An Ambiguous Papacy

An Ambiguous Papacy

The Catholic Church under John Paul II


Pope John Paul II knew, above all, how to seize the historical moment–particularly if it was televised. He condemned exploitation and tyranny, hatred and violence, capitalist globalization, imperialist war and the death penalty. After instructing the Polish Stalinists that workers were not “means of production,” he told post-Communist Eastern Europe that Marxism contained a “kernel of truth” in its refusal to make everything in life a commodity. He opposed both wars in Iraq and supported the United Nations, not the American Empire. He insisted on the moral responsibility of the rich Northern Hemisphere to the poorer Southern one and on decent treatment of Third World immigrants to Europe. He apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s terrible past–for the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism. He opened dialogue with Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.

At the same time, however, he lived a step from the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo’s depiction of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and had a sense of sin that constantly threatened his doctrines of hope. He was an inflexible traditionalist in denying equality to women in church and society. He regarded homosexuals as sinners and so legitimized the most primitive of hatreds. These are not just matters of dogma. The Vatican’s opposition to birth control programs contributes to the poverty of the Third World; its refusal to accept the use of condoms likely facilitated the spread of AIDS; its coalitions with Islamists in international bodies reinforced their capacity to deny rights to women.

Argument and experiment within the church, so creative under John XXIII, gave way to a personalized party line. The great alternative tradition of Catholicism, conciliar church government with the participation of the governed, was consigned to the history books. Theologian Father Hans Küng declared the papacy of John Paul II a monarchical nightmare. Often, the most engaged groups of the Catholic laity had to struggle with their own church for the right to carry its social doctrines into the public arena. The fate of the liberation theology movement is a striking example: In a continent desperate for justice, it was pronounced heretical–setting back reform of Latin American society a generation.

Italian journalist Enzo Biagi has said that the Pope was the most famous man in the world–and the least listened to. Heads of government outdid themselves in praising the Pope’s “moral vision”–then promptly returned to their compromises and crimes. The European Christian social parties have recently put their energies into an entirely symbolic campaign to write into the European constitution an affirmation of Europe’s “Christian identity”–or into supporting anti-Muslim campaigns. In Italy itself, the Vatican and bishops have allied themselves with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a figure who hardly reminds us of Saint Francis.

The case of American Catholicism is especially disappointing. Our great social achievement, the development of an American welfare state, owes much to Catholic thinkers and organizations. Without a Catholic moral presence, the United States might have experienced a self-righteous Protestantism run amok. Matters are now bad enough, but those who are horrified by the idea of our nation as a gigantic market can draw inspiration as well as consolation from the periods when Catholics championed social reform. The late Pope must have had this in mind when he told Americans that there were none so rich that they could ignore the contribution of the poor, and none so poor that they had nothing to give to the nation. Nevertheless, the American Catholic Church–despite the Pope’s opposition to the Iraq War, the Bush doctrines of global domination, and the sovereignty of the market–contributed to the defeat of John Kerry. Prominent cardinals and bishops instructed Catholics not to vote for him because of his views on the rights of homosexuals and women.The Pope as indefatigable moral pilgrim, as multilingual preacher, was an impressive performance artist. With the Pope-mobile once again parked in the Vatican garage, however, much of the church reverted to complicity with power and wealth–or to its pathological obsession with sexuality.

Loving concern for the earth and its inhabitants, refusal to accept inequality and abhorrence for violence are themes on which philosophical antagonists can unite, but first their philosophical differences will have to be confronted in dialogue. It is difficult to see how Catholics can engage in that dialogue with secular progressives, and with the other world religions, if dialogue in their own church is so attenuated. The Pope leaves, then, an ambiguous legacy. His vision of a more just social order inspired millions. His refusal to democratize the church and to recognize the rights of women suppressed some of the church’s most vital forces and made alliances between Catholics and progressives with other philosophical and religious commitments problematic. It remains to be seen if Catholics who identify with the opening to the world of Pope John XXIII will now reclaim their church. Severe conflict is inevitable, no matter who the next Pope is. No doubt, Pope John Paul II was a giant, but the debate he willed to his church resembles a dense, even tortured, soliloquy.

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