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Possibly his final great act

I am watching the televised appearance of Pope John Paul at the Vatican at the moment. The old fella has only been able to say a few words for his regular Easter message to the masses thronging below in St Peter’s Square. It cannot surely be very long before he steps off this mortal coil.

How should yours truly, a lapsed Anglican, think about what this man represents? Well, I am going to put any reflections on his contribution to the Catholic church, or his views about abortion, etc, to one side and focus on a more worldly fact about his extraordinary life and career. The Pope was, in my view, one of the three or four great men (and one great woman) who helped bring the Soviet Union, that evil and decrepit empire, crashing to its knees. Along with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Gorbachev and arguably, the power of cheap television advertising, the Pope helped bring about communism’s demise.

I do not share the Pope’s faith, but in reflecting on his life on this Easter Sunday, it was hard not to suppress a lump in the throat. In my book, he is one of the giants of our age.

45 comments to Possibly his final great act

  • Dale Amon

    I recently read the fictional tale built around the facts of his attempted assasination by the Soviets: Tom Clancy’s “Red Rabbit”. Great fun.

    I had totally forgotten about the Pope’s courageous stand behind his Polish people at a key time in history. I use the word courageous in the real, old fashioned sense. He put his life on the line in the cause of liberty and did so of his own free will.

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Are you sure you want to honor Gorbachev in light of what he did to Lithuania?

    Better to honor the average people of East Germany for what they did. I spent the summer of 1989 in (West) Germany visiting my relatives, and one of my abiding memories is of the tent cities East Germans had set up on the West German embassy grounds in other Communist bloc capitals.

  • JPII also drove crypto-Marxism out of the Latin American Division of the Catholic Church.

    More important than you might think, remember how the Sandinistas tried to fuse Che and Jesus?

    He understood the nature of totalitarianism. The modern church has gone some way to make redress for the sins of the church of the dark ages…

  • Julian Morrison

    On abortion and whatnot – this even from an atheist who supports it – I admire what he’s done immensely. The guy has held the Catholic church together as a distinct and coherent voice, against huge pressure to join the left-libertine academic consensus. The Catholics have (elegant and intricate) reasons for their their dogmas; given their premises they can’t just throw away the conclusions. That’s what any surrender would have meant: to take political correctness as a higher axiom. Doctrinal collapse and loss of uniqueness would have been the result – contrast the C. of E.

  • As an ex-Catholic myself, I think he has been fairly appalling.

    From ignoring the Holocaust to blatant and disastrous oppression of women and gay people, to greeting Jean-Marie le Pen like an old friend, to hushing up children’s experiences of sexual abuse by Catholic priests…

    He has done the world (me included) a lot of damage and however ill he is I can’t look beyond that.

  • Matt O'Halloran

    Stalin jeered: ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ This Pope proved that no amount of divisions can save the Stalins when their time is up, and that whether the Church stands or falls does not depend on divisions either.

  • Julian gets it right. The man held the line on what the Catholic Church is or has been and alwyays claimed to be. And if had failed to do so, he would have been giving in to the wrong people at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.

    Hippie, unfortunately, misses the point. Gay people or women are not “oppressed” by Catholicism in this day and age, anyway. The Middle Ages are long over. Gays and women and everybody else are free to do as they wish. They just can’t call themselves Catholics, if their conduct violates the teaching of the Church. How hard a stardard is that to live with? So, like everyone, they have to ask themselves what is more important, their identity as Catholics or whatever else it is that they are interested in doing, or feel impelled to do, or define themselves as. Libertarians of all people should appreciate that life is about making choices and taking the consequences, of allowing people who voluntarily associate, like a church, to set their own standards for participation. The idea that the Catholic Church was ever going to say anything about homosexual conduct other than what it has always said, that it is a sin, was never in the cards.

    The idea that the Pope inflicted “a lot of damage” on hippie is funny. If a person does not want to follow the moral rules of the Catholic Church I can say with certainty that there is no enforcement mechanism whatsoever. You can come back of your own free will, as I did, or stay out, as I did for a long time. The door bis always open, whether to leave or to come back. If merely hearing someone criticize your conduct is “damage” then I don’t think hippie has a very strong commitment to robust free speech. Nor does he have a well-formed idea of what it means to carry the cross. Usually it means you have to give up things you are very attached to, which is hard. But Jesus in the Gospels is very clear that it will hard. Christianity is a demanding religion. When it pretends it isn’t, it is not being true to itself and everybody knows it.

    The other critiques I’ll leave aside.

  • Wild Pegasus

    From an atheist, I think Pope John Paul II is the greatest human being of the century. He did more to fight the communist scourge than anyone, both through excising it out of the RCC and by providing moral leadership and hope to those behind the Iron Curtain. He is a hero.

    - Josh

  • Jacob

    As a non-ex-Cristian atheist, I can’t see any exceptional greatness or courage in this Pope. He was ok, generally speaking. He took a principled stand against communism, but – I think – so did all the Popes, and I can’t imagine it being otherwise given the rabidly anti-religious and anti clerical communist principles. He, and the church, do not uphold individual freedom; what they uphold is religion and Catholicism. That’s their job description.

    He (or his cardinals) also received cordially beyond the call of duty, not only Le Pen, but also Nobel Prize winner (for terrorism) Arafat.

    This is not meant as a critique. It’s only meant to say that I’m a little baffled by fans who proclaim him a great personage. I can’t see how he was greater than any other pope.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    In an age of immorality, it’s important to have figures of moral stature to provide a role model for those who’d never arrive at the premises on their own.

    The Pope was a good man, despite his failings. But his failings are part of who he is, and he is only human. Let’s be glad he was around to make the world a better place.

    TWG

  • James

    I guess I must be viewing a different Pope to most of the people here. How he can be called a hero I find very strange.

    He’s done a fairly sweet job of alienating most of the other creeds while stating that all creeds should seek to work together the whole ‘we love all faiths, but you’re all completely wrong and therefore damned’ debacle of a few years ago. And to those who think he’s kept Catholic doctrine intact, you’ve never visited my home, nor Britian I’d expect. Or modern Italy, for that matter. Doctrine is intact in the Vatican maybe, but it’s become far removed from how Catholics lead their lives. And that’s before we even get to the Holocaust, child abuse scandals, attacks on scientific research, attempts to subvert the EU Constitution (if such a thing is possible). If he was a Labour or Tory MP, you lot would be condemning him, and rightly so.

    And as for helping end Communism? Puhleeze. Catholicism has always had a very strong connection to Socialist ideals where I’m from, and in general the Church has shown itself to be very anti-capitalist. Reagan would be spinning in his grave. Lech Walesa deserves far more credit than this pontiff for directly tackling the wrongs of Communism.

  • James

    This Pope proved that no amount of divisions can save the Stalins when their time is up,

    Er, no. In all fairness, men like Reagan and Bush did that.

  • Della

    Given Pope John Paul II’s influential position his crusade against condoms probably means that he is the man who has done the most to help the spread of AIDS. His and Goerge Bush’s crusade against Gay Marriage show their hearts twisted by hate. PJPII so far as I remember didn’t have much to do with the fall of communism, he certainly can’t claim credit for it. His church’s covering up of rampant child sex abuse by his clergy has to be one of the greatest scandals in any church in modern times. His campaign against woman priests shows him to be a sexist.

    Pope JPII:

    “Contraception is to be judged objectively so illicit,” said the Pope, “that it can never, for any reason be justified.”

    Deaths Outnumber Births as AIDS Ravages Southern Africa

    “In Southern Africa, described as the region with the highest prevalence of the deadly disease, life expectancy has fallen sharply: from 62 years in 1990-1995 to 48 years in 2000-2005″

    “The average life span in that region is also projected to decrease further: to about 43 years over the next decade

  • James

    I fairness to Lexington Green, he does have an airtight point regarding the fact that you can ‘take it or leave it’ when it comes to following Catholic doctrine (but not if you expect to remain a Catholic, which is fair enough). The same can be said for any religious doctrine for that matter. Provided you’re happy enough with being stoned or damned to death, that is :)

    However, while the Pope’s stance on condoms and other such matters are his own business, his use of his considerable influence and power to ultimately have non-Catholics subjected to his concept of morality, whether by global treaty or more local statute, and irrespective of his success or failure in such efforts, is reprehensible.

    I feel sympathy for him solely on the issue of his failing health. I dislike seeing another human suffer. But it ends there, for me.

  • Dale Amon

    If John Paul was so unimportant, why did the KGB try to have him done in just at the time he was threatening to resign as Pope and return to Poland if the changes there were interfered with? He laid his life on the line for his people and very nearly lost it.

    Yeah, there is much he has done within his church that I would not agree with if I were within his church. But I am not. You freely associate and freely dissociate. If you don’t like what the Catholic Church stands for, there are plenty of other churches out there. I’ve loads of friends who ended up Unitarian for example. Some of the commenters here who dislike his stands on certain issues sound more like they belong there than in a highly conservative 2000 year old institution.

    Hey, they must be doing something right. Can you think of anything else on Earth that is a going concern after that time span? (A century ago the Chinese Emporor would have had them beaten by a wide margin, but Dear Comrade Mao took care of that…)

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Dale,

    The last Chinese emperor was dethroned about 35 years before Mao came to power.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    I agree with James. Lech Walesa is a far greater hero than JPII. Walesa’s stance was so courageous due to his proximity to Soviet security forces – he was in the Devil’s lair and quite frankly it’s remarkable he didn’t disappear. He must have been aware of his likely death at the hands of the intelligence apparatus, and yet he persevered. The Pope, on the other hand, would have known that he’d attract the ire of the Communists and that they might try to do him in. However, located deep in Western Europe, constantly surrounded by Swiss guards and heavy protection, it was a much safer bet than Walesa’s.

    The 1981 assassination attempt cannot be conclusively termed a Soviet effort – I’m not saying it definitely wasn’t but we have nothing more than conspiracy theories at this stage. How many serious attempts were made at Walesa’s life that have never been documented? I’d imagine quite a few.

    JPII was useful in agitating the Poles against their Soviet masters. I don’t think this makes him a great hero – a man in his position doesn’t have much to lose by railing against godless communists – he was just the right man in the right place at the right time.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Ted,

    Thanks for clearing that up; I was sleepless with concern.

  • Musrum

    I’m with ‘Hippie’ on this one. As an ex Catholic I have long regarded this particular Pope as one of the most dangerous men in the world. As for his understanding ‘the nature of totalitarianism’, this should come as no surprise given the dictatorial nature of the religion itself. Not for nothing do many such as I regard Catholicism as the supernatural equivalent of secular fascism. In such circumstances, this Pope’s understanding can also hardly be considered a virtue – it’s par for the course.

    Oh – happy Easter !!

  • Winzeler

    However, while the Pope’s stance on condoms and other such matters are his own business, his use of his considerable influence and power to ultimately have non-Catholics subjected to his concept of morality, whether by global treaty or more local statute, and irrespective of his success or failure in such efforts, is reprehensible.

    What do you know, James? We TOTALLY agree. One of (if not one, THE) the most reprehensible things any Christian or psuedo-Christian can do is try to dictate the behavior of non-believers. The ones that are trying to do this are damaging the reputation of the church more than anything in my estimation. Furthermore, there is absolutely no biblical precedent for it. Christ had the religious leaders of the day throw a woman caught in the act of adultery at his feet. They asked him if they should stone her. (It appeared to be lawful, until you recognize that the particular law they were depending on applied only to people who had entered into the covenant of it.) Jesus replied by saying, “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” They all left. Jesus looked up at the woman and said, “Where are your accusers?” She told him they left, and, get this, Jesus said, “NEITHER DO I CONDEMN YOU. Go and sin no more.” Any Christian whose read their Bible (especially this account) and decides to attempt to manipulate the behavior of non-Christians, without first trying to point them to the grace of Jesus Christ, is violating the precedent set forth by their own Savior.

    A word to any Christians reading this, DON’T DO IT.

  • Winzeler

    That said, I have no idea what kind of man JPII was.

  • dearieme

    Surely there is one thing that all of the above can agree on: by the lamentable standard of Popes past, he was a pretty impressive chap.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Have you heard the joke (Winzeler, I’m going to pinch your text) :

    Christ had the religious leaders of the day throw a woman caught in the act of adultery at his feet. They asked him if they should stone her. Jesus replied by saying, “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” Suddenly an enormous rock came flying out of nowhere and squashed the woman flat! Jesus turned around, saw who threw the stone and said “Dammit, mum!!”

  • Winzeler

    Mother Mary as sinless? I don’t think so. Now if God had thrown the stone (or Jesus himself)…maybe. Still a good one, though.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Don’t Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims all think she’s sinless…?

  • Winzeler

    I can’t speak for everyone else, but the Bible gives no clue that she was. There is evidence to the contrary. (i.e. Romans 3:23, John 2:1-5) She couldn’t be sinless unless she was the offspring of God. It all has to do with blood. The sin is in the life, the life is in the blood, and the blood comes from the father. (This is a very unjustly short answer to a big question.)

  • RPW

    “One of (if not one, THE) the most reprehensible things any Christian or psuedo-Christian can do is try to dictate the behavior of non-believers.”

    ” A word to any Christians reading this, DON’T DO IT.”

    But it’s perfectly alright if Muslim, Jews, Hindus or Atheists do it, I suppose? And it would help if you read your own post – yes, Jesus didn’t condemn, but he also said that the sinning had to stop.

    Oh and as for the subject of the debate, count me as one of JPII’s non-Catholic admirers…

  • Winzeler

    We don’t know for sure, but there seemed to be no enforcement to Jesus’ instruction. Ergo, it was not dictation.

    It’s not alright if anyone does it. That’s why I’m a libertarian.

  • RPW: Jews don’t do it. Never heard of Hindus doing it, but I don’t know for a fact.

  • Johnathan

    As Dale Amon reminded me at the top of this thread, the KGB tried to have the Pope killed, which indicates that he was not just another official in the Vatican, but a figure of importance. That surely says something.

    I was ranking him according to worldly considerations. As far as his doctrinal views on contraception etc are concerned, I am less impressed.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Johnathan – To my knowledge, there is no hard evidence that the KGB was involved. If there was it would have become a very high level diplomatic incident. Soviet influence in the attempted assassination is mere speculation when taken beyond the realms of conspiracy-theory websites.

  • RPW

    “RPW: Jews don’t do it. Never heard of Hindus doing it, but I don’t know for a fact. ”

    Alisa, Jews certainly are not in the big leagues at this sort of thing, but it’s not true to say they never do it unfortunately – to take one example from my own personal experience, the last time I was in Israel (some years ago now, sadly) there was an ongoing controversy in the local media about how some activists were attempting to close down pig farms owned by members of the local Christian minority which were producing products for their own community on the grounds that pigs are “unclean” in Jewish law. A small example true, but still an example of the “my religion gives me the right to restrict your freedom” mentality. To be fair, I don’t think the move got very far (though whether that is down to tolerance of the Christian minority or the popularity of “white steak” in more secular areas I have no idea…).

    As for Hinduism, I’m afraid so – there is an extremely nasty Hindu nationalist fringe movement which is not above such things as destroying Mosques and staging anti-Muslim pogroms (Muslims are the largest and most visible religious minority in India so tend to get the worst of Hindu fanaticism).

    Winzeler, if it’s not alright if anyone does it, then why pick on Christians? At least the Vatican’s diplomats are attempting to use persuasion to convince others of their views rather than, say, filleting their critics on a city street.

  • Alas the Church that JPII has overseen has got a bit wobbly since the demise of Communism.

    First of all he called the Renaissance the biggest evil of the last millenia, which is almost unspeakable in its idiocy. And then there is the problem of AIDS in Africa. Thanks to the Catholics Church’s unrealistic stance on condoms; he and his church of condemned hundreds of thousands possibly millions to death.

  • Johnathan

    I’m Suffering, I stand corrected. That said, it would not surprise me at all if the KGB, during the fag end of the Soviet Empire, had tried to knock the Pope off. As far as they were concerned, the man was a pain in the rear end.

    Andrew, correct sir. My post was most definitely not intended as some sort of blanket love message to the Pope, who, like a lot of other religious leaders, has said some incredibly dumb things about capitalism, science, human rights, etc.

  • Winzeler

    RPW, I’m a Christian (a serious one). I have studied the Bible quite extensively, and have chosen to submit my life to the God that has revealed himself in the Bible. I can make the claim that Christians shouldn’t be doing that stuff because I know what their authoritative document says about the issue. I have no thorough knowledge of the Muslim texts, Hindu texts, Buddhist texts, or any other religion, so I am not qualified to offer them suggestions within the guidelines of their religions.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Andrew Ian Dodge:

    First of all he called the Renaissance the biggest evil of the last millenia

    Did he REALLY say that? Makes me shake my head in awe at the sheer scale of historical wrongheadedness and ingratitude. That he’s such an important international figure and his religion (Christianity, not just RC) is in ascendance across the globe is partially due to the radical societal transformation that accompanied the Renaissance.

  • RPW: good point. Now that I think about it, Jews probably don’t do it all that often simply because we are not numerous enough. To be sure, that kind of behavior totally contradicts the teachings of Judaism, but so what.

    BTW, I don’t think that it says anywhere that pigs cannot be grown, only that they cannot be eaten. I think the real reason they wanted to restrict it is precisely the popularity of the “white steak” (LOL! I see you did spend some time in Israel:-)) among the secular Israelis.

  • I.S.f.M.A. it appeared in his millenial message. Jonathan; point taken.

  • RPW

    Alisa,

    It’s against the teachings of Christianity too (the meaning of the story Winzeler quoted is surely that whereas teaching and persuasion are acceptable means to an end, compulsion is not). But as you say, so what? The best of beliefs and ideas still have to be implemented by imperfect human beings.

    Winzeler, ta for clearing that up – I got the misguided impression from your previous posts that you were one of these people who think it is trendy to blame Christians for all the worlds ills. Apologies for the error. I do think you need to be aware though that somebody seeking to use persuasion and teaching in support of a goal you disapprove of is still using persuasion and teaching, and not compulsion. After all, as Stalin observed, the Pope has no divisions.

  • Winzeler

    Aye, and contrary to what public school systems think the best way to teach is not consequences and rewards, but illumination.

  • xavras

    first of all, the Pope’s influence on the cold war’s ending in Poland is myuch bigger than Walesas. Walesa and the anticommunist opposition could only operate in Poland under the protection of the catholic church. There would be no ’round table’ or the democratic changes in Poland without the influence of Jean Paul II. Without protecion from the church, Walesa would surely have been a victim of a horrible route accident, like many dissidents before.
    We in Poland often joke that 3 persons brought down the wall; the Pope, Ronald Reagan, and Lech Walesa…

  • James

    first of all, the Pope’s influence on the cold war’s ending in Poland is myuch bigger than Walesas. Walesa and the anticommunist opposition could only operate in Poland under the protection of the catholic church. There would be no ’round table’ or the democratic changes in Poland without the influence of Jean Paul II. Without protecion from the church, Walesa would surely have been a victim of a horrible route accident, like many dissidents before.
    We in Poland often joke that 3 persons brought down the wall; the Pope, Ronald Reagan, and Lech Walesa…

    I see your point. But we don’t credit Reagans’ bodyguards with bringing down Communism. The same goes for the Church if they acted in a ‘muscle’ capacity, although we should rightly consider it a noble act if they did provide his “protection”.

  • James

    Suddenly an enormous rock came flying out of nowhere and squashed the woman flat! Jesus turned around, saw who threw the stone and said “Dammit, mum!!”

    Or pehaps, “Who threw that?!?, Who threw that?? ….Are there any women here?…”

  • James

    A word to any Christians reading this, DON’T DO IT.

    Completely agreed. And in deferrence to others who’ve mentioned other creeds (and those of none) – DON’T DO IT EITHER!

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Xavras – I suppose you could say Walesa and the Pope were both essential components in the fall of communism in Poland, and hence the rest of Eastern Europe. However one man was clearly in greater danger than the other. This is why Walesa’s so heroic. Like I said above, there’s nothing remarkable about a Pope railing against godless Communists.

    However IF – and that’s a big “if” – the Bishops who selected a Polish Pope* did so in the hope that he would agitate against the Soviets in Poland simply because he was Polish, well, they deserve immense credit for their farsightedness. Moreso than JPII, who – as someone remarked above – was pretty much following the job description.

    *the first non-Italian in how many years? Or the first non-Italian ever?