The Pope’s Ambiguous Legacy

The University Daily
Texas Tech Un

Karol Jozef Wojtyla, John Paul II, the second-greatest pope of the 20th century, is dead. Despite the praises being sung across the world, I think any consensus of his reign is a long way off.

Which Holy Father am I to remember? The strong man who stood against communism and rebutted Stalin's "How many divisions has the Pope?" In doing so, he courageously helped to break the back of the greatest evil of our age. The tolerant ecumenical who sent pastoral letters telling the faithful, "The Jews are our brothers?"

He was remarkably tolerant of all the brother religions of the human race, a fact he demonstrated when he visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

He worked to heal divisions within Christianity itself. For other faiths, he was generous and understanding. Was that his greatest triumph?

Or perhaps should we remember the brilliant, theatrical, cosmopolitan intellectual who spoke 11 languages fluently, read books by the score, knew philosophy, history and modern politics? The sensitive artist who wrote plays and turned out books of poetry? The dynamic athlete who skied, hiked, swam and was at one time nicknamed "Lolek the Goalie?"

The humble priest who, as one story tells it, walked through the rain to a meeting in Rome, burst in to the room, soaking wet, took off his socks and hung them on the radiator – after which he turned to his fellow clerics and said, "Gentlemen, should we get down to business?"

He didn't think of himself as a religious king; he was the first pontiff to write encyclicals using the first-personal singular: I, instead of we.

There were so many wonderful sides to the man. He was even able to tolerate Bono when they worked together for third-world debt relief (His phone calls repeatedly interrupted U2's recording sessions in 2000. One wishes he had made more of them.)

But then there is the other Wojtyla. The man at war with modernity, with all the good aspects of humanism. He believed the West, which I think is the signal light of human rights in the history of the world, was "a civilization of death."

He believed the Age of Reason was a mistake. He loathed the 18th century school of thought which gave us many of the values by which we live – equality, rationality, personal freedom, the rights of man, separation of the private and public spheres, the division of church and state.

This to him was a mistake, despite the lip service he gave to science and Galileo. "God is going to crush modern civilization with the stones of the Vatican," said a famous 19th-century right-wing journalist, and Wojtyla would have agreed.

Many people might be unbothered by a man to whom, at bottom, faith trumped everything, to whom faith was literally all there was; a man to whom philosophy was an intellectual diversion in the face of faith at best, who never doubted his truth for a second and did not question his beliefs. I'm not.

He tried to smash Vatican II like it was a bug. He knifed liberation theology like an alley gangster and laughed over its corpse. He beatified right and left as if he was on some kind of mad saint-making binge, more than any other Pope in history. He called homosexuality a "tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil."

If you've seen "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" you'd probably agree with me it's more of a tendency towards intrinsic stylishness, but neither of us is the religious shepherd of 1.2 billion people.

On a variety of topics – the equality of women, premarital sex, masturbation, birth control, divorce, priestly celibacy – he was at one with titanic idiocies of the past. In matters of doctrine, he dwelt in the world that invented penicillin, but preferred the one that recommended leeches.

Sure, he loathed communism, but he didn't think liberal capitalism was so great either. If he was so brave, why didn't he speak out against the dictator Pinochet when he went to South America? Why did he refuse to meet mothers whose children had disappeared under the rule of the Argentine generals?

Where was the good and great man who supported the freedom-seeking Solidarity party of Poland in their hour of need?

For a man who professed to love children so much, why did he allow his church to harbor criminals and rapists? Remember Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston? He now sits on a board in Rome that supervises clerical discipline. Wojtyla gave a papal knighthood to ex-Nazi Kurt Waldheim (also an ex-U.N. Secretary-General), called Yasser Arafat "a leader of great charisma" and gave not only an audience but an invitation for a private visit to Hussein's crony Tariq Aziz. The greatest pope of our century, John XXIII, the peasant's son who initiated Vatican II, knew Fidel Castro for a tyrant and excommunicated him. John Paul II, like Jimmy Carter, just took him for a walk.

Here was a man who had the capabilities and the chance to bring human faith into the modern world and, in my opinion, chose not to. He traveled more widely than any pontiff in history but refused to budge within himself.

He could have given the teachings of Christ a new relevance in our age but preferred to lecture. And if you're the kind of person who thinks the fundamentalist Protestantism of the Southern Baptist Convention is backward, I invite you to look up their Catholic lay counterparts, Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ, who received his support and encouragement.

Perhaps it's rude of me to speak ill of the dead. But the man had amazing gifts and such awesome power to do good – and he did. I just wish he had done more. He was, in so many ways, a shining moral beacon; and his failings are therefore crueler, more tragic, than those of smaller men. Politicians I expect to be scum. Men like Wojtyla I hold to a higher standard.

I haven't personally seen many great men in my life, but I saw him twice when I was in Rome in 2001, once on Easter and another during a papal audience on Jan. 25. The sight of this once-vigorous man reduced to a shadow of his former self was depressing. His Holiness Celestine V retired from the papacy in 1294 before he died. Wojtyla should have done the same.

I am an outsider to his faith. Some might say a non-Catholic concerned with matters of church policy is odd.

But I live in a world in which one-sixth of the population follows that particular faith; in a country where Catholicism is practiced by a quarter of its citizens and is the largest single Christian denomination. So he mattered.

What he thought and did and said affected me and my world. My view of him was always as a world leader, less as the influential and charismatic head of a great and ancient faith. Perhaps this is why, for so many reasons, I admired him, yet I didn't always like him. But I am sad to see him go. Rest in peace, padre.