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written just after Pope John Paul's death



commentary • 04.04.05

The Pope is dead. Now, I have no particular feeling toward the Pope or Catholics in general beyond my being part of a liberal enlightenment which on the whole believes that organised religion in the modern age is more problem than solution. It is also my view that a future world living at its best would have no place for the traditional churches and their defining authoritarian structures.

Listening to all the customary eulogising upon the man’s death and not sharing in the emotion of it all I chose to scan the Sunday paper for some kind for substance that may have marked out Karol Wojtyla as an exceptional man. I didn’t really find it. Other than having achieved the top job in his profession and held it for twenty-six years I came up with very little. I read about his ‘unassailable personal integrity’ and ‘tremendous fortitude’ or how he struggled through illnesses in later life. He made the odd statement against this or that on the political scene but really there didn’t seem to be much else that distinguished this man.

When you look at what he stood for he was anti-liberal and authoritarian presiding over the Catholic Church at a time when there have been, in the West anyway, huge defections from belief, plummeting attendance and a collapsing priesthood dogged by paedophile scandals. Catholic marriages declined as divorce rates increased. There was an outright denial of women to become priests, the total condemning of homosexuality, abortion and any form of contraception even in extreme cases such as rape and in the face of aids. It is stuff like that which leads me to think the Pope was indeed more part of the problem.

He was said to be very gifted academically as a theological student. His particular area of study was phenomenology, a philosophy that accepts the truth of consciousness - i.e. it accepts the view of things as they appear to consciousness as the true view. What you see is what you get. This seemed curious given his religious convictions and their dependency on the supernatural. As I trundled through some of his intellectual positions I was amazed at how unsophisticated they were for such an accomplished scholar. He said: “The evil which exists seems to be greater than ever, much greater than the evil for which most of us feels personally responsible.” This is his argument for the existence of Satan and is hardly an argument at all. How do you measure evil as a quantity? Even if you could, to then jump to the presence of a malign supernatural being is such a huge jump it confounds reason. It is not difficult to demolish such a position without even having to turn to more complex arguments such as the Jungian one: that it is the very fact that we do not ourselves feel personally responsible enough for the evil in the world that causes much of the problem.

Incredibly, he has in the past blamed homosexuality as the source of the increased paedophilia within the priesthood. Implausibly, the two are conflated here making homosexuality as, or more, culpable than the sexual abuse of children. This creates parity between a practice which usually bonds people in a good way with one that doesn’t. Ridiculous.

He had apparently said in later years as he became increasingly authoritarian that certain acts such as abortion and contraception were, in all circumstances, evil. This is typical to fundamentalism. The more entrenched it becomes the more extreme the language until anything it disagrees with is denounced in the strongest terms. The simple lifestyle choices of others are branded as evil. When this happens I believe that the intellect has been taken over by a paucity of judgement more associated with bigotry and a weak, unyielding kind of emotionalism.

Recently Wojtyla took away the teaching licence of a distinguished scholar in Rome who dared to dispute the claim of the Catholic Church to know exclusively religious truth. My truth or our truth as the only truth is a disastrous position and has caused more trouble in the world than just about any other outlook. It is fundamentalist and seems to be on the increase. Other than being a counter-balance to the excesses of liberalism its contributions are negative. The Pope stood for that all his life as head of a powerful and influential institution and thereby has done not very much as I see it, at least philosophically, to engender the right kind of thinking.

It is generally considered in the liberal world that positions of power and influence should not be held for too long. This is in the democratic spirit where the choice of leader is decided by the majority and not some small coterie of cronies. It also limits power and the abuse of it by keeping terms of office short. Twenty-six years is just too long. We like leaders to leave things better than when they came in. By most accounts the old Pope seems to have left the Church in a worse state than he found it, yet despite that he was able to retain the faith and affection of a billion people. Strange that. The Pope is dead. Long live the Pope!