Pope John Paul II: A Mixed Blessing

Political Affairs, 5 April 2005

THE late Karol Wojtyla was born 1920 in Wadowice, near Krakow.

In 1938, he began studying philosophy and literature at Krakow university, which the nazis closed when they invaded in 1939, and subsequently worked in a quarry.

He was ordained in 1946, became Poland's youngest bishop at 38 and was elected as pope in 1978.

The pope's legacy to his church can, at best, be described as mixed.

A deeply conservative cleric, his implacable resistance to birth control and the use of condoms sparked enormous criticism because of its negative impact on the spread of Aids.

And his virulent attacks on homosexuality as “unnatural” could have come straight from the 19th, rather than the 20th century.

He is remembered without affection by some liberal theologians within the church for barring priests from getting married, refusing to countenance the ordination of women, stopping lay theologians from preaching inside churches and maintaining a grimly reactionary attitude to divorce and same-sex marriage.

And his fervent anti-communism led to the Catholic church in his native Poland playing a large part in the overthrow of the socialist system, while his denunciation of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan before the US intervention is still remembered with praise by US puppet Hamid Karzai.

To say, as US President George W Bush is now doing, that the pontiff “launched a democratic revolution that swept eastern Europe and changed the course of history,” is to grossly exaggerate the case, but there is no doubt that he exercised the power of the church against progressive politics wherever he could do so.

Under John Paul II, the church assumed a rigid orthodoxy which alienated many of its members and squashed the influence of the “liberation theology” which had begun to develop prior to his accession.

And yet, this pope also reflected many of the moral imperatives which have made the church an occasional force for progress as well as a regular bastion of reaction.

His bitter denunciations of war, first during the Falklands conflict and subsequently in the Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq, set him regularly at odds with the governments of the capitalist world.

The pope's attacks on the arms trade were regular and pointed, while his interventions on unbridled capitalism and Third World debt, coupled with his evident distaste for the gap between the rich and poor, both domestically and internationally, were as passionate as they were accurate.

His defence of the poor stood in the best traditions of his church, although his inability to see past its moral absolutism dragged it back into a previous era.

Karol Wojtyla will leave his church little better than he found it.

It is to be hoped that his successor will adopt his pastoral concerns for the poor, the needy and the victims of imperialism and war.

But it must also be hoped that that successor will have rather more understanding of what must be done to fulfil the pastoral mission that the church claims for its own.