have been consistently undermined. Its insights about the importance of local churches have been abandoned in favour of increased centralisation.

There is a similar story with the laity. Lay movements like the controversial Opus Dei, which create a spiritual élite and take a supportive ultramontane view of the papacy, have been promoted. Yet there have been crackdowns on the role of ordinary lay people; lay chaplains and parochial councils to run a parish without a priest have been banned. The Pope's letter On the Dignity of Women helped raise the status of women in places like Africa, but echoed hollow to Western women. John Paul has not just refused to ordain women but has banned them from even discussing the idea. Nor has he elevated women to non-priestly jobs; there is no female head, for example, of a Vatican department.

In the wider world the Pope has been a strong supporter of democracy in Eastern Europe, but is less keen on it in the West, where he brands it majoritarianism. And though he speaks fiercely against the impact of massive global injustice on the poor he has, under pressure from the Catholic right, approved the deregulation of financial markets. Moreover those who have tried through Liberation Theology to do in Latin America what Solidarity did in Poland have been investigated and suppressed, their seminaries closed and their sympathetic bishops replaced by ultra-right conservatives. (The appointment of such bishops has slowly swept the entire Catholic world.) There has been support from Rome for dictators like Augusto Pinochet, and the only nation in the world to recognise the military regime that seized power from the democratically elected president (and former priest) Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in 1991 was the Vatican.

Inconsistencies have been there too in matters ecumenical. John Paul II prayed with Robert Runcie in Canterbury and speaks warmly of reconciliation with Anglicanism; yet Rome recently reiterated, with no apparent provocation, its ruling that Anglican priestly orders are invalid. He has been particularly keen on rapprochement with the Orthodox; he went to Athens and issued an unprecedented apology for 1,200 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. He showed significant new openness in asking other Christian denominations how the papal ministry could be exercised in ways more acceptable to them, but then cold-shouldered or disciplined Catholics who took up the invitation and wrote on the subject.

There have been great gestures 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 has suppressed theologians working on inter-faith dialogue. He has also annoyed Jews by supporting a Catholic convent at Auschwitz and beatifying Pius IX, the pope who kidnapped a Jewish boy. (He has made more saints than all the previous popes put together to create contemporary models of holiness, but they have been chosen to fit his ideological world view - which is why the founder of Opus Dei is now one and Oscar Romero, the martyr of El Salvador, isn't.)

Some put such contradictions down to the increasing conservatism of old age, or to fin de régime opportunism among reactionary Vatican officials. But the truth goes deeper. They speak of the paradox at the core of this pessimistic Polish pope. His heart reaches out to people, but his head fears that the consequences of such empathy might be to compromise Catholic identity. In the end history may judge that to have been a greater ailment than the physical afflictions which old age has heaped upon him in his final days.

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