The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

The Pope died Saturday night at the age of 84. Officials announced the cause of death as septic shock -- an infection causing organ failure and cardiovascular system collapse.

A massive funeral is scheduled to take place on Friday. Rome authorities are braced for as many as two million mourners -- including more than 100 heads of state -- in the largest such event the city has ever seen.

John Paul's 26-year leadership of the Roman Catholic Church was the third longest in history and he was the first non-Italian pope in over 400 years. During his papacy, he visited a record 120 nations and was seen in person by millions.

On Sunday, mourners filed past the Pope as his body lay in state at the Vatican Palace's Clementine Hall. He was dressed in crimson vestments and a white bishop's miter, his head resting on a stack of gold pillows. A rosary was wound around his hands and a staff tucked under his left forearm.

Meanwhile, the College of Cardinals convened Monday in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace in the first of a series of daily sessions which will deal with the day-to-day running of the Church and prepare for elections for a new pope, to be held between 15 and 20 days after his death.

Amy Goodman: We're joined by Angela Bonavoglia, an award-winning journalist author who covers social, health, religious, and women's issues. Her latest book is Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church, released last month. We're joined on the telephone from New Jersey by Mary Segers, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, an expert on American Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church, and the relationship between religion and politics in the United States. Her books include Church Polity and American Politics: Issues in Contemporary American Catholicism and The Catholic Church and Abortion Politics: A View from the States. We're also joined on the line by Blase Bonpane, the director of the Office of the Americas. He was a Catholic priest in Guatemala during the 1960s where he was expelled for his efforts on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. His most recent book is called Common Sense for the 21st Century. He's also a commentator on Pacifica station KPFK in Los Angeles. We're going to begin with our guest on the telephone from New Jersey. Can you talk about the significance of Pope John Paul II, Professor Segers?

Mary Segers: This is an extraordinary papacy that we have witnessed, all 26 years of it. And I think he's remarkable for having restored or renewed or even inaugurated an appreciation of Catholicism worldwide, which is quite extraordinary. The Church may have been in disarray when he became Pope and through force of his personality and travels, he's made many people who are not Catholic aware of his view of the message of Jesus Christ. So what I sensed yesterday -- the churches were full here in the United States -- Catholics themselves finally got a renewed sense of the appreciation of this religious tradition. Too many times in the past the Catholic Church has been kind of dismissed or trivialized, at least in popular culture as a church that has sort of warped views on sexuality. Well, there's a lot more obviously, and I think John Paul II illustrated that.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about the significance of where he came from, from Poland?

Mary Segers: Yes, he's referred to as a Polish Pope, and I think that is very significant. Clearly this was a pope who was influenced by the Nazi occupation of Poland through which he lived and then by the subsequent 43 years of communist rule of Poland. I think that left him with a sense of the importance of individual dignity. The battle that all of the Polish church authorities and leaders fought with the communist government was real. The Church in Poland at that time was about the only place that you could go to movies. It was the only place that you could assemble, talk about peaceful assembly, to discuss issues of the day. In talking to young students at the University of Warsaw five years ago who had lived through this, they described communism in Poland as immoral, as a system of complete cronyism, everything dependant upon whom you knew, a system of lies and deceit. They spoke about it in the harshest terms, as absolutely immoral. Now, that obviously influenced the pope, and so I think his sense of human dignity came from that distinctive experience of having Jewish friends who were carted off to the concentration camps during the Nazi period, and then this sense of being in a beleaguered church fighting for survival under the Polish communist regime.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk, Professor Segers, about what we expect in the future? Who are the people who could succeed this Pope?

Mary Segers: Well, the College of Cardinals today is very different from what it was in 1978 when John Paul II was elected. There are many more bishops now from Latin America and Africa and Asia. There are even fewer Italian cardinals proportionately. The cardinals, for example, from Brazil outnumber the Italian cardinals. And so it's quite possible that we could have another non-Italian cardinal. After all, the Italians do regard this as a position that perhaps an Italian should fill because the pope is the pope of the whole world, but he's also the Bishop of Rome. And so there's some speculation that maybe the Italians would dearly love to elect one of their own again. But, you know, I think that you could also see a possible candidate emerging from the Brazilian bishops or some of the other Latin American [countries]. There's a whole series of names put forward, of course, and there are Europeans, the Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schoenborn, Godfried Daneels who is the Archbishop of Brussels, and Walter Kasper, who is a German cardinal. It's possible that some of those others could be named, as well. But it does seem to be doubtful that any American cardinal would be named at the moment.

Amy Goodman: Why?

Mary Segers: I think because America is the superpower that it is, and it probably would be looked at in a global sense as kind of, well, why did you choose an American, they already govern the world in a sense, and why do you want them also to hold the highest position in the Catholic Church.

Amy Goodman: Angela Bonavoglia, can you talk about the significance of John Paul and women in the Church?

Angela Bonavoglia: It's actually a mixed legacy, Amy. John Paul was definitely outspoken in terms of discrimination against women. He took a stand against violence against women, against discrimination against women. He cheered women on in terms of their roles in social and political, artistic, cultural, economic fields. Interestingly what he left out of that was women's place in religion, in our own religion. Not entirely. He did appoint women to higher positions than they had ever been appointed to before. He appointed the first two women to the Vatican Theological Commission. He appointed a woman to head a pontifical academy. So he thought of himself as a feminist, and there are Catholic women who think of themselves as papal feminists. However, his view of women was grounded in what is called a "complementarity of the sexes," where he saw a great difference between men and women, and he saw women's contribution as basically, "in giving themselves to others each day," he wrote, "women fulfill their deepest vocation." So he really saw women as nurturing, he saw qualities of humility, listening, waiting, so it was a notion of women in a passive kind of a capacity. Although, as I said before, he did come out against discrimination against women.

That said, during this papacy, there has been a tremendous locking out of women from the area of ordination, which I think is a tremendously serious problem because ordination in the Catholic Church right now is the only route to the highest levels of sacramentality. It is only through ordination that women can represent the divine which I think is a truly important area of spirituality. It is only through ordination that women can have influence at the highest levels of power and authority. Right now we see the consequence of this structure and I think right now it is the structure of the Catholic Church hierarchy that is the biggest problem that we take into this new millennium. We have a structure that is based on an all-male, theoretically all-celibate hierarchy, and it has a vast amount of problems, and the other big area I think where we have -- women have really struggled and suffered in terms of their role in the Church right now, is in the private sphere. While women have been closed out in the public sphere by being closed out of ordination, in the private sphere, under this papacy, under this Vatican for the last 25 years, women's moral authority has been usurped by all of the really rigid sexual teachings that the Church has promulgated, not only to Catholics but around the world, in trying to build it into social policies, and that ranges from no artificial birth control at all, no emergency contraception, even for rape victims, no condoms, even to prevent the spread of AIDS and no abortion under any circumstances, and those positions have been a great burden, particularly to the poorest women in the developing world where the Church has the greatest power. So those are two areas where John Paul's legacy is wounding, I think, to women.

Amy Goodman: Why was the pope so opposed to women priests?

Angela Bonavoglia: Well, he was a traditionalist, deeply-committed traditionalist. I'm not saying that he came out of any hostility, he was a very traditional man and it came out of his belief that this was the tradition of the Church, that there had never been women priests and that he felt he wasn't empowered to change that. But there are many theologians, and in writing my book, Catholic Girls, I interviewed many theologians who don't believe that that tradition is set in concrete and that it absolutely excludes women priests. In fact, the Vatican's own scriptural commission back in the 1970s studied the Bible to look for an absolute bar against women priests and concluded that it didn't exist in the Bible. They couldn't find that in the Bible. So, it was tradition, but there are a lot of people who took issue with that position.

Amy Goodman: What about abortion?

Angela Bonavoglia: Abortion is a much harder issue. Historically the Catholic Church's position has shifted. It was always a sin. It wasn't always murder. In the earlier days, in the Middle Ages, there was the question of when does insoulment occur in the development of the fetus, and that was the point at which abortion would become a sin, not before that. But gradually, it has evolved to what we see now as a very rigid position in the Church. The groups like Catholics for Free Choice and a lot of Catholic women ethicists talk about 'primary of conscience' as being the basis for a woman's making what is a very difficult decision, and that this can be done in good conscience. And I think the rigidity of [the Church's] position on abortion has to be looked at and contrasted in a way to its failure to take such a rigid position on anything else, on any of the other life issues. The Church is against capital punishment. It is against war except under very specific circumstances. But it has never said anybody who supports those things cannot come to communion, must be turned away at the altar, but it has taken that position with abortion. And on a purely political level, I think we have to ask why. It's a very patriarchal position and argument, I think. You can say that to women, and you're not going to get as much opposition as if the Church hierarchy had said to anybody who supports pre-emptive war or capital punishment you cannot come and receive communion. So I think it's important to look at abortion within the context of the Church's other teachings.

Amy Goodman: What about the sexual abuse scandal?

Angela Bonavoglia: Women were key to the response to the sexual abuse scandal. That, I think, is a very important point. ... Barbara Blaine was sexually abused as a young woman from eighth grade through high school and spent years trying to get justice from the hierarchy in Detroit, where this happened to her. And finally she did get justice, but frankly it wasn't until she was about to go on the Oprah Winfrey Show that they finally relieved that particular priest of his duties. But Barbara, with a handful of people at a hotel room in Chicago in the late 1980s, started Survivors of Priest-Child Sex Abuse, and that organization has grown into over 5,000 people, and really those are the people who are advocates for survivors, who are pushing to get the hierarchy to meet with survivors, who are working to change laws that will make it easier to prosecute in terms of sexual abuse.

Amy Goodman: And the pope's response to the scandal?

Angela Bonavoglia: Well, I think a lot of people would agree that it was lacking. And I don't think he ever took it seriously. People felt he didn't take it seriously enough. And I think the sorriest sign of that was the appointment of Cardinal Bernard Law to head a basilica in Rome, so not only was he not punished in a visible way but he appeared to have been rewarded.

Amy Goodman: Cardinal Law being the former Bishop of Boston.

Angela Bonavoglia: Exactly, who resigned in disgrace because of the priests that had been moved around up there. And all of the children, hundreds and hundreds of children who were victims of sexual abuse in the Boston area.

Amy Goodman: We're also joined on the phone by Blase Bonpane, who is a former priest. He worked in Guatemala in the 1960s. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Blase.

Blase Bonpane: Good Morning, Amy. How are you?

Amy Goodman: It's good to have you with us. Your response to the reign of Pope John Paul II.

Blase Bonpane: Well, the most positive thing would be in the book written by Jonathan Kwitney called Man of the Century. Jonathan, not being a Catholic, wrote about the political side of the impact of John Paul II. And I knew Jonathan while he was writing the book. He passed away since. But the low point, I suppose, was [the pope's] response to the death of Archbishop Romero and that was a result of very poor advice from Cardinal Casariego of Guatemala, who was the only cardinal in Central America at the time and a great supporter of the Guatemalan military and of militarism in general. He reminded me of Cardinal Spellman in some ways. [Another very serious error occurred] when in March of 1983 he shook his finger at Ernesto Cardinal at a time when he was visiting Nicaragua and 20 youths had just been killed in the Contra war, and the mothers of those youth were present and they were holding pictures of their sons, and the pope actually told them to shut up. He said, "silencio," and then he shook his finger at Ernesto, and I think he misunderstood completely what was taking place in Central America at the time. So that's a sorry part of the situation. But that's only part of it.

There's also the matters to be dealt with, the matter of gays, not only in the Church, but the matter of what is called gay marriage. The dialogue must continue into a new papacy to indicate that many people are simply asking for a property agreement with the state. Some of them understand that in the Catholic Church they aren't going to be married in the tradition, but they're asking for a property agreement whereby they can receive a hundred different benefits of being married. So it is a question of what is called secular marriage that is being dealt with here. And I think that dialogue has not reached the Church in its fullness yet, any more that than the dialogue on abortion has, because if we wish to see a decline in abortion, we must look to places like Holland where it has declined because of excellent sexual education, in addition to guaranteed health care. Those two things put together cause abortion to drop rapidly, whereas putting it under civil law as a crime seems to make the whole situation worse. So the dialogue on these issues has not yet been completed. But the sociology of Catholics is that as many of them practice birth control as Protestants or any other group, and the same applies to abortion. The pope has not been listened to on these events. What is taking place is what's called a sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, and that is that they must ultimately decide in their conscience. The pope is not a line officer in the military, and the last word in the Church is your personal conscience, and people have to follow that, and they are following it. Some call this a "smorgasbord Catholicism," but it's really not. It's a matter of saying, "I have to make a stand in terms of what I believe is right," and that is completely an acceptable situation in the Church that has not received enough attention, I believe. So all of these issues remain to be dealt with far more fully than they have been dealt with in the past.

Amy Goodman: Can you talk about the opposition to war of John Paul?

Blase Bonpane: I think it was absolutely outstanding, and I think it is quite tragic that the bishops of the United States did not pick up the cudgel after he made it clear his great opposition to war and to war in Iraq. The U.S. bishops took a very weak response, I believe, by not bringing that issue to each and every parish in the United States, almost giving one the feeling that they had a greater dedication to U.S. foreign policy than they did to their own church. And this, I think, is quite scandalous, and it's been a history of scandal. The pro-war position of the leaders of the U.S. Church, like the famous Cardinal Spellman in the matter of Vietnam. So his position on war was excellent.

Amy Goodman: And capitalism?

Blase Bonpane: And on capitalism, extremely interesting. We saw that he had a horror of Soviet communism, but when it came time for the first conference that he attended in Puebla in Mexico -- I was there, and Archbishop Romero was present -- this was 1979. The condemnation at Puebla was of unrestrained capital. He was very much against the deregulation. He was very much against what is called neoliberalismo today, the 19th century laissez-faire capitalism that showed only regard for profit and no regard for the common good. So to the surprise of everyone at that conference, the only thing condemned in the conference was unrestrained capital, and Marxist analysis was kept as a methodology that was fully acceptable. He was not talking about people becoming Marxist, as such, but the use of Marxist analysis, that is, to recognize class warfare, to recognize the lack of distributive justice in society, was completely acceptable. So these things were on the positive side. And it was curious that prior to the conference in Puebla, the newspapers were coming out saying Pope John Paul II condemns liberation theology. It just didn't happen. It was that the capitalist world was so afraid of what liberation theology implied that they wanted to condemn it in the press before the Pope even made a statement on it. So that part was of great interest to all of us, and liberation theology is simply a response to imperial theology, which has been with us since 312 A.D., since the time of Constantine, the emperor becoming a Christian. He brought the sword into Christianity and conversion by way of the sword, and that was ultimately seen in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, in the conquistadores. And these are all things for which Pope John Paul II apologized. He was horrified by Church history, and that included the Holocaust. I don't know of any pope that had apologized for the history of the Church prior to him. So he was an extremely complex man. And there are many, many facets to this person, some that we're sorry about and many that we find quite unusual.

Amy Goodman: There was an extended piece in The New York Times about the legacy of John Paul, and they talked about Brazil, for example, the Rev. Leonardo Boff of Brazil, a movement leader, silenced by Rome for a year. In 1992 he resigned from the priesthood to protest Vatican restrictions on writings by the clergy and members of religious orders. Another champion of liberation theology, the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically-elected president of Haiti denounced the Vatican in 1992 for recognizing military leaders who had deposed him in 1991. Since 1982 when he became a priest, Father Aristide had excoriated the Haitian Church for what he called its "complicity with brutal dictatorships."

Blase Bonpane: Absolutely correct. Jean-Bertrand Aristide was chosen by the people twice in a landslide, and the Haitian Church and also the Vatican, was very opposed to his position as they were opposed to others in the clergy that went into politics: Miguel D'Escoto, Ernesto Cardinal, and others. I think this was a grave error. These men were in a position of representing the people, the hopes, desires and anxieties. They were fulfilling what Vatican II said we should be doing, and I think Vatican II, that is between 1962 and 1965, was a great threat to Pope John Paul II. He felt that the matter of hierarchy was being destroyed and that the base communities were being given too much power, so he reacted to the Vatican II, which had really ignited a fire in all of us, because we were told not to wait for orders from Rome. We were told to enter into these hopes, desires and anxieties hasta las ultimas consecuencias, up to the ultimate consequences, wherever it took us. That led Jean-Bertrand Aristide into saying, "Alright, I'll be president, if necessary." It led Ernesto Cardinal to say, "Alright, I'll be minister of culture." It led Miguel D'Escoto to say "Alright, I'll be foreign minister."

We have got to work on behalf of these people, who are suffering, who are hungry, who are in misery, and they need to be liberated. So I think this is another example of many of the sins of the Church. The Haitian Church attacked Aristide. Other bishops in El Salvador attacked Romero. Casariego attacked Romero. All of this is part of the history of a very human Church. And we have to look at these great examples. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is still President of Haiti, even though he is living in South Africa at this time. The man behind this -- as you know, the Pope was traveling to 120 countries -- but the man responsible for enforcement was the Cardinal Ratzinger who [is] an extreme reactionary and who removed the license to teach from many priests, and some of them had to go forward on their own because they could not simply sit in silence and watch the faithful deteriorate spiritually and materially.

So I think that we're going to see these changes continue, and what is called liberation theology will simply be called theology. I think it's a matter of removing the imperial trappings that had nothing to do with the teaching of Jesus, imperial trappings that have come into the church as a result of the Roman imperial power. And we'll see something much more pure, much more primitive, much less sectarian. The thing that's going to really change is this. The West tried to define everything. We'll tell you all about God, we know all about God. And that's very embarrassing. We know nothing almost to say about God. And the Buddhists and others have shown this with great reverence that we don't know about this. We should simply stand in awe before the mystery, and the Pope made some terrible remarks about Buddhism, saying it was, in effect, an atheistic type of thing and the Buddhists in Sri Lanka really opposed that. So there's a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of the presence of the Church in the global sphere. And I think Pope John Paul II did a great deal to get that discussion going, to make it clear that we have to show great respect for existing religions, great respect for people who are non-theists, people who cannot affirm God, and to join together in what are known as the fruits of the spirit, where we see justice and peace and love and joy and endurance and courage. We're seeing the fruits of the spirit and those we can identify, whereas we can't define God, and we shouldn't try, and the West, including the Roman Catholic Church, has gone too far. We think we know everything.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.