Sunday, April 03, 2005

The Leadership of Pope John Paul II: The Good, the Bad

The death of Pope John Paul II necessitates not only a mourning of this loss but also an examination of his positive and negative contributions as pope. Although I can't claim to have as much of an investment in the office of pope in a spiritual sense, since I am not Catholic, the decisions of popes to involve themselves in political questions, and more personally, with other religions like my religion, Judaism, incites myself and many others to feel invested in the type of person who holds the papacy.

Thus, as Rabbi Michael Lerner said in a recent article in the Jewish magazine Tikkun

It is the Jewish tradition that in remembering the dead, we talk honestly and not just say the good things. In fact, we consider it more of a respecting of the dead to acknowledge the full picture, and not only say what we admired, but also what challenged us. And we do that starting with the first times that we talk about the dead, in the eulogy, and during the period of mourning. Our tradition teaches us that it is this honest accounting that allows us to return from sadness in a healthy way, rather than by covering up parts that disappointed us or hurt us.

In this regard, Pope John Paul II put forth several great achievements but, unfortunately, made a lot of regressive decisions as well.

On the one hand, as Lerner says,

On the positive side, he continued and reaffirmed the strong Catholic teachings on the importance of social justice. He advanced the connection between Catholics and Jews and took some important steps to symbolically affirm the sisterhood of Christianity and Judaism. He made symbolic gestures of recognition of Islam. He courageously stood up to communist dictators in Poland and the military junta in Brazil, pleaded for an end to the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, went to Japan and denounced nuclear war. He took a step toward modeling forgiveness by visiting in jail the person who tried to kill him. He called for reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of many good deeds and positive values he espoused.

On the other hand,
Rather than widening and building on that spirit of liberalization by taking actions like including women in the priesthood, allowing priests to marry, welcoming homosexuals into the church, this pope not only reaffirmed the most sexually repressive aspects of his tradition (few of them actually based in biblical texts) but also elevated these issues into the central issues of loyalty to the church.

Also supported beatifying Nazi sympathizer and enabler Pope Pius XII.
-Interefered to prevent a U.N. Resolution in Cairo in 1994 that favored abortion rights and contraception, among other things, to redress population problems
-Promoted the use of a politician's stance on sexual issues, especially abortion as a "litmus test" to determine their alleigance to the Catholic Church, which for instancee, allowed reactionary American Catholics leaders not to allow Presidential candidate John Kerry sacraments
-As Lerner says about this,
Why did they not take that same position in regard to supporting capital punishment, voting for wars, voting to give more funding to military preparations than to helping the poor?

Lerner concludes his article with a humble and eloquent extension of solidarity to Catholics:
So it is actually only because I feel a strong solidarity, an intrinsic connection, between my own connection to God and the connection to God of the Catholic world, and a strong affirmation of all that is deeply beautiful and moving in the Cahtolic tradition, that I feel a need to speak the deepest truth that I know as we witness a global mourning that partly obscures the reality of this pope and his legacy.

I will leave it at that.


Steph said...

I have to preface my comment w/ my strong reaction that I think this criticism feels a little callous coming the day after the Pope died. I consider myself an ambivalent Catholic, but I do still feel as if someone I have a connection to died...and w/ that come feelings of loss and grief.

That being said, I agree that all leaders should be looked back upon with a lens that recognizes both the good, the bad, and the ugly. I actually was going to write a blog entry about how I realized the other day that Franklin D. Roosevelt, considered one of the most socially progressive and adored leaders in U.S. history, actually ordered the Executive Order 9066 that called for the Japanese internment. And Abraham Lincoln? He was actually a racist, believing that Blacks are unequal in intellect and capability to Whites.

I digress. I think that while the Pope's legacy does include a preservation of conservative positions on issues such as abortion, contraceptives, issues of the clergy (women being included, allowing priests to marry), etc...I don't think that it's entirely fair to wag a finger at the Pope for THE RELIGION'S conservatism. I really don't expect any Popes in the future to start saying abortion is ok.

I recognize that the Pope has the most singular influence on the direction of the religion and that most religion today is never I do have hope that the leaders of the Catholic Church will be moved to take on more liberal views in the future. But at the same time, what's the problem if it's not your religion? That's why lots of people convert from Catholicism.

As your article points out, Pope John Paul II was enormously progressive in building alliances between formerly acrimonious relationships with other religions, his commitment to social justice and poverty, and influencing the fall of communism in Poland. He did not defend the Church's own stewards' egregious acts of pedophilia and child abuse. The Pope took other steps in humanizing the Catholic Church by recognizing its past and present sins. In his "Mea Culpa" of 2000, he spoke for the Church and asked God for forgivness for the persecution of non-Christians during the Crusades, the Inquistion, and other acts of inhumanity against Jews, women, etc in the past 2000 years. As a Catholic, it's pretty amazing that the Church would be admitting infallibility.

Anyway, I really hate being contentious about this b/c I am the first to point out the lack of progerssiveness in Catholicism...but I think it's really important that when criticizing leadership (esp of something so fundamentally polemical to begin with), we are cognizant of the ideology s/he represents.

Steph said...

a nice capitulation of the topic from the New York Times

Believers from different faiths throughout the country - Evangelical Christians and Unitarians, Muslims and Jews - broadly praised the late Pope John Paul II on Sunday for his humanitarianism, even as some criticized the positions he took on issues that mattered most to them...[click for rest of article]

Elaine said...

I respect your sentiments, but I have to strongly disagree with your characterization of my words as callous. The pope is a public figure, and Pope John Paul II made ample use of his status as such. You question why I should be so concerned anyway, since he is not a figure of my religion, but even you acknowledge his role in public, political issues like abortion. As I mentioned in my post, he intervened in a bill on population control--not a purely religious matter by any means--and his role in supporting the beatification of Pope Pius XII who had a role in sending Italian Jews to Nazi Germany was troubling. I also don't think it's right, given all of the principles that people like you and I hold dear, to give someone like the Pope a pass because his religion's history is inherently conservative. Here's a man who millions of people listen to, and not just on religious matters, if anything is really purely religious anyway. This man held up what I believe were harmful views on homosexuality and abortion. Personally, I want people whose views I agree with to be the standardbearers of my religion, which is why I tend to feel less of a connection to some in the Orthodox sector of Judaism. Furthermore, I'm not personally insulting Karol Wojtyla, the man, because I didn't know him, I am finding problems with some of his actions as pope. It is the tendency of our society to engage in empty sentimentality when a public figure dies and call it "grieving" or "mourning," but no one becomes a saint just because of death, least of all, a public figure who has led such a complex life as Pope John Paul II.