John Paul II was a reactionary pope

Reaping the gains of his own time in office, John Paul II – who during his pontificate named more saints than the previous five centuries’ worth of popes – was canonised ten days ago. Recalling him fondly, especially for Catholics, is easy after eight years of Pope Benedict, so personally unpleasant and unpopular that he became the first man since the 1400s to give up the post. (Health fears, his official motivation, had not deterred any pontiff since then, John Paul included.)

Lesser evil though he may have been, we shouldn’t rewrite history to lionise the Polish pope, under whom the regress on so-called sexual morality began which has made the Church a bête noire; there can be little doubt, additionally, that Benedict’s witch-hunt as a cardinal for liberation theologians played out with his approval, since John Paul, well known as an opponent of the movement, packed South America with conservative bishops.

A better candidate for tribute is ex-Catholic writer Barbara Smoker, now in her tenth decade, president from 1971 to 1996 of the National Secular Society. With the publishers’ permission, I’m reprinting here an article of hers from the Freethinker of August 1998. Beyond her indictment of JP2, what’s striking is how wrong her predictions – shared, at the time, by many – turned out to be. A fundamentalist like Benedict wasn’t the expected replacement: without John Paul’s, his papacy could never have been a reality. 

While the Anglican churches were openly debating outmoded sexual restrictions at their international convention in Canterbury in July, and its host archbishop was making a fool of himself on the same subject in the pages of The Times, the Pope must have preened himself on having been able to get in first with his recent ‘apostolic letter’, Ad tuendam fidem (‘In Defence of the Faith’) – without any need for public consultation, agenda papers or proposals put to the vote.

The Guardian front-paged the document on July 2 under the headline ‘Pope turns on liberal Catholics’, and it is certainly designed to gag some of the more progressive theologians on these issues. But whether it will make much practical difference is another matter, since not only does the claim of papal infallibility ring increasingly hollow, but the Church no longer has the power to burn dissidents at the stake, and there can be few who regard excommunication as a fate worse than death.

Not that the document states anything new – quite the contrary.

It is really no more than a technical device to enshrine in canon law the traditional Vatican stand on such issues as artificial contraception, abortion, voluntary euthanasia, the medical and experimental use of foetal tissue and embryos, priestly celibacy, ‘family values’ and women priests – a stand which the Pope had already reiterated less formally in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (‘The Gospel of Life’), published in 1995.

In January 1989, a theological crisis was precipitated by the dissident document known as the Declaration of Cologne, signed by 163 North European (German, Austrian, Dutch and Swiss) theologians and later supported by many more. It demanded, inter alia, a modification of the total ban on contraception, and the 1995 encyclical was partly a put-down of that demand.

Then fifty-thousand women converged on Beijing, for the fourth United Nations Conference on women. As expected, the greatest controversy was on the worldwide campaign for greater access to contraception and for legal abortion, predictably opposed by delegates both from Catholic countries and from a number of conservative Muslim countries – in temporary alliance, as they had been on the same issue at the Earth Summit in Cairo. On abortion, they were also supported by a few fundamentalist Protestants, including two British delegates from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. But they were severely trounced by the liberal camp, spearheaded by Platform for Action and backed by a large majority of the delegates, including those of the European Union, with a more responsible attitude towards the world’s population explosion.

The Vatican itself sent a large delegation to Beijing – surprisingly headed by an American woman law professor, Mary Ann Glendon. She loudly proclaimed equal rights for women, while aiming to deny them rights over their own bodies.

Homosexuals in almost every Christian sect are made to feel guilty about their own nature, and homosexual Catholic priests particularly so. The next pope might well be less intransigent on this issue than the present one. In particular, the use of condoms by gays, included in the Vatican’s blanket ban on condoms – except for the perforated ones used in obtaining semen from husbands for IVF – is obviously crucial in preventing the spread of HIV; but the Pope will not compromise his insistence on total gay celibacy.

How long can the Vatican stand out against the tide of social history? The present pope will never change; but he can live for only a few more years. Younger members of the College of Cardinals, though chosen finally by the pope, are inevitably less reactionary on sexual matters than those too old to have a vote, and are ready for a change of policy; so the next pope is likely to be comparatively permissive.

The 800-year-old rule of clerical celibacy will almost certainly be made voluntary, if only because Catholic bishops are desperate about the multitude of priests leaving the priesthood. In the USA they are said to number 42 percent, of whom 90 per cent blame the celibacy mandate for their leaving. Besides, all the recent publicity given to the widespread sexual malpractices of priests, both with women and with vulnerable boys, points to the advisability of making celibacy voluntary. During the pontificate of Paul VI (1963-78), the requests of priests for laicisation so as to marry were received sympathetically, but the present Pope put a stop to this laxity and made it much more difficult for a priest to leave the priesthood without being excommunicated – apparently failing to predict that this would inevitably mean a rise in incidence of priestly ‘affairs’, not to mention child-abuse.

Acceptance of women to the priesthood will not be far behind a relaxation on celibacy for priests, if not for gays. There are several reasons for this – including the shortage of priests, political correctness on sex equality, and the desire for expansion through rapprochement with the Anglican communion.

The acceptance of artificial contraception – at least by certain methods – is also likely to follow closely on the election of the next pope, but the prohibition on abortion, widely disobeyed though it is, will almost certainly persist.

Sexuality has always loomed large in the problems that beset Mother Church – from the neurotic hang-ups of St. Paul, through the sexual scandals of the medieval papal court and of supposedly celibate clergy and monastics, through the Anglican schism triggered by Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn, to the insidious rebellion of millions of Catholic women against the Vatican’s continued ban on artificial contraception.

Comparatively flexible as the Anglican Communion is, the divergences exposed in the Lambeth Conference last month are making it difficult to hold together the Sea of Faith theologians at the one extreme and some of the fundamentalist African bishops at the other. There was a time when WASPs could afford to ignore African opinion, but now it represents their only strong growth area – as, coincidentally, it also does for the Church of Rome – and most of the African Christian converts, of both denominations, are as reactionary on sexual politics as the Pope himself.




  1. busterggi says

    I could be wrong but wasn’t the last non-reactionary pope Joan the 1st?

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