The Pope has blood on his hands Print E-mail
 London -- Monday April 4, 2005

The Pope has blood on his hands


The Pope did great damage to the church, and to countless Catholics
Terry Eagleton

John Paul II became Pope in 1978, just as the emancipatory 60s were
declining into the long political night of Ronald Reagan and Margaret
Thatcher. As the economic downturn of the early 70s began to bite, the
western world made a decisive shift to the right, and the transformation of
an obscure Polish bishop from Karol Wojtyla to John Paul II was part of this
wider transition. The Catholic church had lived through its own brand of
flower power in the 60s, known as the Second Vatican Council; and the time
was now ripe to rein in leftist monks, clap-happy nuns and Latin American
Catholic Marxists. All of this had been set in train by a pope - John XIII -
whom the Catholic conservatives regarded as at best wacky and at worst a
Soviet agent.

What was needed for this task was someone well-trained in the techniques of
the cold war. As a prelate from Poland, Wojtyla hailed from what was
probably the most reactionary national outpost of the Catholic church, full
of maudlin Mary-worship, nationalist fervour and ferocious anti-communism.
Years of dealing with the Polish communists had turned him and his fellow
Polish bishops into consummate political operators. In fact, it turned the
Polish church into a set-up that was, at times, not easy to distinguish from
the Stalinist bureaucracy. Both institutions were closed, dogmatic,
censorious and hierarchical, awash with myth and personality cults. It was
just that, like many alter egos, they also happened to be deadly enemies,
locked in lethal combat over the soul of the Polish people.

Aware of how little they had won from dialogue with the Polish regime, the
bishops were ill-inclined to bend a Rowan-Williams-like ear to both sides of
the theological conflict that was raging within the universal church. On a
visit to the Vatican before he became Pope, the authoritarian Wojtyla was
horrified at the sight of bickering theologians. This was not the way they
did things in Warsaw. The conservative wing of the Vatican, which had
detested the Vatican Council from the outset and done its utmost to derail
it, thus looked to the Poles for salvation. When the throne of Peter fell
empty, the conservatives managed to swallow their aversion to a non-Italian
pontiff and elected one for the first time since 1522.

Once ensconced in power, John Paul II set about rolling back the liberal
achievements of Vatican 2. Prominent liberal theologians were summoned to
his throne for a dressing down. One of his prime aims was to restore to
papal hands the power that had been decentralised to the local churches. In
the early church, laymen and women elected their own bishops. Vatican 2
didn't go as far as that, but it insisted on the doctrine of collegiality -
that the Pope was not to be seen as capo di tutti capi, but as first among
equals.

John Paul, however, acknowledged equality with nobody. From his early years
as a priest, he was notable for his exorbitant belief in his own spiritual
and intellectual powers. Graham Greene once dreamed of a newspaper headline
reading "John Paul canonises Jesus Christ". Bishops were summoned to Rome to
be given their orders, not for fraternal consultation. Loopy far-right
mystics and Francoists were honoured, and Latin American political
liberationists bawled out. The Pope's authority was so unassailable that the
head of a Spanish seminary managed to convince his students that he had the
Pope's personal permission to masturbate them.

The result of centring all power in Rome was an infantilisation of the local
churches. Clergy found themselves incapable of taking initiatives without
nervous glances over their shoulders at the Holy Office. It was at just this
point, when the local churches were least capable of handling a crisis
maturely, that the child sex abuse scandal broke. John Paul's response was
to reward an American cardinal who had assiduously covered up the outrage
with a plush posting in Rome.

The greatest crime of his papacy, however, was neither his part in this
cover up nor his neanderthal attitude to women. It was the grotesque irony
by which the Vatican condemned - as a "culture of death" - condoms, which
might have saved countless Catholics in the developing world from an
agonising Aids death. The Pope goes to his eternal reward with those deaths
on his hands. He was one of the greatest disasters for the Christian church
since Charles Darwin.
 Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at Manchester University