Like many former Catholics, I have never lost my fascination for Holy Mother Church. When she gets you early, she never quite lets go. I thought of this while the cable news stations were in deathwatch mode for Pope John Paul II, and as his death was reported I recalled his first visit to America.
I stood atop the steps of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on October 7, 1979, listening via loudspeaker as Sister Theresa Kane, R.S.M., welcomed His Holiness on behalf of women clergy by urging him to accept women into all the ministries of the church. As the polyglot pontiff understood, she meant women priests. It was an exhilarating moment, witnessing the speaking of truth to power. Many of the women inside the shrine wore armbands, blue for the Blessed Virgin Mary, as an expression of solidarity with Kaneâ€™s message: â€śIt is appropriate that a womanâ€™s voice be heard in this shrine...â€ť
There was hesitation in the Popeâ€™s voice as he responded, obviously appalled. He awkwardly urged the nuns to return to wearing traditional habits. A week later (speaking of troublesome modern developments), the first national gay march came to Washington, and I remember the street vendors along the march route still hawking papal memorabilia.
John Paul II was a pope of contradictions. He played a significant role in bringing down the Iron Curtain, yet he was one of the last authoritarian rulers in Europe. He was the first pope to recognize Israel, and initiated unprecedented ecumenical outreach to leaders of other churches, yet he aggressively suppressed heterodoxy within his own church. He was an outspoken advocate for the poor, yet he opposed the Marxist-inspired liberation theologians of South America, even though the leading oppressors on that continent were the oligarchs whom the leftist theologians were resisting. He was an eloquent defender of human rights, yet he objected bitterly to civil authorities granting a permit for a gay rights march in Rome.
Three years before John Paulâ€™s ascension to the Chair of Saint Peter, the Vaticanâ€™s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had declared that â€śhomosexual acts are intrinsically disordered.â€ť Deciding this was insufficient, the new popeâ€™s chief doctrinal enforcer, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a pastoral letter in 1986 stating that â€śthe inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.â€ť The same letter also justified anti-gay violence and called gay-rights advocacy a threat to the family.
Ironically for an organization that purported to defend families against a demonized minority, John Paulâ€™s church was excruciatingly slow to respond to revelations that it had acted in effect as an organized crime network facilitating the sexual abuse of children by priests. Indeed, its first instinct was to stonewall and hire aggressive attorneys. In this scandal the Churchâ€™s insular and unaccountable menâ€™s club demonstrated in the clearest manner its feet of clay. The rewarding of Bostonâ€™s Bernard Cardinal Law with the post of archpriest at Romeâ€™s Basilica of St. Mary Major was equaled in chutzpah only by the Presidentâ€™s naming of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank.
Thus the idea that the Churchâ€™s ruler is divinely ordained and answerable only to God, long outdated in the secular realm, is extended by the Vatican even to criminal matters.
Consider the nine former members of the traditionalist Legion of Christ who struggled in vain throughout John Paulâ€™s papacy to get Rome to take seriously their accusations that the Legionâ€™s founder, the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, had sexually abused them as seminarians. After the charges were made, the Pope still honored Maciel and made him his special representative to a Latin American synod. Cardinal Ratzinger halted a canonical proceeding against Maciel in late 1999 without explanation. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times in September 2004, Maciel continued to host dinners for â€śVatican luminariesâ€ť at the Legion seminary in Rome.
Ultimately, however, it is not John Paul IIâ€™s shortcomings or blind spots, but his many good works that point to the greater tragedy of this man and the worldwide church he led so firmly for so long. Anyone who claims special access to divine wisdom, and leads a large organization dedicated to promulgating it, is bound to find himself, however good his intentions, at odds with what Thomas Jefferson called â€śthe illimitable freedom of the human mind.â€ť Each of us is born with a priceless gift, a brain. Surely that gift should not be dishonored by refusing to think for ourselves. As the world mourns this contradictory man, this authoritarian freedom fighter whose pastoral journeys took him from Auschwitz to Jerusalem, my heretical brain cries out amidst the hymns and eulogies: No one has a monopoly on the truth.