Picture of a judge's wigThe Judge RANTS!Picture of a judge's wig

Date: 03/04/05

"...And Into The Hole He Goes..."

I'll be accused of being uncharitable, of course. Of being unfeeling, tactless, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and all that sort of stuff.

But the positive lather of media coverage of the death of Karol Wojtyła (aka 'John Paul II', which always looked to me like the title of the second album of a Beatles side-project) is setting my remaining teeth on edge. It's up to about 8.9 on the Dianameter already.

(There's another piece I may write sometime about our society's unhealthy obsession with death - or, rather, its wallowing in onion-sniffing, mawkish sentimentality which has its most visible component in the piles of flowers and soft toys which are left, almost as if in obedience to some obscure statute, at the scene of tragedies, however small in the cosmic scale).

Anyway, back to our Celebrity Corpse Of The Week. Like with the Princess-fest in 1997, the media coverage has been as hyperextended as a crocked footballer's knee ligaments. BBC Television News seems to have decamped entirely to Rome - Huw Edwards, Jeremy Bowen, Jon Sopel, they're all there to cover a story which could have been done perfectly appropriately with one reporter and a camera crew. Other broadcast news outlets have been similarly generous with their resources.

Of course, as in 1997, we have been given the 'pretty' version of Wojtyła's life, times and conduct: indeed, I'm only surprised that that simpering twerp Tony Blair didn't describe him as 'The People's Pope', although he may well do yet - there's plenty of time, and a substantial Catholic vote to court in order to save him from his just deserts.

So, let's have a wee bit of balance, shall we? Another fault of our age is that the media are blinded by those who are 'media-friendly', and they seek to pass that bedazzlement on to the rest of us.

Wojtyła was, of course, extremely media-savvy. The immediate comparison in my own mind is with Ronald Reagan, another world figure whose surface sheen disguised an ideological hinterland which varied from the vacuous via the daft to the downright vicious: and still there are people who think that Reagan was a greater president than Washington, Lincoln and FDR combined - it's certainly a strategy that works.

But what of Wojtyła? What was behind that smiling, gurning polyglot?

Some have credited him with the fall of 'Communism' in Eastern Europe. In the man's defence, he did state quite categorically that this was a foolish claim to make for him. But if the rise of Solidarność in Poland was the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire, then his backing of it certainly made him a key figure in subsequent events.

But then what? It is evident that Wojtyła was not happy with how things turned out. He clearly wanted Poland remade in the image of his own thinking. He was troubled by what 'freedom' had unleashed, and desired a Poland which would have been nothing much more than a medium-paced theocracy. That he was unable to deliver that outcome, even with his willing little helper Wałęsa in office, he would no doubt regard as his greatest failure.

He was very selective in his support of 'freedom', then. Certainly. This can be seen by events in the 1980s, when some priests in Latin America tried their best to stand up for the poor and oppressed of those nations who were, once more, suffering from the depredations of brutal dictatorships (all of them supported by the US) and the dreadful economic consequences of the endemic corruption typical of such regimes.

This, surely, was what Jesus would have done? Well, it wasn't what Wojtyła wanted. He ordered the priests to stop what they were doing at once, or face punishment or removal. They shouldn't, he said, get involved in 'politics'. The murder of Archbishop Romero by El Salvador's CIA-funded gangsters seemed to leave Wojtyła largely unmoved.

And yet there were few more involved in 'politics' than himself, especially when it involved the internal workings of the church. Over his 26 years in office, Wojtyła ensured the preferment of those of like mind into the College of Cardinals, thus helping to swing the odds in favour of his successor being of his own stamp. At the same time, he sought the removal from influence (and, indeed, from the church altogether) of clerics and theologians who dared gainsay any part of his own personal ideology.

He also seemed to be trying to assure himself of a quorum on The Other Side as well. This can be seen by the indecent haste with which he canonised Teresa of Calcutta (poor woman had scarcely had time to cool before she was elevated to sainthood). Similarly, his canonisation of Balaguer, one of the founders of the Opus Dei sect (which was an apologist for the murderous regime of Franco, amongst others) raised questions about Wojtyła's probity.

That he was an ideologue can be gauged by his behaviour in regard to ecumenism. The rapprochement with the English church, which was certainly novel in recent ages, cooled off very quickly when Wojtyła realised that he couldn't stop Canterbury doing things its way. His church's relationships with the Orthodox churches of Eastern Europe also foundered on his dogmatic behaviour, such as muscling in on their territory in Ukraine, for example. His stance was 'my way or nothing', a failure of mind shared by that other great religious philosopher of our times, George Walker Bush.

Although he preached much against poverty (and, while we're at it, could someone please tell Bono to shut the f*ck up!?), his church's financial, property and business holdings continued on a massive scale. And the one thing he could have done above anything else to ease the pressure on the world's resources - permit the use of reliable contraception by his followers - he could never bring himself to do.

This also has been a major factor in the spread of HIV and AIDS not being checked, especially in those countries in Africa with large Catholic populations. To Wojtyła, the condom was The Glove That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

Similar lack of a humane perspective has led to millions of people being trapped in violent marriages in countries where Catholic dogma still holds sway over the legislative process.

The bigotry of the church continued largely unabated under his rule. So it has continued to be possible for gay people to be told time and again that, in the church's eyes, they will burn in hell for their hideous crime of loving someone. And when the Catholic archbishop of England compares abortion to Nazi ideology, hardly anyone is at all surprised. And yet this is the pope who, for an unconscionable length of time, stalled and procrastinated about the vicious perverts amongst his priesthood, with damage done to individual victims and to the good name of his establishment which may never be undone and which, at least one hopes, will never be forgotten.

Karol Jozef Wojtyła brought an unaccustomed glamour to the papacy, then. But that blinded people to the fact that what lay beneath was the same, hyper-authoritarian, sexually-obsessed and arrogant narrowness which had long been there. His twenty-six years in office were one long missed opportunity to drag the Catholic church into the twenty-first century. Now instead, his successors will have the job of trying to tug it back into the twentieth.