John Paul II's other legacy.

A wartime lexicon.
April 1 2005 5:51 PM

Papal Power

John Paul II's other legacy.

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II

The papacy is not, in theory, a man-made office at all. Its holder is chosen for life, by God himself, to hold the keys of Peter and to be the vicar of Christ on earth. This is yet another of the self-imposed tortures that faith inflicts upon itself. It means that you have to believe that the pope before last, who held on to the job for a matter of weeks before dying (or, according to some, before being murdered) was either unchosen by God in some fit of celestial pique, or left unprotected by heaven against his assassins. And it means that you have to believe that the public agony and humiliation endured by the pontiff was also part of some divine design. In the case of a presidency, or even a monarchy, provision can be made for abdication and succession when physical and mental deliquescence occur. But there could obviously not have been any graceful retirement in the case of John Paul II. The next vicar of Christ could hardly be expected to perform his sacred duties knowing that there was a still-living vicar of Christ, however decrepit, on the scene. Thus, and as with the Schiavo case, every last morsel of misery has been compulsorily extracted from the business of death. For the people who credit the idea, apparently, heaven can wait. Odd.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

I leave it to the faith-based to wrestle with all this. Or rather, I would be happy to do so if they would stay out of my life. But there is one detail that sticks with me. A few years ago, it seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running. The man had knowingly reassigned dangerous and sadistic criminals to positions where they would be able to exploit the defenseless. He had withheld evidence and made himself an accomplice, before and after the fact, in the one offense that people of all faiths and of none have most united in condemning. (Since I have more than once criticized Maureen Dowd in this space, I should say now that I think she put it best of all. A church that has allowed no latitude in its teachings on masturbation, premarital sex, birth control, and divorce suddenly asks for understanding and "wiggle room" for the most revolting crime on the books.)

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Anyway, Cardinal Law isn't going to face a court, now. He has fled the jurisdiction and lives in Rome, where a sinecure at the Vatican has been found for him. (Actually not that much of a sinecure: As archpriest of the Rome Basilica of St. Mary Major, he also sits on two boards supervising priestly discipline—yes!—and the appointment of diocesan bishops.) Even before this, he visited Rome on at least one occasion to discuss whether or not the church should obey American law. And it has been conclusively established that the Vatican itself—including his holiness—was a part of the coverup and obstruction of justice that allowed the child-rape scandal to continue for so long.

Yet everybody continues to pretend that this is no problem. We have all—haven't we?—outgrown the anti-Catholic paranoia that used to manifest itself in the Know-Nothing Party. We all agree—don't we?—that the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 was a landmark event for tolerance and inclusiveness and all that. Only a bigot would suggest that the church puts its believers into a quandary of dual loyalty.

Actually, the Kennedy brothers were part of a Catholic cabal which imposed another Catholic cabal on the luckless people of South Vietnam. It's impossible to read the history of that calamity without noticing the filiation between the detested Diem dynasty in Saigon and the Kennedys, Cardinal Spellman, and various Catholic Cold-War propagandists from Clare Booth Luce to William F. Buckley. However, there's no proof that the Vatican ordered this, and the Kennedys did repent by having Diem murdered, so perhaps we can let that one slide.

But we cannot possibly let the case of Cardinal Law slide. And here the remedy is in the hands of American Catholics. They have had the guts to defy the papacy, in essence, when it comes to birth control. If they don't want to be thought compromised, they can protest at the sheltering of this vile man by the Holy See. But when did you last read of a protest like that? Will any obituary in this week of piety even allude to the situation? Of course not.

A few weeks ago, when the Supreme Court ruled against the execution of minors and specified the need to conform to international consensus on this, the Christian Right was outraged at the idea of foreign governments influencing American courts. But Terri Schiavo's parents were in court only moments afterward, instructing their lawyer to ask a judge to consider the church's teaching on purgatory and hell, and the state of the late Ms. Schiavo's soul. The Vatican is actually a foreign government, recognized as such by an exchange of ambassadors. Are we expected to be complacent when its clerical supporters try to short-circuit the U.S. Constitution with pleas of this kind?

"How many divisions," Stalin is supposed to have inquired contemptuously, "has the pope?" This stupid remark is invariably quoted against him. He failed to see that the pope can indeed mobilize legions. No obituary about John Paul II, for example, will omit to mention that he exerted enormous force to change the politics of Poland. Well, good for him, I would say. (He behaved much better on that occasion than he did when welcoming Tariq Aziz, one of Saddam Hussein's most blood-spattered henchmen, to an audience at the Vatican and then for a private visit to Assisi.) But let nobody confuse the undermining of a Stalinist bureaucracy in a majority Catholic nation with the insidious attempt to thwart or bend the law in a secular democracy. And let nobody say that this is no problem.

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