It would be nice to see, if only once, credit for the overthrow of Eastern Europe’s Soviet political apparatus awarded to the captive peoples who, risking confiscation of property, imprisonment and execution, actually did the overthrowing. Our media seem to find it more compelling, however, to assign responsibility for the Velvet Revolution to various Western political leaders, all of whom single-handedly put an end to the menace of the USSR. Thus, less than a year ago, we learned that Ronald Reagan had toppled the Berlin Wall by the sheer moral force of his bombast. Historical chains of causation being subject to revision by a pundit class in need of a narrative, the lesson of the (literal) carnival of death in Rome this past week seems to have been that John Paul II personally won the Cold War in a spiritual battle with the Politburo.
Some things can be true even if they fulfill a cultural need for instantaneous analysis, and the late pope does deserve praise for playing a catalyzing role in the dissolution of the Eastern bloc in its twilight years. Throwing the influence of the Catholic Church behind the proto-democratic dissident movements of Eastern Europe was not only the crowning achievement of his papacy, but was unequaled by any pope this century.
Unequaled except, perhaps, by Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who during World War II forged documents, issued false baptismal papers and made personal protests to save European Jews from extermination. Later, as Pope John XXIII, Roncalli convened the Second Vatican Council, which, among other things, finally acquitted the Jews of Christ-killing.
I raise the example of John XXIII because to understand John Paul’s historical relationship to John is to understand just how catastrophic were the moral errors of the former’s final years as pope. Exhibit A must certainly be John Paul’s manic desire to canonize John’s immediate predecessor, Pius XII, pope during World War II and, as any historian of the period not interested in promoting Catholic hagiography will tell you, one of the greatest cowards in all of history. While Cardinal Roncalli was risking his own neck to protect the innocents targeted for mass-murder, Pius did not so much as utter a word in condemnation of the National Socialist regime or its genocidal project. Not even the massacre of 350 Romans by the Gestapo in the Ardiatine caves — more or less under the windows of the papal estate — could move Pius to speak, much less act.
John Paul was not only committed to transforming Pius into an object of religious veneration for Catholics, but also to suspending centuries-old rules governing the canonization process in order to put Pius into an express lane for sainthood.
And Pius is not by any means the most egregious of John Paul’s attempted elevations to sainthood, because Pius, though spineless, was not an active collaborator with fascism. Both honors — most egregious of the pope’s sanctifications, and active collaborator — belong to Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, who as Archbishop of Zagreb during World War II cultivated a friendly relationship with the Ustase, a Croatian fascist regime whose bloodthirstiness and brutality in its persecutions of Orthodox Christians and Jews offended even the sensibilities of the Germans.
For those of us not brought up in a Catholic tradition, it might have seemed reasonable to assume that the saints were deserving of admiration if not religious devotion. But if such a man as Stepinac is canonized, the very least that can be said is that the papacy of John Paul obliterated the Catholic saint as a category worthy of any respect or distinction whatsoever.
A further consequence of John Paul’s reign — one with which we Americans are already familiar — is the irreversible tarnishing of the Catholic priesthood. According to John Paul’s conception of the Church’s “perennial theology,” pre-marital sex, contraception, masturbation, never mind abortion, are sins endangering one’s mortal soul. Ordination of women would contravene natural law. Church policy on priestly celibacy and marriage reflects undebatable, eternal truths. Homosexuality is part of an “ideology of death.” And yet, miraculously enough, no absolute conclusions can be derived from this theology about the moral status of child molestation.
Through the decades it was led by John Paul, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church responded to certain knowledge of far-widespread abuses of children by covering up the crimes and reassigning offending priests to new pools of victims. John Paul’s personal response to the scandal was to surround himself with Opus Dei fanatics who, when willing to acknowledge that the Church’s involvement in child-rape was indeed a problem, assigned blame for it to homosexuals’ obdurate insistence on existing. (Given his already-discussed empathy for prelates who were soft on fascism, John Paul’s canonization of Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei and the de facto spiritual advisor to Francisco Franco, might be said to be the apotheosis of his papacy.)
Among the small group of priests performing rosaries on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica last week was none other than Bernard Law, the Archlizard of Boston, who should be serving the first of several life sentences for active facilitation of the rape of children. But because the majesty and mystery of the Church remain unassailable, and because he curried the favor of the late pope, Law is instead shielded from merely secular justice and will be voting in the election of the next pope. This outcome is what John Paul II’s papacy has wrought. His jubilant adorers, so eager to construct an idol of him, have failed to notice that the only material available for that construction is papier-mache.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.