The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy 
by John Cornwell.
Viking, 329 pp., £20, February 2005, 0 670 91572 6
Show More
Show More

There’s a sexist joke, popular among theologians, in which God, a woman, is in the act of creating the world: ‘And darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God said “Er – could I just see the darkness again?”’ If this is not Pope John Paul II’s kind of God, it’s as much because of the hesitancy as the gender. If he were ever in two minds on a subject, both of them would be infallible. Not for nothing was the priest who taught him theology in Rome known as ‘The Rigid’. As a Polish bishop newly arrived in the city to take part in Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council, he was appalled by the sight of his fellow bishops quarrelling, lobbying and criticising. This was not the custom of the traditionalist Polish hierarchy, assured in their monopoly of absolute truth.

It was not long, however, before he would have the chance to quash the wrangling. When Paul VI, John XXIII’s liberal-minded successor, died in 1978, he was followed on the throne of Peter by Albino Luciani, Patriarch of Venice, a man so administratively inept that he chucked a sheaf of papers in desperation over the parapet of the apostolic palace, and was discovered by his secretary weeping in sheer terror of his cardinal secretary of state. ‘They’ve made Peter Sellers pope,’ an English archbishop remarked. Luciani was never a man much at home in the world, and was soon not to be at home in it at all: fate, or more likely a bunch of Vatican conspirators, killed him off before he had a chance to get his feet under the papal desk. No autopsy was performed. The most charitable explanation of his sudden death is that the sheer stress of the job did for him in three weeks flat.

The idea of a Polish successor appealed to the Vatican conservatives, even if electing a non-Italian pope for the first time since 1522 was hard for them to swallow. The Polish Catholic Church was one of the most conservative institutions on the planet, awash with maudlin Mariolatry and ferociously anti-Communist. A pope from this embattled neck of the woods would soon put paid to pluralism, moral relativism, way-out Masses with Coke and hamburgers, and Catholic fellow-travelling with the far left. But since years of dealing with the Polish Stalinists had turned John Paul and his colleagues into consummate political operators, they were particularly well equipped to face down the Church progressives without causing an unseemly split. Despite their antagonism, there was in some ways not much to choose between Stalinism and the Catholic Church, two regimes well-versed in dogma, censorship, heresy, deception, bureaucracy, hagiography and personality cults. Both understood the iconic nature of power. A Polish journalist has remarked that only Stalin had more public statues erected to him in his lifetime than John Paul.

If the new Church was all about dialogue with non-Catholics, the Poles, aware of how little such dialogue had won them from the Soviet regime, might be relied on to close it down. John Paul spoke out against a dialogue with atheism at the Vatican Council, and he still has his doubts about the value of conversing with those of other beliefs. As the Catholic said to the Muslim in the old joke, ‘We both worship the same God – you in your way, and I in His.’ Some crass comments the pope once made about the ‘deficiency’ of other faiths were described as ‘rank heresy’ by Jesuit scholars in Rome. (Suspected heresy is not uncommon with him: he has also spoken portentously about a ‘second fall’, a doctrine which could be said to court that charge.) Even as a dramatist he found dialogue hard going. A play he wrote in the 1950s, The Jeweller’s Shop, is made up of wooden monologues full of platitudes about marriage delivered in the presence of unresponsive other characters – a suitable foretaste of his papacy. It is typical of his monologism that in seeking to canonise his favourite figures, he has abolished the traditional role of the diaboli advocatus whose job is to discredit the candidate for sainthood.

Once installed as pope in Luciani’s place, John Paul preserved bits of the scaffolding of the progressive-minded theology he inherited, while resolutely demolishing the bricks and mortar beneath. Edward Schillebeeckx, one of the Council’s most eminent theologians, was summoned to Rome to be cross-examined no less than three times in the first year of the new papacy. Hans Küng, Vatican 2’s other great luminary, had his teaching licence revoked. ‘Be not afraid!’ were the new pontiff’s first words to the crowds in St Peter’s Square. ‘Be very afraid!’ might have proved more accurate. Since then, he has travelled the world browbeating bishops, ticking off nuns for wearing trouser suits, and denouncing political priests, of whom he himself was once one. He has even been known to take a smack at Jacques Derrida.

As the 1980s wore on, John Paul rolled back one Vatican Council agenda after another. To do so, however, he needed to smash the Council doctrine of collegiality, which in impeccably orthodox fashion saw the Church as governed by the bishops as a whole, with the bishop of Rome taking priority among them. ‘The bishops with the pope’, rather like ‘the queen in Parliament’, was the vital brake on autocracy. The bishops themselves were to be regarded more as chairmen than chief executives, and the pope was to be seen as chair of the chairmen rather than capo di tutti capi. All this had to be cut back if the aggressive new pontiff was to gather power into his own hands. The authority of the local bishops, not to speak of the laity, was deliberately undermined. In the early Church, the laity had actually elected their own bishops; now they were just the punters in the pews, with less and less say in how ecclesial affairs were conducted. Bishops were summoned to Rome to be given their orders, not to engage in consultation. It was a return to the days of Pius XII.

Like George Bush, John Paul has never ceased to speak of freedom in the very process of demolishing it. Freedom was for the pope’s compatriots in Soviet Poland, not for his fellow bishops and their parishioners. It was fine for oppressed Slavs, but not for the oppressed Latinos who had taken to liberation theology in their struggle against CIA-sponsored murder. In a notorious encounter with Ernesto Cardenal, poet, priest and Sandinista, John Paul shook an angry finger at him and gave him a public tongue-lashing. It was one’s Christian duty to love the poor, not to take steps that might radically transform their conditions. The pope canonised Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, at least nine of whose members sat in Franco’s cabinet; but he did not canonise Archbishop Oscar Romero, champion of the El Salvador poor, who was gunned down by soldiers while saying Mass. This bishop of Rome is unable to countenance debate, and criticism from any quarter makes him irascible.

John Cornwell, a Vaticanologist distinguished enough to swing a private audience with the pope (he noted his large Slavonic ears), points in The Pope in Winter to one calamitous consequence of this authoritarianism. When the child sex abuse scandal broke, the result was paralysis, vacillation and organised deception on the part of local churches, who could no longer take an initiative without looking fearfully to Rome. It is true that Catholic bishops have often been adept at humbug and hypocrisy, a practice which a little more backing from Rome would be unlikely to dispel. But the response to one form of infantilism – the abuse of children by sexually regressive clerics – was another: the political infantilism of the bishops, which the Vatican had nurtured through its headstrong monopoly of power. To this extent, the pope himself bears indirect responsibility for the whole cover-up.

John Paul has scuppered collegiality even further by encouraging the growth of maverick groups, among them unsavoury outfits like Opus Dei, which operate outside episcopal structures and declare allegiance directly to himself. Ironically, the only counter to this despotism has been his own ill health. The Church is run increasingly by his Polish secretary and a handful of ageing reactionary cardinals, and how much the Holy Father himself knows about what is afoot is anybody’s guess. In official Vatican circles, it is forbidden to suggest that this pathetically stricken pontiff is any less frenetically active than he ever was.

John Paul II was born Karol Wojtyla near Krakow in 1920, the son of a military martinet who was rarely out of uniform, and whose control-freak characteristics his son appears to have inherited. As with many pious Poles of the time, it was the Virgin Mary, not Christ, who was the chief object of the young Wojtyla’s devotion. Indeed, Christ himself seems strangely marginal in his early spiritual life, shouldered aside by a strong-minded mother. At one point he considered scaling down his Marian devotions in order to give her son a sporting chance. His papal motto, Totus Tuus, refers to Mary, not Christ, and certainly not to his faithful (or not so faithful) flock. On this view of the world, Mary has made more interventions in modern history (including saving the pope from assassination) than the United States. If Jesus cropped up at all in his early years it was usually in the guise of the Polish Christ, crucified under the Russian yoke but, like the nation itself, about to rise again. In his old age, Wojtyla would use the image of the crucified Christ of himself. He was reared in a world of shrines, superstition, Marian pilgrimages and messianic dreams of a Slavic pope who would one day reform the papacy. The dream was to be realised, though ‘reform’ is a debatable term. It was a theatrical, chauvinistic, emotionally extravagant brand of Catholicism, intensely physical yet laced with a dash of mysticism: the young Wojtyla wrote his doctorate on St John of the Cross and joined in the cult of the stigmatist Padre Pio, who is said to have appeared to Allied pilots during air battles, heroically warding off Luftwaffe fighter planes. Throughout his life, John Paul has meditated on the union of the individual soul with God, a curiously Protestant predilection for a pope.

Wojtyla worked in amateur theatre as a youth, and had a taste for statuesque postures and grandiloquent bardic monologues. Those who have been subjected to his rambling speeches as pope, punctuated by aggressive fist-thumpings and irritable rebukes to over-enthusiastic applauders, would no doubt take the point. Given his thespian background and love of the large gesture, it is not surprising that he should have become the pope of public spectaculars, a kind of spiritual rock star. Cornwell speaks of his ‘cinematic good looks’, and one could imagine his strong, square-jawed features, at once steely and benign, cropping up in a Western. ‘He has a lot in common with Ronald Reagan,’ commented Graham Greene, who had been a close friend of Paul VI but, significantly, never received an overture from John Paul: ‘They are both world leaders who were in fact just actors.’ Greene had a dream in which he opened a newspaper to find the headline ‘John Paul Canonises Jesus Christ’ – an understandable mistake, since he seems to have canonised almost everyone else.

Wojtyla has always been an odd mixture of the theatrical and the ascetic. As a young priest he spent untold hours in the confessional, prostrated himself on the floor of his church at night, and slept on the bare boards of his bedroom. Preternaturally resolute and robust, he combined heavy pastoral duties with academic teaching. He was eager to gain intellectual distinction, and was once a phenomenologist, which is a little like Jack Straw turning out to be a former neo-Hegelian. Phenomenology, which seeks to reconstruct the world from within lived experience, is about the last kind of philosophy Wojtyla should have gone in for, given that lived experience was scarcely his strongest point. Cornwell, who is a devout Catholic and by no means an iconoclast, describes the style of his philosophical writings as laboured, abstruse and detached. Even so, he hoped to combine modern phenomenological insights with traditional Thomism, an absurdly ambitious project for which he was ill-equipped and which predictably ran aground. As Cornwell observes, he was out of his depth academically. Typically, he did not seem to know it. Some of his papal encyclicals (he is the most prolific pope in history) have likewise been turgid, baroque, elaborately coded affairs. For a pope so devoted to the simple faithful, he does not seem to care much about being understood.

Like the average teenager, no modern pope can spend long without thinking about sex. As a young priest, John Paul was an assiduous counsellor of teenagers on dating, and apparently never tired of asking them questions about their love life: how they felt, how they behaved, in what way they found each other attractive. He also entertained them, if that’s the word, by reciting long poems and singing sonorous patriotic songs. According to Cornwell, his book Love and Responsibility reads at times like a Martian anthropologist’s field notes on human sexual practices. At no point in his alarmingly extensive writings on sex does the pope mention that it can actually be enjoyable. Probably the greatest crime of John Paul’s papacy is his insistence that condoms are inherently evil even when used to forestall fatal infection – a position which, as Cornwell bravely acknowledges, has condemned untold numbers of Catholics to almost certain death. In what must surely count as one of the most grotesque ironies of the age, John Paul has called condoms part of a ‘culture of death’. In any case, so some of his advisers solemnly assert, they cannot prevent infection.

The pope has shut his ears to pleas for a married clergy, and treated priests who have left the ministry to get married with a brutal lack of charity. Astonishingly, the Vatican has declared his ban on women priests to be ‘of the deposit of faith’ (code for infallible), though he is said to have been argued out of making his condemnation of contraception an infallible pronouncement as well. Men and women who get divorced thereby treat their former spouse as a ‘thing’. ‘Homosexualists’ (as some Vatican officials like to call them) simply use each other for selfish gratification. One of the clerical ‘misdemeanours’ most frequently reported to Rome is the pastoral care of homosexual Catholics. And all this despite the fact that, as one Roman taxi-driver remarked of a gay parade to which the Vatican had vehemently objected, ‘If you want to see a gay parade, just drop into St Peter’s any day of the week!’ Cornwell has his own Deep Throat (or Sotto Voce, as he affectionately calls him), who one suspects keeps him well posted about scandalous goings-on in the Vatican.

The sexual abuse of children has a long history in the Church. A report on clerical paedophilia was addressed to Pope Leo IX in 1050. In the mid-19th century, Pius IX took charge of a Jewish boy who had been kidnapped by the papal police because he was thought to have been baptised, and encouraged him to frolic under his cassock. When the pope died, an enraged Roman crowd tried to throw his corpse into the Tiber. As the Church’s child abuse crisis mounted, John Paul decided to beatify this papal predecessor who, as Cornwell remarks, would today probably face a jail sentence for kidnapping and child molestation. He also rewarded a US cardinal who had actively covered up child abuse with a plush posting in Rome.

There are a few positive features to report, and the amiable Cornwell hastens to do so. John Paul has chalked up some achievements in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, and is no admirer of late capitalism. (Popes tend to be radical Tories in their social policies, critics of capitalism from the corporatist, paternalistic right.) Whatever his Neanderthal attitudes to women, which include sharing with his erstwhile friend Mother Teresa the notion that feminism is tantamount to abortion, he has formally welcomed their liberation as largely positive. He stood up courageously to a repressive Soviet regime in Poland, if mostly for the wrong reasons, and despite having an alarming amount in common with George Bush, he condemned the US invasion of Iraq. He is clearly a man of extraordinary willpower, energy and commitment, who has driven himself to death in the name of his beliefs.

What Catholics have ended up with under his sovereignty, however, is the worst of both worlds: a Church which is in danger of becoming both a faceless bureaucracy and a fundamentalist cult. In the age of Reaganite astrology and Blairite rebirthing, the pope has fostered a New Ageist obscurantism centred on miracles, mystic coincidences and sibylline sayings, at the same time as he has ruthlessly centralised his institutional power. Faced with this combination of absolutism and subjectivism, millions of disaffected Catholics have fallen away. In the most enduring global institution in history, the high hopes of the Vatican Council – the Catholic version of 1960s social euphoria – have given way to a brutal right-wing backlash. As John Paul came into power, so too did Margaret Thatcher, who when asked what the New Testament meant to her, replied ‘freedom of choice’. There are many acolytes of John Paul who would reply ‘chastity, abstinence and obedience’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 27 No. 5 · 3 March 2005

When I travelled through Poland as a young priest just after John Paul II’s election to the papacy, I was struck not only by the heroic stand the Church was making against the Soviet system, but also by the underlying similarity, which Terry Eagleton notes, between these two great antagonists (LRB, 3 February). It was quickly apparent that John Paul’s papacy was going to be characterised by Soviet-style double-speak and double-think: ‘renewal’ was merely the repackaging of past certainties; discerning ‘the signs of the times’ meant accepting official teaching; ‘dialogue’, even among bishops, became the ratification of preformulated conclusions. It was distressing that after a great reforming council – at which the Church decided it had had enough of autocracy – a pope had been elected whose notion of engaging with the modern world was to enforce absolute conformity to the traditional party line. The unifying theme of papal policy was the centralisation of power. In Latin America, charismatic figures were either crushed – like Helder Camara (‘I helped the poor and they called me a saint, I asked why they were poor and they called me a Communist’) – or marginalised, like Oscar Romero. Even Pedro Arrupe, the distinguished Jesuit general, was publicly humiliated.

As this papacy nears its end, it has taken on the characteristics of Brezhnev’s last days, when no one knew who was in charge or even if Brezhnev was alive or dead. Those of us who have become refusniks look forward to the future with interest.

Dominic Kirkham

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences