Spiritual Rock Star

Terry Eagleton

  • The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy by John Cornwell
    Viking, 329 pp, £20.00, February 2005, ISBN 0 670 91572 6

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.

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