The Judge RANTS!
"...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
(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
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
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.