Pope John XXIII, who preceded Wojtya as head of the Church by two papacies, is still revered by many Catholics for radically reorienting the church by convening the Vatican II Council, which directly fed the growth of what is known as “liberation theology”. From Vatican II the democratic notion emerged that the whole church — laity and clergy — were united as the “People of God”.
John Paul II’s pontificate was organised as a conscious counter-revolution against Vatican II — a winding back of the clock towards an archaic Catholicism politically aligned with violent terror against liberationists around the world.
Wojtya was born in Wadowice, a small city 50 kilometres from Cracow, Poland, on May 18, 1920. During the Nazi occupation he worked in a quarry while secretly studying for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary.
William Johnston, who teaches Modern Church History at Melbourne’s Yarra Theological Union, thinks Wojtya felt “exiled” from the direction Europe took in the second half of his lifetime.
“Remember he grew up under, really, three dictatorships — first Pilsudski in Poland, then the Nazi occupation of Poland which was the worst anywhere. He grew up not many miles from Auschwitz, and then of course the Communists came in from 1945 on”, Johnston told ABC Radio National’s Religion Report in 2004. “So this is not a man who ever experienced democracy, and his hopes for a post-dictatorship Europe have not been fulfilled.”
The closed world of Polish Catholicism under the heel of Cold War Stalinism was staunchly patriarchal and anti-communist but warmly supported by masses of Poles as the one institution through which they could organise free of the bureaucratic Stalinist regime.
After leaving Poland for the wider world and the peak leadership position within Catholicism, Wojtya never wavered in his Cold War mindset. His guiding beliefs were that communism is the greatest danger to Christianity, that only deferential obedience to the church hierarchy is the proper behaviour for the Catholic masses and that collaboration with the great power designs of brutal capitalist temporal forces was the way to advance the banner of the faith.
This, combined with aspects of medieval theology, directly conflicted with the waves of liberal thinking that swept the church following Vatican II.
In Latin America, in particular, the freeing up of the Catholic structures combined with the example of the Cuban Revolution propelled masses of Catholic workers, peasants and lower-ranking priests into revolutionary formations such as Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). This broad trend was characterised as “liberation theology” and was typified by grassroots democracy, an anti-capitalist reading of the New Testament and egalitarian religious leadership.
In Europe and North America there were less radical but nonetheless democratic rumblings. In 1997, for example, 2.5 million German and Austrian Catholics petitioned the pope to admit women priests and married priests and abandon the church’s hostility to homosexuality; the Vatican was unmoved.
John Paul II brought considerable energy and political acumen to his reactionary crusade. He made 104 pastoral visits outside of Italy, wrote five books, issued 14 encyclicals and was seen by literally millions of people.
He was also a great cannoniser — canonising 482 saints, more than any previous pope. His thinking was that by providing each nation with its own saint the Catholic tradition of incense and obscurantism could be revived.
Bizarrely, one of those saints was the last of the Hapsburg rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Emperor Karl, who ruled during World War I.
John Paul II also appointed 231 new cardinals, which has stacked the college that will elect the new pope with archconservatives.
One of his great political alliances was with US President Ronald Reagan. In 1980 the gang that organised the Reagan for the presidency movement met in Santa Fe for a conference and issued a statement saying: “US foreign policy should begin to confront liberation theology (and not just react to it after the fact). Unfortunately Marxist-Leninist forces have used the church as a political weapon against private ownership and the capitalism system of production, infiltrating the religious community with ideas that are more communist than Christian.”
Reagan, as president, quickly moved to form a united front with John Paul II against liberation theology. The pope fought the theology while the Reagan administration nd its Latin American allies murdered the liberationists.
Among the fallen was El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered in 1980 by a right-wing death squad while saying mass. The Arena party, the death squads’ legal face, sent a delegation to the Vatican weeks before the assassination protesting Romero’s public statements in defence of the poor.
While the Salvadoran people regard Romero as a saint, John Paul II attempted to ban any discussion of Romero’s beatification for 50 years. However, popular pressure from El Salvador later led the Vatican to put off the issue for only 25 years.
John Paul II’s preferred saintly role model was the Spanish fascist Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei, one of the reactionary and weird Catholic secret societies that the pope has used as weapons against progressives.
After failing to discipline the Brazilian bishops, John Paul II simply started appointing Opus Dei members as bishops died. In this manner he undermined one of the strongest bases of liberation theology.
Australia’s most prominent liberationist parish, St Vincent’s in Sydney inner-city suburb of Redfern, has been saddled with priests from another Catholic cult called the Neocatechumenate (visit for some illuminating stories of John Paul II’s priests studiously avoiding contact with Redfern Aborigines).
Reagan and John Paul II found another area of common interest in Poland when the Solidarity trade union movement burst into prominence in 1980. Vast sums were funnelled through the church into the Polish movement.
The Vatican encouraged an activist priesthood in Poland that it moved heaven and earth to destroy in other areas of the world. According to Time magazine, a grateful Reagan agreed in 1984 to alter the US foreign-aid program to comply with the Catholic Church’s teachings on birth control, specifically abortion and birth control.
The capitalist news media has created John Paul II personal popularity in Poland with the “collapse of communism” there in 1989. More than a decade after John Paul II’s blessed the restoration of capitalism in Poland, a public opinion survey in 2002 by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS) found that 56% of Poles said their lives were “better” under the 1970s Stalinist regime of Edward Gierek than they are today.
In 2000 John Paul II made a rhetorical flourish of calling for an end to Third World debt through his call for a “jubilee” — the mechanism by which debts were wiped out once every 50 years in ancient Jewish society (it was the demand that Jesus raised and died for).
However, the Vatican never attempted to build a popular movement around its call. While criticising the excesses of capitalism, John Paul II feared communist revolution more. His real ideology was integralism — the medieval idea that the state will rule the people and the church will guide the state.
By assiduously aligning himself with the most reactionary elements of late 21st century power politics, John Paul II left a profound crisis in Catholicism in his wake. Latin America was once overwhelmingly Catholic but the US rulers have used their Protestant fundamentalist sects as weapons against liberationist Catholics there. Now 10% of Brazilians are believed to be talking in tongues!
In the developed capitalist countries, Catholicism continues to bleed membership as believers tire of the ridiculous strictures on their sexuality and democratic rights within the church. As AIDS threatens millions in the crucified impoverished world and wars and indebtedness worsen, the Catholic Church’s lame responses are simply making it irrelevant.