A Moral, Abject Failure When It Mattered
Pope John Paul II, 1920-2005

By Gustavo Arellano
OC Weekly
April 8, 2005

[See also other articles by Gustavo Arellano.]

Let's cut the beatitudes: Pope John Paul II was a moral, abject failure when it mattered.

Screw his ecumenical efforts. Never mind his opposition to communism. Forget his apologies for the horrors that the Roman Catholic Church inflicted upon so many of the world's innocent throughout two millennia. All those "breakthroughs" were inevitable, none of them particularly revolutionary, the media spectacles surrounding each vanity and striving after the wind.

Pay attention to the times when the pope, who died on April 2, had the opportunity to right the Catholic Church in the here and now. Pay attention to the Americas. In two of the more profound matters to affect Roman Catholicism during his 25-year reign—the struggle of liberation theology in Latin America during the 1980s and the sex-abuse scandal in the United States—the man born Karol Wojtyla did worse than nothing: he comforted the comfortable and afflicted the afflicted.

This supposed champion of the oppressed, this Vicar of Christ, consistently supported the church where it aligned itself with the despots of the Americas. Last year, he allowed American bishops to publicly declare Democratic presidential nominee and Catholic John Kerry unfit to receive Communion, a blatantly political stance to sway numerous Catholics toward the Republican Party. In Mexico, John Paul II canonized 26 people associated with the Cristeros revolt, the 1920s movement in which the Catholic Church, infuriated by the Mexican government's call to surrender its extensive land holdings, organized parishioners against the government.

But John Paul II's most egregious sin was committed in Latin America. There, during the 1960s, Catholics married Marx's paean to the working class with Jesus radical notion that the meek shall inherit the Earth. With the advent of this liberation theology, the Latin American faithful sighed in relief: the Roman Catholic hierarchy—which had aligned itself with the ruling class in the New World since the time of Columbus—would finally fuse the light of heaven with the struggle of Earth. Now the Church would join the oppressed rather than merely bathe their wounds with the promise of salvation in the afterlife.

The Latin American gentry, understandably, became furious and called upon the United States for funds and troops—the infamous contras and death squads. Soon came the murders of priests, nuns, brothers, parishioners, even bishops—any Catholic who dared question social inequity.

But rather than reprimand these right-wing governments and their henchmen, John Paul II choked the life out of liberation theology. He removed priests and bishops who bravely stood against the marauding forces. In one famous incident, he reprimanded Nicaraguan priest Ernesto Cardenal on national television for his support of the Sandinistas over the Reagan-backed contras and scolded into silence a crowd of parishioners who shouted, "¡Queremos la paz!" ("We want peace!")

John Paul II's defenders will claim that his opposition to liberation theology wasn't because it loved the poor too much, but rather because of its relationship to Marxism, which Wojtyla suffered through as a young priest in Poland. They'll even point out that John Paul II would visit the tomb of Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero, the most prominent practitioner of liberation theology, who was shot through the heart by a government sniper's bullet while saying Mass in 1980. At Romero's shrine in 1983, the pontiff remarked the bishop was a "zealous and venerated pastor who tried to stop violence. I ask that his memory be always respected and let no ideological interest try to distort his sacrifice as a pastor given over to his flock."

But that was all flapping lips. While Romero lived, John Paul II reprimanded him thrice in private, once even asking him to align himself with the Salvadoran dictatorship; Romero refused, calling such a request "unjust." Shortly after Romero died, a Washington Post columnist gasped that "the pope's outrage was so muted that it was taken as a political statement of its own." And while John Paul II rewarded other, lesser Catholics with sainthood, Romero isn't so much as beatified, even though his shrine in San Salvador includes crutches, photographs, testimonies—the witness of thousands.

When the opportunity was there, John Paul II spat on the graves of martyrs. Consider Fernando Saenz Lacalle, a member of the ultra-conservative Catholic lay organization Opus Dei. In 1996, John Paul II appointed Lacalle as the archbishop of San Salvador, the very position Romero once held. Shortly after assuming the bishopric, Lacalle accepted the post of honorary brigadier general in the Salvadoran military—the very military that covered up the rape and murder of four American nuns in 1980. When Pope John Paul II visited the country in 1996 for Lacalle's installation, both refused to visit the tomb of six Jesuits murdered by the Salvadoran military in one gruesome night in 1989. Most outrageously, Lacalle asked for and received a $2 million donation for a brand-new cathedral from the Republican Nationalist Alliance (known by its Spanish acronym, ARENA), the coalition whose founder, Roberto D'Aubuisson, allegedly ordered Romero's assassination personally and routinely declared his admiration for Hitler.

"While the church seeks the political, social and economic liberation of the downtrodden, its primary goal is the spiritual one of liberation from evil," the Vatican said in a 1986 statement. By then, its inaction had already led to the murders of hundreds of thousands of Central Americans and the forced migrations of millions. More tellingly, the withdrawal of the Roman Catholic Church from an active role in the Latin American struggles of the 1980s led to a region-wide exodus into Protestantism that continues to this day.

Shortly after the popes 1996 visit, one Salvadoran Jesuit summed up John Paul II's influence over Latin America in an open letter to one of his slain fellow Jesuits:

"Our church has changed, Ellacu. I dont know if you would recognize in her the church of Monsignor Romero, the church that gave voice to the voiceless and the one that reminded us of Jesus of Nazareth. . . . She doesn't cause many stirs anymore. The powerful don't feel she is a threat, and I don't know if the poor find in her help and refuge. I think our church is seen more often than necessary standing beside the powerful of this world."

Closer to home, Catholics should remember John Paul II's ignorance of what's shaping up to be his Church's spiritual genocide—the priestly sex-abuse scandal. His defenders will mention that what the pope told the 12 American cardinals who visited the Vatican in 2002—"There is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young"—was penance enough.

That was too little, too late. By then, the pope already knew. He knew as early as 1985, when Tom Doyle, a priest with the Vatican Embassy in Washington, helped author a confidential report alerting American Catholic officials about the pederast storm on the horizon. He knew as early as 1990 that bishops were advising one another to send potentially incriminating documents to the Apostolic Delegate, the papal representative to the Catholic Church in the United States, because the office has diplomatic immunity. He knew in 1993, when he first addressed the American sex-abuse scandal by accusing the media of treating his prelates' cover-up "as an occasion for sensationalism."

He knew! Last year, he propped up former Boston Cardinal Bernard Law with a cushy job in St. Peter's Square—the same Law who resigned in 2002 lest the feds make him sing about his role in the rape of children! John Paul II opposed the zero-tolerance policies that American bishops installed in 2002 to ensure that child rapists would never officiate over Mass again! John Paul II never removed scoundrels such as Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown from their posts despite their active shielding of child-molesting priests from the law. In fact, many of these scoundrels—demons such as Mahony, Law and the entirety of the United States' delegation of cardinals—will vote soon on John Paul II's successor, ensuring that their patron's twisted policies will endure.

* * *

In my cubicle, I have a silver medallion of Pope John Paul II—of course I do. But I place it in a specific spot—away from my rosary, away from a Virgin of Guadalupe Christmas display, away from my statue of the Santo Nio de Atocha, away from my baptism photo. I keep the medallion directly above an excerpt from the Book of Gomorrah, the landmark study by Saint Damian in which he warned Pope Leo IX of the sex-abuse scandal in the 11th Century.

One passage sticks out in particular:

For Truth says, Whoever scandalizes one of these little ones, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Unless the strength of the Apostolic See intervenes as soon as possible, there is not doubt but that this unbridled wickedness, even though it should wish to be restrained, will be unable to stop on its headlong course.

And on this note, Pope John Paul II meets Christ.



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