Pope on a Rope
This week Pope John Paul II died, the news is dominated by stories of his positive impact, tireless struggle for good and his legacy on the Catholic church. Every new site has had photos of him and stories as their first, second and third feature, which as a student of history forces me to consider his impact and significance. First off I feel compelled to reveal some demographic info, as it will likely color my opinions. I am not a Catholic or even a Christian, although I have inherited my fair share of Christian values based on my culture, etc. If anything I'm a somewhat skeptical agnostic.
What can we say about the late Pope? He was certainly a hard worker, executing his duties until his dyeing day, he was a man of principle and integrity and a tireless defender of the traditional Church, and by all accounts he had a lovely singing voice. So what impact did he have on the Catholic Church and, through the position of power it gave him, the world?
News bites laud him for being a proponent of peace in the middle east, against capital punishment, abortion and the US invasion of Iraq. So where was his impact on these issues? There is no peace in the middle east, Palestinians and Jews pause in slaughtering each other just long enough to reload their guns and sign worthless agreements. America continues to be the last developed democratic country to make widespread use of the death penalty despite the large number of Catholics and the majority of Christians with political influence. Abortion remains a contentious issue with the extreme edge of the "culture of life" resorting to death threats and bombings. Not a bomb, bullet or humiliated detainee was stopped by his condemnation of American aggression, George II has a more crusaderly attitude towards war.
Admittedly these issues were beyond his reach, if not beyond his influence. So what of his Church? JPII was the unquestioned ruler of the Church, his word was law and he was considered technically infallible. The church changed almost not at all during his reign, no major or even minor reform. The sex abuse scandals, which he condemned, were made possible and covered up by the medieval system of secrecy and patriarchal power the Church structure is designed to preserve. No change there. If anything the church added legal and philosophical hurdles to justice in protecting itself from liability that the Bishops must have learned from fishing trips with Enron executives.
So that leaves the late Pope's influence on the Third World, a place where the Church's missionaries, teachers and charities give it considerable impact. The most significant part of this influence in terms of affecting the quality of life for Third World Christians is the continued condemnation of birth control as sinful. The result of this is a continued rise in population amongst the poorest populations and epidemic disease rates throughout Africa. It would not be fair to place too much of the blame for this on the Pope's shoulders, but what could he have accomplished if he had been a crusader for reform?
In just one year, 2003, 2.2 Million Africans died from AIDS, 12 Million children were orphaned due to the epidemic. If John Paul had used his influence to put people ahead of church doctrine how many would have been spared? How many families would be able to control their growth and provide a better future for their children. If the Catholic Church had even been able to put a small roadblock in front of this tragedy tens of thousands could have been spared.
So if results and not intentions are the measure of historical figures, by the harshest of estimations, Karol Wojtyla goes to sit at the right hand of his maker with the blood of thousands on his hands.