The legacy of Pope John Paul II

By Bob Briton, Political Affairs, 20 April 2005

The media treatment of the passing of Pope John Paul II spoke volumes about the state of the media itself and the “popular culture” it peddles. Pages and pages of photos and tributes in the newspapers and hours of TV coverage of events leading up to the late Pontiff's funeral carried the same relentless, simplistic message. The former Cardinal of Cracow was an energetic, widely-travelled Pope who spoke up for freedom and human dignity throughout the world while standing bravely against modernity and any change in attitude to abortion, homosexuality, women serving as priests and so on.

In the flood of bland commentary, even the more independent small “l” liberal columnists felt obliged to pay homage to the memory of a strident opponent of their own social attitudes. Australia's corporate media appeared to be doing its usual thing in giving every rite of passage of major world figures the celebrity treatment. For all the effort to give John Paul II pop icon status in death, the numbers watching his funeral on Channel 9 were overshadowed by audiences for the other commercial stations not taking the feed. In Adelaide, for example, the funeral lost out badly to Channel 7 game show Deal or No Deal by a margin of 54,000 to 90,000.

Services to capitalism

Clearly, the extent of the coverage in Australia of the Pope's passing was not justified by the public's interest in the event. Undoubtedly, it was a major news story and of particular importance to the country's significant Catholic community. However, with this event the corporate media has proved once more that it is not just the commercial imperative that motivates them. The outpouring of respect for John Paul II was a political duty because the late Pope had performed considerable services to the sort of society that allows huge profits and the unjustifiable personal income enjoyed by individuals like Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch.

Karol Wotyla was elected Pope by the conclave of Cardinals on October 16, 1978. His predecessor, John Paul I, died in controversial circumstances after just 33 days of what looked like being a reforming papacy. Vatican sources claimed the 56-year-old died of a heart attack and, in the flurry of contradictory press releases that followed, it was said that he had fallen victim to a lifetime of chain-smoking. In fact, he had never smoked. An autopsy was never carried out to establish the exact cause of death and whether any previously existing conditions (like his low blood pressure) had contributed. A death certificate was not issued either.

Whatever the truth behind the demise of John Paul I, his successor was certainly the right man in the right place at the right time for conservatives, anti-communists and those steeped in a narrow, authoritarian interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. By the end of the 1970s, the political right had regrouped after the setbacks suffered during the previous two decades. With the victory of the Vietnamese people in their long-running war with imperialism, the national liberation movements making gains especially in Central America and the fall of fascist dictatorships in Spain and Portugal it had been a long time since powerful elites had received glad tidings. The coup against Chile's Allende government was a fairly isolated break in a run of negative developments for capitalism worldwide.

It was the era of Liberation Theology, when progressive sections of the Church had taken the message of Vatican II to move amongst the people and take up the cause of the poor hasta las ultimas consecuencias (up to the final consequences).

In post-Franco Spain, the Catholic magazine Posible summarised the mood of the Spanish Episcopal Conference of February 1976:

“On Capitalism: Here the hierarchy burns its boats; capitalism is the negation of fundamental values, and little can be expected of it as it is resistant to reform ” Aspects of the capitalist system which contradict the Christian conception of life: All the replies [to the magazine's survey] agree in recognising that the four aspects indicated on the questionnaire (materialism, subordination of the individual to the economy, manipulation of freedom, and helplessness of the weak) exist under capitalism and are contrary to the Christian conception of life.”

The Church hierarchy had always paid lip service to the plight of the poor. Pope Leo XIII's Encyclical Rerum novarum of 1891 expressed sympathy with the conditions of the working class, the desperation at the source of their strike struggles and so on. However, the workers' socialist program for collective ownership and thorough-going democracy was proscribed for Catholics under pain of excommunication. This ban was coming apart by the late 1970s and, under the influence of Marxist analysis, many Catholics and the more progressive clergy were looking to a socialist solution to the manifest evils of capitalism.


Wotyla needed no encouragement to lend support to the more reckless supporters of beleaguered world capitalism; to adopt a “crash through or crash” approach in an assault on the world socialist movement. He was joined in the dramatic escalation of this struggle at the time by newly-elected British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Regan.

Plans to destabilise the socialist Soviet Union and its allies were devised by the intelligence agencies of the two imperialist powers and the new Pope's Polish connections suited these plans to a tee. Poland had become a particularly vulnerable member of the socialist community of nations. Its ruling party had become detached from the Polish people and racked up a series of grave errors. Corruption was prevalent and the people so disoriented that Lech Walesa, a misogynist wearing images of the Virgin Mary and a US flag and who proudly claimed never to have read a book, became the head of the Solidarno trade union opposition movement.

The diplomatic bags going to the Papal Nuncio (or ambassador) in Warsaw were stuffed with advice, dollars and other resources for the anti-government forces in Poland. They came with the blessings of the intelligence agencies of the US, the UK and the Vatican itself. Solidarno got Poland's very first fax machine via these channels. The Pope's trips to his homeland served to fan the flames of discontent that were taking on an increasingly nationalist and anti-Soviet character.

The crisis in Poland was of great assistance in the full court press being organised against socialism by the most confrontational sections of the international capitalist ruling class. The fact that conditions for working people in Poland have continued to slide since the restoration of capitalism was of little concern to John Paul II and even less to his allies in high places. His role in the first major “success” against the socialist community of nations was noted and was the real context of the all the recent talk in the media of the late Pope as a champion of liberty and the rights of the individual.

Champion of human rights?

The media has made much of John Paul II's progressive credentials. His ecumenism was highlighted; he had entered Rome's synagogue and a Mosque, and met with the leaders of many faiths. He apologised for the centuries long Inquisition against Europe's and Latin America's non-Catholics. He apologised for the Church's support of the Conquistadors that pillaged and colonised South America. He apologised that the Church had not done more to help the Jewish people at the time of the Nazi Holocaust. He even managed to apologise to the memory of Galileo for questioning the Bible-based astronomy of his time.

Like most of the rest of the planet (and even its national governments), John Paul II opposed the US-led war in Iraq.

And at a conference in Puebla, Mexico in 1979 he did indeed criticise damaging effects of what we now call economic rationalism or neo-liberalism. However, his Papacy would return the Church to its default position of bemoaning economic and social injustice while stomping all over those who try to do something about it. But by the end of his Papacy all these evils of capitalism remained. The numbers of poverty-stricken, the homeless, the unemployed and the uneducated had sharply increased. War continued to rage. Armament budgets had increased by many billions.

The Pope rejected the thrust of the progressive “preferential option for the poor” put forward at a gathering of Latin American Catholic bishops at a meeting held in Medellín in Colombia in 1968. The Church attacked the progressive government of Reverend Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti and helped depose him in 1991. Archbishop Romero in El Salvador was the target of a stream of high-level abuse for his stand against the dictatorship of the country. Eventually, he was assassinated by the forces of that dictatorship. Next door in Guatemala, Cardinal Casariego was as cosy as could be with the bloodthirsty military dictators of the country without even a syllable of protest from Rome.

On his visit to Nicaragua in 1983 he publicly shook his finger like a chastising parent at the Catholic priest Ernesto Cardinal who had agreed to become minister for culture in the pro- people Sandinista government of the country. Father Miguel D’Escoto had become foreign minister with the same motivation of serving the poor.

On the same visit, masses of people who had gathered to hear from the head of their Church were outraged when it appeared he was going to say nothing about the murder of 20 innocent youths while they were working in the countryside by anti-government Contras. The Pope bellowed “silencio” at the restless crowd of faithful who had expected some words of comfort for the families of the victims of the despicable act of terrorism.

On a visit to Chile in 1987, he watched impassively as police and security service agents provoked and then brutally attacked parts of the crowd gathered to hear from the Pontiff. Large sections of the Church in Chile had been doing what they could to defend human rights in the country since the military coup headed by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973.

While it was the economic elites that had resorted to violence in Chile's political life, he had a predictable message for the tormented people of the country: “Do not let yourself be seduced by violence and the thousand reasons which appear to justify it.” The Church rejects “all ideologies which proclaim violence and hate as means to obtain justice.” John Paul II never criticised the regime of Pinochet. Next door in Argentina, he endorsed Pío Cardinal Laghi who had supported the military of that country and its dirty war against the left in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Back to the future

During and after the Second Vatican Council of clergy held in Rome between 1962 and 1965, certain, long-overdue changes came over the Church. They ranged from the symbolic to the doctrinal. Children of the time noticed a lightening of emphasis on “Miraculous Medals”, the person of the Virgin Mary and the saints. The clothing of many orders of nuns was changed to modestly reveal the fact that they were actually women. Mass was henceforth conducted in the language of the local people, not Latin.

While claiming to have advanced the work of Vatican II, the most recent Pope offered comfort to reactionaries upset by the changes. A new Catechism of the faith was produced. He said that the Virgin Mary had spared his life when the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Aca tried to assassinate him in 1981. And, of course, he beatified and canonised more Church figures than several of his predecessors combined. Witnesses attested to “miracles” performed by the most unlikely candidates for spiritual honours.

He beatified Aloysius Stepanic, Croatian war-time archbishop of Zagreb and collaborator with the Ustashi (Ustas'e) fascist regime. He canonised Josemaría Escrivá, founder of the cultish, ultra-reactionary and violent Catholic organisation, Opus Dei. This body gave strong ideological support to the Franco regime in Spain and still supports reactionary political causes and carries on medieval forms of control over its adherents.

The late Pope surrounded himself with Vatican advisers from Opus Dei. In a final twist, Opus Dei luminary Angelo Cardinal Sodano has led calls for the canonisation of John Paul II and the granting of the title “the Great”. Wotyla would become only the fourth Pope in history to be so honoured.

John Paul II recentralised power in the Vatican and cemented conservative social attitudes with a string of Encyclicals and other authoritative Church documents. He reaffirmed Church opposition to abortion at any stage of pregnancy and under virtually any circumstances. Stem cell research was opposed on the same grounds of self-proclaimed respect for the sanctity of human life. He opposed the use of condoms in the fight against the spread of HIV/AIDS. Policy influenced by this edict resulted in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and South America.

Some of his most outrageous comments were reserved for those who defended the cause of gays and lesbians. He considered transsexual and transgender people to have “mental pathologies” and supported the decision of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to ban them from holding positions in the Church. To his mind homosexual desires were “objectively disordered” and the movement for same sex marriage was part of a “New ideology of evil” which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man”.

Frustrated hopes

All but three of the 115 cardinals due to vote on a successor to John Paul II were appointed by the late Pope. It is unlikely that a reforming Pontiff with the intention of undoing the damage caused by Wotyla will arise from that election process. Strategic political considerations will most likely dominate and it could be a very long time, if ever, before there is a Papacy with a modern or progressive outlook.

While many people, Catholics included, might be happy to take on board the simplistic characterisation of John Paul II as a defender of liberty offered by the corporate media, many others will remember the way he spoke in support of human rights. They will resent the missed opportunities to defend the interests of the poor, to genuinely support an alternative to the exploitation and inhumanity of capitalism.

They will share the frustration of Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara who said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”