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Commentary :: International
no halo for pope
06 Apr 2005
History is unlikely to treat the legacy of Pope John Paul II as kindly as his contemporaries and his mourners.

History is unlikely to treat the legacy of Pope John Paul II as kindly as his contemporaries and his mourners. Historians are certain to ignore the pious analysis of Vatican publicists and spin doctors who converted a reactionary pope - with stubborn medieval ideas and virulent opposition to any kind of ecclesiastical reform – into a man who, apparently single-handed, defeated communism. Our mass media, quick to leap on any bright idea peddled by ‘experts’ and regurgitated by politicians is now perpetuating this myth as a papal epitaph.

More sober assessments will find the Polish Pope was a man of contradictions, some would say a hypocrite. Others have already argued he has blood on his hands. John Paul II piously preached equality but denied the right of dissent within his own church. He patronized the Marian cult and advocated equality for women but denied women the priesthood and the pill. He pontificated about the rights of the poor but closed the door to liberation theology and to contraceptive devices (including prophylactics) so condemning millions of poor believers to large families and worse, to infection and death by the AIDS virus.

Within the Church he made sure moral stains were camouflaged, the status quo maintained. He whitewashed the financial manipulations of the Vatican Bank though he often voiced opposition to materialism. For years he ignored charges of pedophilia against the priesthood. Finally, instead of removing the unnatural bonds of celibacy he reaffirmed this controversial practice, so assuring future abuses by sexually deprived clergy.

This was a Pope who, as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, participated and supported the Second Vatican Council. The Council intended to usher in a new era of reforms, collegiality and transparency, an initiative he supported as cardinal. But as Pope he erased the Council’s liberal intentions. Instead he steered the church back to the centralized and autocratic rule of medieval pontiffs who considered dissent an act of heresy. Some would argue this was a betrayal of the infallibility of his predecessors, a betrayal so damaging, so heretic it should exclude him from any chance of acquiring what some of his supporters already advance – a saint’s halo.

A man fascinated by mysticism and rituals (endemic to the Polish Church) John Paul II adopted as his favorite order Opus Dei, a secretive and zealous lay society whose members still flagellate themselves. He thus marginalized the more worldly and intellectualized Jesuits. So great was his love for Opus Dei he hustled through the canonization process of its founder, a Spanish priest notorious for his support of General Franco’s fascist regime.

What of his reputation as a charismatic communicator?

As a young man Karol Wojtyla dreamed of becoming an actor playing to an audience. But as a priest, a bishop, a cardinal and eventually as pope his audience became ever more numerous and was always devoted. The accolades were assured.

As Pope John Paul II remained an actor, a savvy, accomplished communicator who may have been antiquated in his interpretation of Catholic doctrine but readily exploited the novelty of modern information technology to give the papal charisma global exposure. His international pilgrimages, accompanied by blanket media coverage, assured him an audience of millions thanks to the very mystique of his office. In fact his popularity was based on this divine aura, certainly not the content of his messages or a dogmatism many of those who came to see and cheer him quietly flaunted (among them women who took the pill.)

Like all our politicians he reveled in spectacular gestures, among them contact with other religions. These apparently innovative moves had no concrete sequences or resulted in changes to church doctrine. The gestures remained faithful to their intentions: Successful public relations coups. After all religious brotherhood and human brotherhood was fine as long as all the brothers understood one of them was more equal then the rest.

No doubt, as a traveling media star John Paul II became a 20th century success story. He thrived in an era of ideological bankruptcy when people were lost and in search of ideals and icons. But as leader of the world’s largest Christian Church facing the challenges of a new millennium, an outcry for more internal democracy and changes to dubious doctrines (like celibacy and women priests) this Pope will be remembered as an abject failure.

(Uli Schmetzer reported from the Vatican as a journalist between 1977 and 1986)

This work is in the public domain
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