If you've been watching TV, you've seen Karol Wojtyla credited with the fall of the Soviet Empire (a claim so vastly overstated it borders on the laughable) and represented as a champion of human rights, human life and human dignity.
These are exaggerations, selectively culled to provide a positive picture where either a morally neutral or morally contemptible view is far more accurate.
Karol Wojtyla was not a terribly good Pope. He wasn't a terribly BAD pope, but certainly nothing special.
He was, however, a very popular pope. The two things are not synonymous.
John Paul II traveled around the world and personally delivered hundreds of sermons to millions of people. This was truly something different, and something interesting. No pope had ever done this kind of thing. Interesting, but not terribly important, nor surprising.
No one ever accused Karol Wojtyla of being stupid. In the modern age, Catholicism needed selling and bolstering, and this is exactly what Pope John Paul II did. Good for him, and if you're a Catholic, I am sure it's nice to see an aggressive spreading of your message by the head of your church. But this is hardly a morally courageous act. In other words, yes, he traveled a lot and spoke a lot, but so does Madonna.
In comparison with other Popes of the 20th century, Pope John Paul II pales in comparison to Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, who oversaw the second Vatican Council. This is an accomplishment which dwarfs anything John Paul II ever did.
John Paul II and the fall of Communism in Europe
It's quite true that as Archbishop of Krakow and later as Cardinal, Wojtyla provided moral aid and comfort to the people fighting the oppression of the Polish communist regime. Later, as Pope, he loudly denounced Marxist political and anti-religious ideology.
While he may have had a role in bolstering the courage of the Polish people, he was hardly a Lech Walesa. Nor was he among the thousands of Catholic priests who risked imprisonment or death by the Communists in eastern Europe who really did personally fight to oppose their respective governments out of a sense of social justice and human dignity. Among these are Pavel Peter Gojdic, Bishop of Presov whose story is truly inspirational.
Yes, Pope John Paul II spoke out strongly condemning the excesses of communism and the anti-religiousness of Marxism, but how is this particularly laudable? It does not say great things about John Paul II that he did this, it says enormously bad things about the Church fathers before John Paul II that they took an accommodationist approach to Joseph Stalin and his successors.
How important was John Paul II in the downfall of communism? Not very.
Poland was not the Soviet Union. John Paul was a thorn in the side of the Polish communist government, but not to anyone else, certainly not the Orthodox, not Catholic Russians, who consider the Pope only slightly less heretical than the Anti-Christ. And certainly not to Leonid Brezhnev or his successors, who were worried about the things actually hurting the Soviet empire like...
1. Communism is a very inefficient system.
Let's face it folks, it doesn't begin to compare with a modern capitalist state in any way. Politically, socially, scientifically and economically, communism has been a big fat failure everywhere, most spectacularly in Eastern Europe. That's not a result of John Paul II, it's an inherent flaw of the system. This wasn't so bad when the Russkies could do things like jam western broadcasts, which pointed out just how bad the system was in comparison to the west but it became a real issue when...
2. Ted Turner
and the other global communication moguls set up satellite TV on a worldwide basis. These folks exposed the wholesale lying which the communist governments were engaged in. For the first time, average citizens could switch on a TV and see for themselves just how incredibly deprived they were in every way, compared with their western European counterparts. The Russian and other eastern European people started demanding consumer goods.
As anyone who's played CIV III knows, a certain amount of luxuries is required to keep your citizenry in line. Luxuries the Soviet command economy simply couldn't produce because...
3. Ronald Wilson Reagan
and the other hawks of the 1980s bet the farm that the U.S. could out-arm the Soviets and still produce whatever consumers wanted. Though many people, myself included, opposed this risky enterprise, it succeeded. The U.S. spent the Soviets into the ground.
In the end, items 1,2, and 3 led to the collapse of the system, and whatever was happening in Poland was utterly insignificant to the rest of Eastern Europe's ruling elite. If you want to thank the conquerors of communism, go thank Ronnie Raygun, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ted Turner and Karl Marx. Pope John Paul II doesn't even make the also-ran list.
John Paul II, human dignity and freedom
The next myth currently being promulgated by the media is that John Paul II was a champion of human dignity. Well, not really. In fact, John Paul II made no bones about crushing dissent or alternate views within the church.
John Paul II and his buddies, the right-wing Latin American death squads
Probably the greatest personal moral failure of John Paul II was his systematic destruction of one of the great humanist movements within the church's history.
The one place where the Church was, during John Paul II's tenure, seriously addressing great moral needs, was Central and South America.
Here, a new brand of Catholic teaching was taking place, called Liberation Theology.
In response to wholesale murders of innocents, grinding poverty and oppression by a handful of oligarchs, many in the Church in South and Central America embraced Christ's often stated values about caring for the poor and oppressed. (A message central to Christ's actual teachings, as opposed to any word about birth control, homosexuality or the supremacy of men over women).
This new Catholic teaching embraced things like land reform, still today a central issue of basic justice in countries where 99% of the land and wealth both are controlled by far less than 1% of the people. John Paul seemed completely unable to grasp the difference between the peasant's struggle for basic human dignity and the Soviet State, even when his own Archbishops, like Oscar Romero, traveled to Rome to talk about it.
Instead, Pope John Paul II told Romero (who was later assassinated by the very people John Paul urged him to cooperate with) to shut up and stop stirring up the people. When he travelled to Nicaragua in 1986, he told the crowd again to shut up and give up "unacceptable ideological commitments."
He closed seminaries and schools, silenced individuals and replaced a whole slew of Bishops with picked men who wouldn't rock the boat of South American dictatorship and mass murder. It's one of the more shameful episodes of the Papacy in the last 100 years.
John Paul II and the "culture of Life"
Pope John Paul liked to talk about a culture of life. He liked talking about this a lot.
But apparently, "life" as valued by the Pope, is a hard thing to define.
It certainly didn't include the "life" of people under threat of AIDS, nor does it include the "life" of people dying from starvation while the Church's untold billions in assets continue to grow.
In the world today, about 16 million people die every year from hunger. This is primarily due to overpopulation in areas not able to grow sufficient food for the local population.
John Paul II didn't respond to this crisis by relaxing Catholic dogma about birth control, nor did he respond by following Christ's example, selling off the many billions of dollars in real estate and other financial holdings of the church to help the poor.
In Southern Africa in particular, an area where the Catholic church is experiencing growth rates of about 5% per year, AIDS is killing far more people than starvation or war, and is likely to kill many millions more because of the Catholic Church's stance on condom use. The one reliable way to prevent the spread of AIDS (since not even Catholic priests seem to be capable of chastity) is the large-scale use of condoms. The Church, under John Paul II's personal direction, has taken a vocal and zealous position opposing this cheap, life-saving measure.
So much for a culture of life.
Apparently the lives of the hundred people on Death Row in the U.S., Terri Shiavo and of sperm and embryos is the important life to the Catholic Church. -Vastly more important than the many millions of lives being lost annually due to easily preventable causes on which the church has largely remained silent or ineffectual in addressing under the leadership of John Paul II.
In fairness, I never expected the pope to change his mind on birth control until AIDS. The continuing opposition to condoms in the face of this humanitarian catastrophe is simply mind-boggling.
John Paul II and child molesters
And finally, let's not forget what is unquestionably one of the most despicable episodes in Catholic history; an episode so shameful it finally lost me as a fan of the Catholic Church, even when I had been willing to overlook the many failures and disagreements over things like birth control.
I'm talking of course, about the sex scandals.
I don't think pedophilia is confined to the Catholic Church. And in all honesty, I don't think the existence of pedophiles within the priesthood is an indictment of the Church itself. Pedophiles can be anywhere.
It is the Church's response to pedophilia that is so shocking.
"In the case of almost every predator priest, church officials had reports of abusive behavior, but allowed the priests to remain in ministry, documents show. In many cases, accused priests were sent for brief periods of psychological evaluation, then returned to parishes -- where they abused again." -Boston Globe
If you're a kid in a Catholic Church, you may not only be molested, but your molester will not be punished by the Church. In fact, the church will deny that you ever were molested, and if they do find out that you were, they'll quietly transfer the pedophile to another diocese to do it again.
One of the most basic principals of humanity is protecting our children. One of the main precepts of Judaism and Islam is obeying the laws of the land in which they live. But Church officials don't believe this. In fact, they were accessories after the fact to unknown thousands of molestations, following Canon law, rather than the Civil law of the countries where this thing was rampant. That half a dozen bishops and archbishops and cardinals were not indicted as accessories to these crimes speaks to a flaw in democracy.
Pope John Paul II spoke incessantly about the evils of women being ordained, use of condoms and abortion. In fact, Canon law holds that getting an abortion is an issue of automatic excommunication. But priest child molesters were not defrocked, they were not turned in to civil authorities to answer for crimes, they were not excommunicated. In fact they were protected by the church and allowed to continue their reign of terror over Catholic children.
It's not just that this happened under John Paul II's watch, it's the fact that he very personally participated in setting this policy that's amazing to me. Any biography or obituary of John Paul II that does not include this is missing a central personal failure of the man and the Church.
So finally, in remembering John Paul II, let us remember the facts, not the myths. And the facts don't make the man anything special at all, other than being popular. But as I said before, so is Madonna. Who cares?