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Meditation 354
The Failings of John Paul II

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Now a new Pope has been elected, it seems a good time to reflect upon what I consider the failings of the previous one.

Many commentators have criticized John Paul II for his conservatism; for his putting the Catholic church back on the centuries-old path of centralization under the pope rather than continuing the collegial approach that seemed to be developing after Vatican II; for not permitting women to enter the priesthood; for not changing the rules requiring a celibate clergy; for reinvigorating Mariolatry; for setting some of his more authoritarian predecessors on the road to sainthood; for his continued opposition to birth control; etc.

As a non-Catholic, I happen to think that he was wrong on all the above-mentioned issues. But these are not failings. These are issues the man really believed that he was right on. As head of the Catholic Church with a supposed mandate from God, he would have been a hypocrite to have done anything different. The fact polls show that most Catholics disagree with him on many of these decisions is irrelevant. Under Catholic doctrine, he had the right, the responsibility, and the authority to make these decisions as he saw fit.

However, the man did have failings. The two major ones were the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa, and his handling (or non-handling) of the child abuse scandal, predominantly in North America and Western Europe.

With respect to HIV/AIDS, John Paul II allowed his opposition to birth control to blind him to the understanding that the primary use of condoms in extra-marital sex, particularly with prostitutes is not birth control, but prevention of the transmission of disease. And properly used, they are quite effective. The Catholic Church has been extremely active in Africa opposing the use of condoms. The result is that disease picked up from casual sex is carried home to innocent spouses, infecting them and subsequent children. The Catholic church is in the forefront of the sanctity of life movement. Its opposition to the use of condoms (which seems to me to be a minor sin next to the adultery going on) results not in glorious life, but millions of early deaths. The Church claimed the answer is abstinence, a position which is contrary to human nature - something the Catholic Church should recognize from the inability of many of its supposedly celibate priests to keep their equipment stowed away under their cassocks. Regardless of the crocodile tears shed by John Paul II over the ravages of HIV/AIDS, he failed in refusing to allow condoms to be considered as a means of preventing sexual transmission of the disease.

On the child abuse issue, John Paul II's failing was a failure to act. Now, sexual abuse of children is not particularly a Catholic issue.[1] Regardless of which particular group works with children, a small minority of youth workers are involved because they are sexually attracted to children. It is a problem amongst clergy of all denominations and religions, teachers, boy scout leaders, girl guide leaders, cadet corps leaders, not to mention parents and relatives. And the problem has existed for countless generations.

However, in most instances there is local oversight of the relevant organization. But the hierarchical nature of the Catholic Church allows no local oversight. The local priest is supreme in his parish. He reports only to the Bishop, who is supreme in his diocese. The Bishop is accountable only to the Pope, who is supreme in the Catholic world, accountable only to God.

And the bishops of the Catholic Church were sweeping complaints about their priests under the carpet for years. The Pope probably was not aware until the wide-spread cover-up became public. But, that was the time for action by instituting an open investigative process and demanding swift corrective action. But the man did nothing. And he continued to do nothing for far too long. And only when the scandal reached crisis proportions in the USA did he finally did meet with an number of American Bishops, primarily to ensure they did not relinquish any authority in inviting civilian oversight of future investigations. Respecting the church hierarchy was more important than the safety of children. As one who was intent on cementing the Pope's supreme authority, John Paul II should have recognized that with authority goes responsibility. He should have taken responsibility over this scandal.


  1. On my recent trip home, I stayed in Davenport, Iowa on the night of 12 April. The headline of the Quad-City Times the next morning was "Diocese official settles abuse lawsuit." This was the Vicar-General of the Catholic Diocese of Davenport and related to accusations some 30 years old. The next night, I stayed in Sturgis, South Dakota. On the morning news, it was reported that a Deadwood, SD, Episcopal church camp director had just been found guilty of statutory rape. The difference is that the Catholic Diocese covered up, and the Episcopals allowed the criminal justice system do its job.