Even allowing for the predictable saturation coverage by the media, the death of Pope John Paul II does seem to have touched a genuine chord of grief and respect.
Certainly John Paul reached out beyond the traditional enclave of the faithful.
Probably the most admirable single aspect of his pontificate was the sustained effort he took to apologise for the Catholic church’s role in creating and fuelling anti-Semitism.
And he won the respect of the Muslim world for the firmness with which he championed the Palestinian cause and denounced the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. His constant refrain — “Never again war!” — had the authority of a man who had endured the Second World War in one of its greatest victims, Poland.
But against all this has to be set John Paul’s shameful record of entrenching the most reactionary aspects of traditional Catholic teaching on, for example, women priests, contraception and abortion.
We have to see John Paul in the context of Poland, a country subordinated to neighbouring empires for two centuries. The strength of Polish Catholicism derived from the church’s role as one of the main sources of national identity.
John Paul brought this spirit of a vigorous but embattled Catholicism into the Vatican when he was elected pope in 1978. He didn’t take up where the Second Vatican Council had left off in the 1960s and seek to reconcile Catholicism and modernity. He was much closer to Pope Leo XIII, who in 1891 issued an encyclical called Rerum Novarum (Of the New Things). Leo saw modernity as a threat to Catholicism.
John Paul II’s worldview provided the Polish church with an ideological basis for resisting the Stalinist regime that was installed by Moscow after 1945.
It is, however, ridiculous to claim, as Tim Garton Ash did in Monday’s Guardian, that John Paul “destroyed communism”. In fact, in 1980-1, the Polish Catholic hierarchy consistently encouraged the Solidarnosc workers’ movement to negotiate with the regime, thereby opening the door to the military coup that broke Solidarnosc in December 1981.
In 1991, after the final fall of the Stalinist regimes, John Paul strongly condemned the increasing dominance of unrestrained free market capitalism. “It is right to speak of a struggle against an economic system, if the latter is understood as a method of upholding the absolute predominance of capital,” the pope wrote, in words that scandalised the Wall Street Journal.
But he went on to make it clear that his alternative was “not the socialist system, which in fact turns out to be state capitalism”, but a society where the market was regulated. And critically, like Leo XIII, John Paul believed that a proper society was one where paternal authority reigned.
John Paul condemned socialism — quite wrongly — for suppressing “the concept of the person as the autonomous subject of moral decision”. But he had no qualms about denying ordinary Catholics freedom of choice in the realm of their own sexuality.
This paternalism extended right throughout John Paul’s papacy. Many of the great names of 20th century Catholic theology — Kung, Schillebeecks, Gutierrez, Boff — were forced to choose between submission and abandoning the priesthood. The Vatican clamped down hard on the liberation theology of Latin America.
Meanwhile John Paul promoted some of the most regressive aspects of Catholic folk religion, creating more saints than all his predecessors combined. As Terry Eagleton points out, “The pope canonised Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, at least nine of whose members sat in Franco’s cabinet, but he did not canonise Archbishop Oscar Romero, champion of El Salvador’s poor, gunned down by soldiers while saying mass.”
John Paul leaves a highly contradictory legacy. He could powerfully dramatise the injustices of the world. But he promoted the illusion that these could only be remedied within a Catholic church that under his leadership was still in flight from the modern world.