The Totalitarian Pope

Date: 20 Oct 2003 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Totalitarian Pope

by David Morris

Originally published on Alternet, October 20, 2003

Last week John Paul II celebrated the 25th anniversary of his pontificate to thunderous applause by many conservatives. The Weekly Standard’s David Brooks argues in his new column in the New York Times that the Pope deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. The San Diego Union Tribune gushes that “John Paul II is one of the towering figures of the last century…no one questions the moral force of this pope.”

Time magazine’s assessment is far more measured and accurate. It describes John Paul II’s time in office as an “extraordinary tenure.” Extraordinary, to be sure, but certainly not virtuous. John Paul II took an institution just beginning to throw off the chains of centuries of insularity and autocracy and to be plain speaking, reshaped it into what can only be described as a totalitarian institution.

A little history may be in order. In 1958 Pope John XXIII assumed the papacy. Within months he called for an “aggiornamiento,” a “bringing up to date” of the church. Church services began to be conducted in native languages. Priests and nuns and laity were given more participation and authority. “Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always experts,” the Vatican declared. “Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom let the layman take on his own distintive role.”

Pope John convened a Vatican Council that ended centuries of what he called “holy isolation” by exhorting the church to participate in humanity’s struggle for peace and justice. The Vatican called this new church the “People of God.”

Pope John XXIII died shortly after Vatican II. But the reforms he nurtured took root and flowered under his successor. Journalist Gwynne Dyer recently recalled her impressions after visiting Catholic churches around the world in 1978 in preparation for a televised documentary. “In southern Africa, Catholics were playing a leading role in resistance to apartheid. In Latin America, the phenomenon of ‘liberation theology’ was reconnecting the church with the impoverished peasant millions whom it had long ignored. In Europe and North America, the old hierarchies were all under challenge, but especially the hierarchy of gender. Justice and equality were the themes and the energy was astonishing.”

“Twenty-five years later,” Dyer sadly observes, “it is all gone.”

John Paul II attended the Vatican Council meetings in the 1960s and opposed the changes. Upon taking office he undertook to reverse them. To achieve this goal he dramatically centralized and exercised powers. His interventions roused widespread opposition. In 1989, for example, over 300 eminent European theologians, including a number in Rome itself signed onto the Cologne Declaration, which accused the pope of “overstepping and enforcing in an inadmissible way” his proper competence in field of doctrinal teaching. It accused him of appointing bishops throughout the world “without respecting the suggestions of the local churches and neglecting their established rights.” It described the Vatican’s removal of qualified theologians from teaching because it didn’t like what they were saying as “a dangerous intrusion into the freedom of research and teaching.”

In the 1980s French theologican Marie-Dominique Chenu put it bluntly. John Paul harkens back to the “prototype of the church as an absolute monarchy.”

As is usually the case with absolute monarchs, Pope John Paul II refused to listen to the people. He became even more aggressive. The Vatican announced that as of March 1, 1989 all church office holders, be they parish priests or philosophy and theology teachers in seminaries must not only give formal assent to major church dogmas but also assent to doctrine not formerly proclaimed as obligatory, such as the Church’s teachings on sex.

John Paul II reasserted and even amplified the doctrine of ‘Papal infallibility” and beatified its author, Pope Pius IX. When the world’s Catholic bishops gathered in Rome every five years it was not to be involved in a give-and-take discussion but to receive the Word from the pope, and, notes Time, to be “quiz(zed) ON instances in which they may have been deemed insufficiently aggressive in defending Church doctrine.”

Time’s conclusion? John Paul II “steadfastly held the line against those in the European and North American clergy and laity who saw in Vatican II an opening to democratize the Church… inside the Church his own rule will be remembered as nothing if not authoritarian.”

Back in 1979 the eminent Swiss Catholic theologican Hans Kung, whose license to teach theology in Catholic institutions was revoked by the Vatican, observed that the new pope, “has waged an almost spooky battle against modern women who seek a contemporary form of life.” Since then, the pope has barred even discussion of the ordination of women.

Even in his final days the pope continues to imprint his remarkably archaic values on the Church. A recent draft directive from the Vatican would bar altar girls, thereby eliminating one of the few remaining areas of participation in the Church allowed to women. Priests can only allow girls to help them at mass if they receive special dispensation from the bishop and offer “just cause.” Priests, the draft advises, ought “never to feel themselves obliged to recruit girls.”

The draft directive also would prohibit Roman Catholics from dancing or even clapping in their churches. It would would forbid priests from quoting ethical texts other than the Gospels in their sermons.

By all reports the pope is near death. But his impact on the Church will continue for many years. For the Pope has used his long term in office not only to change its direction but to virtually handpick those who will become the new Church leaders.

Pope John Paul has been far more active than his predecessors in stocking Church offices with his own people. In 15 years his predecessor Paul VI made only 26 new cardinals, but in 25 years Pope John Paul has made 226. He has created nearly 500 saints, more than all of the other popes of the past four centuries put together. Pope John Paul II has appointed more than 70 percent of all Catholic bishops, and all but five of the 135 cardinals who will choose his successor.

Yes indeed. His has been an “extraordinary tenure.” One that will burden the Catholic Church for generations to come.

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance ( He lived in Chile when Allende was in office and his first book, We Must Make Haste Slowly, is about the political and economic dynamics in Chile.

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.