Friday, April 1, 2005

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Open Pope thread

Feel free to comment on the legacy of Pope John Paul II, now approaching death. His pivotal role in promoting dissent in the Soviet bloc will certainly be prominently mentioned. So will his profound and consistent commitment to pacifism. As for his iron-clad control of the Church hierarchy itself, I'll leave it to the commentors.

UPDATE: Rest in peace, Karol Wojtyla.

Josh Marshall takes a welcome break from Social Security-blogging to make an excellent point about the ways that this pope changed the way that we think about the pope more generally:

One other thing that is worth mentioning --- especially for people under thirty --- is that before John Paul II, the Pope was a much more, well … parochial figure than he has been in the decades since.

The Pope didn’t travel around the world. He was always an Italian. And he was far less involved in the ecumenical work that played such a role in John Paul’s pontificate. All of this goes to say that for a Jewish nine-year-old and his grandfather sitting in a rec room in a Jewish retirement home in 1978, the Pope was a much more distant figure than he would be to almost any of us today.

Kathryn Jean Lopez also makes a trenchant point about the Pope's last lesson:

Much has been and will be said about Pope John Paul’s most recent silent teaching—his lessons from his example of his own suffering: How to live, how to die. To respect all human life, even when sickly. I think also when you realize that he did not go to the hospital this week it was another specific lesson by example--and a striking one this week of all weeks. He took his antibiotics, he had a feeding tube, and had doctors on hand treating him, but his situation was grave and he didn’t opt for any extra (read: extraordinary?) care that, perhaps, might have given him a few more days. We’re not to be absolutists, but realists who are called to be protectors of this amazing gift we’ve been given—human life.

posted by Dan on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM


The current edition of Der Spiegel features a harsh critique of the Pope's legacy by Hans Kung, perhaps the greatest living Catholic theologian. He argues that the role of the Pope in defeating Soviet communism has been overplayed. His words: "The role the Polish pope played in helping bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire is also emphasized, and rightly so. But it's also heavily exaggerated by papal propagandists. After all, the Soviet regime did not fail because of the pope (before the arrival of Gorbachev, the pope was achieving about as little as he is now achieving in China), but instead imploded because of the Soviet system's inherent economic and social contradictions." See the article for more.,1518,348471,00.html

posted by: Alex Gault on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Reagan did all the heavy lifting...everyone else rode on his coattails.

posted by: Billy on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Hans Kung is right. The pope's perceived pivotal role in the collapse of Communism is an error grounded within the fallacy of methodological individualism.

posted by: No von Mises on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

While wikis are never entirely reliable, this article seems to cover all the basics.

He is a holy, holy man who has contributed much to humanity—both before and during his papacy.

He will be missed and mourned by millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

posted by: Brian on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

I worked in Guatemala in the mid-1980s. As far as I'm concerned, the Pope's legacy will be forever tainted by his utter hostility to progressive social movements and liberation theology. Many priests and Catholic lay workers were tortured and killed in Guatemala in the early 80s with the knowledge of and silence from the church hierarchy.

At the time it was rather apparent that the conservative church hierarchy was making use of the civil war to weed out suspiciously leftist priests without getting their hands dirty.

In retrospect, I suspect that the Pope's early experience with Communism in Poland framed his world view and kept him from understanding that the progressive social movements in Central America during that time had nothing in common with the Soviet tanks that occupied Poland during his youth.

posted by: Kent on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

My elaborate post on the Pope is here. I originally posted it when CNN and Fox declared him dead, but when they said he had not yet gone, I updated it to show that fact, and will update it again when he finally goes Home to be with Christ.

posted by: Don Singleton on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

I'm personally sorry that the Pope's health is failing. I hope he isn't in a lot of pain and that the end is peaceful for him.

That said, I think his legacy is mixed, at best. Others have commented on Communism and South America so I'll leave that. His affect on American politics is another issue as well. The US media holds the pontiff with some sort of reverence not given to other religious leaders.

In the US we have no problem with taking to task religious leaders and their followers who embrace controversial ideas. Except for Catholics and the Pope. For some reason we back off of them. I think John Paul 2 has done a lot to perpetuate the detriment of US policy.

posted by: carla on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Hans Kung is not the greatest Catholic theologian. For one he is not Catholic. I would also not call him a theolgian. He is a philosopher - a rather minor one with no interesting ideas. The Catholic church is what it is. If you are Catholic, you accept its teachings. I was raised Catholic, found I could not accept what the church taught and now am not a Catholic. I really do not understand cafeteria Catholics. If you do not like the church, leave.

You cannot say the John Paul's role in the fall of communism is overstated. A lot of revisionist history going on here. Now we can say that the flaws of the Soviet system led to its inevtable downfall. Think back to 1980. The US was the declining superpower. Getting missiles into Europe to counter Soviet deployments was almost derailed. We had the hostages in Iran, the Soviets on the move and in Afghanistan. All America could point to was a fluke victory in Olympic hockey. Who was resisting? The Poles. Would they have resisted without the moral inspiration and support of the pope? I doubt it. They kept kicking at the rotten underpinnings of the Soviet system even after martial law was declared in December of 1981. Remember how amazed everyone was at the events of 1989 - starting with the Polish elections that June.

I was in Poland in 1986. I saw how rotten the system was. I did not think for a moment that the status quo would change. I quietly shook my head when I was told, by people I thought of as romantics and idealists, that things would change not only in my lifetime - but soon.

posted by: Martin on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

I heard an interview with someone yesterday (unfortunately, I can't remember a name) who had met with the Pope several times. He said that he had once thanked the Pope for helping to bring down Soviet Communism and the Pope himself scoffed at this, implying in his words and facial expression that he felt the whole mess was ready to collapse anyway. It sounded like he didn't believe his own press. :-)

posted by: Opus on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Apart from the overemphasis on the pope's role in the fall of communism, let's not forget that he was head of a catholic church that covered up extensive child abuse among its priests.

posted by: Nigel Pond on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

I strongly second Nigel's point. I think that Catholics should be pleased about the high-profile role John Paul II has played. Traveling as he did and creating more Latin American cardinals has likely strengthened the church greatly. But the Church, both in the US and in Rome, has a great deal to answer for when it comes to the abuse scandals.

posted by: Scott C. on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

The Pope has little to do with the abuse scandals. That is also an error grounded in methodological individualism.

posted by: No von Mises on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

I second Martin. I grew up in Poland during Solidarity and then marshal law. It was obvious to everyone that the Pope was a great inspiration to dissidents, Catholic or Atheist or whatever. Many people would have given up without him. Communism may still have fallen but it would've been later, perhaps much later. Also in saying that the Pope had something to do with it in no way diminishes the role of Reagan or Gorbachev or Havel or the huge number of unkown folks who did their part, however small. There's no methadological individualism here, unless you have a pretty radical and stupid view of what methadological individualism is.

posted by: radek on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

It has been said that the Soviet Empire was on it's way to colapse by the early 1970's, so obviously it was the dynamic duo of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford that took down the "evil empire". Success has many fathers (failure is a lonely orphan).

I agree with Martin on Hans Kung. Calling Hans Kung the greatest Catholic theologian is as true as calling Lester Maddox a civil rights figure. Both statements make you gasp for air.

posted by: Neo on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Methodological individualism is a philosophical orientation toward explaining broad society-wide developments as the accumulation of decisions by individuals.

To say that the Pope was instrumental in the fall of Communism is to say that public relations is an independent variable in econometrics is it not?

posted by: No von Mises on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Woops. First paragraph in the above post should be in quotes. From wikipedia....

posted by: No von Mises on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Yes, suffering- a really great contribution!
He was a bitterly reactionary conservative about Church doctrine, and rolled back changes brought to modernize the Church after Vatican II, during which he himself had argued strongly for human rights, as well those proposed by his immediate, more liberal, predecessor. He attacked liberation theology, the idea of an activist Christ, continued the Turin Shroud hoax, brought the ultra-conservative Opus Dei to formal power, reduced the power of the Jesuits for being too liberal and politically engaged. He damned homosexuals, contraception, abortion, and the rights of women, while praising missionary fanatics like the vile Mother Teresa. He deepened the divide between dogma and the real modern world. And perhaps, worst of all, it was on his watch that thousands of pedophile priests ran rampant and were afforded safe haven against prosecution in secular courts. In short, he was the Ken Lay of religion.
All this nonsense about his role in the fall of Communism is just that, as specious as the claims made of Reagan last year. In fifty years, once the Church has been forced into progressivism to stem the loss of believers in an increasingly secular world, he'll be seen for what he was- a bulwark against modernism and human dignity. Yes, he spoke out against wars, but was also against World War 2. In short, he would have emulated the complicity the Church had in Mussolini's eise to power. All in all, not alot there- and most of it negative.
The Pope is dead! Let's abolish the post! DAN

posted by: Dan Schneider on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Gorbachev seems to think John Paul II was a significant factor in the breakup of the Soviet empire. And he would know.

About Lopez's point: I think it's absolutely true that the Pope's witness through very public suffering was a powerful message of hope and duty to the least fortunate of his flock -- the poor, the sick, the dying -- who were always his first concern. It's hard to assess and impossible to quantify hope, but to many millions of people whose existence we are aware of but do not often see he sent a message no one else could. That is a very profound thing, for any leader, to do what only you can.

And yet.... this Pope was a man like any other, and old men afflicted by many illnesses are not the men you want running large organizations. It is hard for me to imagine this Pope, confronted with the explosion of the sexual abuse time bomb in the American church, responding to it in his sixties as ineffectually as he did in his eighties. And this scandal did terrible damage to his Church in this country. Not only that, it weakened the force of his own teachings -- if you are trying to promote a "culture of life" you don't want to be associated with a sin so vile as pedophilia. The Catholic Church in America is so associated right now, and if John Paul II did not cause this problem he certainly did nothing to solve it.

How do you square that circle? How do you get the powerful witness without the leadership vacuum -- or conversely, how do you get effective management of the Church while still sending so strong a message of hope and faith? Maybe you don't.

To a Protestant, of course, this conundrum is inherent in the very institution of the papacy and is one of many examples of error in Catholic doctrine and teaching. But all of us in our own lives have paths laid out before us, and in the course of traveling them and striving for success, must acknowledge that the price of success in one aspect of life may be abject failure in another. That is a hard lesson, but I think it is a good lesson.

posted by: Zathras on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

Those whom would give this Pope a pass on the abuse scandals in America are cowards of the worse kind. The Catholic Church is a top down management organization. To have ignored what played out in a very public fashion was and is a crime. To have turned a blind eye to it and said nothing was to abandon his flock and children everywhere. It has destroyed his legacy.

posted by: Robert M on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

In regard to the fall of Communism, John Paul said that the tree was already rotten, and that he just gave it a good shake. Clearly, he was an inspiration to Poles, and it seems clear he had a restraining influence on how the Polish government reacted to Solidarity.

The way he handled his dying (accepting medical treatment, but not returning to the hospital for aggressive treatment) seems to me a good lesson in the use of common sense at a difficult time. He knew he had reached the "natural" end of his life, and accepted it.

Perhaps dying is a bit like porn -- you know it when you see it.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

American Catholics have drifted ever closer to the Republican Party in recent decades, providing first Ronald Reagan and then George Bush, father and son, with crucial support in their presidential victories. You can trace similar voting trends from Congress down to state legislatures and local elections. Catholics have realigned themselves for a range of economic and social reasons, but Republicans have also appealed to them in terms of values - most obviously seizing on abortion as a "great divide" issue to separate Catholics from the Democratic Party.

Abortion indeed separates most Democrats from orthodox Catholic teaching, Democrats should never delude themselves into thinking otherwise, but that does not mean that Catholicism or Catholic teaching leans comfortably Republican. Republicans have successfully attached "Bad Catholic" to the names of many Catholic Democrats while Democrats have rarely done the same with Catholic Republicans, but many Catholic positions, from how to address poverty to opposition to the death penalty, discomfort comfortable Republicans as seriously as abortion politically discomfits Democrats. Catholic orthodoxy and Catholic doctrinal conservatism do not equal American political conservatism. In many instances, they firmly oppose one another. The Papacy that takes shape later this year could well drive that point home, and greatly affect American politics as it does so.

During the long and fruitful years of Pope John Paul II's papacy, many American Catholics chose not to hear this dissonance. Americans heard the Pope’s strong voice on sanctity of life as the condemnation of abortion it surely was, but often failed to hear clearly his other messages, ones that questioned the death penalty or the sometimes-harsh dictates of capitalist markets. The Pope's personal history of resistance to Nazism, Communism, and the foreign domination of his native Poland gave American perceptions of him a Reaganesque tinge. Americans focused less on his critiques of their own society’s materialism or his opposition to its wars.

Now the Church chooses a new leader. If it does settle on a Latin American or another Third World candidate, American Catholics, and Conservatives among them, may be in for a shock. Such a Pope, comfortable with John Paul II's doctrinal views but speaking of respect for the poor, the weak, and those condemned to death in a new voice, with a new emphasis and urgency, could throw down a challenge before American Conservatives every bit as awkward as abortion has been for Democrats, for progressives, and the left. Conservatives within the American Church, and Conservatives seeking American Catholic votes, may find themselves on unfamiliar terrain, and Republicans may find the label "Bad Catholic" shared more equitably between the parties.

A quarter century ago, Church leaders saw the virtue in choosing a Pole of great conviction and charisma to lead the Church and to challenge communism, which they saw as a great threat to the global Catholic community. This time, America may find it must accommodate itself to a Pontiff comfortable in challenging it to reassess its own presumptions about how to build a good society, and about how best to serve God. Depending on how far the new Pope pushes such a challenge, it could reverberate throughout American politics, reminding American Catholics, and the country as a whole, that the instincts and ideologies of neither of America’s two great parties sits entirely comfortably with the doctrines and social teachings of the Catholic Church.

posted by: Mike O'Reilly on 04.01.05 at 11:23 PM [permalink]

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