The Pope in Winter: the Dark Face of John Paul’s Legacy
By Cristina Odone and John Cornwell
November 17, 2004
THE AUTUMN YEARS OF A PATRIARCH should find him resting from the daily slog, adopting a philosophical attitude towards encroaching illness and basking in the knowledge of his lasting legacy.
As the 84-year-old pontiff of the world’s one billion Catholics, John Paul II has reached his autumn - indeed, his winter - without playing by the rules. He won’t let up on his punishing schedule and is locked in combat against an ever more debilitating form of Parkinson’s. As for his legacy, it is under constant attack from critics who regard Karol Wojtyla as a dangerous dictator rather than a world spiritual leader.
Among the Pope’s most unforgiving critics is John Cornwell, a Catholic writer and Vatican-watcher whose liberal sensibilities have long been outraged by the ultra-traditionalist stance of the present Pope. In this book, more the chronicle of an extraordinary pontificate than the biography of an extraordinary man, Cornwell depicts the Pope’s 25-year term as a tumultuous, oppressive regime and John Paul II as a sinister player in global power-politics.
If Karol Wojtyla’s papacy truly had a crisis point, it came in early 2000 when the issue of paedophile priests was first raised in the United States, with a lawsuit against the Catholic Church by a former seminarian who had been sexually abused. A succession of high-profile international sex-abuse cases followed, these exposing not only the repeated violation by priests of their charges (students, choirboys or altar boys) but the Church’s slow and confused response to such outrages.
Scandals that could have been stamped out by a leader immediately calling for the rigorous investigation of individual allegations, and the harsh punishment of offending priests, have instead been allowed to malinger, drawing accusations of a systematic cover-up within the Church.
In Africa, John Paul II has repeatedly refused to countenance the use of condoms, even when faced with the spread of HIV-AIDS, thus seemingly abandoning Africans, in their millions, to a lethal epidemic. Elsewhere, he continues his intransigent opposition to birth control of any kind, divorce, homosexuality, IVF treatment, and to married and women priests. Huge swathes of the Catholic community are in this way made to feel excluded.
Cornwell’s analysis of these lowpoints convinces in its measured tone and abundance of facts. There can be no denying that the Church’s mishandling of its sex scandals has made priests, in many people’s eyes, synonymous with paedophiles. (One result of this is the dramatic fall in vocations, with Ireland, once the seedbed of Catholic priesthood, boasting only one vocation last year.) Equally, the advance in Africa of the Protestant evangelical churches cannot fail to be connected to the Catholic Church’s teaching on condom use. And Catholics who cannot meet the Pope’s exacting standards of sexual morality are withdrawing from the church in record numbers, turning a once-thriving community into a shrinking one.
And yet, as even Cornwell acknowledges, John Paul II will go down in history for playing a pivotal role in freeing millions from the yoke of totalitarian rule. This was true not only in his native Poland, where Karol Wojtyla worked covertly and indefatigably to bring down the Soviet-backed regime, but also in Latin America, where he exhorted the people of Haiti, Nicaragua and the Philippines to cast off their oppressive dictators. With his popular appeal (kneeling on the Tarmac to kiss the ground upon arrival, kissing children at al fresco Masses) and his carefully orchestrated globe-trotting visits, John Paul II brought religion to the masses, turning himself into the world’s most recognised figure in the process.
His tireless campaign to cancel Third World debt, rein in the market and temper our civilisation of greed have made him the most visible and influential champion of the poor across the world. And his impassioned interventions against war - whether in the Balkans or in Iraq - have won him the grudging respect of many secularists who would otherwise condemn him out of hand.
John Paul II is, in fact, a tremendously complex human being, a leader of unquestioned abilities whose blind spots have caused him to stumble along the way. Cornwell seeks to reduce this larger-than-life man to a one-dimensional caricature of an autocrat. It doesn’t work. The freedom-fighting champion of the marginalised and dispossessed keeps breaking out of the tight little corner into which Cornwell would paint him.
Certainly, unlike most of the Church’s secular critics, Cornwell knows his business; he has met the Pope several times and maintains excellent contacts with the Vatican - especially with one Vatican prelate, dubbed Monsignor Sotto Voce, who willingly trades curial secrets for a good bottle of wine and a roast suckling pig. But despite the fact that Cornwell’s re-examination of public debates and revelation of private differences shed light on Karol Wojtyla’s thinking and modus vivendi, the strain of trying to shoehorn his subject into a simplistic category shows. This makes it difficult to read The Pope in Winter without wondering about the real story, one that in Cornwell’s acidulous book remains untold.
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