13 April 2005

Thoughts on John Paul, Part II

Bear with me on this one, those of you who are doubtless bored, as I've been trying over the last week to try to pull together the countless thoughts and feelings I've had about the Pope over my life, trying to take on board all the new facts and analyses that I've read and heard lately. It's not been easy.

Okay, so in terms of how John Paul will be remembered, a lot depends on the effects of his ministry. Frankly, and this is the big one in many ways, we have to consider in what state he left the Church, and his impact on the wider world. After all, he's had more than a quarter of a century in charge of the biggest and oldest organisation on the planet.

(How many Catholics are there anyway - and I mean baptised ones, rather than practising? I've heard everything up to 1.3 billion, with the BBC reckoning there'll be 1.1 billion some time this year. Roughly half the Christian family, anyway.)

It's becoming a cliche to talk about John Paul's role in the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and the end of the Cold War, but I read Bernstein and Politi's book on the Holy Father years ago, and it was pretty clear that the lads had done their research properly - at least on this topic. So kudos have to be given to the man for playing an utterly pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the liberation of Eastern Europe, as well as his constant reiteration of the moral bankruptcy of communism as a system. To be fair, he's almost as damning of free market capitalism, and though it's still going strong that doesn't disprove his criticisms.

Still, with the tearing down of the Iron Curtain being credited to him by many - even if his role is somewhat exaggerated, it's not surprising that he gets lionised by people as much for his political achievements as his religious ones.

Not everybody has been quite so impressed, of course. President Clinton was rather more guarded, saying, 'He centralized authority in the papacy again and enforced a very conservative theological doctrine. There will be debates about that. The number of Catholics increased by 250 million on his watch. But the numbers of priests didn't. He's like all of us. He may have had a mixed legacy.'

Maybe, Bill, maybe. That last point isn't quite true, anyway, at least if what Bill meant was that numbers of priests are dropping - such is what we tend to hear every day, after all. There are admittedly far fewer priests in the developed world now than there were in the glory days of the Second Vatican Council, but numbers of priests in the developing south are growing. Overall, it seems that there are 405,000 priests in the world today, compared to 404,000 in 1961. Further, there were 50,000 more seminarians in the world in 2001 than there were when John Paul became Pope in 1978.

'Peter, standing with the eleven...'
What of the charge that John Paul centralised power in the Vatican? There's definitely something to this, though not quite so straightforward. John Paul saw himself primarily as a teacher, as an evangelist, and not as a manager or an administrator. Fair enough, you might say, the Petrine ministry is an apostolic one after all. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this was that the governance of the Church was left largely in the hands of his Vatican subordinates, who seemed to do all they could to undermine the independence of the bishops' conferences.

It is possible, as some have argued, that undermined and suppressed in this way, the bishops' conferences lost initiative and will, which crippled their ability to respond to the various abuse scandals that have broken in the English-speaking world, first in Ireland and then elsewhere, notably America. Certainly, if anything will be remembered as a stain on John Paul's papacy, it'll be the failure of so many national churches to have dealt with this cancer among them.

On the other hand, whenever we talk about the power of the Papacy, and the Vatican's tendency to grab all power for itself, we need to remember how many decisions the Pope doesn't make, as this passage from a recent Guardian article makes clear:
'John Allen, Vatican-watcher for the US-based Catholic News Reporter and for CNN, says he spends about a third of his time dismissing five widely held myths about the Vatican: singlemindedness (that everybody in the Vatican thinks exactly alike on every issue); the quest for absolute control (that every decision in the Catholic church is being made by somebody in the Roman curia); obsessive secrecy; enormous wealth; and rampant careerism.

"The Catholic church is one of the most decentralised organisations in the world," says Allen. "It is also one of the least internally coordinated organisations you'll ever find. In theory, every question could be resolved on the Pope's desk, but of course in reality it doesn't work that way. A system is set up so that 99.9% of the decisions that have to be made never reach the Pope."

The size of the curia and its relatively small annual budget (about $270m) demonstrate the looseness of its control. "I know to the outside world it looks like the heavy hand of authority and everything is rigidly centralised," says Allen. "But the danger that people in the Vatican constantly see is that the thing is going to spin apart. What strikes them is how little actual control they have most of the time. Bishops value their autonomy and many of them would say, 'I'm the Vicar of Christ in my diocese and my relationship is to the Pope, not to the Vatican'."'
270 million dollars? What's that, about fifteen or twenty pence for every Catholic in the world? That seems like fairly good value, really.

Of course, we can't play this down. The Curia's control over the universal Church may not be as vice-like as people tend to assume, but it is indisputably greater than it has ever been; only in this century have Popes been able to directly appoint all bishops, and it's been a feature of John Paul's Papacy that virtually every word he said was picked up and transmitted all over the world, by the secular media even more than by the Church's own channels. In the past, Papal directives worked slowly, being sent to Bishops who would then speak to their flock, tailoring things to their specific concerns if appropriate.

Is the Pope a Catholic?
What then of Clinton's charge that John Paul 'enforced a very conservative theological doctrine'? Well, obviously it's easy to just sneer as Mark Steyn and Kevin Myers would do, and say, 'well what do you expect?' But they've got a hold of a couple of important truths in their otherwise smug and smarmy way.

Firstly, the Pope is always a conservative, in that a crucial part of his job is to conserve the tradition of the Church. For all the myths about 'Papal infallibility', the Pope doesn't sit there inventing rules and beliefs - rather he enunciates and clarifies the Faith of the Church. It seems perverse to criticise John Paul for having been, well, orthodox.

Secondly, it's a rare Pope who is characterised for shortsightedness. The Church is two thousand years old, and its leaders have a tendency to think in centuries; Church doctrine can hardly be expected to move purely to stay in touch with the trends of any given era. Fallacies, after all, don't become facts just because they become fashions, and as G.K.C. said, 'a dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it'.

On the other hand, while John Paul may well have been a faithful guardian of the truths with which he was entrusted, it could well be argued that he didn't go about protecting them in the most desirable way. For all that people in the media rave about John Paul as a 'great showman' who knew how to work the media, his treatment of dissident theologians demonstrated fairly clearly that he cared more for protecting Catholic truth than showboating for the press. There's a pretty hefty list of theologians who, over the years, were told that their views were incompatible with the Catholic Faith, and were basically told, if not quite to shut up, at least to be told to shut up as long as they were wearing their 'Catholic badge'.

In many ways the key to understanding this issue is to read up on Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I'm actually reading John Allen's biography of him now.

John Reese, a Jesuit priest, and author of a book called Inside the Vatican argues that 'The mistake the Vatican makes is to not realize that the theological community is a self-correcting community of scholars, like any other discipline. Often the worst thing the Vatican can do is to condemn a theologian, because no one will criticize that theologian for fear of looking like a toady of the Vatican.' Reese's point is valid, and if he's right, then the it may well turn out that John Paul's attempt to silence the Church's dissidents may well transpire to be not just unfair, but counter-productive.

Maybe, though, Ratzinger and the Pope have it right. The same global media that enables the Pope's most casual observation to be heard that day anywhere in the world gives dissident theologians an immense power. Consider how quickly the theories of Luther and Calvin spread, facilitated purely by the infant art of printing; imagine what the modern media, telecommunications, and the internet could do for the likes of Hans Kueng.

Theologians all too often play with doctrinal fire. In many ways, that's their job. At times even the most orthodox of them get it wrong. That's to be expected, but what happens if their wrong ideas become common currency, zipped around the world by a media all too desperate for any sort of news, the more sensational the better? And what if their ideas are perceived to have the backing of the Church? That's a recipe for chaos and confusion. It's understandable, if sad, that the Church should demand that those theologians on the fringes of heresy* should either stop their work or hand in their badge.

Blood on his Hands?
Perhaps the most serious charge being laid at John Paul's feet is that he was responsible for the deaths of millions of people in Africa. Christopher Hitchens has made this point numerous times, along with other criticisms - the child abuse scandals in America and John Paul's opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Certainly there's a case to be made that John Paul was nowhere near as damning of human rights abuses in the Muslim world as he had been of those in the Soviet Empire, but I think that can be explained by his fear of a supposedly rational atheism that over the course of the Twentieth Century sent perhaps 100 million people to an early grave.

But as for John Paul being a catalyst for the spread of AIDS in Africa? Well, Hitchens isn't alone in his criticisms. Polly Toynbee, writing in the Guardian, rages 'With its ban on condoms the church has caused the death of millions of Catholics and others in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries, in Africa and right across the world. In countries where 50% are infected, millions of very young Aids orphans are today's immediate victims of the curia.' Terry Eagleton, in the same paper a few days earlier, made the same point amidst a litany of anti-Catholic prejudices and half-informed opinions, declaring that the greatest crime of John Paul's Papacy was 'the grotesque irony by which the Vatican condemned - as a "culture of death" - condoms, which might have saved countless Catholics in the developing world from an agonising Aids death. The Pope goes to his eternal reward with those deaths on his hands.'

Perhaps the most devastating attack on the Pope's legacy in this regard comes from Johann Hari, in the Independent, who, after recycling a litany of half-truths about Pius XII, gets stuck in:
'The next scandal is the most unsightly. The Pope's response to the greatest threat to human life in our times - Aids in Africa - was to make it far worse. He did not simply preach abstinence, as some apologists have argued. No; he ordered his Church to promote the lie that condoms are useless.

The head of the Vatican's office on the family, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, announced that condoms contain "tiny holes" that let the HIV virus through. Even the scientists whom Trujillo cited said he was talking "absurd nonsense". Nonetheless, in El Salvador, the Church fought for (and achieved) the publication of a warning on every packet of condoms declaring that they do not prevent HIV transmission. The Archbishop of Nairobi went further and announced that condoms caused Aids, and he did not receive any papal reprimand.

These lies about condoms were proclaimed from pulpits in rural African churches where illiterate villagers often had no other source of information. The Pope's message condemned them to a death as slow and agonising as his own; only they will not be dubbed saints, but sinners. Don't take my atheist word for it: even the Bishop of Rustenburg in South Africa described the Pope's stance as "a death-dealing code"...

If we want to talk about respecting the dead, today we should grieve not for one peddler of superstition, but for the tens of thousands who - thanks to him - did not live to see this day. I do not believe John Paul II will face a Judgement Day in "Heaven". But one day, the fatuous tributes of the past week will rot, and his name will be cursed here on earth.'
Sorry, Johann, again things aren't quite so simple. In the first place, yes, you're right to claim that Trujillo made that ludicrous claim, but there's not a jot of evidence to suggest that he was told to say so. By anyone. See the quote from John Allen above, you know, about how in the Vatican '99.9% of the decisions that have to be made never reach the Pope'.

Even if you wanted to stretch the charge so that it applied to the whole Church, rather than just to John Paul, you'd rapidly have to admit that any evaluation of the Church's actions in Africa might well have its opposition to condom use in one corner, but would have things like building and organising schools, building medical centres, training staff, supplying medication, and providing immunisations in the other. Things might look a bit less stark then.

It troubles me, in any case, to read the claim that 'lies about condoms were proclaimed from pulpits in rural African churches where illiterate villagers often had no other source of information'. There's a hint of racism there, isn't there, a condescending claim that 'these people are stupid, and would believe whatever they're told'. Let's keep in mind that the same priests who presumably transmitted ridiculous claims about porous condoms also, we can assume, exhorted their flocks on such matters as abstinence and fidelity. But were they listened to?

David Aaronovitch's column in the weekend's Observer completely undermined this notion of Church pronunciations on condom use contributing to the spread of AIDS when he said that Catholic 'teaching on birth control hasn't prevented a dramatic drop in family sizes in some African countries. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the church is being magically obeyed on condoms, while being ignored on everything else. In other words, where doctrine conflicts with culture, doctrine loses. It wasn't the Pope that done it.' He's right too. Western Catholics routinely ignore the Vatican's teaching on contraception - we've done so for decades, and our birthrates are plummetting as a result, with Italy being in perhaps a worse state than any other Western country. And yet we're being asked to assume that Africans uniquely obey the Church's injunction not to use condoms, while presumably ignoring it on issues of monogamy and abstinence? This is nonsense.

In fact, even leaving common sense aside, if we actually take the time to look at some statistics, we'll quickly see that attempts to blame the Church for contributing to the spread of AIDS in Africa are, frankly, balderdash. Look at some of the worst-hit countries: South Africa has a HIV/AIDS rate of about 20 per cent, Botswana has 37.3 per cent, and Swaziland had 38.8 per cent, the last two being the worst-hit in the world. Catholics make up almost 20 per cent of the Swazi population, but well under 10 per cent of the Botswanan and South African population. Are we really to assume that the overwhelmingly non-Catholic majorities in these countries hang on every ridiculous word to drop from the mouth of Cardinal Trujillo? In fact, figures from Uganda suggest that the prevalence of HIV among Anglicans and Catholics there is about 20 per cent for both groups, despite their differing views on AIDS. Curiously, it seems that infection rates are lower - at 15 per cent - among Muslims, who are also opposed to condoms.

Tricky, eh? In fact, an article in the Tablet a few months back argued that in the case of people infected with HIV or AIDS condom use may well be justifiable, but that that wouldn't win the war against AIDS in Africa:
'In African countries condom-based anti-Aids campaigns are generally ineffective, partly because for an African man his manliness is expressed by making as many children as possible. For him, condoms convert sex into a meaningless activity. Which is why – and this is strong evidence in favour of the Pope’s argument – among the few effective programmes in Africa has been the Ugandan one. Although it does not exclude condoms, it encourages a positive change in sexual behaviour (fidelity and abstinence), unlike condom campaigns, which contribute to obscuring or even destroying the meaning of human love. '
It does seem difficult, faced with statistical evidence, and indeed our own common sense and experience of à la carte Catholicism, to maintain the ludicrous charge that the Pope has the blood of millions of Africans on his hands.

Over to you, George!
Oh well, that's me done, I think**. I had quite a lot to get out of my system. Ultimately, when weighing up John Paul's legacy, you could do worse than read what George Weigel or Cormac Murphy-O'Connor have to say on the matter.

Funny stuff tomorrow.
* I know it's an old-fashioned word, and I feel uncomfortable using it. But offhand I can't think of a better one.
** I was tempted to go up against the charge of misogyny, but reckon that's for another day. I'm tired now.

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