Sydney Morning Herald -- Wednesday April 13 2005
Time to speak ill of a dead leader who let millions live in anguish
Pope John Paul II is remembered as being compassionate, but in many ways he was anything but, writes Emily Maguire.
About 5 million people flocked to Rome last weekend to farewell Pope John Paul II. That's the same number of people newly infected with HIV in 2003. That's 10 million people - at least - whose lives have been touched by the man who was Pope.
Speaking ill of the dead is not the done thing, which is why all we've heard about the Pope over the past week is that he was an inspirational and compassionate leader who played a significant role in the defeat of communism in Poland. This may be true, but for many his legacy is one of great suffering.
There are 40 million adults and children living with HIV/AIDS, and another 15 million children are AIDS orphans. And yet the Catholic Church, under Pope John Paul II, instructed its priests to condemn condom use.
Worse, it used its considerable influence in some of the poorest and most AIDS-affected nations to prevent health workers from distributing, or even talking about, condoms.
Some examples since the mid-1990s: in Honduras the church intervened to prevent the distribution of 1 million free condoms; in Kenya senior church officials burnt condoms and safe-sex literature and released a pamphlet claiming that condoms cause AIDS; in Nicaragua the church persuaded the Government to pulp a sex education guide that mentioned contraception; and in Zambia officials withdrew a government AIDS prevention campaign because of church pressure.
In these nations, and many others, the proclamations of John Paul II have meant millions have died, and will die, from a preventable disease.
The AIDS crisis aside, the Pope's anti-contraception stance has contributed to the suffering of the world's poorest women and children. Speaking on ABC's Foreign Correspondent in 2003, Nafis Sadik, a former executive director of the UN Population Fund, related a meeting she had with the Pope in 1994. Sadik had suggested the church could play a role in reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies in Third World countries by teaching men not to "impose themselves" on unwilling wives. "Don't you think that the irresponsible behaviour of men is caused by women?" was the Pope's response.
So bad luck for women living in Catholic-controlled countries who - whether they want to or not - get pregnant. An abortion is out of the question. In the Pope's last published book, Memory and Identity, abortion is equated with the Holocaust. So women must spend time in overcrowded, under-resourced hospitals, giving birth to children who are likely to suffer chronic hunger- and poverty-related diseases throughout their short, painful lives.
Even in the most extreme case imaginable, John Paul II's church was immoveable. Two years ago, a nine-year-old Nicaraguan rape victim was almost prevented from having a termination, thanks to the intervention of the Catholic Church. Her Catholic parents, terrified their little girl would not survive childbirth, defied the Pope and procured an abortion. They were promptly excommunicated from the church they loved.
Tragically, the church showed less concern for the children under its care then it did for that girl's violently conceived foetus. In addition to failing to protect hundreds of innocent children from predatory priests, and failing to compensate or adequately apologise to those victims, the Vatican recently displayed horrifying callousness by giving a cushy Rome-based job to Cardinal Bernard Law, the former head of the Boston diocese responsible for covering up multiple child sexual assaults over an extensive period.
Again and again in the past week, John Paul II has been remembered as "compassionate" and "loving", yet he was anything but compassionate and loving to homosexuals, describing the push for gay marriage as "a new ideology of evil".
He preached that homosexual acts went against the "natural moral law" and warned that to allow children to be adopted by gay couples would be to "do violence" to them. We'll never know how many young men and women have committed suicide or led lives of deceit and anguish because this "great leader" told them the love they felt was "evil".
All of this is particularly appalling when you consider that the so-called ancient and unchanging doctrines of the church are anything but. Catholic thought and doctrine has changed countless times over the centuries, and John Paul II apologised for stances taken by his church in the past, acknowledging that what was once thought right was, in hindsight, wrong.
In effect, he was also acknowledging that real harm can be caused by a Catholic acting (or failing to act, in the case of the Holocaust) on cold doctrinal legalism rather than concern and compassion for suffering humanity.
John Paul II had the power and influence to radically improve the world. From sub-Saharan Africa to South-East Asia, from Northern Ireland to South America, in every major city in the world, and countless villages and towns, millions of the world's citizens trusted this man to rule in their best interests and lead them in living right.
The proclamations and instructions of this venerated Pope could have made the world a better, safer, kinder place but, instead, they condemned countless of his flock to lives of suffering and caused millions of excruciating, needless deaths.
Emily Maguire is the author of Taming the Beast (Brandl & Schlesinger).