Monday, April 11, 2005

I'm aware that Pope John Paul II had many virtues, but the mainstream media has so deified him that I half expect him to rise again in three days and appear on Larry King Live. The April 25 issue of The Nation, on the other hand, gives a balanced assessment of his papacy. Without further ado, I'll let the editors speak:
Pope John Paul II knew, above all, how to seize the historical moment--particularly if it was televised. He condemned exploitation and tyranny, hatred and violence, capitalist globalization, imperialist war and the death penalty. After instructing the Polish Stalinists that workers were not "means of production," he told post-Communist Eastern Europe that Marxism contained a "kernel of truth" in its refusal to make everything in life a commodity. He opposed both wars in Iraq and supported the United Nations, not the American Empire. He insisted on the moral responsibility of the rich Northern Hemisphere to the poorer Southern one and on decent treatment of Third World immigrants to Europe. He apologized for the Roman Catholic Church's terrible past--for the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism. He opened dialogue with Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam.
At the same time, however, he lived a step from the Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo's depiction of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and had a sense of sin that constantly threatened his doctrines of hope. He was an inflexible traditionalist in denying equality to women in church and society. He regarded homosexuals as sinners and so legitimized the most primitive of hatreds. These are not just matters of dogma. The Vatican's opposition to birth control programs contributes to the povery of the Third World; its refusal to accept the use of condoms likely facilitated the spread of AIDS; its coalitions with Islamists in international bodies reinforced their capacity to deny rights to women.
Argument and experiment within the church, so creative under John XXIII, gave way to personalized party line. ... Theologian Father Hans Kung declared the papacy of John Paul II a monarchical nightmare. ... The fate of the liberation theology movement is a striking example: In a continent desperate for justice, it was pronounced heretical--setting back reform of Latin American society a generation. ...
Loving concern for the earth and its inhabitants, refusal to accept inequality and abhorrence for violence are themes on which philosophical antagonists can unite, but first their philosophical differences will have to be confronted in dialogue. It is difficult to see how Catholics can engage in that dialogue with secular progressives, and with the other world religions, if dialogue in their own church is so attenuated. The Pope leaves, then, an ambiguous legacy.

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