Saturday, April 2, 2005


In October 1978 I was just starting my job at a small-town radio station in northern Michigan when Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected pope. The Associated Press teletype dinged out the BULLETIN bell warning, and I went on the air with the station’s first “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin….” I was very excited to be the first station in the area to get the news on the air, but then again, my competition was the public radio station that didn’t do news and an automated AM station in Manistee that played country music. I was also proud of my ability to pronouce his Polish name correctly, but then I grew up near Toledo where names like that are fairly common.

I knew that the election of this then-young cardinal was a monummental event and that his papacy would have an impact on the world far beyond the church over which he presided. This was still the time of the Cold War, but this man’s outspoken manner and his stern opposition to communism and totalitarianism — at least in the secular world — played a major role in setting in motion the changes we’ve seen in the world since 1978. The Solidarity movement in Poland in 1981 took its cue and courage from his leadership, and that was the first sign of the chink in the Iron Curtain. Many credit Ronald Reagan for ending the Cold War and bringing down the end of the Soviet Union, but it was the pope who actually had a hand in it and placed the prestige of his office and his institution on the line for doing so. It was an enormous risk; if the Russians had reacted to the uprisings in eastern Europe as they had in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the pope and the Roman Catholic church would have had to take the blame for the bloodshed. But this man who had faced both Nazism and communism had some steel in him, forged by his faith and enhanced by his remarkable skills as a politician, and he won without a shot being fired. Josef Stalin once sneered at the possibility that his purges in Russia would anger the Vatican, replying, “How many divisions does the pope have?” Brezhnev, Jaruzelski, Coucescu, and Gorbachev found out the answer, much to their dismay…or, in Gorbachev’s case, relief.

Not being raised in the Roman Catholic church, I really don’t remember much about the popes of my lifetime, except I remember quite well the smiling cherubic visage of John XXIII, and I remember the coverage of his death in June 1963 and the election of his successor, Paul VI. I remember Paul traveled a lot, including a trip to America. He did a mass at Yankee Stadium and spoke at the United Nations. He carried out the wishes of his predecessor and “Vatican II” in modernizing the church — performing the liturgy in the local language, laying off a lot of saints, and relaxing the rules about meat on Fridays. I knew this because I grew up down the street from a Catholic church and I had a friends who were Catholic. It wasn’t until my teens when I began to pay attention to religion and my connection with spirituality that the teachings of the Roman Catholic church such as their views on homosexuality and reproductive rights, two issues I care about, became important to me. I felt that a church, regardless of how many followers it had, had no business in attempting to influence the political affairs of other nations, regardless of what their intentions were. In the last two thousand years more harm has been done in the name of religion — all religions — than any other cause in human history. The well-meaning and even helpful interference by a religious entity carries with it more portents of danger simply by the implication that they are acting under the authority of a supernatural being and that they must answer to this higher power, not to the people whose lives they are affecting. I resent the condemnation of an entire segment of humanity because of their sexual orientation…and that includes the exclusion of women from the Roman Catholic clergy, and I am deeply offended by the attempt of a religion — any religion — to dictate moral teachings and legislation to a nation no matter how many adherents there are in the population. But Pope Paul VI was not a very outspoken man, nor did he have the stage presence of a politician, and whenever something was done in the name of the Roman Catholic Church, be it a stand on the war in Vietnam or contraception, it was the Church as an institution that spoke out, not the skinny little guy in glasses who sort of reminded me of my school bus driver when I was in Grade 8. When he died in August 1978, I remember it only because a Catholic friend moaned that now he was going to have to spend the next week in church.

In the tumult that followed his death, the election of Pope John Paul I and his sudden death a month later (I remember chuckling over a National Lampoon issue on the election of Pope John Paul John Paul who didn’t even live long enough to get his vestments on) and the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, there were many predicitons about how the Roman Catholic Church was going through some radical changes and the papacy of this outsider would bring about tremendous changes — the same things they say whenever there’s any kind of transition in a large institution. Little did they realize, though.

To this several-steps-removed observer (a Quaker with powerful distrust of monolithic institutions governed by dogma literally carved in stone), the papacy of John Paul II will be viewed as the period in which his church and its institutions turned against the course of evolution — going from a constitutional monarchy where the pope was a figurehead back to the autocratic example of a ruler like an emperor in the model of the 18th century. It was no longer just the Church that set the course, it was the Pope himself and doing so in a way that raised his voice alone above the walls of the Vatican. It is more than just slightly ironic that the man who set in motion the demolition of the dictatorships of eastern European communism did so while he was solidifying his power as the sole voice of authority for his political regime. It has caused me no little concern to see this dictatorship grow, no matter how benign or well-meaning its intent. Hearing the pope as recently as last February condemn gay marriage as the “ideology of evil” doesn’t bode well for the prospects of gays and lesbians in their quest to be treated as equals in any society, regardless of its religious beliefs or the lack of them, because the pope speaks not just for himself and the Roman Catholic church to his followers; he speaks to senates and parliaments and the people in them who believe that he speaks as the representative of God on earth. Talk about an influential lobbyist. K Street should be so lucky.

I have no doubt whatsoever that John Paul II was a devout and decent man who served his church and his vision of the betterment of mankind with every good intention right up to the time he died. He was charming and charismatic and he stuck it to dictators and presidents alike. While I disagree vehemently with many of his church’s teachings and dogma, I thought of him as a genuine and honest man without an ounce of phoniness in him — something you cannot say about many political leaders, and one superb example of his polar opposite comes to mind. (He’s also the only pope I’ve seen in person. Long story short: in 1986 Allen and I went to Italy to visit a friend, and since Allen was raised Catholic, we went to Rome and attended one of the weekly general audience with the pope, along with apparently most of the nuns from Bulgaria. It was amazing — they had a circus performance right there for him.) The shoes of the fisherman will be hard to fill this time. I hold Karol Wojtyla in the Light, and I do also for the men who will choose his successor with the hopes that perhaps he will lead his church — along with its considerable political influence — into at least the 20th Century.