As a billion Roman Catholics worldwide begin to get used to the idea that John Paul II will no longer be the leader of their church--for the first time in more than 26 years--sympathetic messages flow from all parts of the world to the Vatican, and cable TV channels are filled with reverent tributes. But due to the sheer length of John Paul II's ironfisted rule over the Roman Catholic Church and the impact he's had on the lives of millions of people, both good and bad, a critical eye must be used to examine his legacy.Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Poland, a known ultraconservative, was elected the 264th supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church on October 16, 1978. This election followed the death of Pope John Paul I, who survived the papacy for only 33 days; his brief rule followed the death of Pope Paul VI. (The deaths of both Paul VI and John Paul I have left many mysteries and hints that indicate that neither death was the result of natural causes.) The suddenness of Karol Wojtyla's election combined with the fact that he followed three of the most liberal Italian popes of the last century made his rise to the papal throne most unexpected.After his election, John Paul II became the most widely traveled of any pope in the history of the church, making 103 pastoral trips outside of Italy, and 143 within Italy. As a result of these many trips, John Paul II cultivated influence with many of the world's powerful in an attempt to increase Vatican influence and help in its causes. He also essentially capsized the Vatican ship with an overload of red ink, operating with a deficit of well over $200 million. At the same time, John Paul II successfully swept the Vatican Bank scandal of the 1970s under the rug by making huge payments to key officials in business and government. This is the same scandal that John Paul I wanted to expose and investigate by the light of day--before he suddenly died, alone in the papal apartment.Even more important to the future of the church is the fact that John Paul II created, at last count, 201 cardinals--who will meet to select the next pope--ensuring the conservative tone of his rule well after his death. No bishop with progressive views has been elevated to the rank of cardinal in more than a quarter of a century, let alone any priest to the rank of bishop.In previous papal elections there were normally three factions within the College of Cardinals that elected the pope: the conservative, the liberal, and the neutrals. This mixture of theological perspective enabled all candidates a chance at election. As the church teaches, the election of a pope is guided by the Holy Spirit.In the conclave to elect a new pope to follow John Paul II, there will be only one mindset from which to fill the shoes of the fisherman: the conservative.So what is this pope's legacy?Pope John Paul II can be given much deserved credit for playing a major role in the defeat of Communism in various parts of the world, including the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev has publicly stated that the pope played an important role in the collapse and breakup of the Soviet Union. There is no question that he was largely responsible for the fall of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the last Communist leader of Poland. Between the Polish labor and political group Solidarity and the pope, Communism was doomed in Poland. John Paul II even survived an assassination attempt when he was shot in St. Peter's Square by a Turkish national rumored to be an agent of the KGB.John Paul II also played a major role in the return to the church of many young people, who took to him with their cries of "JP2, we love you." Wherever he traveled he encountered throngs of youth trying to get a glimpse of the man who was pope. His influence on bringing many of them back to the fold of the church cannot be overstated.One of the reasons for his considerable worldwide influence was this pope's mastery of television. John Paul II was truly the first "television pope," in that he used the media and especially television to get his message across. He raised the use of symbols to a higher art form than any of his predecessors, and this ability also helped him to attract followers and to bring down Communist regimes.But there was also a darker side to this occupant of the chair of Saint Peter. John Paul II must be held accountable for a complete failure of leadership on the sexual abuse crises that arose during his watch. The pope clearly abdicated his responsibility to protect the children of God from pedophile priests and was more concerned about the primacy of the church and protecting church assets. His most glaring failure in this regard was in not removing bishops and cardinals who knowingly protected pedophile priests from discovery and prosecution--thereby increasing the amount of damage these men did to innocent children and the faith of the people.Further, over the course of his papacy, John Paul II refused to consider any nondogmatic positions on key social topics such as birth control, divorce, female clergy, celibacy, and homosexuality. The nonprogressive and often discriminatory policies already in place when he became pope were maintained and strengthened. His position on these topics has led to vast divisions within the church around the world and has escalated the phenomenon of "cafeteria Catholicism," especially in the United States, where many Roman Catholics adhere to the history and symbolism of the church but reject many of its specific policies. Many American Roman Catholics simply choose which dogmatic positions of the church they will follow and which to ignore. "Cafeteria Catholicism" is not surprising within a church that condemns homosexuality while being full of homosexual men at all levels of power.All of the ultraconservative positions of John Paul II and the Vatican are in direct opposition to those that were espoused by John Paul I. Had the first John Paul lived anywhere near the length of time of his successor, the Catholic Church would be a completely different institution than it is today.
In the past two years of his rule, John Paul II became obsessed with the advances made by gays and lesbians seeking equality throughout the world. He was greatly troubled that European countries began legally recognizing same-sex marriages and domestic partnerships and granting adoption rights to these couples. Even as he remained largely silent on the epidemic of child abuse among his U.S. clergy, Pope John Paul II spoke out frequently in response to advances in gay equality in America.John Paul II attempted to exert tremendous influence over public policy regarding gays and lesbians, especially in U.S. society, where he seemed to see the most danger and threat to the role of the church in daily life. He issued various directives to American clergy and American Catholic politicians in an attempt to prevent the GLBT community from gaining any recognition within society, culminating in his statement on same-sex unions issued in July 2003, in which he not only condemned gay marriage but used some of the most hostile, corrosive, outrageous, and un-Christian terms to describe this group of God's children.During the American presidential campaign of 2004, we saw George W. Bush travel to the Vatican and, with hat in hand, ask the pope to have his bishops help him win election. True to form, the "red hats" of the American church chimed in shortly thereafter with a continuing babble of antigay rhetoric and pastoral pronouncements in an attempt to retain the antigay president--a clear violation of American laws that grant churches billions of dollars in tax-free privileges on the condition that they stay out of electoral politics.Obviously the pope considered the GLBT movement and its continuing push for full equality in the world more evil even than the war on Iraq. The pope admonished Bush for the war, but his displeasure ended there, at the audience. To this day, homophobia-driven theology continues to inundate the American and world church.In his 2005 speech to set the agenda for the year, same-sex marriage was at the top of the "hit list" for this pope and the church. John Paul II felt that the greatest threat to families was the equal protection of families that did not fit his idea of the biblical profile of marriage. Somehow that strict biblical definition managed to ignore all the polygamists, concubines, incestuous unions, arranged weddings for children, and other variations of biblical marriage that appear in the Christian Bible, many with God's own sanction.The pope did mention in his 2005 agenda that the wealthy nations should help more in feeding the poor. Not much of an agenda for the vicar of Christ.For 26 years, the unyielding dogma of John Paul II presented an inhospitable atmosphere within the church and drove many of the faithful out onto the streets to find another spiritual home, while the church completely forgot that the original sin of Sodom was inhospitality.The immense healing and bringing together in unity of the world's churches and communities was a missed opportunity that could have made this pope one of the greatest men to have ever sat in the chair of Saint Peter.We can only hope and pray that the next pope will be more enlightened by the Holy Spirit and will choose to steer a course away from such divisive ultraconservatism. We also pray that in the afterlife John Paul II will be enlightened with the truth of how wrong he was about the gay community and God.