WORLD

THE POWER OF THE POPE

Pope John Paul II flexes his moral muscles on the world stage

BRUCE WALLACE September 19 1994
WORLD

THE POWER OF THE POPE

Pope John Paul II flexes his moral muscles on the world stage

BRUCE WALLACE September 19 1994

THE POWER OF THE POPE

WORLD

Pope John Paul II flexes his moral muscles on the world stage

The world’s smallest state is making the biggest headlines these days. Last month, it tweaked the mighty United States, even straying directly into American politics by attacking Vice-President Al Gore by name and accusing him of lying about his country’s abortion policy. It tied up this month’s landmark United Nations conference on population control in Cairo, Egypt, paralyzing debate because of its moral objections to three paragraphs in a proposed 113page agreement. And when its leader announced plans to make a highly anticipated visit to besieged Sarajevo last week, he helped send the two-year-old Bosnian war cascading into another violent spin.

This was no mouse that roared. The diplomatic thunder emanated from the Vatican, the 109-acre Roman Catholic state abutting Italy’s Tiber River. And its leader, Pope John Paul II, Bishop of Rome, spiritual guide of more than one billion Catholics, seemed bent on ensuring that the Holy See filled the robes of a great power. He does not need armored divisions to do so. Now 74 years old, weakened by a colon cancer operation last year and recovering from a broken hip in April, the Pope has lost none of his fundamentalist fire. If anything, he appears to be pressed by the sense that his earthly time may be running out, with so much still to do. “The Pope sees himself as just as much of a world leader as Bill Clinton or John Major,” says Briton Michael Walsh, whose biography of John Paul II will be published in October.

“He has always taken credit for having brought down the Berlin Wall, and he wants to throw his weight about on the world stage.” Nowhere was that desire more evident than in Cairo, where delegates from 180 countries gathered on Sept. 5 to put the final touches on a strategy for holding down global population

growth. The final document, a $110-billion, 20year plan to promote, among other things, sexand-health education in the developing world, aroused enmity from the Vatican and certain Islamic states from the start. The Pope contends that sections of the plan are merely codified pledges to guarantee abortion on demand. “Does the Vatican rule the world?” asked exasperated Egyptian population minister Maher Mahran, after the papal delegation in Cairo again blocked wider debate on population issues because of its objections to clauses dealing with abortion. After five days of wrangling over the issue, the Vatican said that although it could never accept legal abortion, it would no longer hold up the conference.

Many Roman Catholics, especially in the West, were also angry. “How come this is the only religion with a permanent observer seat at the United Nations?” complained American Frances Kissling, president of the liberal Catholics for Free Choice. Even away from Cairo’s hotbed atmosphere, the Pope found high-profile critics. “I count myself among the growing number of Catholics who support the ordination of women as priests,” said Senator Edward Kennedy, locked in a difficult re-election contest in liberal Massachusetts.

John Paul’s 16-year papacy has been marked by a rigid defence of Catholic doctrine. In papal utterances over the past two years, he has decreed that homosexuality and sex before marriage are intrinsically evil, declared that masturbation is a gravely disorderly act, espoused that using contraception is the equivalent of being an atheist, and reaffirmed the ban on women priests. Softening Church doctrine to match the prevailing morality of the times is clearly not an option.

“John Paul is a fundamentalist,” says Walsh. ‘The history of the Roman Catholic Church is one of reaching accommodation with society so that it was never on the margins. But the present pope is pushing the Church to the margins by making moral demands that few Catholics can meet. He is turning it from a world church into a sect.”

The Vatican is unmoved by such criticism, especially of its stand on abortion. “If the Holy Father is largely isolated and alone on this issue, it may well be because modem thought and politics have embraced principles that cannot enhance human worth and destiny,” wrote Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls on the eve of the Cairo conference. Admirers and critics alike say that John Paul sees himself as the

defender of Good in a world that is swamped by Evil. Morals and ethics cannot be negotiated away. “His stance on feminist issues is bound to make him unpopular, but he is shaped by his early manhood years in Eastern Europe,” says Eamon Duffy, a church historian at England’s Cambridge University. The mother of young Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, died in childbirth when he was nine, and he came of age during Poland’s nightmare years of Nazi, and then Soviet, occupation. “Marxism has always determined his agenda,” says

■ John Paul; Duffy. “He believes that Muslim women Eastern Europe’s suffering has given him unique insight into the mind of Christ, and that the Western world is decadent and corrupt.” One place where the Pope had hoped to

‘The Pope sees himself as just as much of a world leader as Bill Clinton’

make a difference is war-tom Bosnia. In January, John Paul pledged to visit the three comers of the conflict: Belgrade, the Serbian capital, Zagreb, the capital of largely Catholic Croatia, and Sarajevo, centre of the Muslim-led Bosnian government. The “pilgrimage for peace,” as it was called, was in keeping with the Pope’s love for the dramatic gesture.

The hostile Serbian Orthodox church barred his visit to Belgrade, angry that the Vatican had been the first state to recognize Yugoslavia’s breakaway republics of Croatia and Slovenia in January, 1992. But John Paul’s trip to Sarajevo— scheduled for Sept. 8, where 25,000 people were expected to celebrate an open-air mass at the former Olympic speed skating oval in the sights of Serb marksmen—was eagerly awaited. The slogan for the papal visit, plastered around the city on posters, was “You are not abandoned, we are with you.”

Just one day before he was to leave, John Paul cancelled his trip because of security fears. Instead, the Pope delivered the homily intended for Sarajevans seated on the balcony of his summer papal residence in Castlgandolfo, in the hills south of Rome. Speaking in Serbo-Croatian, he implored each side to forgive the other, and referred to the “desolate spectacle of sinking humanity.” But the war gathered steam that same day, with aggressive new Serb offensives into the Muslim enclave of Bihac. The Pope did proceed with his visit to Zagreb last week, which may have had the undesired side-effect of reinforcing the perception among Orthodox Serbs that he sides with their Catholic Croat enemies.

John Paul, who has used modern tools like the airplane to promulgate his traditional message, may not have much jet-setting left in him. Although the Pope has expressed a determination to preside over celebrations at the millennium, his physical frailty has many Vatican watchers already calculating who might follow—and whether his successor will pursue his hardline stance.

Even John Paul’s supporters have questioned some recent papal acts, especially bestowing the Order of Pious IX, a Vatican knighthood, on former UN Secretary General and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim in July. Waldheim has been an international pariah since the U.S. justice department accused him of complicity in Nazi atrocities during the Second World War. For a pope who has always followed his own beliefs without regard for whom he might offend, the move was in keeping with character. But increasingly, pointed questions are being raised about whether this papacy is shoring up the Church foundations, or driving an irreversible wedge between Catholics and their spiritual leader.

BRUCE WALLACE in London