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Socialism Today issue 94, September 2005

The dark face of the papacy

The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy

John Cornwell

Published by Penguin Viking, 2004

Hardback £20

Pope John Paul II enjoyed the spotlight on the world stage. Mass media, modern travel and PR techniques were used to promote his brand of Catholicism. Shown kissing the ground at airports or wracked in pain in his final years were political acts. He also polarised the Catholic church. At the time of his death, mainstream media celebrated his role in directing mass revolt against Stalinism down pro-capitalist channels. MANNY THAIN reviews a recent, critical biography.

AMAZING SCENES ACCOMPANIED the long drawn out and public death agony of Pope John Paul II, pronounced dead on 2 April 2005. He had reigned for 27 years, the second-longest serving pope in history. In his last days, tens of thousands of people from all over the world flocked to Saint Peter’s Square, Rome, the threshold of Vatican City, the papal ‘state’. It was a testament to the enduring influence of the Catholic church, established nearly 2,000 years ago. Several hundred thousand turned up for the funeral. Two hundred world leaders attended, including, for the first time, a US president.

To many, this live-and-direct celebrity death-watch was inspirational. To others, it was macabre voyeurism. What is clear is that it was a meticulously stage-managed final act in John Paul II’s career as figurehead of the Catholic church, with which over a billion people, one in six of the world’s population, identify themselves.

Shortly before his death, the latest in a long line of biographies was published. As with much commentary on the papacy, The Pope in Winter is written by a Catholic author. John Cornwell wishes to see a modernised papacy capable of adapting to the fast pace of change in the 21st century. His account is well researched and informative.

In the introduction, Cornwell raises his key criticisms: "We have had a papacy in which a pope utters virtual heresy, bishops and faithful are told they may not discuss women priesthood, a curial cardinal teaches that condoms kill, prelates guilty of having shielded paedophiles are honoured, and a US president exploits the papacy as an election campaign stop". (page xiii) It is a critique of a bureaucratic regime from someone who seeks its reform.

For Cornwell, the main theme was that John Paul II was an authoritarian figure who concentrated power in a close-knit clique around him, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), Stanislaw Dziwicz (John Paul II’s secretary), Cardinal Angelo Sodano (Vatican secretary of state), and Joaquin Navarro-Valls (chief Vatican spin-doctor). They created a cult of personality, the pope central and untouchable. Cornwell quotes the Polish correspondent of the Catholic weekly, The Tablet: "To my knowledge no other public figure has had so many statues erected in his lifetime, except Joseph Stalin". (xvi)

John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla in 1920 in Wadowice, Poland. He was put to work in a quarry serving the German military machine following the Nazi invasion in September 1939, became a priest in 1946 and studied in Rome before teaching philosophy at Krakow and Lublin universities.

Wojtyla was made a bishop in 1958, the same year that Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) died. Pius had ruled over a centralised church and stood by in silence as Adolf Hitler’s fascist regime killed six million Jews and ripped the heart out of Europe. Fiercely anti-socialist, he backed the dictatorships in Portugal under Oliveira Salazar and Spain under General Francisco Franco.

He was succeeded by John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) who attempted to modernise the church, organising a council of bishops – the ‘second Vatican council’ – which met October-December, 1962-65. The council shook the Catholic edifice with calls for decentralisation and more open discussion of church dogma. Wojtyla’s meteoric rise continued when he became an archbishop in 1964, a cardinal in 1967.

To avoid potentially damaging splits, John XXIII appointed a commission to assess the ban on contraception, first put in place by Pius XI (Achille Ratti) in the 1930s. It found that the church’s position "could not be sustained by reasoned argument". John XXIII died in 1963, to be replaced by Paul VI (Giovanni Montini), who re-enforced the ban in 1968 – a victory for the Vatican’s bureaucracy, the curia.

Nonetheless, the council had a profound affect. The liturgy was changed from Latin to the vernacular, the altar was turned around so that priests faced the congregation at Mass for the first time in centuries, and laypeople took on leadership roles. Priests and nuns joined the anti-Vietnam war and civil rights struggles, and other social movements.

Paul VI died in 1978, John Paul I (Albino Luciani) replaced him but died 33 days later. The church was divided and in crisis. Wojtyla was elected on 16 October, the first non-Italian pope since 1522. According to Cornwell, his aim from the outset was "to take the church by the scruff of the neck and restore order". (p62)

He was soon on the first of many international trips, to Mexico City in January 1979. The visits were designed to strengthen the influence of the Vatican – within the institution and in the wider world. John Paul II visited around 120 countries, clocking up over 500 million miles.

Cornwell sets the scene in Latin America: "There were oppressive, reactionary regimes on the one hand and what John Paul saw as clerical political activists inspired by Marxism-Leninism – liberation theology – on the other". (p66) John Paul II had the latter in his sights.

The proponents of liberation theology were, in the main, poor priests and other religious people who witnessed the destitution and deep inequalities in society and the brutality of the military regimes. They were influenced by the continental tide of revolutionary struggle, denouncing inequality and corruption from the pulpits. Many paid with their lives.

When Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down in El Salvador on 24 March 1980, John Paul II remained silent. Romero had spoken out against oppression. The murder was organised from within the ruling right-wing party. A bomb at Romero’s funeral killed a further 30 people.

The pope’s enforcer, Ratzinger – in 1981, appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition) – silenced liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff from Brazil. John Paul II said he would not tolerate "priest revolutionaries". Before becoming Vatican secretary of state, Sodano had been papal nuncio (ambassador) in Chile where he ignored human rights abuses under General Augusto Pinochet. The Vatican kept silent about repression in Argentina. Four Catholic priests who joined the left-wing Sandinista government – which came to power in Nicaragua in 1979 after ousting Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship – were excommunicated.


THIS ANTI-MARXIST campaign tied in with another focus of the pope’s attention: the Stalinist states, above all, Poland. In contrast to his trenchant criticisms of authoritarianism, Cornwell falls into line with the triumphalist capitalist view prevalent after the collapse of Stalinism, casting Wojtyla/John Paul II as the liberator of the Eastern bloc.

All the Stalinist regimes were in various stages of economic stagnation and social upheaval. Their ossified bureaucracies – based on a top-down, centralised economic plan – had proved incapable of developing dynamic modern economies. What was necessary was a political revolution – replacing the corrupt bureaucracy with socialist democracy and democratic workers’ control and management of the economy. In the absence of revolutionary parties with sufficient support in the developing workers’ movements, however, the states imploded, moving to the restoration of gangster capitalism after 1989.

From the late 1960s, Poland was convulsed by demonstrations, strikes and clashes with security forces. The epicentre was the massive shipyard strikes in Gdansk out of which emerged an independent union movement, NSZZ Solidarnosc (Independent Self-Governing Union Solidarity), set up in September 1980. By the end of the year, it organised ten million workers out of a workforce of 12.5 million. Despite the lack of a clear socialist direction, far-reaching attempts were made towards workers’ control. The rotten bureaucratic rule was under threat. Czech and East German troops, under orders from their Russian masters, deployed near the border.

John Paul II did, indeed, play a role, although this was grossly exaggerated by capitalist commentators at the time of his death. Nonetheless, the Vatican helped steer Solidarity in the direction of supporting the restoration of capitalism. It consistently called for calm at times of heightened social unrest, to restrain the workers. It channelled up to $50 million to Solidarity, helping to reinforce conservative elements in the movement – including Lech Walesa and the intelligentsia around figures like Jacek Kuron (who started out on the left) – against sections moving towards political revolution.

In October 1980, a conference of bishops declared against action, to avoid ‘antagonising’ Moscow. Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski warned of ‘serious consequences’ if a threatened general strike went ahead on 31 March 1981. John Paul II sent the same message from Rome. General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s military coup in December 1981 was backed by Archbishop Jozef Glemp. In short, instead of liberating the Polish working class, the Vatican worked to ensure that it would remain enslaved – under a restored capitalist system.

The church was in a particularly favourable position to influence developments, as it is bound up with Polish national identity. It had been a rallying point for centuries. In 1656, for example, the icon of the Black Madonna at the Jasna Gora monastery had even been proclaimed queen of Poland after a Swedish invasion had been repulsed. The national network of churches meant that it became a means of national expression against tsarist Russian rule, Nazi occupation and Stalinist dictatorship.

This was seen in the reactions of Polish people when John Paul II died. The Washington Post quoted Wojtek Wisniewski, aged 40 and unemployed: "I don’t go to church, I don’t believe in priests or in God the way he is presented. But I believe in the pope. I love him. He is a saint. He understands people like me and speaks to us". (1 April) It was a common response. When Liverpool Football Club won the European Championship last season, its Polish goalkeeper, Jerzy Dudek, dedicated the victory to the memory of John Paul II.

In control

JOHN PAUL II clamped down on ‘dissident’ Catholics in Europe. Local initiatives were stifled in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, Hungary and Ukraine. In 1989, the Cologne Declaration criticising authoritarianism was signed by 163 German and 130 French theologians. The pope imposed an oath of obedience. In 1995, the bishop of Evreux, Jacques Gaillot, who supported contraception, was sent to Partenia in the Sahara Desert, which has not had a Catholic community since the 5th century! A book about women priests by the British nun, Sister Lavinia Byrne, was incinerated on the Vatican’s orders.

The Vatican’s institutional longevity is used to legitimise its theological teachings and authority, and boost its prestige in the world. In reality, they have developed piecemeal over centuries. For example, in the early years of Christianity, communities elected their own priests. Only with the consolidation of centralised power did the Vatican control the supply of priests. Celibacy was introduced in 1139 to stop married priests handing down property donated by the crown to their heirs. Papal infallibility was introduced at the first Vatican council in 1870 under Pius IX.

Control freakery saturated every aspect of John Paul II’s reign. It even extended beyond the grave. By the time he died, he had hand-picked all but two of the cardinals eligible to elect his successor. He also appointed bishops, leading to the charge that only sycophantic clones were rewarded.

John Paul II’s reign was nearly one of the shortest when, in Saint Peter’s Square on 13 May 1981, he was shot twice by Mehmet Ali Agca, who many believe was backed by Bulgaria’s Stalinist regime. One of the bullets went through his abdomen causing serious injury. John Paul II linked his survival to the figure of the Virgin Mary, as the date commemorates the time that Mary is said to have appeared to three poor shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917.

John Paul II claimed that the third ‘secret’ Mary is said to have told the children was about the attempt on his life. One of the bullets was placed in Mary’s crown at the shrine at Fatima when he went there in 2000. The event was another exercise in religious power, the message being that the pope had been saved by divine intervention to carry out his mission.

Saint-making, canonisation, was central to John Paul II. A Catholic saint is someone declared to be in heaven and worthy of universal worship. A blessed is someone worthy of a local cult. Declaring someone blessed, beatification, is a prerequisite for canonisation. John Paul II canonised 482 and beatified 1,338 people, more than all previous 260 popes combined.

One of many controversial canonisations was that of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer (1902-75), founder of the right-wing Opus Dei in 1941. Opus Dei had nine members in General Franco’s cabinet. Today, it has an estimated 80,000 members worldwide – including influential politicians and business people – and 1,800 priests. John Paul II and Opus Dei were allies against liberation theology and liberal Catholicism, and he granted it the status of ‘personal prelature’, allowing it to operate under the direction of the Vatican, free from local, diocesan, control.

In 2000, John Paul II started the beatification of Pius IX, architect of the first Vatican council. He had been brought in as a substitute for Pius XII, ‘Hitler’s pope’, supposedly to placate Jewish anger. In reality, Pius IX was the right-wing antidote to the beatification of John XXIII, the ‘reformer’ of the second Vatican council.

Sexual abuse

AT THE START of the new millennium, the papacy was embroiled in a paedophile priests scandal. The main crisis was in the US but many other countries were affected: 21 convictions for abuse against minors in Britain, 23 convicted of rape and molestation of children in France, 150 in Ireland. Italy, Austria, Spain, Argentina, Mexico, Australia, Canada and several African countries were involved. In Germany, church officials admitted to 47 cases of abuse (the true figure was reckoned to be nearer 300).

The Catholic church in the US was being sued under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organisations Act, originally introduced to deal with the Mafia. New Hampshire’s attorney general’s office released 9,000 pages of documentation on how Catholic leaders had known for years about sexual abuse but did nothing. By February 2004, 4,400 US Catholic priests had been "credibly accused" of attacking 11,000 minors over a 50-year period. Half of all bishops had "systematically" covered up abuse.

In March 2002, the Vatican blamed the crisis on "pan-sexuality and sexual licentiousness" in society. It also made clear that the church would maintain "secret canonical norms" to avoid a "culture of suspicion" (p226). In other words, it would continue to keep the issue out of the public gaze. The curia blamed gay priests, thus equating homosexuality with paedophilia, reinforcing that centuries’ old prejudice.

In Boston, the role of Cardinal Bernard Law, the leading Catholic in the US, caused uproar. He had moved priests who had sexually abused minors from parish to parish without notifying the police. In June 2004, after first resisting widespread calls for his resignation, John Paul II appointed Law an archpriest in Rome, a powerful and prestigious position. Cornwell quotes Eileen McNamarra in the Boston Globe to illustrate the outrage this caused: "Set aside the fundamental depravity of rewarding a co-conspirator in serial child rape with a plush posting to the Eternal City. How much clearer a signal could the Roman Catholic Church send to the faithful that it administers justice in two tiers, one for the laity and another for its clerics?" (p229)

In 1994, Sister Maura O’Donohue reported on the sexual abuse of women in religious communities in 29 neo-colonial countries. O’Donohue had worked for six years as the Aids coordinator of the London-based Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (Cafod). She said that Catholic clergy had been sexually abusing nuns because they feared contamination with HIV through sexual contact with prostitutes and other women. Another report, The Problem of the Sexual Abuse of African Religious in Africa and Rome, was sent to the Vatican in 1998. No action has been taken.

It is an age-old institutional problem. Cornwell refers to a letter written in 1050 by Peter Damian to Leo IX on clerical paedophilia, which attacks the "do nothing superiors" who were "partners in the guilt of others" (p220). Abuse is about unequal power relationships. The potential for abuse in any religious institution is immense because authority seems to be transmitted directly from an omnipotent God.

Culture of death

IN 1980, THE ban on contraception was reaffirmed by John Paul II: "He saw the issues – contraception, divorce, illicit unions, homosexuality – as a dimension of the ‘culture of death’, against which he taught and preached with increasing vehemence". (p133) This is against the background of the HIV/Aids pandemic. The UN Aids organisation estimated that nearly 40 million people had the disease in 2003, and 3.1 million died. The world’s poorest areas are worst hit.

The pandemic can only be controlled by linking the availability of treatment and prevention with tackling the basic social and economic ills of capitalist society. Health-care infrastructure, education, jobs and raising the status of women are essential. Nonetheless, in the immediate battle against this terrible disease, condoms can play a significant role in halting its spread.

In El Salvador, Catholic leaders in 1998 helped ban abortions, even when necessary to save the life of a woman, and to pass a law requiring condoms to carry warnings that they do not protect against HIV, the virus which causes Aids. In Nicaragua, the cardinal pressured the government into destroying sex education pamphlets because they mentioned abortion. In Philippines, all contraceptives were banned from Manila’s health clinics. In Kenya, a church pamphlet stated that HIV can pass through condoms. In October 2003, the Vatican claimed that "serious scientific studies" backed this view. No scientists supported the claim. It was a deadly lie, the real culture of death.

These positions are linked to the Vatican’s reactionary attitudes to women, applied within the church as well as to society. In May 1994, the pope declared that the church could not ordain women. Ratzinger played the infallibility card to stifle debate.

The paedophile crisis and the gulf between the Vatican’s right-wing fundamentalism and the realities of the modern world have hit the Catholic church hard in the northern hemisphere. From the mid-1960s into the 1990s, 100,000 priests (20,000 in the US) and 200,000 nuns left. The number of priests in England and Wales fell from 7,000 in 1980 to 5,500 in 2000. In 1965, 96% of the French population were Catholic, 45% attending Mass regularly. Today those percentages are 62% and 12%.

The church’s grip on peoples’ lives has been weakened. In Italy, about 85% identify themselves as Catholic. A study by the University of Turin showed that 70% approve of premarital sex, birth control and divorce, and the country has one of the world’s lowest fertility rates. Ireland, Italy, Spain and the US all have majorities in favour of the ordination of women. In Spain, reforms introduced by the government of José Zapatero – such as cutting the church’s role in education and introducing same-sex civil partnerships – have further undermined its influence.

Even Poland is not immune. Hanna Rosin wrote about the pope’s visit in 1995: "This time he was in a new landscape of fast-food restaurants and red-light districts. The audience at Victory Square was distracted, and some reporters swore they heard boos. At one point the pope had to shake his fist like a grade-school teacher to get the crowd to listen. ‘When people were free, it turned out they didn’t go to church,’ said [Monsignor Lorenzo] Albacete the New York theologian. ‘They went to McDonald’s’." (Washington Post, 4 April)

The percentage of Catholics in worldwide Christianity has fallen, from over 50% in 1970 to 42% in 2000. The main loss has been to evangelical Protestantism in Latin America and Africa. Latin America has 4-500 million Catholics, Protestants have increased from two million in 1960 to over 60 million today.

Even so, in 1988, there were 401,930 Catholic priests in the world (404,626 in 1998), with numbers rising in neo-colonial countries. A seismic shift from the ‘first’ to the ‘third’ world is taking place. And it is reflected in the US. With 300,000 Catholics arriving each year, Latinos now make up 40% of US Catholics, challenging Irish domination. In 1965, the US Catholic population was 45.6 million, around 64 million today. The number of priests, however, has fallen from 58,632 to 43,634.

Backing Bush

CORNWELL CITES THE fact that John Paul II opposed capital punishment, denounced the excesses of economic globalisation as "savage capitalism", and both Iraq wars, to argue that he had a ‘left’ as well as ‘right’ side. He called for a non-violent response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, before the US and Britain attacked Afghanistan. Vatican spin-doctor, Navarro-Valls, on the other hand, said that force would be understandable, CNN carrying the statement as papal blessing for the bombardment.

On Iraq, John Paul II said that war should be a "very last option" under "very strict conditions" (p255). He opposed the invasion, though he might have backed a UN-led war. He publicly criticised the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses. The Catholic hierarchy in the US, however, fully supported military intervention and, once the conflict commenced, John Paul II fell silent.

The Vatican can find itself at odds with world powers at times, while remaining part of the established order. It defends hierarchical relations – in its own organisation and in the world – the capitalist system and class division. But it also has its own specific interests, accumulated over two millennia, which it jealously defends. John Paul II’s relationship with George W Bush is instructive.

Bush visited the pope in June 2004, the third time in three years. It provided a golden photo-opportunity in presidential election year – presenting John Paul II with the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian award. Time magazine quoted a Vatican official: "People in Rome are becoming more and more aware that there’s a problem with [Democratic candidate] John Kerry and a potential scandal with his apparent profession of his Catholic faith and some of his stances, particularly on abortion". (p278) The pope praised Republican former-president, Ronald Reagan, who had recently died.

Catholics make up a quarter of the US electorate. In 2000, Bush won around half that vote. In 2004, he set up a task force to address Catholics in 14 states, emphasising agreement on sex, TV violence, same-sex marriage and, of course, abortion. The Catholic church is allied with Bush’s right-wing Protestant evangelists on this ‘moral’ agenda.

Cornwell is saddened by the effects of John Paul II’s reign. His conclusion is that Catholics have never been so divided. He looks back longingly to a mythical better time, denouncing "a tumescent [inflated] papal authority" as "a modern anomaly" (p298).

The Catholic church certainly struggled to adapt to capitalism. Its culture and organisation belong in feudal, medieval times, when it directly exploited ‘its own’ peasants, conquered territories with its own army, and when it was at its most powerful. It is an anachronism. It survived the transition into capitalism, coming to terms – often with great difficulty – with the emergence of nation states out of bloody wars and revolutions, scientific advances, and the separation of church and state.

Above all, the explosive growth of the working class with the industrial revolution of the 19th century, the workers’ collective toil, organisation and consciousness, severely tested the Vatican, more used to lording it over an uneducated and heterogeneous peasantry. The development of socialist ideas and Marxist ideology were direct challenges to its strict hierarchical rule: "In the 1880s Catholic labour groups were descending on Rome in ever-greater numbers. Appeals for guidance on issues such as unions, strikes, capitalism and socialism prompted Leo to write his great encyclical in response to the forces released by the industrial revolution. It was the papacy’s response, moreover, half a century on, to the Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Das Kapital". (p117)

John Paul II continued that crusade. And on 19 April his natural successor, Ratzinger, was elected pope, the first German pontiff for 482 years. Bush praised the cardinals’ choice. John Paul II has his place in the Catholic church’s incredible history. Not only because of his length of tenure but, mainly, because of the convulsive period of history that coincided with his reign. Moves towards his canonisation are already in place.


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