Amid all the hagiography accompanying the death of Pope John Paul II, perhaps a more balanced assessment is in order. His legacy is mixed, thoroughly ambiguous from my point of view. On war and peace, social justice, capital punishment, special attention to the poor, the dignity of all human beings, and the like, he was consistent and eloquent. On matters of sexual morality, homosexuality, the role of women, a married priesthood, abortion, birth control, and end of life issues, he was a dogmatic traditionalist lost somewhere in the middle ages, totally out of touch with the most humane and rational of policies for today’s realities and needs.
He was pastoral, kind, and compassionate in dealing with individuals, but he could be an angry monarch furious at the disobedience of his subjects, who were expected to submit to his teachings and not think for themselves. Subordination to his will, not collegial dialogue with the faithful, was his insistent and consistent demand.
He was a tender, sympathetic pastor at the bedside of people, including children, dying of AIDS in Africa. But his unrelenting condemnation of the use of condoms even among married people is an inexcusable violation of his own concern for the dignity of all human beings. It represents a shameful triumph of rigid dogma over reason, experience, and common sense. This point becomes even more vivid when we consider that all decent means are needed to curb population growth in some of the developing nations of the world.
Pope John Paul II was a stalwart foe of godless, materialistic communism. He urged people and church to oppose tyranny in his native Poland. It is widely acknowledged that his courage was a factor in facilitating the growing deterioration of the Soviet Union. Thus did he influence politics from above politics say his defenders. He also pointed out the greed, materialism, and consumerism of advanced capitalist societies -- warnings we would do well to heed but won’t. But when liberation theologians in Latin America were calling for political resistance to the excesses of capitalism in creating a wide chasm between the rich and the poor, the Pope was instrumental in destroying the movement because it was tainted with Marxist analysis of material conditions and advocated violent resistance. He urged the clergy to make peace with tyrannical right-wing despots with their death squads. One of these terrorist groups gunned down one of his own. In 1980 while he was saying Sunday mass, Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed for his outspoken resistance to the inhumanity heaped upon the poor people of El Salvador by their government. The Archbishop’s appeal to the President Jimmy Carter went unheeded. The Reagan administration entered into a disgraceful pact with the Pope to combat the liberation movement and the evils of communism. The Pope gradually replaced those in the Latin American hierarchy who sympathized with the liberation movement. He replaced them with traditionalists more obedient to papal directives. While he defended human rights and deplored the plight of the poor, the church, the Pope said, was to be pastoral in this setting not political and activist. He was so afraid of communism, to which he urged resistance, at least indirectly or spiritually, that he, in effect, tolerated an equally despicable right-wing dictatorship. He angrily lectured a trembling, kneeling liberation priest and ordered him to get along with the government. It was not that he approved of despotic regimes but that he disapproved the way liberation theologians wanted to deal with it. He wanted an approach and church leaders under his control. He was generally against violence but supported, ambiguously at least, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Pope apologized to Jews and to women for past misconduct toward them. He went to a mosque and to a synagogue and made contact with the Orthodox Church. All of this is commendable, and he should be given full credit for this candor and openness. However, he duly noted as dogma dictates, that while individual members of the church had sinned, “the Church” had not, since it transcends the vicissitudes and frailties of merely human agents. This distinction between this inner essence and its human representatives is lost on most of us. Is it unfair to wonder if this demarcation is stressed more when something bad is under discussion than when its representatives speak truth, do good, and mediate divine grace?
One is not supposed to speak ill of the dead. But maybe when a person of such fame, prestige, power, and importance is being evaluated, it may be more important to witness to truth, as one sees it, than merely to be nice. In this light it has to be said that Pope John Paul II was both a blessing and a curse to the world.
For a similar perpective by a liberal Roman Catholic theologian, see http://www.freenewmexican.com/news/12201.html