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FEATURE

The Papacy of John Paul II

As one billion Roman Catholics world-wide get used to the idea that John Paul II is no longer the leader of their Church for the first time in over 26 years, tributes flow in from all parts of the world to the Vatican.


Archbishop Bruce J. Simpson, OSJB | April 05, 2005

John Paul II
As one billion Roman Catholics world-wide get used to the idea that John Paul II is no longer the leader of their Church for the first time in over 26 years, tributes flow in from all parts of the world to the Vatican. But due to the sheer length of the iron-fisted rule over the Roman Catholic Church that this Pope served, and the impact he has made on the lives of millions of people, both good and bad, a critical eye must be used to examine his legacy.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, a known ultra-conservative was elected the 264th supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church on October 16, 1978. This election followed the death of Pope John Paul I, who survived the Papacy for only 33 days, which followed the death of Pope Paul VI. It is necessary at this point to say that both the deaths of Paul VI and John Paul I, have left many mysteries and hints that indicate that neither death was the result of natural causes. This combined with the fact that Karol Wojtyla followed three of the more liberal Italian Popes of the last century made his rise to the Papal throne even more unexpected.

Since his election, he became the most widely traveled of any Pope in the history of the Church, making 103 Pastoral trips outside of Italy, and 143 within Italy. As a result of these many trips, John Paul II cultivated influence with many of the world's powerful in an attempt to increase Vatican influence and help in his causes. John Paul II also captained the Vatican ship into red ink, operating with a deficit of well over $200 million dollars. John Paul II also successfully swept the Vatican Bank scandal under the rug by making huge payments to key officials in business and government. This is the same scandal that the first John Paul wanted to expose and investigate by the light of day.

Even more important to the future of the Church is the fact that he created at last count 201 Cardinals insuring the conservative tone of his rule well after his death, for no Bishop with liberal leanings was elevated to the rank of Cardinal, let alone any Priest to the rank of Bishop. In previous Papal elections there were normally three factions within the College of Cardinals that elected the Pope: The conservative, the liberal, and the neutrals. This mixture of theological perspective enabled all candidates a chance at election. As the church teaches, the election of a Pope is guided by the Holy Spirit. In the current conclave to elect the new Pope, there will be only one mindset from which to fill the shoes of the fisherman – the conservative.

Certainly John Paul II must be held accountable for a complete failure of leadership on the sexual abuse crises that arose during his watch. The Pope clearly abdicated his responsibility to protect the children of God from pedophile priests and was more concerned about the primacy of the Church and protecting Church assets. His most glaring failure in this regard was in not removing Bishops and Cardinals who knowingly protected pedophile priests from discovery and prosecution thereby increasing the amount of damage these men did to innocent children and the faith of the people.

Pope John Paul II can be given much deserved credit for playing a major role in the defeat of communism in various parts of the world, including the Soviet Union. Mikal Gorbachev has publicly stated that the Pope played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union. There is no question that he was largely responsible for the fall of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last Communist leader of Poland. Between Solidarity and the Pope, communism was doomed in Poland. He even survived an assassination attempt when he was shot in St. Peter's square by a Turkish national rumored to be an agent of the KGB.

John Paul II also played a major role in the return to the Church of many young people, who took to him with their cries of "JP2, we love you." Wherever he traveled he usually encountered throngs of the young trying to get a glimpse of the man who was Pope. His influence on bringing many of the young back to the folds of the Church cannot be overstated. One of the reasons for this large influence was this Popes mastery of television. John Paul II was truly the first "television Pope," in that he used the media and especially television to get his message across. He raised the use of symbols to a higher art form than any of his predecessors, and this ability also helped him to bring down communist regimes.

But there was also a darker side to this occupant of the chair of St. Peter. Over the course of his Papacy, John Paul II refused to consider any other dogmatic position on key social topics such as birth control, divorce, female clergy, celibacy, and homosexuality than that which was already in place when he became Pope. His position on these topics has led to vast divisions within the Church around the World and has resulted in a sort-of, "cafeteria style Catholicism", especially in America. Many American Roman Catholics simply chose which moral positions of the Church they follow and which they ignore. This from a church that is full of homosexual men at all levels of power within the Church. All of these ultra-conservative positions are in direct opposition to those that were to be espoused by John Paul the First.

In the last two years of his rule, John Paul II became obsessed with the gay community of the world. He was greatly troubled by some European countries recognizing same-sex marriage and granting adoption rights to these couples. He attempted to exert tremendous influence on this topic, especially in American society where he seemed to see the most danger and threat to the role of the Church in daily life. He issued various directives to American clergy and American Catholic politicians in an attempt to prevent the glbt community from gaining any recognition within society, culminating in his statement on same-sex unions issued in July of 2003, in which he not only condemned gay marriage, but used some of the most hostile, corrosive, outrageous and unchristian terms to describe a particular group of God's children. During the American election campaign of 2004, we saw George W. Bush travel to the Vatican and with hat in hand ask the Pope to have his Bishops help him win election. True to form, the "red hats" of the American church chimed in shortly thereafter with a continuing babble of anti-gay rhetoric and pastoral pronouncements in an attempt to retain the anti-gay President in violation of American Federal election laws.

Obviously the Pope considered the gay movement and its continuing push for full recognition in the world more evil than the war on Iraq. The Pope admonished Bush for the war, but his displeasure ended there at the audience. To this day, homophobia driven theology continues to inundate the American and world Church.

In his 2005 speech to set the agenda for the year, gay marriage was at the top of the "hit list" for this Pope and the church. John Paul II felt that the greatest threat to families was the creation of more families that did not fit the biblical profile of marriage. But then again, multiple wives, concubines, and other variations of biblical marriages weren't talked about either. The Pope did mention in his agenda the wealthy nations feeding the poor. Not much of an agenda for the "Vicar of Christ."

This unyielding dogma presented an inhospitable atmosphere within the church and drove many of the faithful out onto the streets to find another spiritual home, while the church completely forgot that the original sin of Sodom was inhospitality. The immense healing and bringing together in unity of the worlds churches and communities was a missed opportunity that could have made this Pope one of the greatest men to have ever sat in the chair of St. Peter.

We can only hope and pray that the next Pope will be more enlightened by the Holy Spirit and choose to steer a course away from such ultra-conservatism. We also pray that John Paul II has been enlightened with the truth of how wrong he was about the gay community and God.


Archbishop Bruce J. Simpson is the author of The Gay Face of God.
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