The bells rang out


I first knew that the Pope was dead at 10:20 p.m. on Saturday when the bells of St-Matthias-kirche began to ring. It was a remarkably medieval moment, though as a good twentieth-century bloke I responded, not by going down into the square to find out what there was to know, but by flicking on the radio and tuning to the BBC World Service. I sat in my apartment listening, and listening, and listening, as one does when in the presence of History. But with growing frustration. It is traditional, of course, to speak well of the dead, but really…!
But, as I listened, I started to think. (There was, admittedly, an intervening period, when I started to rant, but that is for another time and place.) It is not difficult to admire Karol Wojtlya. From a tragic early life, and out of the great catastrophes of the twentieth century — fascism, world war and Stalinism — he rose to true greatness. In a world of political pygmies, here was a giant, who cloaked himself in courage, integrity, compassion.

Thanks to Michael Leunig

Thanks to Michael Leunig

But courage and integrity in the service of bad ideas are not virtues. The Pope was not exactly an enemy of those fighting for a better world, but neither was he our friend, as so many seem to assume. Perhaps the best way to put it is to say that, too often, when faced with those struggling against their shackles, he chose to stand with the binders rather than with the looseners.
That he did so sincerely, rather than from political calculation, is neither here nor there.
George Bush says that Wojtyla was a friend of freedom. This, he most assuredly, was not. He was an enemy of Stalinism in Europe, but on the other side of the world he refused to stand with the struggling masses of Latin America, even when his own lieutenants, like Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, pleaded with him for some word, some sign of criticism of the dictators. In Wojtyla’s mind, Liberation Theology was the main threat in that part of the world and nothing would distract him from his efforts to crush it. The same authoritarian mindset was seen in relation to women who felt God’s call to clerical office. They were, apparently, simply deluded. Tradition, which he alone interpreted, said no.
As the case of Latin America shows, his malign influence was not just a problem for those who chose to stay within his church. His moral authority and the machine that he commanded gave him the ability to meddle in the lives of the thousands of millions who were not of his faith. When he said no to contraception, women all over the world paid the price. Worse still, when he said no to condoms, he was condemning millions to HIV and AIDS, to poverty, suffering, misery and death. To hell on earth, if not in the hereafter.

Many, including most Catholics, simply ignored him. But governments often felt compelled to listen and obey. On divorce, reproductive technologies and stem-cell research, his word shaped debates and laws; and not for the better. Not for choice, certainly.
When he declared homosexuality to be ‘a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent’ consisting of acts of ‘grave depravity’ many of us laughed. Others, however, took these words to heart, and their paths to happiness and acceptance were strewn with obstacles that need not have been there. Still others saw his words as authorisation to hate and bash and kill. This was not his intention, but is undeniably an effect of his words.

The death of dictators is always a moment of hope. In this case, however, there can be very little. He has spent the past quarter-century shaping his church in his own image. His critics have been silenced or have abandoned the struggle. And even on his deathbed he was busily appointing bishops and archbishops who would follow and enforce his worldview for decades to come.
In recent years there has been something of a resurgence in religious belief, even in Australia — in fervour if not in numbers. This need not be a problem; certainly there is something healthy in the common response to this papacy, which has been to love the messenger and ignore the message.

But we ought not to let down our guard. We ought never forget, in our desire to be sensitive, that the great gains of the last century have been the work of reason, not faith; that the triumph of the secular is a precondition for a public life that genuinely accepts and respects, rather than just tolerates, difference and diversity; that human well-being, not Divine Writ is the measure of the value of all things.
When the bells rang out on Saturday night, I was struck by the fact that they did not ring in the great sad tolling that I had expected. (I have become quite a connoisseur of church bells over this Easter in Europe.) Rather they were clanging, discordant, clamorous, expressing urgency, as if warning of danger. As I sat there in the dark, listening, ranting, thinking, it was clear to me for whom the bells tolled. But quite what they were saying seems still to be an open question.

The Life of Pope John Paul II by David Remnick, The New Yorker

Papacy of Spirit by E.J. Dionne Jr.
The pope’s plane was heading to the Ivory Coast from Togo on a journey that was to end that evening in Cameroon. In the press section, my friend Victor Simpson of the Associated Press had just read through the thick packet of speeches that John Paul II was to give on that long August day. Washington Post

The Legacy of Pope John Paul II by Amy Goodman
Three progressive religious scholars discuss the beliefs and actions that shaped John Paul II’s papacy, and where the Catholic Church is headed. Alternet

Poland’s Holy Father By Stefan Chwin
The Poles admired John Paul II, even if they didn’t always listen to him. New York Times

Choosing a New Pope
Interactive feature by the Guardian UK (requires Flash plug-in)

New Pope Could Influence Political Life in America by Adam Nagourney, April 4, 2005, New York Times

Amid Mourning, Some U.S. Catholics Pray for Change by Greg Frost, Reuters

Above All Else, Life by Helen Prejean, 4 April 2005, New York Times

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.