Jesus Christ on a good day (and more)
by Morris West for the Sydney Morning Herald, April 4, 2005.
The late Morris
West wrote numerous novels about the Catholic Church, including
The Shoes of the Fisherman. This is an edited version of an
article West wrote exclusively for the Herald in 1997, to
be published on the death of the Pope.
Let us pray for a man of
In the Society of Jesus, there is an interesting
practice. When a superior's term of office expires, his colleagues
are asked to submit, in writing, a portrait of the man they
think should replace him.
It's a useful idea. The retiring candidate
is given a critique of his performance and the new nominee
is given a clear statement of what his colleagues expect of
One recent occasion elicited the wry but
heartfelt comment: "What they're looking for is Jesus
Christ on a good day."
This leads, by natural progression, to the
recital of a wish list to summarise the best intentions of
the electors and the most urgent needs of the church.
How old a man? Hard to prescribe, isn't it?
A young and sturdy pontiff may last too long, so that the
arteries of the church harden along with his own. Pope Paul
VI prescribed a retiring age for cardinals and bishops. There
would seem to be every good reason for a similar prescription
for the supreme pontiff.
The encroachments of age and infirmity would
not then create a constitutional crisis for the church, or
a crisis of conscience for an ailing pontiff driven by zeal
or ambition to complete his policies at all costs.
What nationality? The prescription, at first
glance, is easy. Nationality is not important; we need a universal
man for a universal church. Not so fast, please! The Pope
is elected first and foremost as Bishop of Rome. All else
hangs on that, flows from that.
The Romans, rightly, have first claim on
him and they will assert it vigorously, as they have done
down the centuries.
If he cannot speak their language, they will
despise him, whatever his virtues. If he cannot match their
subtleties and understand their history, and that of his own
office, they will manipulate him shamelessly. If I were a
betting man, which I am not, I would offer very long odds
against another exotic like the late pontiff. A South American
might be an outside bet.
So, now, we need a healer: a man of compassion.
From the balcony of St Peter's and the window of the papal
apartment, he sees the vast mass of people from all nations
under the sun. Their voices rise to him in a confused murmur.
It is impossible for him to distinguish their
faces or to decipher the grief and hope and, sometimes, the
terror in their eyes. I repeat here what I have written in
another place: we need a minister, not a magistrate. We need
a mediator of the great mystery.
We need a wise man, too. We need one calm
in his belief. It is this calm wisdom which is the true mark
of the healer.
It is the wisdom which sees and accepts the
wholeness of creation; which does not seek to explain the
vast mystery of it, bright and dark, but embraces it as part
of the gift of life, and mediates it, lovingly.
The wise man will be an open one. He will
listen and consider before he pronounces. He will recognise
that language is at best an imperfect human instrument; that
it changes from generation to generation, from place to place.
He will respect the risk-takers. He will
encourage free inquiry and open debate on hard questions.
He will put an end, forever, to secret denunciations and secret
inquisitions about the orthodoxy of honest scholars. He will
not stifle their questions or their speculations, but protect
them in charity against detractors. It's a big wish list.
Does such a paragon exist? Will the electors
be wise enough to recognise him and choose him? Will he be
willing to accept the office?
We pray that we may get a man filled with
all the gifts of the Spirit.
All we can be sure of is that he will be
a man of a certain age, already cast in a certain mould, honed
and buffed by pastoral or curial practice. He will be a bachelor,
long untrammelled by the demands of community life. He will
have a confessional, but not social, practice with women.
He will be accustomed to the nuances of power and the deference
accorded to his rank, all of which will make him, in some
degree, an idiosyncratic man. It will certainly isolate him.
The myth-makers will work on him. The masters
of ceremonies will create what Robert Browning called "the
rare show of Peter's successor".
Now, I believe it is time for Peter's new
successor to speak directly to the people of God, to beg their
personal support and understanding in the brute tasks which
lie ahead of him. They need him desperately; he needs them,
too. Without their presence, his office would have no meaning.
monologue than conversation
issues that are important to women, John Paul turned a deaf
ear, writes Veronica Brady for the Sydney Morning Herald,
April 4, 2005.
Brady is a Loreto sister and an honorary senior research fellow
in the Department of English, University of Western Australia.
Any attempt to assess the
significance of the long pontificate of John Paul II as far
as women are concerned is a tricky business.
To an outsider, the Roman Catholic Church
probably seems like a large and formidable institution, globalised
long before the present era of globalisation. To an insider,
being a Catholic means being part of a continuing conversation,
an attempt to live out and think through the meaning of the
It is thus deeply subjective, prayerful,
if you like, but it also joins us with all those others throughout
the world who are struggling to keep alive a belief in the
value of the human person, a sense of the sacred and of whatever
words such as justice, compassion, love, faithfulness, loyalty
and so on may mean.
That is why I have problems with the direction
in which the Pope was leading the church. For him, it seems
to have been more a monologue than a conversation; one, moreover,
from which the voices of women, half of the human race, were
By and large, he reiterated traditional teachings
on matters such as contraception, the family, abortion and
so on, seemingly without listening to what an increasing number
of women may have to say on these issues, or taking into account
recent developments in the understanding of human sexuality
and fertility and the crisis of overpopulation facing parts
of the world.
The language of his pronouncements was sexist,
and God figured almost exclusively as masculine, although
God is beyond gender.
Not surprisingly, many women have begun to
feel there is no place for them in the church and almost no
concern for the issues that confront them.
It is true that the Pope strenuously contested
the consumerism and the culture of instant gratification that
is responsible for much of the violence against women. He
also attacked developments in biotechnology that threaten
women, insisting on the value and dignity of the human person.
A proper conversation involves listening
as well as speaking, and the Pope was not a good listener.
At a time when so many certainties are being questioned, for
instance, he showed little sense of the painful ambiguities
facing people in the modern world.
As far as many women are concerned, perhaps
the crucial aspect of this inflexibility was the Pope's refusal
even to contemplate the possibility of the ordination of women.
In a world in which women's equality with
men is increasingly recognised and is proclaimed in the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, and in which Australian law makes
discrimination on grounds of gender unlawful, some of us find
it scandalous that the official church should have lobbied
to be exempt from some of the provisions of this legislation
and continue to treat women as second-class citizens and exclude
them from official positions of authority.
The argument, of course, is that women and
men are different, but difference should not mean subordination,
and the images of women in papal pronouncements point to what
is really at issue: exclusion from power.
A woman's place, we are told, is in the home,
and women are represented as wives and mothers, submissive,
sacrificial, dutiful and obedient, or not represented at all.
It is true that in countries such as the
United States, and to a lesser extent in Australia, some women
now hold positions of authority within the church in some
dioceses, but that is partly thanks to their own efforts and
partly because of the shortage of men to fill these positions.
This highlights the injustice, perhaps even
absurdity, of the exclusion of such women from the priesthood,
apparently for no reason other than that they are not men.
It also denies a basic principle that the
church is supposed to represent: that all human beings are
equal and equally worthy of respect before God.
What seems to be at issue instead is institutional
self-preservation. For many, the official Catholic Church
now faces a crisis of authenticity.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of papal
attitudes to women is the suspicion that, in the long run,
they derive from the misogyny, the suspicion of sexuality
and the association of women with temptation, the carnal other,
which has existed for so long in the church but which has
no basis in the teaching of its founder.
The Pope's continued insistence on compulsory
celibacy for the priesthood contributes to these suspicions.
This failure to confront misogyny means a
failure to accept responsibility for attitudes that have oppressed,
and continue to oppress and humiliate, women throughout the
world and led to horrifying violence against them.
To say all this is not to deny the importance
of the contribution the Pope made in many fields; in his attacks
on so-called economic rationalism, consumerism and the destructive
consequences of globalisation, for instance, and his defence
of refugees, indigenous peoples and minorities generally.
It is therefore a sad and curious irony that
he seemed insensitive to women's issues and failed to join
the conversation opening up between men and women and between
different cultures, presenting an image of God as somehow
aloof from this present world, static rather than dynamically
Conversation, of course, is a difficult art,
especially nowadays when, as a friend of mine says, in any
one room you will meet people belonging to three different
centuries, the 19th, the 20th and the 21st. It is surely important,
however, not just to listen to voices from the past.
Voices from the present, especially of those
excluded from and oppressed by power, and also those who look
to the future, have a claim to be heard.
VATICAN CITY: Pope John Paul II, a reactionary in shepherd's
by community member Barry Healy for the Green
Left Weekly, April 6, 2005.
Karol Jozef Wojtya,
known as John Paul II since assuming the office of pope in
October 1978, will be remembered as one of the most significant,
though certainly not the most progressive, figures in the
history of the Roman Catholic Church.
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
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
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
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
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
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.