The media haze of encomiums and rosy reminiscences about Pope John Paul II can’t change what the man was in real life–a hard-line right-winger who saw his mission as defending the most backward institutions and traditions of the Catholic Church.
Obituaries for John Paul–born Karol Wojtyla–mentioned his humble beginnings in Poland, then governed by a so-called communist government that repressed the Catholic Church. Named pope a few years before the Solidarnosc general strike of 10 million workers in Poland, John Paul was seen as an advocate of freedom and democracy–an image that the U.S. government and its Cold War allies happily promoted.
Less talked about was how John Paul provided Washington with a trump card against the development of what was known as “liberation theology” in Latin America–where people associated with the church, including leading priests and bishops, championed the struggles of workers and the poor.
The pope occasionally criticized U.S. imperialist ventures, like the recent invasion of Iraq. But he was always far more an ally than opponent, and he used his quarter-century reign to reassert the Vatican’s role as a bastion of reaction.
In church doctrine, John Paul was mainly known for halting the moderate reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council–and insisting on the most conservative possible attitude on such questions as abortion and birth control.
The pope cracked down on dissenters from the church’s anti-choice stance. Even contraception remained beyond the pale–the equivalent of genocide, in the Pope’s fundamentalist view. For John Paul, sex was only allowed between a husband and wife, and then solely for the purposes of procreation. Obviously, this “papal teaching” is widely ignored among even faithful Catholics, but it was typical of John Paul’s cobwebbed views.
Among the predecessors he looked to most was Pope Pius IX, a megalomaniac who reigned during the 19th century, and whose Syllabus of Errors condemned democracy, freedom of the press and the belief in human progress.
John Paul was a longtime supporter of the secretive Opus Dei movement, with its rituals of corporal mortification and ties to European fascists–and the less well-known Legion of Christ, another ultra-conservative and equally cult-like organization that believes most Catholics have deserted the faith. All the pundits and academic experts who talk about the backwardness of Islam should take another look at the strange practices and proscriptions associated with Catholicism.
When the U.S. church was exposed for harboring sexual predators among its priests, John Paul’s Vatican helped organize the cover-up, refusing to admit that anything about the workings of the church contributed to the scandal. Even a right-winger like former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a member of the National Review Board of Catholic Lay People, which authored one report on the priest scandal, was forced to resign after he compared the Church hierarchy’s methods of concealing sexual abuse to those of La Cosa Nostra.
Karl Marx wrote that religion is “the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” For most followers, Christianity and Catholicism offer comfort in an unjust world. Church figures like the pope are associated with a system of ideas that helps people cope in the here and now, and gives them hope of a better world in the afterlife. That’s why so many Catholics can claim to be believers, even while living lives that are wholly opposed to the church’s musty dogma on issues like sexuality.
Likewise, some social activists take inspiration from their Catholicism–with its Biblical injunctions to stand up for the downtrodden–in organizing against war and for social justice.
But as an institution, the Catholic Church has always been on the side of the exploiters and oppressors–as probably the richest and most powerful institution throughout the last millennium, and a chief prop of an unjust system to this day. From the Crusades to conquer Muslim lands, to the Inquisition that tortured Jews and dissenters, to collaborating with Nazis during the Holocaust, the Catholic Church hierarchy has maintained itself by accommodating to the ruling class of the day.
John Paul II stood squarely in that tradition. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered as a hero who opposed tyranny, but as a reactionary who did his utmost to preserve an institution built on bigotry, intolerance and injustice.