“Mankind shall not be free until the last king is strangled in the entrails of the last priest.” –Denis Diderot
Dying seems to be very trendy lately.
If doing it yourself isn’t terribly sexy, then at least the drama of oohing and ahhing and making great big Bambi eyes at the passing of someone who’s lived and died in public seems to have a certain charm to it. Pope John Paul II’s imminent death seemed to become obvious just as everyone was getting fed up with Terri Schiavo, and then just as she went, the death clock started ticking for Karol Wojtyla, the 265th man to sit as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. The last two months have been like a never-ending stream of death porn; the emotions of the news coverage become more and more ejaculatory with every broadcast, and the emotional tone now feels like reality has become a TV movie co-produced by Oprah Winfrey and Seymour Butts.
I expect that any moment now, “Pope” will be deemed too low and unworthy a title for one of John Paul’s spirtual magnitude, and that he’s displaced Christ in the Catholic hierarchy, if not God Himself. The outpouring of grief and mourning for the Pope isn’t limited to Catholics; the man’s virtue is so unquestioned that each of us is expected to add our voice to the choir as automatically as breathing. By dying, he only became more sacred and untouchable. The worst thing that can be said about him, according to the media consensus, is that he was a little old-fashioned in some of his views, in the same way that an aged but beloved uncle might.
I don’t feel any grief or reason to mourn the Pope’s death. I don’t especially feel that he left this world a better place than when he came; his life did not give me reason to reconsider my skepticism about religion, especially the Christian religion, or my suspicion of the Catholic Church as a political institution.
Despite the never-ending tributes to Pope John Paul II’s humanity, what really defined his reign were his efforts to solidify church doctrine and the hierarchy that enforced it both in the clergy and the laity. Again and again, he showed that he valued church doctrine even above human lives. In the nearly 27 years he sat in the chair of St. Peter, for example, he used that office to become the world’s most powerful, most well-known fag-basher. His words were softer and less outrageous than those of Fred Phelps, the Kanas preacher who’s made his name by showing up at the funerals of AIDS patients bearing signs that scream “GOD HATES FAGS!!!”, but the intent and the message was the same. Phelps, in his way, is a breath of fresh air for his lack of pretentiousness. No one can mistake his intent or apologize for it without becoming a full partner in his hate. The Pope, both when speaking for the church and in his own philosophical writings, framed doctrinal homophobia in hypocritical rhetoric that strove to blend love and damnation into the same lines. In 1986, the Pope issued his “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons,”which, while showing token generosity and compassion in tone, condemned homosexuality in no uncertain terms:
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
Therefore special concern and pastoral attention should be directed toward those who have this condition, lest they be led to believe that the living out of this orientation in homosexual activity is a morally acceptable option. It is not.
The Papal Letter lists a plethora of Scriptural arguments, but the dominant theme is the same one that springs up again and again in the Church’s ideas about sex — folks just might be havin’ too much fun without makin’ babies:
To choose someone of the same sex for one’s sexual activity is to annul the rich symbolism and meaning, not to mention the goals, of the Creator’s sexual design. Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living. This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent. [Italics added]
Unlike the rest of the world, the Pope didn’t become less of a homophobe over the next 19 years; on the contrary, as queer liberation groups fought and gained recognition of their humanity from their neighbors, their families, their workplaces, and yes, even their churches, Pope John Paul II developed even harsher and harsher words to condemn gays and lesbians. In 2005, he went so far as to call homosexuality and the movement towards same-sex marriages, “part of a new ideology of evil… which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man.”
In normal times, words like these might be dismissed as merely hurtful, the words of an increasingly senile but still beloved uncle. But the Pope issued his letter just as the full impact of AIDS was becoming apparent to everyone, not just the homos and addicts. People were dying, and continue to die in devastating numbers, and the Pope chose to turn away from their faces in favor of the mystical integrity of doctrine. His lackeys, the bishops he appointed during his reign, not only condemned condoms on a moral level, but passionately lied about their scientific value, claiming that condoms don’t stop the HIV virus. (For anyone who hasn’t got the news yet: They do.) Four hundred years after the Church executed Giordano Bruno for advocating a heliocentric solar system, and 359 years after the death of Galileo, silenced by the Church for the same thing, Pope John Paul II admitted that the Church had erred in both instances; but the actions of the Church under him showed that the same old tricks were considered legit in the eyes of the clergy. Truth must always be bent to the service of moral rectitude, no matter how many thousands die.
The cost of the Vatican’s policies regarding homosexuality, birth control, women, the family, and abortion were much higher outside of America, in countries where the Church often has direct influence not only culturally, but in the material realm. In many parts of Africa, where AIDS is epidemic, the Catholic Church is the main or sole provider of medical information and services, meaning that they control how the people will and will not protect themselves.
In short, although the Pope spoke against war and the death penalty and the need to build a “culture of life,” he repeatedly allied himself with a culture of death. Real people died and will continue to die because of his policies. I cannot even give him the benefit of the doubt, as most of the media eulogies do, and acknowledge his moral sense while agreeing to disagree. The Vatican’s policies against homosexuality are hateful. Their policies against birth control and women are antiquated, and all are lethal. Pope John Paul II could be seen as a wise, kindly old man because he lived cloistered from the consequences of his decisions, away from the faces of the dying and starving. We, who live in the real world, do have to live with those consequences.
In the end, Pope John Paul II showed us where his soul really lay, which issues drove his heart. The capstone of his reign was the scandal over child abuse by the clergy, and it was an issue that struck deep in the heart of even the most faithful members of the laity. It was the chance of the Pope and his lieutenants to act decisively and to display moral integrity in redressing wrongs done to the most vulnerable members of the Church. Instead, the Vatican issued a lukewarm condemnation and Cardinal Bernard Law, who had actively protected the worst offenders, was given a higher position in Rome to allow him to escape criminal prosecution in the U.S. In contrast, the Vatican instructed politicians on their duties to uphold Church doctrine in a “Doctrinal Note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life,” and John Kerry was publicly berated and denied Communion for supporting abortion rights.
I’m not dancing on Pope John Paul II’s tomb, but neither am I mourning him. I hope that the next Pope will perhaps start to drag the Church forward into the 18th century, but as hopes go, that’s a small one, at best.