Pope Idol

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John Paul II's social conservatism should not be taken as gospel.

John Paul II was, according to that impeccable news source Yahoo!, 'the people's pope'. Other than a huge ego, it's hard to say what he had in common with 'the people's princess' Diana, and the headline probably had more to do with the ease of alliterating the 'p' than anything else. If there is an afterlife, Pontius Pilate must be kicking himself that he wasn't born 20 centuries later.

We've also heard endlessly about 'spontaneous outpourings of emotion', the way he 'touched people's lives' and all the other mawkish sentiments rolled out whenever someone famous cops it.

The funeral looked pretty impressive. And it wasn't without its humour, especially as Prince Charles wondered why everyone was staring daggers at him after he'd shaken everyone's hand as normal. But I couldn't help noticing how empty Trafalgar Square was as the proceedings were broadcast live. Still, the turnout was at least better than that of the Sunday morning the pope died, when the BBC sent a reporter to Westminster Cathedral to report on the two dozen people inside praying for him. I suppose that's why they call it News 24.

And yet, much as it pains me to admit it - I did endure 13 years of Catholic schooling and four of the seven sacraments after all - there was genuine grief over his death. Motivations were complex and diverse. Some were lamenting the passing of his hardline, authoritarian ministry. But many also imbued him with positive attributes, and not always mistakenly.

He did oppose the war in Iraq, of course, although personally I think the Dixie Chicks were braver. They were always at more risk from rampaging rednecks than the Vatican was of being invaded.

He also called for a Palestinian state unthreatened by Israel, and apologised for the Vatican's past anti-Semitism and complicity in the Holocaust. This complicity included one of his predecessors, Pius XI, signing two agreements with Mussolini - which wound up grassroots Catholic organisations that could have challenged him in return for recognising Vatican statehood.

Pius XII sank to greater depths. Within four days of his election as pope he wrote a grovelling letter to Hitler. He also telegrammed Franco, congratulating him on his 'Catholic victory' in Spain's civil war, and as the excellent film Amen dramatised, he stood by as Nazis seized Jews seeking sanctuary in the Vatican.

But not being a Nazi collaborator did not make John Paul II a progressive. He condemned homosexuality as 'an intrinsic moral evil'. Birth control was more snappily an 'intrinsic evil', which his leading spokesman on the family, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, sought to undermine by falsely claiming that condoms contain 'tiny holes' letting through the HIV virus. This led to a dutch auction in the church about who could make the most ludicrous claims about condoms (the Archbishop of Nairobi won by claiming they caused Aids).

I can't remember the Bible having much to say about johnnies. It did mention abortion (Exodus 21:22) but didn't condemn it. This may be because Genesis argues that life begins at birth, not conception. Certainly, as Eamonn McCann has pointed out, the logical conclusion of believing otherwise would be to baptise late periods. Nonetheless, along with embryology and in vitro fertilisation (despite his devotion to the Virgin Mary, surely the first surrogate mum) John Paul declared abortion part of a 'culture of death' to be opposed in all circumstances.

This hard line is not explicable by sole reference to the Bible. There is more scriptural support for mandatory animal sacrifices and beard growing than picketing abortion clinics. It makes sense only as an assertion of the church's authority. With the pulpit no longer the primary cultural and ideological transmitter, and with science having diminished its explanatory power, the church has been squeezed into 'specialist areas' of ethics and morality. After a crisis of confidence at the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, John Paul led a conservative reaction to any prospect of reform.

His method was rigid centralism. Bishops would turn up to the Vatican to discuss prepared texts on predetermined agendas. Their recommendations were kept secret and often rejected. The pope then wrote a final report that he issued after the bishops had gone home. So now we know who invented focus groups.

In case anyone should get uppity, John Paul breathed new life into the teaching of 'Papal Infallibility'. This was first invoked at the First Vatican Council in 1870. The pope responsible, Pius IX, included 80 'modern' propositions such as 'progress, liberalism and modern civilisation' among his Syllabus of Errors.

This doctrinal clampdown has not gone unopposed. In 1989 hundreds of theologians signed the Cologne Declaration, which called for greater lay participation and debate. Significantly they also questioned the papal line on contraception. Rome responded by imposing an oath of allegiance.

The 'people's pope' also rigged his succession. He appointed all but three of the 115 cardinal electors. They are hardly a diverse bunch. With an average age of 71, they make even the Tories look sprightly. And while Brazil has almost three times as many Catholics as Italy, it has one fifth of the electorate. So it should be no surprise that no wild-eyed radicals were in the running.

Yet the profound desire for justice and human dignity - that there must be more than the empty promises of capitalism - ensures that Catholicism, and religion in general, continues to inspire hope around the world. At its most political, this hope flourished into 'liberation theology'. The pope's first mission was to crush this development, and he travelled to Latin America in 1979 to assert, 'This conception of Christ as a political figure, a revolutionary, as the subversive of Nazareth, does not tally with the church's teachings.'

In fact there is scriptural support for this view, as well as its antithesis. It depends who's doing the reading, and for what purpose. The purpose of Oscar Romero, the archbishop murdered while saying mass in El Salvador 25 years ago, was to challenge the US-backed dirty war on which its Iraq strategy is now modelled. John Paul pointedly refused to proclaim Romero a 'martyr'.

But Romero's words will continue to resonate for those who - whether through religion or not - want to transform a heartless world: 'The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of handouts from governments or from churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation.' Amen to that.