Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Pope's Halo

Between flags at half mast, omnipresence on television and paeans in the press, Karol Wojtyla's halo must be glowing almost as strong as Princess Diana's, although perhaps not as brightly as Saint Ronald's.

Pope, president and princess have in common their pharaonic wakes and funerals, soaked in myth and bathos. Millions of ordinary people who never knew them, except through photos in glossy magazines, gave way to tears that came from ... where precisely?

Diana was a wealthy socialite of few talents beyond knowing how to present herself in public. Ronald Reagan play acted the gestures of his presidential role flawlessly, but he was a lightweight when it came to the policies that he approved, which impoverished millions.

And the pope? At least he was worthy, no? Someone I know recently echoed to me the widespread sentiment that "the Holy Father had an impact on billions of lives." Is that true?

To begin with, there is no evidence that John Paul II was particularly holy in the moral sense or, at any rate, holier than anyone reading this essay. He was holy in the sense of being dedicated to religion; that was his job: one could just as easily say an attorney is lawyerly.

And the Vatican better pray there is no evidence he was anyone's biological father. Was he fatherly? Not to the nun who asked him to consider ordaining women priests, nor to a Nicaraguan priest who believed the gospel meant joining the Sandinistas, nor to the millions pushed into destitution by the collapse of Soviet-era social programs.

Karol Wojtyla might have been considerably less than fatherly to children raped by priests in Krakow -- we just don't know because thugs intimidated local reporters halting their investigations into charges of pedophile priests while the dead pope was archbishop.

In sum, "Holy Father" is a mythical title, like the queen of England's claim to be the monarch of France (and "defender of the faith").

As to the "impact on billions of lives," what impact and what evidence is there of it? Before he was pope, Karol Wojtyla was known to several thousand people, at most and very superficially -- and that's on a sunny day, feeling generous about it. Only when he was given the right to wear a triple tiara as the sole remaining absolute monarch of Europe did he come to the attention of billions -- or they within hailing distance of his impact.

Is the world better now than it was in 1978, when he was elected pope? In a word, no.

In the USA workers today earn, in real terms, 22% less than they did then. In Western Europe, social benefits are being curtailed. In the former Soviet bloc, as noted, millions have been pushed into destitution. In Africa AIDS is almost as common as the flu and -- thanks to Wojtyla -- charitable organizations of Catholic affiliation refuse to provide the means to prevent infection. In Latin America, the same pauperization has come about.

The richest most armed nation in the world marched into Iraq, on pretenses about as false as Germany used to march into Wojtyla's native country, and the pope's feeble protest was no longer credible in terms of internationl politics, given his documented collaboration with the CIA. In any case, the protestations were undercut by "clarifications" by his press secretary, a member of the secretive, ultra-conservative Opus Dei.

So, in the aggregate, if Wojtyla had an impact on billions of people in the world, it was negative. There's no evidence otherwise.

We're left with vague claims that he prayed for other people. Even these are weak. Among the hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns and millions of other devout Christians, there are plenty of people who pray just as intensely -- and for other people. Wojtyla did not get 36 hours to the day to pray; he had the same 24 hours as the millions of devout people, the same human strength, the same human ability to pray for one at a time.

Yet no one else who prays a lot is on TV and in the newspapers and gets called fancy names after having lived in palaces paid for by the contributions of widows. Oh, yes, and the sale of John Paul II kitsch. He was the most commercialized pope in history. In that, he was notable. The only pope who sold recordings of himself praying the rosary.

Everything else, his encyclicals, his grand gestures, the travel (which he did at the expense of locals) -- all of that is attributable to being employed to work as the figurehead of an organization with the oldest PR apparatus. The Catholic Church, after all, coined the word "propaganda."

A monkey could have done it just as well.

Even the stories of his kindness to Jews during the Holocaust fall far short of heroic. If they are exceptional, it must be because the moral behavior of most Gentile Poles was abominable, which appears to be the case.

Karol Wojtyla, Ronald Reagan and Princes Diana did nothing for anyone that any ordinary human being wouldn't have done. There's absolutely no reason to idolize them, to revere them, to call them "great."

Those who do, have a political or ecclesiastical agenda -- or they have handed control over their emotions to the media.