Argus title : It’s time to break from the past
We are beset by election fever – or at least a small rise in temperature in the body politic. We are preparing ourselves to go to the polls and elect our new government.
And yet, the direction our country will take over the next few years has already largely been determined by an election in which we could take no part – that of the US President.
Another imminent election in which we can play no part is that of the new Pope. It may seem to non-Catholics that this is unlikely to affect their lives, but the contrary is true.
Popes are not just holy men elected to lead the faithful. They are heads of an independent state – the Vatican – and intervention in the operation of foreign states is a big part of their business.
The carefully choreographed mourningfest which took place after the Pope’s death, and the attendance of the evangelical protestant George Bush with so many other foreign leaders at the funeral, made it very clear that we were witnessing not the death of a saint, but that of a consummate politician.
Almost a year ago in this column I wrote; “Iron control has characterised this papacy. A blatant political ‘fixer’, John Paul II is reported to have created more cardinals than any other Pope in history, apparently for the purpose of voting in a successor of whom he would approve. Frail and near the end of his life, this most authoritarian of modern Popes has positioned himself to control the course of history from beyond the grave.”
Nothing I have seen or heard over the past few weeks has led me to change my view.
The late Pope used his long pontificate to entrench profoundly conservative views and to position his people in key roles.
A man of great personal courage, he put his dying and death at the disposal of his political and theological allies. And they used it to the full.
History was rewritten. On the day of his death several cardinals interviewed in different parts of the world issued remarkably similar ‘spontaneous’ statements. Most referred to his concern for “poverty and human rights” and for “democracy”.
Yet this Pope was certainly no democrat. He did not want democracy in Eastern Europe. He wanted his reactionary and authoritarian brand of Christianity to triumph over communism, which is not the same thing at all.
John Paul 11 waged war on liberation theology and all but destroyed the radical church in Latin America, succeeding where the CIA on its own had failed. It is no accident that powerful US cardinals campaigned for his election as Pope. Cardinal Cody of New York , who led the charge, boasted of his role with the CIA.
This anti-communist Pope canonised more people than all other popes together, assiduously promoting ‘saints’ to support his conservative world view. Chief amongst them was Jose Maria Escriva, founder of the secretive right wing organisation “Opus Dei”. Escriva was closely associated with the fascist Spanish dictator Franco.
Opus Dei had a strong base in Latin America and under John Paul 11 acquired a pivotal role in the Vatican.
In contrast, the late Pope stalled the case for the canonisation of Archbishop Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated by right wing government forces at the altar of his cathedral and continues to be revered by the poor.
John Paul 11 was an apologist for the torturer Augusto Pinochet, who by a US-supported military coup brought down the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.
He attacked the democratically elected Sandanista government in Nicaragua, at a time when they were under military siege by CIA-backed Contras – this despite the Sandanista’s remarkable efforts to counter poverty and install effective health and literacy campaigns.
Small wonder that a grateful US President attended John Paul II’s funeral.
Unlike his predecessor, John Paul I – who in his tragically short pontificate undertook to end financial abuses within the Vatican – John Paul II did nothing to challenge the worst excesses of the Vatican Bank.
This may go some way to explaining why John Paul I – a gentle progressive – died in suspicious circumstances only 33 days after his election as pope, while his successor, who is alleged to have secretly siphoned Vatican funds to support favoured causes, was retained as Pope years after ill health robbed him of his powers.
John Paul II failed to address the issue of child abuse in the church, for many years instructing priests to keep the abuse secret. In a similar way he colluded to protect Hutu priests who actively participated in the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda.
But it was his position on contraception which did greatest damage. In 1964, Pope Paul VI formed a Papal Commission with a view to finding a way, without undermining the doctrine of Papal infallibility, to reverse the Church’s 1930 decision to ban contraception
The Commission overwhelmingly concluded that the doctrine should be changed. The then Karol Wojtyla (later John Paul II) produced a minority report which argued that if “contraception is not evil in itself, we should have to concede that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestants…”.
His arguments in defence of papal infallibility persuaded Paul VI to make no change. Thus were the health and freedom of generations of women sacrificed to defend papal power.
In the developed world many Catholics quietly ignored this absurd and cruel doctrine, but this was not an option available to many poor women or those in the undeveloped world. Countless numbers died and continue to die from rape, infection, repeated childbirth, and illegal and unsafe abortions.
Faced with the AIDS pandemic, the Church actively campaigned against condom use, deliberately misleading politicians and people about their efficacy.
Against World Health Organisation advice, the Pontifical Council for the Family insisted that condoms had tiny holes through which the virus could pass. As a result of such deceptions by this ‘pro-life’ Pope and his cohorts, millions of lives which could have been saved have been lost.
Now a new Pope is to be elected by the old Pope’s men. This Pope will be expected to strengthen conservative and patriarchal elements within the Church; provide a bulwark against Islam in Africa; undermine progressive governments in Latin America; and counter the determined secularism of western European states while weakening their resistance to American hegemony.
It’s likely that the late Pope’s meticulous planning will issue in the sort of successor that he would have wanted.
However, what the world really needs is a Pope who will follow the Gospel. Such a Pope would love his fellow human beings, open the church to the dispossessed and stand alongside the oppressed. He would accept human beings in their diversity, protect children from abuse, value women, accept gay relationships and defend all oppressed groups from attack.
The world needs a Pope who accepts that women and men have a right to control their fertility and with the courage and prophetic power to genuinely defend human rights.
Risking the mirth and mockery of lefties and sceptics, I will confess that I believe in the movement of the Holy Spirit in history. It’s usually glimpsed through the bravery and virtue of individuals or the corporate action of groups.
But, there are, I think, times when wholly unexpected things occur, when human history is given a collective shove forward. At such times individuals outstrip themselves and groups become much more than the sum of their parts. Occasionally, miracles happen.
If I was asked what I think is likely to come out of the Conclave, realistically I would have to say a right wing European or Latin American Pope, who will work with American interests.
But deep down, there is some part of me that hopes for the miracle – that amongst the 117 voting cardinals (including the 114 appointed by the Pope) there may be some
whose views have shifted and broadened and who may be capable of electing someone fitted to be a true servant of God and the people.
One thing is certain. If such a Pope is appointed, he will need to watch his back. He may trust in the Holy Spirit, but if he is wise it will be bodyguards upon whom he will rely.