“I thought this was a peace prize and not a prize in sexual ethics,” protested a Vatican official, voicing the widely-held belief that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to an Iranian human-rights advocate rather than the dying Pope John Paul II because the selection committee disapproved of his hostility to homosexuality, abortion, contraception and women priests. It may be true, for he must have been a leading contender: no Western leader spoke out so firmly against the invasion of Iraq. But that is not what he will be remembered for.
The man really is dying. Reports that the Pope is now suffering from intestinal cancer in addition to Parkinson’s disease have not been denied by the Vatican, and one of the 31 new cardinals he recently created, Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyons, bluntly said last month: “The Pope is reaching the end of the road. It’s a big responsibility for us. The Pope is in really bad shape.”
Since it will be almost impossible to say harsh things about him when he dies, perhaps we should take advantage of Karol Wojtyla’s 25th anniversary as pope on October 16 to make a franker assessment of his impact on the Catholic church. It has been enormous. Almost single-handedly, he has expelled every trace of modernity from the institution.
Failing to reconnect
The Catholic church, on the eve of Wojtyla’s reign in 1978, was in the midst of a promising transformation. The rigid centralism that began with the 16th century Counter-Reformation and culminated in the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 had been greatly undermined by the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Local languages replaced Latin in the mass, ritual was downgraded in favour of spiritual commitment, and the whole church was in theological ferment.
I did a sort of world tour of the Catholic church in 1978 as part of a documentary series on the likely impact of the new pope, and it was a fascinating experience. In southern Africa, Catholics were playing a leading role in resistance to apartheid. In Latin America, the phenomenon of “liberation theology” was reconnecting the church with the impoverished peasant millions whom it had long ignored. In Europe and North America, the old hierarchies were all under challenge, but especially that of gender. Justice and equality were the themes, and the energy was astonishing.
Twenty-five years later, it is all gone. The collegiality promised by Vatican II is dead, replaced by top-down rule and a stream of decrees on faith and morals handed down by a pope who brooks no argument.
Nobody knows how many Catholic priests, nuns and lay theologians have been bullied into remaining silent under threat of excommunication, for neither their names nor their offences are made public, but the victims of what amounts to a new inquisition probably number in the thousands. And liberation theology has been crushed as heresy, leaving the Latin American poor to seek help and hope elsewhere.
Latin America, home to almost half of the world’s Catholics, used to be a place where no other religion had a substantial presence. Under John Paul II, however, the reimposition of the old Catholic hierarchies and orthodoxies has opened the door for evangelical Protestant sects, mostly Pentecostals and charismatics, to snap up millions of poor people who might once have been attracted to liberation theology. This has happened almost entirely on John Paul II’s watch.
Much of this has been obscured by the pope’s rock-star charisma and his constant touring, but John Paul II certainly does not leave the church as he found it. Whether he leaves it either stronger or better is open to question, but it will certainly continue on the course he has set for at least another generation, for an overwhelming majority of the cardinals who will choose his successor are men who share his deeply conservative and centralizing views.
They ought to, for he chose them himself. In 15 years on the throne, his predecessor, Paul VI, made only 26 new cardinals. In 25 years, John Paul II has made 226.