Tuesday, April 12, 2005



Vy Brandon,

For all intents and purposes the reign of Pope John Paul II was a mixed bag of both positive and negative achievements.

Even as a recovering Catholic I still have pleasant memories of the late John Paul II. Even when i disagreed with him on matters of morality, doctrine, and practice I could still respect the man, even as my respect for the Church as a whole sank to an all time low. Despite increasing differences and my eventual departure from the Church, I can still admit that John Paul II was at least sincere in is beliefs and that he did accomplish a certain amount of good during his 26 year reign as Pope.

On the plus side, John Paul II was the deciding factor in the decline and fall of Soviet Style Communism. Indeed, it might well be argued that the only reason I am writing this, and the only reason you are reading this is because JP2 had the conviction to speak truth to power. We did not, afterall have a Third World War, and the last I knew we didn't experience the Nuclear winter that many concerned scientists had envisioned as a direct result of an all out nuclear war. That in large part can be attributed to the pacifistic actions of John Paul II.

If ever there was a man of peace it was John Paul II. Here was a man who had survived both Fascism and Communism in his native Poland. He understood well the many ways in which power could be used an manipulated. While the Reagen Administration and its merry band of proto-Necons were funding the bloody, hypocritical Contras, John Paul II, was repudiating the use of force and violence as he inspired a series of peaceful resistance movements throughout Eastern Europe, and finally within the "Evil Empire" itself. Make no mistake about it: this was a very clever politician, an astute world leader, who knew precisely how far he could go when dealing with authoritarian powers. Not that the Reagen or Bush 1 Administartions were in any way appreciative. Throughout the early 1980's the Reagen administration virtually ignored the Gandhi-like revolution that was gaining momentum within the Soviet Block. True to form, the Neocons of the era payed little attention to Lech Walesa and Solidarity, opting instead to fund right wing death squads in a sanguniary effort to bring peace and democracy to Central America.

Was JP2 the only important factor in the decline and fall of Soviet style communism? Certainly not. Mikhail Gorbachev must be given some credit; and if we are to be honest we need to admit that the Soviet econmy, with its heavy emphasis on both military spending and obsessive centralized control, was anything except self-sustaining. For all intents and purposes it was a system doomed to collapse by its own weight, corruprtion, and ineptitude. But that doesn't change the fact that it was JP2, through his courageous visit to Poland which inspired millions of repressed people to take to the streets in peaceful protest. Indeed, if the people in the former Soviet Union and its satellite nations had responded as the Neocons respond to every international incident--with knee jerk violence--Mikhail Gorbachev might well have responded in kind and the cause for peace and freedom might well have been set back for another generation.*

Whether the the extreme right wing of the Church likes it or not--and we suspect that they probably do not--JP2 was actually acting on the provisions of the earlier provisions Vatican II, which prohibited the use of coercion in the pursuit of truth. Let's face it. There have been times in church history when the pursuit of truth was drenched in blood: the Crusades, localized witch hunts, Inquisitions, religious wars etc. Vatican II, combined with JP2s personal experiences under the Hitler and Soviet regimes, more or less left the highly popular Pope with a genuine distaste for violence.

Equally inspirational was the manner in which he closed the theological loophole on the use of the death penalty under extreme circumstances. Mind you, this was a man who survived an assassination attempt and who visited his would be assassin in an Italian prison where he had the moral fortitude to forgive the demented individual who had tried to kill him. Truth be known I don't think many of us would have the guts nor the character to have behaved in a similar manner. In a similar vein of tolerance, this was a Pope who reached out to different faiths. (He was , afterall, the first Pope to visit a Mosque, and his attempt to bridge the gulf between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches did prove useful in that they helped to lessen a little of the tension between these two branches of the Christian faith.

And yet, for all his compassion, the reign of JP2 has proven disastrous in other areas.

True, he did condemn the abuses and excesses of capitalism, advocating on more than one occasion a certain degree of governmental control of the market place. This after all was a Pope who, in matters of class conflict advocated a "preferred option for the poor," while condemning the excesses of both communism and the free market. You can't say that his concern for the poor was in any way disingenuous. But you can fault him for the policies that he promoted to remedy the situation.

Which brings is to the often confusing and hypocritical manner in which JP2 and the church hierarchy thought about and handled the poor.

What can we say? With a friend like JP2 the poor didn't need any enemies. Does anyone remember Mother Theresa? Of course you do. Where strength of will and faith are concerned, Mother Theresa was truly admirable. But when you look at the policy that she promoted, she was nothing less than destructive. Instead of educating women about their rights and bodies Mother Theresa openly endorsed the Catholic party line about subservience to men, celibacy, and the rhythm method. Her efforts to bring physical and spiritual comfort to the Indian slums were, again, admirable, but the policies that she endorsed, the Catholic opposition to artificial contraception in any way, shape, or form, was actually creating more of the very misery that she was trying to alleviate.

A friend of the poor?

Instead of promoting education about reproductive rights; instead of recognizing the fact that over population in Third World countries is a major factor in poverty, hunger, crime, and social instability, this church under this Pope adopted a policy which denigrated women as inferior beings and left in operation the practices which were causing the many problems that His Holiness and often spoken out against. And while you might argue that this is just Church teaching, you also need to remember that in this particular case Church teaching was partially--not exclusively, but partially--responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million AIDS victims. Think about it. At a time when we have 20 million dead from AIDS and additional 40 million people infected with the HIV virus, one would think that the Church would have at least enough common sense to have stepped out of the Dark Ages, recognized that we were facing unusual circumstances in the form of a global health crisis, and allowed the use of condoms (which in no way shape or form would have led to the "murder" of a fertilized egg cell). But this didn't happen. Instead the Church (JP2 included), maintained its irrational, and frankly, neurotic, stand on birth control to the very end. And the irony is that while the church condemns abortion as murder, its policy on birthcontrol is actually creating large numbers of unwanted pregnancies which end in the very abortions that the church so fervently condemns. You really need to wonder. Which does the church consider to be more important? Regulating personal lives or preventing unwanted pregnancies, which often end in abortion. Regrettably the answer would appear to be the former. Or to put it another way, the Church preached a self-contradictory gospel of personal responsibility, but limitted personal responsibility to celibacy, while eliminating the possibility that one might be responsible with artificial contraception.

It is no accident (nor a wonder) that the Catholic Church is all but dead in the Industrialized west. In Europe Catholic Cathedrals are virtual museums. In the United States, Catholic institutions (including churches and Catholic schools) are closing at an alarming rate. Convents are anachronistic. Homegrown new priests are a rarity. And yet defenders of the status quo routinely claim that Church membership has increased from 60 million to 67 million in the past ten years.

BUT, what they don't tell you is that much of that increase comes in the form of immigrants from impoverished countries where educational standards don't meet our own. Nor do they tell you that the church has a truly bizarre way of counting Catholics. In other words, if you were at any time a member of the Catholic Church but dropped out or converted, you, regardless of your present beliefs and practices, are still counted as a Catholic. Translated into modern English this means that we really don't have an accurate number as to the number of Americans who are currently active and practicing Catholics. But with recent revelations pertaining to sexual abuse and the ensuing coverup by the Church hierarchy, common sense should tell you that membership has probably decreased as a result of those revelations.

And yet the church openly brags about the fact that many of its new Cardinals come from Asia, Africa, and South America. Translated into modern English, the church has been expanding in third world countries where oppressive poverty, civil unrest, and social instability have limiting effects on education. In short, Roman Catholicism has been spreading in " Banana Republics" where corrupt governments, poor educational systems, ignorance, and outright superstition are par for the course; but losing ground in the high tech, better educated West. Does this tell you something? I'm sorry. Overpopulation, over-crowding, hunger, poverty, crime, civil unrest, ignorance, and the deaths of millions of people comprise an awfully high price to maintain the status quo of a right wing dictatorship in Vatican City.

Right Wing dictatorship? Oh yes. Despite the good that he has done on the world stage, the fact remains that JP2, while operating under the provisions of Vatican II , also did a great deal to undermine Vatican II. More power has been concentrated in the hands of the Papacy. Potential Cardinals were required to pass a theological litmus test. Open debates over theological issues were openly discouraged in Catholic universities. The Jesuit contsitution was suspended, Jesuit leadership dismantled. Liberation Theology in Latin America was ruthlessly squelched.

We know, We know. We've heard the old argument before. The Church isn't a democracy. It needs to follow the will of God. But we also need to remember that much of what we call church history is the result of both internal and external policies. Those who claim that the church never changes fail to recognize the fact that the church has already changed and that is changing even as we speak. For example. The papacy didn't exist in a recognizable form until the 5th Century. Prior to that the Bishop Of Rome was only a first among equals. Similarly the idea of Papal Infallibility was an evolving concept which came to a peak in 1870 under Pope Pius IX and was later misused by future Popes, notably Pius XI and Pius XII.

If we are truly serious about spreading democracy--as the regime in Washington so shallowly proclaims--then we should at least be willing to put our money where our theocratic mouths are and take the concept to its logical conclusion. Most Western Catholics don't have a problem with women priests. A vast majority of Western Catholics do not--repeat not--believe that artificial contraception is a sin.

And that's the problem. The "Powers That Be in Rome" know that if this Chuch were to ever democratize the process, the male-dominated Hierarchy would quickly be delegated to selling pencils on the nearest street corner. The Church, by its very nature cannot afford to democratize because that would mean that a group of (presumably) celibate men would no longer be able to tell their sexually active congregations what they should or should not be doing with their bodies. Never mind the theocratic language in which these arguments are invariably phrased by the Hierarchy. The fact of the matter is that this has always been about temporal power, it is about temporal power, and it shall continue to be about temporal power. The only difference between the reformers and the Hierarchy is the fact that the reformers have the decency and the back bone to admit this. The Hierarchy does not.

We saw the devasting effects of what happens when a patronizing Church Hierarchy moves in darkness and secrecy. It began to come out in the 1980s We called it the Priest Sex Abuse Scandal. If we want to be honest we would openly admit that if the CEO of a major corporation had behaved as ineptly as JP2 had during this particular crisis, that CEO would have been fired. And justifiably so. But in this case we really couldn't fire the CEO. In the first place, church doctrine really wouldn't allow for him to be fired; and even if it had, the startling act remained that the proverbial board of directors,(again, the Church Hierarchy),was actively involved in the coverup of the scandal itself. (Still think closed, nondemocratic institutions are such a hot idea?) And to add insult to injury, the infamous Cardinal Bernard Law will be allowed to perform a series of Funeral masses on Monday April 11th--quite an honor for a discredited clergyman who had been caught in the act of covering up for sexually abusive priests.

Even in the area where JP2 has received some justifiable credit--the manner in which he reached out to the Jewish Community and supposedly asked his fellow Catholics to burden a share of the blame for the Holocaust--the church found new and creative ways to fall short of its moral responsibilities. Contrary to popular belief, the Papacy shouldered little blame for the holocaust. The Historical Record was very clear. Throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries Jews were treated abominably. Ghettos, pogroms, forced baptisms, kidnapping Jewish children to be raised as Catholics, restricting Jewish civil liberties, forbidding Jews to hold certain jobs, Papal rhetoric which denigrated Jews as vampires, revolutionaries, ad nauseam. And yet, in 1998, in "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," JP2 and the Church in general refused to admit the fact--not the opinion or the belief--but the fact--that the Christian community had created a climate of hate and fear which resulted in the holocaust. In fact, one might seriously argue that the Third Reich only mechanized what Christian leaders--Popes included--had been preaching for decade after decade after sorry decade.

To their credit the Vatican did have the decency to at least admit that the holocaust had taken place in countries of "long-standing Christian civilization." And it furter admitted that Christian attitudes had been formulative in the creation of the holocaust. But instead of criticizing past Popes for their often barbaric attiudes and preachings against the Jewish community, the Vatican refused to admit that past Popes had been instrumental in creating the antisemitic climate of hate and paranoia which had resulted in the atrocities of the Third Reich. True. Germany was, for all intents and purposes, a Protestant country; but that doesn't change the fact that Hitler was a Baptized Catholic. He grew up in Catholic-dominated Austria where he was subjected to the antisemitism of his time. Moreover Austrians played a disproportionately large role in the Holocaust. According to Simon Wiesenthal , half of the crimes associated with the holocaust were committed by Austrians. That's right, by Austrians who comprised a mere ten percent of the Greater German Reich's population.

Instead of admitting that the antisemitism of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century was in part religiously-inspired, the Vatican, in a stunning example of Orwellian doublespeak, shifted the emphasis from the often barbarous teachings of past Popes (i.e. religious teachings) to cultural and political causes. In fact the Vatican went out of its way to avoid the term "anti-semitism" altogether, opting instead for the sanitized term "anti-Judaism." It were almost as if the Church were trying to conceal the fact that it had once been engaged in a cultural war against Modernism; an outright attempt to crush everything from Communism and Socialism to freedom of religion, democracy, church-state separation, unions, Free Masons, Labor Unions, and of course, Jews.

That said we also need to admit that this Pope was instumental in repairing the often contentious relationship between Jews and Catholics. Granted, much of this goes back to Vatican II and the watershed provisions of "In Our Time," which repudiated the imbecillic myth about how the Jews as a people had killed Christ. Much to the chagrin of modern anti-semites, "In Our Time" affirmed the full and permanent integrity of the Covenant that God had made with Israel. In a single stroke the Catholic Church recognized the fact that the Covenant that God made with Israel is nothing less than Israel's path to God. After 1965 the Church recognized that Christianity had neither superseded nor replaced Judaism. Acting in the spirit of "In Our Time," JP2 made a refreshing (and long over due) move to bridge the gulf which had between the Jewish and Catholic communities.

Regardless as to the often self-excusing results which were found in "We Remember," the fact remains that the Church or rather JP2, was at least willing to take a long, hard look at the holocaust and the role played by the Church in general. The fact that JP2 was at least willing to examine where that kind of rabid hate and antisemitism came from was an important step forward.

The next important step took in 2000 when JP2 went to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and prayed as a Jew would pray without invoking the name of Jesus. The message was very clear. JP2 was invoking the Spirit of "In Our Time," again repudiating the idea that the Church had somehow replaced Judaism. In short, this highl;y complex Pope, while in many ways a Catholic Fundamentalist may well have opened the door for an increased sense of Ecumenicalism.

The Papacy of John Paul II was a mixed bag. At times it was a candle in the dark. At other times it became the darkness itself. More often than not it was a bizarre blend of light and shadow. Supporters will almost undoubtedly beg that he be declared a Saint. Critics will bemoan the fact that he dragged the Church back to the days before Vatican II. In any event there were enough good intentions and missed opportunities to keep the debate alive for years to come.

*The differences between the Reagen-Bush 1 Administrations and JP2 were never as obvious as they were in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. By any standard this was one of the crowning achievements in a porplonged struggle against tyranny. And how did Bush 1 show its appreciation? How did Bush 1 celebrate the peaceful triumph of liberty over Communism? Three weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, Bush 1 made a mockery of JP2's peaceful efforts by launching an illegal war against Panama, a move which was quickly repudiated by the Vatican. Throughout the 1990s and continuing right up to and including the U.S. invasion of Iraq, JP2 had consistently condemned the U.S. whenever it behaved aggressively towards other nations. Earlier, throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bush 1 either couldn't or wouldn't believe that the Soviet Union was actually falling apart. Once the facts were undeniable, Bush 1 shifted from a reaction of disbelief to open annoyance. It was almost as if the proto-Neocons couldn't imagine a world without their beloved "Evil Empire."

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