The Pope’s Legacy

12 October 2003

The Pope’s Legacy

By Gwynne Dyer

“I thought this was a peace prize and not a prize in sexual ethics,” protested an irate Vatican official, giving voice to the widely held belief that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to an Iranian human-rights advocate rather than the dying Pope John Paul II because the selection committee disapproved of his hostility to homosexuality, abortion, contraception and women priests. It may be true, for he must have been a leading contender: in the past year no Western leader spoke out so firmly against the invasion of Iraq. But that is not what he will be remembered for.

The man really is dying. Reports that the Pope is now suffering from intestinal cancer in addition to Parkinson’s disease have not been denied by the Vatican, and one of the 31 new cardinals he recently created, Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyons, bluntly said last month: “The Pope is reaching the end of the road. It’s a big responsibility for us. The Pope is in really bad shape.”

Since it will be almost impossible to say harsh things about him when he dies, perhaps we should take advantage of Karol Wojtyla’s 25th anniversary as pope this week (16 October) to make a franker assessment of his impact on the Catholic church, which still commands the obedience of half the world’s Christians. It has been enormous. Almost single-handedly, he has expelled every trace of modernity from the institution.

The Catholic church on the eve of Wojtyla’s reign in 1978 was in the midst of a great and promising transformation. The rigid centralism that began with the 16th -century Counter-Reformation and culminated in the declaration of papal infallibility in 1870 had been greatly undermined by the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Local languages replaced Latin in the mass, ritual was downgraded in favour of spiritual commitment, and the whole church was in theological ferment.

I did a sort of world tour of the Catholic church in 1978 as part of a documentary series on the likely impact of the new pope, and though I am not a believer it was a fascinating experience. In southern Africa, Catholics were playing a leading role in resistance to apartheid. In Latin America, the phenomenon of ‘liberation theology’ was reconnecting the church with the impoverished peasant millions whom it had long ignored. In Europe and North America the old hierarchies were all under challenge, but especially the hierarchy of gender. Justice and equality were the themes, and the energy was astonishing.

Twenty-five years later, it is all gone. The collegiality promised by Vatican II is dead, replaced by top-down rule and a stream of decrees on faith and morals handed down by a pope who brooks no argument. Nobody knows how many Catholic priests, nuns and lay theologians have been bullied into remaining silent under threat of excommunication, for neither their names nor their offences are made public, but the victims of what amounts to a new inquisition probably number in the thousands. And liberation theology has been crushed as heresy, leaving the Latin American poor to seek help and hope elsewhere.

The result is many Catholics in the developed world, especially women, have become internal emigres, clinging to their Catholic beliefs but silently rejecting the authority of a Vatican that, in the words of Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung (whose license to teach theology in Catholic institutions was revoked by the Vatican in 1979), “has waged an almost spooky battle against modern women who seek a contemporary form of life, prohibiting birth control and abortion (even in the case of incest or rape), divorce, the ordination of women and the modernisation of women’s religious orders.”

Latin America, home to almost half of the world’s Catholics, used to be a place where no other religion had a substantial presence. Under John Paul II, however, the reimposition of the old Catholic hierarchies and orthodoxies has opened the door for evangelical Protestant sects, mostly Pentecostals and charismatics, to snap up millions of poor people who might once have been attracted to liberation theology. In a single generation evangelical Protestants have come from almost nothing to capture the loyalty of about a quarter of Latin America’s population, and they continue to grow very fast. This has happened almost entirely on John Paul II’s watch.

Then there is the fact that Wojtyla has created almost five hundred saints, more than all the other popes of the past four centuries together. His candidates for sainthood often mirror his own deeply conservative beliefs, like the hundreds of Catholic ‘martyrs’ of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, all supporters of General Francisco Franco’s fascist revolt against the legitimate government, whom he beatified in 2000. Even devout Spanish Catholics were embarrassed.

Much of this has been obscured by the pope’s rock-star charisma and his constant touring, but John Paul II certainly does not leave the church as he found it. Whether he leaves it either stronger or better is open to question, but it will certainly continue on the course he has set for at least another generation, for an overwhelming majority of the cardinals who will choose his successor are men who share his deeply conservative and centralising views.

They ought to, for he chose them himself. In fifteen years on the throne his predecessor, Paul VI, made only 26 new cardinals. In twenty-five years, John Paul II has made 226.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“The result…orders”; and “Then there is…embarrassed”)