A flawed priest


It is best to speak plainly, I think, and say that Pope John Paul II was a very good man. But as God’s shepherd on earth, he was sometimes blind to the suffering of many in his flock.

He was certainly the Vicar of Christ: reverent, pious, divine and charismatic. Perhaps he really was holy.

But he was also Karol Wojtyla, a man of flesh and blood, capable of anger and intolerance. In short, he was human and, as such, shared our propensity for mistakes, even for grievous errors of judgement.

I’m thinking not so much of his moral decrees. Individual Catholics – and I speak as a practising liberal Protestant who once seriously explored not merely conversion but a lifetime commitment to the Jesuit priesthood – will always exercise their consciences on matters such as sex outside marriage and birth control, no matter what the Vatican says.

Thanks to Hive

Thanks to Hive

I’m thinking even less about his strict rules on clerical celibacy and women’s ordination. After all, no one forces a man into the priesthood and women who really feel a call to religious ministry can express it in churches outside the ambit of Rome.

My ambivalence – and, yes, occasionally anger – towards this decent, compassionate but often flawed priest was over his selective attitude to human rights. For it is here, much more than in matters of personal morality and church governance, that John Paul II’s misguided passion was felt most profoundly.

Sometimes it seemed that, to the Holy Father, not all people deserved the same freedoms he wanted, and largely achieved, for his fellow Poles and Slavs. He bravely confronted one form of authoritarian rule – communism – but seemed willing to accommodate, or at least tolerate, tyranny elsewhere. This was most apparent in the different treatment he accorded the people of Eastern Europe and those of Latin America. It was evident in the Catholics he chose to canonise – at least one of them being extremely dubious – and those whom he ignored.

There is no question that across Eastern Europe people lived in sterile, soulless societies under authoritarian regimes, often denied the chance to express their thoughts and faith (although in Poland the state never attempted to really outlaw Catholicism). But the sufferings of those living under the military dictatorships of Latin America – under the death squads in El Salvador, the generals running the Dirty War in Argentina, and the homicidal maniac ruling Chile – were arguably worse.

In such hell-holes, many Catholic priests and prelates, such as Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, chose to follow the path of the radical Christ and express a ‘preferential option for the poor’. They embraced a sacred creed called liberation theology.

But John Paul II feared liberation theology, with its sympathy for land reform and opposition to the concentration of wealth and power – including clerical power – as a pale imitation of communism. His old friend and fellow Pole, Australian academic Jerzy Zubrzycki, said the Pope always believed that of the two tyrannies he had suffered under – Nazism and communism – communism was more pernicious. Unlike the nihilism of the swastika, the Pope feared Marxism offered a visage of egalitarianism that might compete with the Kingdom of God for the peoples’ affections.

Of course, if the choice was between communism and an inclusive, empowering vision of Christian solidarity with the weak and the poor, then it was never a contest. But sometimes the Pope’s more muscular Catholicism seemed to make the alternative somewhat tempting.

Whatever the case, the Pope’s suspicions meant that in places like Nicaragua, where the ruling Sandinistas practised left-wing nationalism not doctrinaire Marxism, the Vatican denied legitimacy to a genuinely reformist government, which included five Catholic priests.

But across the border in El Salvador – where diablo himself, in the person of Arena party boss and death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, ruled by terrorist fiat – it appeared that the Pope found it hard to summon up the same outrage. The most generous praise he could offer to the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom D’Aubuisson had assassinated in 1980, was that he was a ‘zealous pastor’. No, Romero was a martyr, a saint in his lifetime and John Paul II’s pontificate never properly recognised his supreme sacrifice. Nor did the Vatican ever appropriately honour the four American nuns raped and murdered in 1980, also by D’Aubuisson’s men, or the six Jesuit priests butchered nine years later by the same band of state-sponsored thugs.

The same Pope who in 1983 shook his finger at Father Ernesto Cardenal for accepting a post as culture minister in the Sandinista government, appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace in Chile in 1987, lending tacit, if not actual, support to the dictator Augusto Pinochet. As Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi recorded in their biography, His Holiness, when the Holy Father was introduced to one of Pinochet’s victims, a young student named Carmen Gloria Quintana, whom Pinochet’s military had doused with petrol and set on fire, he brushed past her, muttering only, ‘I know all about it, I know all about it.’ John Paul II was a loving man – that I do not doubt – but his sympathies were misplaced.

And so too was his wisdom. While Dorothy Day, pioneer of the Catholic Worker movement and a true, 20th century disciple of Christ, still awaits beatification, Josemaria Escriva, the Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei and who died less than thirty years ago, enjoyed a speedy canonisation. It seems the Vatican’s ‘devil’s advocate’ never quite got around to examining Escriva’s well-known sympathies for fascism and the Franco regime.

(From my own perspective, I shall always remain angry with, although not hateful towards, the Pope for his deeply unfair treatment of my dear friend Father Robert Drinan. Bob, now 85, is a Jesuit priest and lawyer who, in 1970, became the first Catholic priest ever elected to the United States House of Representatives. He represented the Massachusetts 3rd District, serving for a decade as one of Congress’s most progressive, peace-loving, justice-seeking, pro-worker Democrats until John Paul II told him to choose between being a priest and a politician. The ultimatum did not destroy Bob’s life – he is a stronger man than that and found other ways to combine his ministry with progressive causes – but it certainly denied the American people one of the finest, most compassionate, most intellectual representatives in the history of the republic.)

I suspect that, deep down, the Pope was not a democrat in the sense that we understand it, for he would have found much of his own conservative morality mirrored in the communist societies he so abhorred. I think he had a fundamentally benign view of humanity and believed that if people would only surrender themselves not simply to God, but to the church of Peter, they would have no need and no hunger for democracy.

Still, in the later years of his life, John Paul II found himself on the right side of some of the most significant issues of our time. Sister Helen Prejean, the American anti-death penalty nun who walks in the path of Jesus, says the civilised world will always owe John Paul II its gratitude for denouncing the death penalty as ‘cruel and unnecessary’ and changing the Catechism to say as much.

And most recently, the Pope opposed this dirty, child-killing war in Iraq. There was no ambiguity in his statement: he said it was wrong. And yet it’s funny how particularly American conservatives, even conservative Catholics – so ready to embrace the Pope’s pro-life message on abortion and euthanasia – are so equally ready to ignore his pronouncements on war and judicial murder.

I hated watching Pope John Paul II depart this world, so painfully, so publicly these last few years. And yet his final appearance, struggling unsuccessfully to utter his blessing from his window over St Peter’s Square, was anything but pathetic. In fact, it was poetic. He was silenced not by man or machine but by God – the God who was calling him home.

John Paul II does not need this liberal Protestant’s prayers for his soul but he has them anyway. He was a good man, in many ways a necessary man for the times. But repressive communism is all but gone and, yet, many of God’s people – indeed, millions of Catholics – still suffer an oppression born of greed and prejudice.

I hope I will remember John Paul II lovingly. But I will also remember those whom his pontificate ignored.

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. 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

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