The Other Pope
John Paul II was a complex man and among the more intellectual popes in history. Because of his admirable stance against Stalinism in Eastern Europe (which did not in fact involve any denunciation of communism or socialism per se) and his anti-abortion stance, he is often claimed as an ally by the American Right (which is mainly Protestant and mainly about the best interests of wealthy business people).
But John Paul II was often an inconvenient man, whose moral vision would be upsetting to the US Republican establishment if it were taken seriously. He opposed the death penalty, to which George W. Bush is so attached. He opposed the Iraq War. He condemned laissez-faire capitalism and cared about the exploitation of workers, who he felt should have a dignity that is seldom bestowed upon them by the Walmarts and other firms in the US. And he cared about the rights and welfare of the Palestinian people in a way that virtually no one in the American political establishment does. He symbolically blessed the Palestinian claim that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian people.
That is, the Pope’s message sometimes had a strong progressive content, and he was in some important ways on our side. That progressives might have had differences with him on some issues should not forestall our celebrating his progressive legacy. The American Right appropriates shamelessly anyone who even halfway agrees with them. We on the left must learn to make sectional alliances and commemorate those areas of agreement we have with people like John Paul II.
In honor of his passing I am posting some of his challenging statements.
“The message of Bethlehem is good news of reconciliation among men, of peace at every level of relations between individuals and nations. Bethlehem is a universal crossroads where all peoples can meet to build a together a world worthy of our human dignity and destiny. The recently inaugurated Museum of the Nativity shows how the celebration of Christ’s birth has become part of the culture and art of peoples in all parts of the world.
“Mr. Arafat, as I thank you for the warm welcome you have given me in the name of the Palestinian Authority and people, I express all my happiness at being here today. How can I fail to pray that the divine gift of peace will become more and more a reality for all who live in this land, uniquely marked by God’s intentions? Peace for the Palestinian people! Peace for all peoples of the region! No one can ignore how much the Palestinian people have had to suffer in recent decades. Your torment is before the eyes of the world, and it has gone on too long.
“The Holy See has always recognized that the Palestinian people have the natural right to a homeland, and the right to be able to live in peace and tranquility with the other peoples of this area. In the international forum, my predecessors and I have repeatedly claimed that there would be no end to the sad conflict in the Holy Land without stable guarantees for the rights of all the peoples involved, on the basis of international law and the relevant United Nations resolutions and declarations.
“We must all continue to work and pray for the success of every genuine effort to bring peace to this land. Only with a just and lasting peace — not imposed but secured through negotiation — will legitimate Palestinian aspirations be fulfilled. Only then will the Holy Land see the possibility of a bright new future, no longer dissipated by rivalry and conflict, but firmly based on understanding and cooperation. The outcome depends on the courageous readiness for those responsible for the destiny of this part of the world to move to new attitudes of compromise and compliance with the demands of justice.
“Dear friends, I am fully aware of the great challenges facing the Palestinian Authority and people in every field of economic and cultural development. In a particular way my prayers are with the Palestinians — Muslim and Christian — who are still without a home of their own, their proper place in society and the possibility of a normal working life. My hope is that my visit today to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp will serve to remind the international community that decisive action is needed to improve the situation of the Palestinian people. I was particularly pleased at the unanimous acceptance by the United Nations of Resolution on Bethlehem 2000, which commits the international community to help in developing this area and in improving conditions of peace and reconciliation in one of the most cherished and significant places on earth.
“The promise of peace made at Bethlehem will become a reality for the world only when dignity and rights of all human beings made in the image of God are acknowledged and respected.
“Today and always the Palestinian people are in my prayers to the One who holds the destiny of the world in his hands. May the Most High God enlighten, sustain and guide in the path of peace the whole Palestinian people.”
Here is another anecdote from that trip:
“The pope’s first brush with the zero sum politics of the Middle East came almost as soon as he landed near Tel Aviv on Tuesday on a flight from Jordan. After being presented by Israeli children with a jar of sacred soil to kiss, the pope was told by President Ezer Weizman that Jerusalem is “the eternal capital” of Israel.
In receiving the pope in Bethlehem, Arafat rebutted by terming Jerusalem “the eternal capital” of Palestine. There too the pope kissed a bowl of soil, a potent symbol for Palestinians since the gesture is generally reserved for sovereign nations.”
Then there was his opposition to war as a tool of international diplomacy, his respect for the United Nations Charter, his concern for the impact of an Iraq war on ordinary people (in which he was prophetic). I somehow don’t think he was actually on the same page as John Bolton.
“Pope: Iraq War Must be Last Resort.” (Jan. 13, 2003)
“”NO TO WAR”! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity. International law, honest dialogue, solidarity between States, the noble exercise of diplomacy: these are methods worthy of individuals and nations in resolving their differences. I say this as I think of those who still place their trust in nuclear weapons and of the all-too-numerous conflicts which continue to hold hostage our brothers and sisters in humanity. At Christmas, Bethlehem reminded us of the unresolved crisis in the Middle East, where two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian, are called to live side-by-side, equally free and sovereign, in mutual respect. Without needing to repeat what I said to you last year on this occasion, I will simply add today, faced with the constant degeneration of the crisis in the Middle East, that the solution will never be imposed by recourse to terrorism or armed conflict, as if
military victories could be the solution. And what are we to say of the threat of a war which could strike the people of Iraq, the land of the Prophets, a people already sorely tried by more than twelve years of embargo? War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations. As the Charter of the United Nations Organization and international law itself remind us, war cannot be decided upon, even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good, except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions, without ignoring the consequences for the civilian population both during and after the military operations.”
Then there is his position on the death penalty, from a 1995 encyclical. He did not shrink from openly intervening in Irish, Filipino and other national politics to push for an abolition of the death penalty.
” “This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence.”(46) Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.(47)
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
The American Right is unalterably hostile to the environment, and to international treaties which might interfere in a rapacious exploitation of it. John Paul II was of a different view:
‘In Tertio Millennio Adveniente, the Pope had already called for “a livelier sense of responsibility regarding the environment.” Quoting from that apostolic letter today, he went on to observe: “Today, mankind has discovered– largely in reaction to the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources which has often accompanied industrial development– the significance and the value of an environment which remains a hospitable home for man, where mankind is destined to live.”
The Holy Father said that environmental dangers force world leaders in science, industry, and government to find new ways to use the earth’s resources responsibly. The key challenge, he said, is “not only to limit the damage which has already been done, and apply remedies, but especially to find approaches to development which are in harmony with respect and protection for the natural environment.” ‘
Pope John Paul II took a dim view indeed of unbridled capitalism of the sort that has come to dominate every aspect of life in the United States.
the danger of treating work as “merchandise” -or as an impersonal “work force”-remains as long as economics is understood in a materialistic way. It is this one-sided approach that concentrates on work as the prime thing, leaving the worker in a secondary place. This is a reversal of the order laid down in the book of Genesis. The worker is treated as a tool whereas the worker ought to be treated as the subject of work, as its maker and creator. This reversal – whatever other name it gives itself- should be called ‘capitalism”- an economic and social system that historically has been known as opposed to “socialism” or “communism.” The error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever the worker is treated as a mere means of production, as a tool and not as a subject. To consider work and the worker in the light of humanity’s dominion over the earth goes to the very heart of the ethical and social question. It is in insight that should be applied to all social and economic policy, within each country, but also internationally, to the tensions between East and West, North and South.”
and then it becomes clear that Pope John Paul II was actually pro-Union and pro-cooperative and pro-workers’ rights. All those corporate fat cats holding seminars on “how to bust a union before it gets going in your company” and who fund the Republican Far Right, which turns around and trades on the Pope’s moral authority in the culture wars, must be pretty upset by statements such as this:
“It is useful to recall the changes of the last ninety years. Although the “worker” remained the same, “work” changed. New forms of work appeared and disappeared. Though this is normal, it is necessary to watch out for ethical and social irregularities. It was such an irregularity that gave rise -in the last century-
to the “worker question” or the “proletariat question,” provoking a great burst of solidarity among workers, mainly in industry. It was a reaction against the degradation of the workers, their exploitation with regard to their working conditions and security; against an unjust system that safeguarded the economic initiative of the owners but did not pay attention to the rights of the workers.
This reaction is in line with the church’s teaching and justified from a social morality point of view. Worker solidarity has brought profound changes. Various new systems have been thought out Workers often share in running and controlling businesses, influencing working conditions, wages, and social legislation. But new systems have arisen that allow old injustices to continue and new injustices to appear. New developments and communication reveal forms of injustices more extensive than the ones that aroused workers’ solidarity in the last century, not only in industrialized societies but also in agricultural countries. Solidarity movements can also be needed for social groups not previously mentioned but who find themselves in a “proletariat” situation. It can be true of the working “intelligentsia,” people with degrees and diplomas, who cannot find work- a situation that arises when education is unsuited to the needs of society, or when there is less demand and less pay for work that requires education. We must consequently continue to study the situation of the worker. There is a need for solidarity movements among and with the workers. The church is firmly committed to this cause, in fidelity to Christ, and to be truly the “church of the poor.”
Note the concern for the needs of poorly paid or unemployed academics and knowledge workers. David Horowitz, eat your heart out!
Finally for today, it is worthwhile noting that John Paul II declined ot enter into the frenzy of Islamophobia that is unfortunately so common among the US Religious Right. He was the first Pope to visit a mosque and address a Muslim congregation, in Damascus.
“Dear Muslim Friends,
1. I give heartfelt praise to Almighty God for the grace of this meeting. I am most grateful for your warm welcome, in the tradition of hospitality so cherished by the people of this region. I thank especially the Minister of the Waqf and the Grand Mufti for their gracious greetings, which put into words the great yearning for peace which fills the hearts of all people of good will. My Jubilee Pilgrimage has been marked by important meetings with Muslim leaders in Cairo and Jerusalem, and now I am deeply moved to be your guest here in the great Umayyad Mosque, so rich in religious history. Your land is dear to Christians: here our religion has known vital moments of its growth and doctrinal development, and here are found Christian communities which have lived in peace and harmony with their Muslim neighbours for many centuries.
2. We are meeting close to what both Christians and Muslims regard as the tomb of John the Baptist, known as Yahya in the Muslim tradition. The son of Zechariah is a figure of prime importance in the history of Christianity, for he was the Precursor who prepared the way for Christ. John’s life, wholly dedicated to God, was crowned by martyrdom. May his witness enlighten all who venerate his memory here, so that they – and we too – may understand that life’s great task is to seek God’s truth and justice.
The fact that we are meeting in this renowned place of prayer reminds us that man is a spiritual being, called to acknowledge and respect the absolute priority of God in all things. Christians and Muslims agree that the encounter with God in prayer is the necessary nourishment of our souls, without which our hearts wither and our will no longer strives for good but succumbs to evil.
3. Both Muslims and Christians prize their places of prayer, as oases where they meet the All Merciful God on the journey to eternal life, and where they meet their brothers and sisters in the bond of religion. When, on the occasion of weddings or funerals or other celebrations, Christians and Muslims remain in silent respect at the other’s prayer, they bear witness to what unites them, without disguising or denying the things that separate.
It is in mosques and churches that the Muslim and Christian communities shape their religious identity, and it is there that the young receive a significant part of their religious education. What sense of identity is instilled in young Christians and young Muslims in our churches and mosques? It is my ardent hope that Muslim and Christian religious leaders and teachers will present our two great religious communities as communities in respectful dialogue, never more as communities in conflict. It is crucial for the young to be taught the ways of respect and understanding, so that they will not be led to misuse religion itself to promote or justify hatred and violence. Violence destroys the image of the Creator in his creatures, and should never be considered as the fruit of religious conviction.
4. I truly hope that our meeting today in the Umayyad Mosque will signal our determination to advance interreligious dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam. This dialogue has gained momentum in recent decades; and today we can be grateful for the road we have travelled together so far. At the highest level, the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue represents the Catholic Church in this task. For more than thirty years the Council has sent a message to Muslims on the occasion of Îd al-Fitr at the close of Ramadan, and I am very happy that this gesture has been welcomed by many Muslims as a sign of growing friendship between us. In recent years the Council has established a liaison committee with international Islamic Organizations, and also with al-Azhar in Egypt, which I had the pleasure of visiting last year.
It is important that Muslims and Christians continue to explore philosophical and theological questions together, in order to come to a more objective and comprehensive knowledge of each others’ religious beliefs. Better mutual understanding will surely lead, at the practical level, to a new way of presenting our two religions not in opposition, as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family.
Interreligious dialogue is most effective when it springs from the experience of “living with each other” from day to day within the same community and culture. In Syria, Christians and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries, and a rich dialogue of life has gone on unceasingly. Every individual and every family knows moments of harmony, and other moments when dialogue has broken down. The positive experiences must strengthen our communities in the hope of peace; and the negative experiences should not be allowed to undermine that hope. For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness. Jesus teaches us that we must pardon others’ offences if God is to pardon us our sins (cf. Mt 6:14).
As members of the one human family and as believers, we have obligations to the common good, to justice and to solidarity. Interreligious dialogue will lead to many forms of cooperation, especially in responding to the duty to care for the poor and the weak. These are the signs that our worship of God is genuine.
5. As we make our way through life towards our heavenly destiny, Christians feel the company of Mary, the Mother of Jesus; and Islam too pays tribute to Mary and hails her as “chosen above the women of the world” (Quran, III:42). The Virgin of Nazareth, the Lady of Saydnâya, has taught us that God protects the humble and “scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (Lk 1:51). May the hearts of Christians and Muslims turn to one another with feelings of brotherhood and friendship, so that the Almighty may bless us with the peace which heaven alone can give. To the One, Merciful God be praise and glory for ever. Amen. “
God rest his soul.