By Michael E. Berumen 4-5-05
It might surprise some to know that I believe Pope John Paul II was one of the greatest men to have occupied the world stage over the last fifty years, both in terms of his personal character and his generally positive influence on world affairs. I am a non-Catholic. I do not believe there is a God. I also do not believe in the supernatural or in any kind of afterlife. What is more, with few exceptions and for most of its history, I think religion and religious belief have been largely harmful to scientific and political progress, and also to human relations and development. Christianity is no exception. With that said, I have long admired the late pope, even to the point of having read many of the things he has written and several accounts of his life. Of course, as in the case of other great persons in history, he is not without flaws, primarily in continuing several anachronistic policies and in not dealing aggressively with criminality in his own ranks. While I believe his strengths vastly outweigh his deficiencies, permit me to get some representatives of the latter out of the way.
Setting mysticism and theology aside - granting that is rather hard to do with a pope - I find John Paul II wanting on several major issues, and perhaps none more than his stance on birth control, especially regarding the use of condoms. The idea that sex ought only to be used for reproduction and only whilst in a state of marriage is unrealistic and, as the empirical evidence abundantly confirms, it is contrary to human nature, not to mention, prudish and silly. The notion that spermatozoa are sacred and wasted if not put to use is an unfortunate vestige of the Old Testament and of more recent expressions by St. Thomas. Aside from this superstition, the prohibition against birth control has had deleterious consequences to whole populations in impoverished parts of the world, and failure to use birth control has doomed many to lives of privation, and, even in more developed parts of the world, it has added to the number of unwanted and unloved among us. And, of course, having sex without condoms has contributed significantly to the spread of disease and the death of millions from AIDS, especially in developing nations.
Now, let me hasten to say, the pope himself did not cause these deaths from disease, nor did he cause world overpopulation, as some of his critics would seem to suggest. Ignorant people did. However, given his influence in the world, the pope's wrongheadedness certainly did not help when it could have.
While divorce ought not to be taken lightly, I believe the pope was wrong to not permit it, and that the Church's policy has caused a great deal of misery throughout the ages because of it. Moreover, the Church has administered the rule unfairly, for the privileged have often been able to annul their marriages while millions are doomed to lives of unhappiness.
I also think that the Vatican has been guilty of malfeasance in handling the sexual perfidy of priests in America. The Vatican's failure to deal more severely with the systematic cover-up by Church authorities in this country is an outrage. This undoubtedly has taken place in other places in the world, though it has not been exposed to the same degree. I also suspect this kind of thing has gone on for centuries in the Church, which, without due care, can easily become a haven for deviants. While failure to deal with it effectively is a blot on his pontificate, I think that some of the pope's personal missteps in this area can be attributed his declining health. Others do not have such an excuse.
I am not concerned about some of the issues that agitate some in the Catholic laity, especially in Western Europe and the United States. I strongly support civil rights for women and homosexuals; however, I do not much care if there are ever women priests or if homosexuality is one day sanctioned by the Church. It is up to the Church and its members to deal with these issues and to accept or change relevant Church doctrine. I suspect priests eventually will be allowed to marry; it will be necessary simply as a matter of survival. Homosexuals have an uphill battle for the foreseeable future.
Notwithstanding the aforesaid differences, I believe the late pontiff was profoundly correct on a number of social issues. For example, I think his views on abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are mostly right. I won't dwell on the several exceptions, here, for that would simply serve to obscure the central truth of his message. The pope's beliefs were principally grounded in religious principle; but his personal experiences with the Holocaust and in living in a slave society also enabled him to recognize the slippery slope of devaluing life through small steps. He was always consistent in fighting for the value of each individual, even individuals whom society would judge as lacking worth for any number of reasons. With stunning clarity of vision, John Paul II understood that society becomes increasingly brutalized when the lines for demarcating when life is worth living or sustaining are continually moved, and the definition of personhood is so easily changed in order to accommodate our ever-growing intolerance of inconvenience.
The pope also rightly saw through the evils of collectivism, including its inevitable squelching of the human spirit, and the oppressive nature of states that reach into every aspect of our lives. He had much to do with ending communism, both as pope and earlier as a prelate in Poland. Much is said about Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in bringing about the end of the Soviet Union and its stranglehold on Eastern Europe. It is no exaggeration to suggest that they helped to do this, though the Soviet economy was bound to implode from its inherent flaws. History will show, however, that the pope's role was greater than that of any single person in precipitating the dissolution of this evil system, for he convinced entire populations that they could cast off the yoke of totalitarianism and be free, thereby severing the psychological chains of the dictators, and setting the stage for liberation. This was especially true in Eastern Europe and, specifically, in Poland, where the Pope's influence and active support had much to do with the rise of the Solidarity movement, which led to the fall of the communist government there. This had a cascading effect throughout the Soviet Bloc and in the Soviet Union itself.
The pope was a relentless critic of societies and institutions that treat people as means to ends without considering their individual dignity or caring for their most fundamental needs. His essential messages were that each life had unique value and that we had obligations to one another. He was especially attentive to the downtrodden: the poor, the unloved, the hopeless, the helpless, and the sick. And while he effectively railed against collectivism, we must not lose sight of the fact that he also inveighed against the evils of "unbridled and savage capitalism," where the profit motive and property interests supersede the constraints of basic morality. While capitalism is allowed by morality, and socialism is certainly more problematical from a moral perspective, this does not mean the former is exempt from basic moral rules. The pope understood that economic efficiency does not trump all of our moral obligations, even when profits or property rights are adversely affected.
Pope John Paul II was a man of exemplary personal character and integrity. His was much more than a life of uttering noble sentiments from a position of power. Long before he was powerful or well known, his words and deeds were consistent with moral principle, even when he was under extraordinary pressure by the authoritarian regimes of the Nazis or Communists, which controlled his homeland. Not only did he courageously resist what others would not, he also went out of his way to minister to the needs of the least fortunate among us, often to the point of risking his own life.
He also did some things that were historic as head of Christianity's largest sect. For one thing, he apologized for Christianity's long and shameful history of persecuting the Jews and others. He is the first pope to make anti-Semitism a sin. The pontiff assiduously worked to build bridges to Protestants and people of all faiths, and he was persistent in reaching out with a message of humility, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and a love of mankind. Through all of this, he never pandered to popular opinion and was willing to take controversial stands when he believed principle required him to do so, but he nearly always emphasized the promotion of life rather than the condemnation of sinners, a subtle but important difference from many other religious leaders. Indeed, he would not turn away anyone he thought could further his mission for social justice, including tyrants and murderers, whom he would not hesitate to lecture on matters of principle, but was simultaneously ready to embrace for their own humanity, and, to the occasional dismay or disapproval of others, even forgive. To the shock of many, this same spirit motivated him to visit his would-be assassin's jail cell in order to express his love and forgiveness.
Throughout the turbulent history of mankind, no single person, in my view, has used both the world stage and his personal authority more effectively across diverse populations and beliefs to promote tolerance and human kindness, and to discourage hatred and violence. He was a master communicator, and he made use of all of his personal powers, jet-age transportation, and modern communications technology to get his message out to hundreds of millions of people. This alone makes him unique and great among men.
Of course, it is well established that the pope was a learned man. He respected science; indeed, among other things, he acknowledged natural selection and evolution as correct, something a many other religious leaders have stupidly denied. He also admitted to the Church's role in blocking human knowledge in history, most notably in the case of Galileo. He was an extraordinary linguist and could speak eight to ten languages fluently, and he was able to get by in as many more. He was a gifted writer, a teacher, a poet, a playwright, and an actor, and he was well versed in philosophy, literature, and theology. Even so, he was no detached, ivory tower intellectual. Not only was he well acquainted with popular culture, more importantly, he understood and identified with the lives of ordinary people. They were not mere abstractions for him; he understood them and cared about them viscerally.
Finally, the pope always seemed to me to be a very kind and happy person. There was none of that supercilious and phony piety that so many religious leaders have. He found genuine joy by being around people from all walks of life, whether they were low or mighty, young or old, sinners or saints, and in living every breath of life to its fullest, notwithstanding its inevitable tribulations. The suffering of others moved him, and he devoted his life to finding ways to reduce it. He was no stranger to suffering himself. He lost all of his immediate family in his youth; many of his friends were taken away to death camps; he nearly died as the victim of an assassin's bullet; and he endured considerable pain from several illnesses during the last decade. Through it all, though, he never wallowed in self-pity; he had no time for it, for he saw that others were in need. I am one non-believer who loved this pope. I feel an overwhelming sense of grief in losing this great and good man. May he rest in peace.