The Death of John Paul II

The Pope’s funeral drew the devout from around the world and deification now seems likely. But how much of a sinner was this potential saint? John Bisset investigates the dark side of Pope John Paul II


Being brought into a discussion on the death of Karol Wojtyla, alias Pope John Paul II, with a few elderly ladies while waiting for a bus, I commented that they would be wiser contemplating the hundreds of thousands he had sent to their deaths than mourning the passing of this enemy of their class. The ladies were visibly shocked, said I was out of order and that I shouldn’t speak so irreverently of someone so holy. I tried to explain my remark, but they were having none of it.

Like countless millions in all countries, they had undoubtedly been caught up in that media-generated flood of sentiment that swept around the world when news of the Pope’s death was broadcast; ready to defend the claims made by announcers on the TV news and in the 20-page papal death exclusives the press was churning out, that a living saint had died. One hundred and fifty world leaders were going to Rome to pay their respects to one of the “greatest men” who had lived, so I was in no position to pass sacrilegious judgement. Days later the Pope’s funeral was reported as the biggest in history. It had attracted 70 presidents, dozens of prime ministers, the leaders of fourteen religions, nine kings and queens and countless other dignitaries. Joining this farcical parade of the infamous were 4 million devout followers of the Catholic Church who had descended on Rome from all over the world.

The very fact that 150 world leaders, the heads of the executive body of world capitalism, were keen to attend this funeral must have suggested something. Karol Wojtyla was on their side and was clearly perceived as being a man who promoted their case. Had he been a critic of the profit system, had he publicly criticised the world’s corporate elite and the governments who defend their interests by any means, they’d have spat on his grave. As it turned out, this was like a big mafia don’s funeral at which the gangster fraternity had turned out to pay their last respects to a fellow enemy of law and order.

John Paul’s 28 years in the Vatican were certainly controversial. He lived through interesting times, as the saying goes, and like any Pope worth his salt involved himself in world political affairs when it was convenient to do so and made acquaintances with many world leaders, yet rebuked none of them. He, for instance, referred to Chilean dictator, Pinochet, and his wife as “an exemplary Christian couple”. When this enemy of Chilean democracy, who had killed tens of thousands of his opponents, was arrested and charged with crimes against humanity, the Pope waded in on his defence demanding his release, stating that as a Chilean leader at the time of his crimes he was entitled to immunity – a kind of papal infallibility for fascists. Throughout South America, John Paul sided with the forces of reaction, supporting right wing elites and restraining any priest who saw themselves as on the side of the impoverished masses. The papal nuncios to the Chilean and Argentinean military dictatorships he promoted to cardinals. In Central America, he reproached members of the clergy who had sided with the Sandinistas and promoted to the status of cardinal one archbishop who had opposed them.

Few news reports on the Pope’s death did not refer to his time in the Vatican during the dying days of the Kremlin’s empire. Some reporters were even bold enough to claim that it was his intervention in the Polish political scene in the 1980s that eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The rise of Solidarity and working class militancy in Poland at the beginning of the 1980s panicked governments around the world. The ‘communists’ of eastern Europe feared a growing threat to their rule, while the governments of the West saw the mobilisation of an angry section of society that could only inspire militancy in their own countries.

While John Paul wished to see the end of Stalinist rule, he was keen this should not be via violent revolution and, moreover, at the hands of left wing sections of Polish society, but by the right. Here he had the backing of the USA. In 1980 John Paul granted an audience to a group headed by Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and in the coming years the Vatican would find tens of millions of dollars to finance Solidarity’s struggle. Make no mistake; the Vatican was not openly supporting the demands of the workers in their struggle against an undemocratic, unaccountable Stalinist bureaucracy. After all, what was the Vatican if not undemocratic, unaccountable and bureaucratic? Instead, its aim was to contain the movement, to see it had the guidance of nationalistic and right-leaning Catholic ideologues and to ensure its confrontation with the Polish leadership did not get out of hand and win larger international support from workers.

Many news commentators referred to the 473 beatifications under the JP papacy, a figure that is twice the number of saints made in the previous 400 years. One can only assume that with more social problems facing humanity than at any time in its history the Pope thought we needed an increase in the number of saints to pray to for help in solving them.

However, among those beatified and elevated to the ranks of the saints by John Paul II was the anti-Semite Pope Pius IX and Pope Pius XII, the latter being the same Pius who collaborated with the fascist regimes in Spain, Italy and Germany. Pius XII ordered the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany to steer clear of political activity, to close its political parties and to stifle its newspapers. Hitler would refer to this Papal move as “a great achievement” and of enormous advantage in the “fight against international Jewry”.

Under Pius’ watchful eye, the Catholic Church went on to collaborate in the “racial certification” of all Germans and refused to openly condemn Hitler when it was known that millions were being sent to the extermination camps.

Also elevated to sainthood was Josemaria Escrivç, the founder of the hierarchical and clandestine Opus Dei in Madrid in 1928, and described by Hitler as “the saviour of the Spanish church”, along with Mother Theresa who, when questioned on how her opposition to contraception in Calcutta was leading to unnecessary infantile deaths, countered that even a child who breathed only a few hours meant another soul for heaven. For Mother Theresa, suffering was a blessing from the almighty, for it enabled carers to reveal their love for the afflicted.

One scandal the press tended to steer clear of – and one humiliation John Paul was keen to ride out on behalf of Catholicism – was the sexual abuse scandals concerning priests and Church officials. Since the 1950s, 4,450 catholic clergy in the US alone have been accused of molesting children. The allegations have persisted down the years in spite of a Vatican decree in the 1960s which threatened anyone exposing child sex abuse within the Church with excommunication. John Paul continued the cover-up, issuing an edict demanding Church secrecy in child abuse allegations.

The Pope’s ruling on the matter was felt to be so conclusive that one leader of a Spanish seminary persuaded his scholars that he had the Pope’s blessing to masturbate them.

John Paul’s complicity in attempting to conceal sexual exploitation in the American, Irish, Austrian and other Churches, and his undermining of the importance of the allegations once they had come to world attention, merely emphasized the Vatican’s double standards on issues of sexual morality.

While covering up the excesses of a sexually frustrated clergy who found it impossible to adhere to the vow of chastity, John Paul was ever ready to pronounce papal verdicts on homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, divorce, abortion and the use of birth control.

In recent years, in spite of a growing Aids epidemic which now infects tens of millions in impoverished countries, the Vatican withdrew its support from those organisations that distributed free condoms. The head of the Vatican’s office on the family, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, propagated the lie that the Aids virus can pass through microscopic holes in condoms, and John Paul referred to the use of condoms as a ‘culture of death’. In El Salvador, after a long struggle by the Church, packets of condoms were printed with the warning that they did not protect users from the spread of HIV and, in Nigeria, the archbishop of Nairobi proclaimed that condoms actually caused Aids.

Undoubtedly, millions who looked to the Catholic Church for guidance, who declined the use of protection during sex, were handed a death sentence. Perhaps millions of women were forced, by fear of the flames of hell, to bring young families into a world of abject poverty and early death through disease and hunger.

Whilst many saw JP as a champion of democracy and human rights, a one-man Amnesty International as one commentator suggested in the press, the truth is he was a conscientious defender of the established order of western-style class privilege, even

if he did once refer to elected governments as the spreaders of “nihilism”. He might have lambasted as an atheistic dogma what many refer to as “socialism” (state capitalism) in the Encyclical Centesimus Annus, whether it existed in Eastern Europe or Central America, but this seems to be his only reason – “socialism” was associated with atheism and therefore was a serious challenge to rule from Rome

More importantly, the Pope headed an organisation with 1.3 billion followers who were encouraged to put their trust in a god and to pray to this god to solve the major problems of the day, thus diminishing people’s faith in their own ability to sort out their own problems and undermining the likelihood of workers uniting and organising with a common objective.

Accordingly, the Pope became just another reactionary agent of oppression, like all of his predecessors. And the Vatican’s reactionary credentials are nothing recent. Indeed, it has been part of the foundation of reaction since the start, whether it was urging the masses to obey the Caesars, supporting the feudal hierarchical order, opposing the Protestant reformation or siding with the capitalist class against the workers, determined always to stifle the anger of the oppressed with promises of reward in heaven for their sufferings if they struggle on uncomplainingly, and an eternity in the sulphurous pits of hell if  they organised to better their lot.


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