The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell


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November 07, 2004


Prudish pontiff

The papal biographer John Cornwell reports
Wives are to blame for violent husbands. Condoms don't work, and Aids is 'a pathology of the spirit'. Has the Pope's view of sex and gender brought the church to its knees?

Before his decline into the late stages of Parkinson's disease, Karol Wojtyla — Pope John Paul II — was noted for his sunny, alpha-male persona, his athletic physique, his cinematic good looks and his ease with women. One of his first decisions when he became pope was to build a sauna, a personal gymnasium and an Olympic-size swimming pool at his summer palace. He was the first pope to take skiing holidays. Here was a pontiff who seemed comfortable with his body.

During an audience with the Pope in 1993, I saw him hugging, very gently, with striking intimacy, a diminutive nun. When he was involved in the theatre in his youth, and as a young priest, he loved the company of women, and there were even rumours of a love relationship in his student days. He used to say: "I am in love with love!" Yet John Paul's attitude towards women, sexuality and the body has been anything but easy and uncomplicated. He has proved himself the most puritanical pope in the modern period, with an obsessive horror of any form of sexuality that transgresses the narrow bounds of what he terms the "norms of sexology". His attitude towards women is medieval in its patriarchalism. Earlier this year he published an attack on feminism as if the women's movement had barely progressed since the bra-burning days of the 1960s.

In 1994, John Paul startlingly revealed, and not for the first time, a misogynistic side to his character when he met Dr Nafis Sadik, the Pakistani head of the UN Fund for Population Activities. The pontiff had invited her to the Vatican to talk about family planning. Dr Sadik, then in her early forties and dressed in a sari, attempted to make their meeting a discussion rather than a one-sided papal lecture.

"In many societies, and not just in the developing world, women don't have equal status with men," she told the Pope. "There's a lot of sexual violence within the family." Suddenly, as Sadik recalled, "John Paul burst out angrily, ÔDon't you think that the irresponsible behaviour of men is caused by women?'" This was long before his Parkinson's disease could explain such intemperance. In fact, Sadik thought he appeared "taut as a spring". She has said: "I found myself thinking: why is he so hard-hearted, so dogmatic, so lacking in kindness?"

As John Paul's health fails in the deep winter of his pontificate, one of the greatest challenges for a biographer is to explain his fiercely antagonistic attitude towards sexuality and women.

Outside unprotected sex within marriage he is an advocate of strict abstinence. In the case of HIV/Aids patients who are married, he has steadfastly refused to endorse the use of condoms. So it would seem that an HIV/Aids sufferer might sooner pass on the infection rather than practise safe sex. While Catholic Aids workers in Africa approach the pandemic in terms of disease and medicine, the Pope insists that the illness is a "pathology of the spirit". And this spring the Vatican went so far as to issue a statement declaring that condoms don't work.

Pope John Paul II has shown himself to be a man of rare depth of soul, an evangelist of tireless energy who travelled the world to spread the Christian gospel. We all sleep more safely because of his part in toppling communism. But there is a parallel verdict, rarely expressed in public, in deference to a taboo that forbids criticism of living, even dead, popes, and especially a sick one. When he came from Poland he evidently brought a bit of the Iron Curtain with him. John Paul has emerged as an intransigent authoritarian who is leaving his church in a far worse state than he found it in 26 years ago.

While the Catholic Church has been suffering from a catalogue of calamities, not least the paedophile-priests crisis, the defections of the young, the incursions of evangelical Protestantism in South America and the admixtures of native religions in Africa, he has focused, virtually exclusively, not only on abortion but on what he sees as the mortal sins of contraception, sex before marriage, couples living together outside marriage, divorce and remarriage, in vitro fertilisation, homosexuality and the use of condoms as a safe-sex strategy. Nobody expects the Pope to condone sexual permissiveness — but his unforgiving, excluding rigidity has driven away countless millions.

In Britain, there should now be 15m Catholics, if all the migrants from Ireland and their families had kept the faith. But there are just over 4m, and of those only 1m attend mass — half the number of the 1960s. In the US, the fourth largest Catholic population in the world, marriages by Catholics before a priest have halved since the 1960s. In 1958, three-quarters of all Catholics in North America attended church regularly; by the turn of the century, the figure had dropped to about a third, and ordinations to the priesthood have declined by more than two-thirds. In Europe, where the decline in practice is steepest, 30-50% of parishes have no resident priest. In France, a traditionally Catholic country, only 7% of under-17s ever go to church.

John Paul's refusal to identify a crisis in the priesthood, and his strongly centralising dynamic, is inseparable from the scandal of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. The systemic corruption of priestly paedophilia has revealed a paralysis and vacillation on the part of local bishops, who attempted to conceal and deny it while looking over their shoulders to Rome. The paralysis goes right up to John Paul himself. The details are horrific, involving altar boys being routinely lured into bed by priests, and children entrusted to the church's protection being forced to perform oral sex. John Paul, however, ignored the scandal until he was forced by world outrage to acknowledge it. According to a reputable report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, of the City University of New York, 4,400 Catholic priests in the US have been credibly accused of sexually attacking some 11,000 minors between 1950 and 2002. That represents virtually half the period of John Paul II's papal watch. Multiple cases have been reported throughout the world. In the past six or seven years, 120 priests have been investigated in the UK, resulting in 21 convictions.

John Paul has doggedly presided over an ethical campaign that has resulted in a split between papal teaching and the actual practice of the faithful. It is estimated that 80% of Catholics practise birth control in the developed world, and that some 40% of Catholic marriages fail. This means that most Catholics in sexual relationships are living in sin, as far as John Paul is concerned.

At the same time, his denunciation of safe sex — even in the case of Aids victims — is so out of kilter with contemporary mores that he has lost credibility on leading moral issues on which his opinion could be effective, including embryonic stem-cell research, just-war debates and pleas for the alleviation of poverty. In the view of some Catholic social scientists, his own underlying fundamentalism has led to a disastrous loss of influence over the excesses of Islamic fundamentalism. John Paul might have been the pope to encourage the Muslim faithful towards acceptance of pluralist societies in which individuals and groups have a right to choose their own sets of values and beliefs. Despite the Christian contribution to the origins of democracy, John Paul won't have it. He insists certain actions — above all, contraception — are evil for everybody and in every circumstance, and that error has no rights. For this reason he has maintained deep reservations about democracy, free enterprise and western-style separation of church and state.

The question that will preoccupy future papal historians is what factors in John Paul's upbringing and inner psychology, and outward events, have shaped his ethical and political intransigence — particularly towards women.

Karol Wojtyla, the future John Paul II, was born on May 18, 1920, his parents' second son, in a scruffy provincial town 20 miles southwest of Krakow, not far from the Czech border. The greatest influence on his early life was his father, Karol Sr, a noncommissioned officer in Poland's army. His mother, Emilia, an invalid for much of her adult life, and quite inconsolable after a daughter was stillborn, remains a shadowy figure. Karol Sr was a self-disciplined martinet and a control freak who mapped out his sons' schedules, even their playtimes.

"He was so hard on himself, he had no need to be hard on his sons," remarked Wojtyla. A parallel influence, due to his father, was a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary. Every day the young Karol was encouraged to kneel before the Virgin's statue in the local church on his way to school. Each year, Karol Sr took his sons to attend an outlandish pilgrimage at the shrine of Kalwaria near Krakow. An effigy of the dead Virgin Mary was carried in a coffin through the surrounding woods all through the night of August 14, the eve of the feast of Assumption of the Virgin.

It was to the altar in the basilica at Kalwaria that Wojtyla's father and his two sons repaired in 1929 to pray for the soul of Emilia, Karol's mother. She had died alone, away from home, aged 45. There is a persistent story in Poland that she died in childbirth. For young Karol, who was not yet nine, her death was exacerbated by an added trauma. His father, on learning of her passing, had marched over to Karol's school, conveyed the information to a duty teacher and departed, leaving the boy to receive the news from a stranger, without paternal comfort. In future years, John Paul would insist the marriage bed of a Catholic woman was a place of trial and suffering, like the cross of Jesus Christ. All the days of his life he would identify motherhood with self-sacrifice and death. Three years later his brother died of scarlet fever, leaving Karol alone with his father. They slept in the same room.

"Day after day," John Paul would write later of his father, "I was able to observe the austere way in which he lived. After my mother's death, his life became one of constant prayer. Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night and find my father on his knees."

On September 1, 1939, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany. Having lost his mother and brother, the future pope lost his father in 1941. A friend has said he thought Wojtyla would lose his mind with grief. By 1942 the Nazi governor of Poland was attempting to turn the country into a slave state. Karol Wojtyla now witnessed a tidal wave of killing. He would grow up seeing in every indication of thwarted life, including contraception, a lust for annihilation — what he would term "the culture of death".

By day he was working in a limestone quarry, carrying buckets of stones on a yoke. By night, after visiting his father's grave after work, he took part in secret theatrical productions. He became a curious mixture of internal melancholy and external effervescence. One of his companions reports that he would do cartwheels across the stage in sheer bursts of manic energy. There were stories of a deep friendship with a girl called Halina Kwiatkowska. But it came to nothing. Early in the war, he came under the influence of a middle-aged alleged mystic, Jan Tyranowski, a layman who had taken a vow of celibacy. Tyranowski spoke in a high, piping voice and stilted phrases from books on spirituality; he became a substitute father and mother. There was an occasional hint of gay ostentation. A picture of him taken around the first time he met Wojtyla reveals him with long tresses, dressed in a white nightgown, sitting bolt upright in bed between starched lace sheets. Under Tyranowski's tutelage, Karol Wojtyla decided to be a priest and enrolled in a clandestine seminary in Krakow.

Through the war years, some 2,500 priests were murdered in Poland. The future Father Wojtyla would see priesthood as a heroic, self-sacrificing vocation. Once he became pope he would have no patience with priests who had left their ministry to get married. Convinced that special charisms descend on a priest at ordination, he would find it impossible to believe that priests could be paedophiles until world indignation left him no choice but to accept the truth. His model of the ideal priest was St Jean-Marie Vianney, the austere 18th-century French pastor known as the Curé d'Ars, who spent most of the day hearing confessions and lived in impoverished squalor on cold rotten potatoes.

Father Wojtyla's first appointment, after further studies in Rome, was as assistant curate in a rustic hamlet 15 miles east of Krakow. He made the journey on foot. Crossing the boundary of his new parish, he threw himself face down and kissed the soil. The theatrical gesture, witnessed by parishioners, would become a signature of his travels as Pope in future years.

Wojtyla gave away his good cassock and wore a patched, threadbare one. He spent untold hours in prayer, prostrating himself on the floor of the church at night. He slept on the bare floorboards of his bedroom and gave away his only pillow to a woman who had been robbed of hers.

After eight months he was appointed curate in a busy parish in Krakow, where he also looked after university students. He set himself up as a counsellor of teenagers on questions of love. He advocated self-control with an intensity that was remembered a whole lifetime later by members of his audience. One of his penitents, Marie Tornowska, has said Father Wojtyla encouraged her to woo a particular young man. When she demurred, informing him that the young man would not be interested, he insisted that he should "educate" the fellow to be her partner.

In the summer he accompanied groups of young people on expeditions among the hills, woods and lakes. He never tired of asking prying questions: in what manner were they attracted to each other; how did they behave? His young friends registered that he was over-curious, although none have accused him of voyeurism.

In the 1950s he embarked on a book entitled Love and Responsibility. He was assisted in his researches by a Polish physician called Dr Wanda Poltawska, who believed that contraception caused neurosis in both men and women, as it was a frustration of natural sexual activity. They shared a common acceptance that chastity was formed by exercises in self-denial comparable to athletic training. The book reads like field notes on a study of human sex practices by an anthropologist from Mars — a mishmash of ethics, anatomy, physiology, fertility charts, clinical descriptions of female orgasm, and abstract analyses of relationships and emotions gleaned from his contact with the young.

By 1958, Father Wojtyla, aged just 38, had become a bishop. He was by now leading a pressured double life as an academic philosopher and a busy pastor. That year there was a new pope, John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the world's Catholic bishops in Rome, to begin a process of church renewal. The council sat between 1962 and 1965, but John XXIII died before it had ended and was succeeded by Paul VI.

The most vexing issue in the Catholic Church was contraception. Large numbers of Catholic married and unmarried women in developed countries were taking the pill, and it was widely expected that the Pope would sanction its use. Most bishops were in favour of relaxing the rules on contraception. The issue, however, was withdrawn from the competence of the council by Pope Paul VI. In 1966 a specially appointed commission on contraception reported to the Pope, advising that the church's opposition to contraception "could not be sustained by reasoned argument" and that the practice was not "intrinsically evil". Wojtyla, now archbishop of Krakow, had got himself appointed to that commission. Nine members voted in favour of contraception, three against, and there were three abstentions. Wojtyla was inexplicably absent on the day of the vote, thus remaining aloof from any future identification with the outcome.

In the end, Paul VI went his own way and wrote his 1968 encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life) confirming the absolute ban on contraception. It is widely thought in Catholic circles that Wojtyla had a hand in writing the encyclical. The decision would agonise the consciences of Catholic men and women the world over for decades. Some 100,000 abandoned their calling in the period after the contraception ban; for many the contraception issue was an important part of their decision. In Love and Responsibility, Wojtyla had already expressed himself uncompromisingly on the issue. We should not avail ourselves of sexual pleasure, he had written, without total "self-donation"; every act of sexual intercourse should be open to the transmission of life.

During the 1970s, Wojtyla, who had been created a cardinal in 1967, was engrossed in political problems in Poland as he strove to create a grassroots, nonviolent resistance to the communist regime. On the surface he was an optimistic extrovert, preaching freedom of conscience and religion; but underneath he was a brooding pessimist, with intransigent, darkly mystical views about the drama of human history and sexuality. He believed, in the run-up to the third millennium of Christianity, that humankind was suffering a "second fall", comparable to Adam and Eve's lapse in Eden. He believed that this "fall" was marked by the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s and 70s, which he termed "the aphrodisiac generation". Convinced that the materialism and secularism of the West were as reprehensible as the Soviet system, he preached a sermon in the Vatican in 1976 proclaiming that democracy and capitalism were as dehumanising as communism.

During this time he formed an extraordinary platonic friendship with the philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. Born in 1925 in Poland of an aristocratic family, she was blonde, petite and attractive. She was to spend hundreds of hours in Wojtyla's presence during a three-year period starting in 1974. She gate-crashed his life, informing him that she wanted to dedicate her life to him and to his next book.

Anna-Teresa had read Wojtyla's book Love and Responsibility and was shocked by its naivety. "He's innocent sexually," she said. "To have written as he has about love and sex is to know very little about it. I thought, "He obviously does not know what he is talking about. How can he write about such things?'" But Anna-Teresa was evidently smitten: "He had a way of moving," she has written, "a way of smiling, of looking around, that was different and exceedingly personal. It had a beauty about it." She was determined to collaborate with him on his new book, The Acting Person, an ambitious work of philosophy describing the nature of the human person as made in the image of God.

She would see him every day in Rome for three weeks at a time when he stayed there on church business, and for periods of six weeks at a time in Krakow. They would take long walks together and travel long distances in the back of his chauffeur-driven car. They attended conferences together, and she invited him to her home in the United States in 1976,where they swam in a nearby lake and picnicked in the woods. She has commented: "We had a dialogue all the time between two philosophers — it went far beyond the book; that was the whole charm of this work." In recent years her husband has commented that they were alarmed by Cardinal Wojtyla's revulsion for the United States, its freedoms and materialism.

It seems clear, however, that the cardinal deliberately exposed himself to temptation, as if to test the strength of his self-control and self-denial. The consequence of the relationship, it appears, was a renewed sublimation of his sexual instincts. Love between men and women, he now argued, should resemble the love that flows between the persons of the Holy Trinity. It was like the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, and the love of the Holy Spirit that flows between them. Marital relationships, the only sexual relationships admissible, he insisted, were icons of the trinity.

Their book, a study of "personalism", or human nature, was published in 1979. It became a basis of many of Wojtyla's ideas about human dignity and freedom for the rest of his pontificate. He acknowledged his debt to Anna-Teresa at the time. But after he became pope on October 16, 1978, a commission was set up to scrutinise his literary work. The commission tried to stop publication of the jointly authored edition. Tymieniecka, in turn, considered suing the Pope for copyright infringement. Part of her weaponry was a prodigious correspondence with him, a time bomb that now sits under lock and key in an archive at Harvard University.

She eventually went ahead and published the book as a joint work, whereupon the Vatican hit back, charging that she had usurped Wojtyla's thoughts. For a time they became estranged, but they were later reconciled, and to this day they remain friends.

Within months of his election, John Paul emerged as one of the most popular popes ever. Hundreds of thousands of people — chanting "John Paul Two, We Love You" — flocked to mass meetings as he travelled the world. In public he was relaxed and affable. But behind closed doors he lambasted the local bishops for their weakness on contraception, divorce and homosexuality, demanding a tightening of the church's rules. At a gathering of nuns in Washington in 1979, he ordered the sisters to dress in proper religious garb and to remember their true vocation as acquiescent helpers. Women, he declared, should be like the Virgin Mary and accept their role as passive mothers, whether they had children or not. "May each Christian family really become a little church in which the mystery of the Church of Christ is mirrored and given new life," he counselled.

He would bind his papal successors for all time by proclaiming infallibly that women could never be priests. He later told George Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, that women could not be priests, because of "anthropology": in other words, because they are women. Carey has written bluntly that in his view this was "heresy". The issue — and Carey is arguably right — is whether only men can be "like" Jesus Christ. At the same time, John Paul began to discipline theologians who showed signs of divergence from the strict Vatican line on sexual morals. His harsh, puritanical and domineering persona was obscured, however, by popular media appeal, encouraged mostly by those who were not bound by his strictures. Time magazine carried a cover calling him John Paul Superstar.

Shortly after he became pope, he began a series of homilies on sex. Delivered in the Vatican to 7,000 pilgrims at a time, they continued every week for five years. The sermons would form a 600-page book entitled The Theology of the Body. Under the guise of offering a more human, anthropological approach to sexuality, they seemed designed to demoralise the faithful and drive them away. There is no attempt in the book to describe the experience of love in terms of personal histories — emotion, financial and work stress, children, illness and age. Nor is there a single reference to the enjoyment of sex, the delights and the disappointments, the suffering and loneliness of bereavement and desertion. He talks about the "ecstasy" of the sexual act as a disembodied, quasi-spiritual experience. At the same time, he couches his thesis in turgid, jargon-ridden prose. On the evil of contraception he writes: "It can be said that in the case of an artificial separation of these two aspects, a real bodily union is carried out in the conjugal act, but it does not correspond to the interior truth and to the dignity of the personal communion — communion of persons."

He insists that divorcees must renounce sex for the rest of their lives; anybody who remarries without an annulment is treating their former spouse as a "thing". Homosexuals must also renounce sex, for any attempted union between them "always and in every case is sterile, not serving life". And couples employing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) are guilty of selfishness and disordered behaviour, because IVF, in John Paul's view, "reduces procreaction to a merely biological laboratory act" which divorces the life-giving potential of the body from the person.

The Pope's chief defender, Professor George Weigel, author of a 1,000-page adulatory biography of John Paul, has declared that John Paul's views on sexuality are "a theological time bomb" that will one day be rediscovered and adopted by a future and better generation than our own. But for the papal historian, John Paul II constitutes a deeply problematic world figure of striking contradiction. His harsh sexual strictures on the laity contrast starkly with his slowness to acknowledge the grotesque behaviour of paedophile priests and horrifying evidence of priests sexually abusing nuns, especially in Africa. His failure to allow the use of condoms, even for those suffering from Aids, has condemned millions to unnecessary death.

It is clear the early loss of his mother and the influence of a controlling father had a deep and lasting effect on him. He said unguardedly in a sermon: "I believe in the inflexibility principle."

In time it may be recognised that his lasting legacy was not only the exclusion of those who failed to live up to narrow sexual ethics, nor the consequences of his refusal to let Aids sufferers use condoms. Despite his widely publicised appeal for freedom of religion, his lack of flexibility extends to his failure to lead all the religions of the book — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — away from dogmatic fundamentalism and towards a more tolerant and pluralist acceptance of difference and freedom of conscience.

The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II's Papacy, by John Cornwell, is published on Thursday by Viking-Penguin, price £20.





The Vatican's cardinal sin


Here we go again. Every few years, it seems, a new controversy erupts when Pope John Paul II acts to confer sainthood on yet another historical figure tainted by anti-Semitism.

Apparently oblivious to the effect such moves might have on the already tenuous state of Catholic-Jewish relations, the Vatican goes ahead and celebrates these dubious role models, ignoring the fact that their piety was marred by prejudice.

Rome's latest honoree is a 19th-century German nun named Anna Katerina Emmerick, who claimed to have had a series of visions about the death of Jesus. Earlier this month the pope decided to beatify her, the final step prior to granting sainthood.

Emmerick's visions, compiled into a book by a prominent German author, are said to have heavily influenced the screenplay for Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ.

Yet even a cursory look at Emmerick's words reveals a person saturated with hostility for Jews. Throughout she refers to "the cruel Jews" and "wicked Jews," generalizing, "Pity was, indeed, a feeling unknown in their cruel breasts."

In a 1976 biography the Rev. C. E. Schmoeger wrote that Emmerick described one vision of an "old Jewess Meyr," who is said to have admitted "that Jews in our country and elsewhere strangled Christian children and used their blood for all sorts of suspicious and diabolical practices."

At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the globe it is appalling that the Vatican would even consider paying tribute to such an individual. Whatever Emmerick's acts of goodness may have been, hate and holiness hardly seem an appropriate match.

This is not the first time John Paul II has elevated an anti-Semite to the Catholic pantheon in recent years.

In October 2002 he canonized Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, a Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei, a Catholic religious group, in 1928. Escriva is said to have harbored little love for the Jews, one English priest asserting that he even defended Adolf Hitler, claiming the Nazi leader had been "badly treated" because "he could never have killed six million Jews. It only could have been four million, at most."

Another case was the pope's September 2000 beatification of Pius IX, who was behind the 1858 kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Italian Jewish child taken from his family and forcibly baptized.

As pontiff, Pius IX insisted on confining the Jews of Rome to the ghetto, or their "hole," as he mockingly called it; he was the last pope ever to do so. In addition, he forbade Jews to own property, teach in schools or even receive medical care, and called them "dogs."

IS THIS what constitutes a "saint"? Other recipients of John Paul's recognition have included Maximilian Kolbe, who was canonized.

Kolbe, a Polish priest and magazine editor prior to World War II, promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Czarist Russian forgery which alleges the existence of a Jewish plot to rule the world. Kolbe insisted the Protocols were true and said they had been written by "a cruel, crafty, little-known Jewish clique" that had been "seduced by Satan."

In October 1998, yet another controversial figure, Alojzjie Stepinac, was beatified by the pope. Stepinac, who served as archbishop of Zagreb in the 1940s, was a supporter of the pro-Nazi puppet regime in Croatia known as the Ustashe, which massacred Jews and Serbs. As such he failed to forcefully denounce their actions.

Adding insult to injury was John Paul's insistence at the time on also canonizing Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who died at Auschwitz. In a May 1987 homily, the pope went so far as to equate Stein with the biblical Esther, as if a legitimate comparison can be made between someone who deserts the faith of her forefathers and the heroine of the Purim festival, who helped to save her people.

Obviously, the Catholic Church is free to make its own decisions regarding those it wishes to honor with sainthood. But when it affects the Jewish people, Jews can and must speak out.

After all, for the past 2,000 years we have suffered terribly at the hands of Church-inspired Crusades, Inquisitions, blood libels, forced conversions, massacres and pogroms. Throughout its history, the Catholic Church has repeatedly committed the cardinal sin of propagating anti-Semitism, often with deadly results.

It is precisely because of this dreadful record that the Vatican has a special responsibility to consider the impact of its actions upon the Jews.

To be fair, John Paul II has taken a number of important steps to improve Catholic-Jewish relations, from visiting Rome's Great Synagogue in 1986 to establishing diplomatic relations between the Vatican and the Jewish state, to meeting with Israel's two chief rabbis earlier this year.

But that doesn't minimize the gravity of his actions when it comes to granting sainthood to one anti-Semite after another.

Obviously, none of the individuals involved were honored by the pope because of their anti-Semitism, rather despite it. Nevertheless, the message sent to Catholics and others around the world is still chilling, necessarily implying that the age-old prejudice against Jews is not entirely unacceptable.

For if a person can achieve sainthood even though they hated, or even persecuted the Jewish people, then how bad can anti-Semitism truly be?

If Catholics and Jews are ever to succeed in building a new relationship based on respect, it is incumbent upon this pope, and his successors, to stop glorifying those who espouse bigotry and hatred.

The writer served as deputy director of communications and policy planning in the Prime Minister's Office under Binyamin Netanyahu.


The Pope and His Legacy

Reviewed by James Carroll

Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page BW03


Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II

By John Cornwell. Doubleday. 336 pp. $24.95



Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession

By John-Peter Pham. Oxford Univ. 368 pp. $28

Some conservative Catholics have longed to see Pope Pius XII named a saint of the Church. If the man who presided over the Church's responses to World War II were canonized, so the hope goes, charges that Catholics had failed during the Holocaust -- or that Catholic anti-Semitism had helped prepare for it -- would be laid to rest once and for all. In the late 1990s, rumors abounded that the Vatican was soon to beatify Pius XII, but in 1999 John Cornwell published Hitler's Pope, a damning biography that detailed, among other lapses, the future pontiff's early role as a Vatican diplomat doing business with and legitimizing the Nazi regime. The book caused a sensation, driving a stake through the pope's reputation. Pius XII's defenders dismissed Cornwell, but when new lists of people being promoted toward sainthood were published after that, Pius XII's name was conspicuously and steadily absent. He isn't mentioned much for sainthood any more. Cornwell, a Catholic writer from Britain, may well have helped his church avoid the historic sacrilege of compounding its failures during the Holocaust with shameless denial by canonizing the man who embodied the shame of the war years.

Now Cornwell has published a book about the present pope, John Paul II -- an altogether different figure from Pius XII. Yet again, with another strong and credible work, Cornwell may broadly influence how a decisively important pontificate is understood. John Paul II has been visibly in physical decline for some years, and his place in history has already begun to be marked out. He has served as pope since 1978, and in that time he has loomed larger, perhaps, than any other figure on the world stage.

Cornwell does a good, clear job of relating the extraordinary story of Pope John Paul II's international influence, drawing on previously published works. John Paul II's biographers, including Cornwell, uniformly credit him with a central role in the era's great drama: the nonviolent demise of Soviet communism. The blocks of that story are firmly in place: Karol Wojtyla's Polish origins; his fierce opposition to totalitarianism, beginning in the Nazi period; his rejection of detente-era accommodation with Moscow; the 1981 assassination attempt, rumored to be ordered by the KGB; his personal (and perhaps financial) sponsorship of Lech Walesa's anticommunist Solidarity movement; his at least implicit collaboration with President Reagan in giving the calcified Kremlin empire a last, shattering shove. It was Mikhail Gorbachev who decisively -- and heroically -- repudiated violence at the crucial moment of the Cold War endgame, but he was able to do that only because the democratic resistance that challenged him from within, embodied centrally in Poland's Solidarity, had resolutely embraced nonviolence from the start. And nothing made that more possible than the moral witness -- and stern insistence -- of the Polish pope.

Having established, against the prevailing realpolitik of the era, that nonviolence could have such political force, John Paul II remained a fervent opponent of every form of war -- which, in the end, made him Washington's critic, too. The pope opposed the Gulf War in 1991, the 2001 attack on Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The significance of this consistent papal rejection of coercive violence as an instrument of political power is not sufficiently understood, and certainly not in Washington. John Paul II is a prophet of the late-20th-century epiphany: that the nonviolent alternative to war is no longer a moralist's dream but a profoundly practical option and, indeed, humanity's only realistic hope.

The conventional assessment of John Paul II contrasts the pope's liberalizing work outside Catholicism with his profoundly anti-liberal governance of the Church itself. Thus his support of pro-democracy movements against totalitarian regimes stands in stark relief to the rigid authoritarianism with which he has squelched not only theological dissent but also the regional autonomy of bishops (which, in part, accounts for the bishops' grievous failure to act against priestly abuse of children). John Paul II's global promotion of human rights is seen against his rejection, say, of the demands of Catholic women for equality (which contributes to the astounding collapse of the Church's moral authority on all matters having to do with sex). The profound shift implied in his respect for Judaism's covenant with God as complete and permanent seems impossible to square with his reassertions of pope-centered Catholicism as the only fully authentic religion (which sets back all efforts at interreligious reconciliation). John Paul II, one of whose numerous books is entitled Sign of Contradiction, has embraced contradiction as a self-identifying note, and many commentators, myself included, have often picked up the theme.

But such "balancing," finally, is sterile, and Cornwell's summary of this pope's significance avoids it. It is not enough to say that John Paul II has been a force for good outside the Church, even if he has stifled an overdue renewal within it. Cornwell writes with a clear sense of the unprecedented emergency that grips all forms of religion in the post-Sept. 11 era, and in that light, he dissects the record of John Paul II's pontificate with an informed, dispassionate and fully convincing authority. Cornwell respects Karol Wojtyla's heroic integrity. Cornwell loves the Church. Yet one cannot read this finally unambiguous assessment of the pope's legacy without understanding how profoundly negative -- for both the world and the Church -- the ultimate impact of John Paul II's long reign may yet prove to be.

The rise of intolerant religious fundamentalism as a new sponsor of political violence is a major 21st-century threat. The problem is obvious in extremist strains of Islam, but Christianity, too, is faced with it. Roman Catholic rejection of pluralism, feminism, clerical reform, religious self-criticism, historically minded theology and the application of scientific method to sacred texts would all exacerbate dangerous trends in world Christianity at the worst possible time. That is especially so in the nations of the southern hemisphere, where Catholicism sees its future and where proselytizing evangelical belief -- Protestant and Catholic alike -- is spreading rapidly. In Latin America, long a Catholic preserve, Rome undercut the home-grown liberation theology movement, which emphasized the rights of the poor over the privileges of the oligarchs, only to find itself competing with imported Protestant missionaries. Ironically, John Paul II, in his determination to restore the medieval European Catholicism into which he was born, became an inadvertent avatar of a new Catholic fundamentalism. The great question now is whether his defensive, pre-Enlightenment view of the faith will maintain a permanent grip on the Catholic imagination. He has been an apostle of peace, yet the last contradiction of his papacy may be how, if this narrow aspect of his legacy takes hold, he will have helped to undermine peace -- not through political purpose, but through deeply felt religious conviction.

How will the next pope resolve such contradictions? Catholic progressives have one set of hopes, and traditionalists quite another. How will a new pope earn the confidence of women? What will he do about a structure of ministry discredited by the priestly sex abuse scandal and doomed in any case by the paucity of new vocations? How will he restore the moral authority of a hierarchy his own office has undercut? How will the cardinals decide among themselves whom to elect?

John-Peter Pham's new Heirs of the Fisherman takes readers, as the subtitle puts it, "Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession." Pham's long and detailed account of the historical intricacies of one pope succeeding another, going back two millennia, makes clear what a profoundly human institution the papacy is. The story has its wicked aspects -- those Renaissance popes -- but it also makes clear that the remarkable continuity of Roman Catholicism, ultimately uncorrupted even by its own corruptions, is rooted in what must be reckoned as the papacy's own adaptive genius.

Pham, a former Vatican insider who is now a professor at James Madison University, has written a lucid and useful book. He reports on the cardinals considered to be John Paul II's likely successors (mentioning three Italians, a Nigerian and an Austrian), but he also notes that fully half of the voting cardinals hail from developing nations where reactionary Catholicism thrives. Yet, as Pham also shows, the mortal challenges facing the next pope transcend the liberal-conservative divide. Sex, war, global degradation, the rich-poor divide, the meaning of faith in an age increasingly split between mindless devotion and bitter cynicism: All of this will define the pontificate of the man elected to succeed John Paul II, the pope who helped the world to change while commanding the Roman Catholic Church to do no such thing. •

James Carroll is the author of "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews," as well as "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War" and several other books. His 10th novel, "Secret Father," has just appeared in paperback.


The Vatican's Lear

John Cornwell's The Pope in Winter shows how John Paul II has redefined the papacy. He will leave behind a dangerous legacy, says Stephen Bates

Saturday February 12, 2005
The Guardian

The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II's Papacy
by John Cornwell
329pp, Viking, £20

There is a story that a visitor at an audience with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican was shocked by the elderly pontiff's Parkinson's-racked appearance. He bent low over the shaking and sagging figure and asked him how he was. A beady eye glimmered out of the pink face sunk against the papal chest and the slurred voice crackled out: "From the neck down, not so good." Then it added, fiercely: "But I don't lead the church with my feet!"

His Holiness may be a bit beyond that sort of sally now but, true or not, the story of the pope's indomitability is entirely in character and it is well-illustrated by the dustjacket of this book. The cover, wrapped around a critical biography by a well-known Vatican watcher, depicts John Paul II, buffeted and faltering, leaning King Lear-like for support against his crucifix in what appears to be a strong gale. It is a picture of human frailty.

The ailing Pope has published two volumes of reflections in recent months, one last autumn and another coming out here next month. His publishers must (understandably, for they are only human) be hugging themselves at the serendipity of this timing, though it may be doubted how much John Paul II has really had to do with writing the books in his declining condition. His bland thoughts will probably receive a large sale, especially if he dies, though they have apparently not sold well yet. But perhaps The Pope in Winter deserves the wider study. John Cornwell, a journalist turned Cambridge academic and brother of the thriller writer John le Carré, has produced a devastating report. Catholics should read it, if not to change their views - though perhaps it should - then at least to inform them.

Cornwell wrote the book that skewered the reputation of the wartime Pope, Pius XII, for vacillation and cowardice in the face of the Nazis - an exposé for which some Catholic loyalists still cannot forgive him and which caused an American nun to try to throttle him on live TV. And now he sets fair to saw John Paul II off at the knees as well. The loyalists and hagiographers are circling defensively around the old boy to protect him from the attack on his record, though they have been unable to undermine any charges of substance. John Paul II's supporters believe the Pope is almost devoid of human stain. Sometimes the pontiff, after a quarter of a century of infallibility, seems to think so too. This book shows that, like the rest of us, he is all too human.

John Paul II, the Polish pope, born Karol Wojtyla 84 years ago in Wadowice, is perhaps the most extraordinary and influential Christian of modern times. He has been a pope like no other: not just because of his longevity; not just for supplanting the centuries-old tradition that popes must be Italian; not just for rising triumphantly above an obscure and oppressed background in Nazi-occupied Poland and then communist eastern Europe to lead the largest Christian denomination in the world for nearly three decades; but because he grasped and shaped a remote and increasingly ineffectual office and gave it real influence and respect in the secular world. The papacy will never be the same again. Never again will the college of cardinals - almost all of whom have now been appointed by John Paul II - be able to elect a decrepit figure who can safely be immured, isolated and lonely, within the walls of the Vatican until blessedly released by death.

In these days when the Pope is obviously declining, his imminent death forecast for more than a decade, often by men who are now themselves dead, it is sometimes hard to recollect just how dynamic John Paul II was at the start of his papacy. For two decades he was a sturdy, evidently holy figure, firm in his faith, a formidable theologian but a still more redoubtable politician, dynamic in his actions, shuttling around the world, sinking to his knees to kiss the tarmac of every airport on which he landed, stentoriously preaching to fervent audiences running into the hundreds of thousands. In 1981 an assassination attempt by a Turkish gunman, probably hired by Bulgaria's communist government, came closer to killing him than the Vatican liked to admit. Throughout the 1980s the Pope's moral rectitude was pivotal in challenging and undermining the Polish regime and, through it, the edifice of the eastern bloc. No wonder Brezhnev thought it a mistake to allow him back into Poland for a visit. Unsurprising if some thought it would be better if he was dead.

The Pope's dynamism and charisma were huge, rejuvenating strengths for the world's 1bn Roman Catholics, but they contained weaknesses which, for many of us faltering followers, have undermined our faith in him. Cornwell insists that they have produced a dogmatic certainty and authoritarianism that has attempted to cement together a diverse worldwide communion in a single, reactionary framework and which has taken little account of local circumstances or traditions of episcopal autonomy.

It is in the nature of popes to be authoritarian - we're not talking about the consensual Church of England here - but this Pope has been particularly domineering and intolerant, not just of dissent but also of any opinions other than his own. His background was, after all, not in a democracy. More damaging for the institution, as his health has faltered, so has the grip of the small coterie that surrounds him tightened - and they are an intransigent, introspective, reactionary and uninspirational bunch. Hence entirely unnecessary rows with other denominations over whether they can properly be regarded as Christian and clodhopping injunctions on whether gays are evil or girls can sing in church choirs.

Much more seriously, this has forced the church into damaging and destructive positions, protecting paedophile priests and insisting that condoms do not protect against Aids. Meanwhile the Pope has until very recently still been busily creating cardinals and saints and shuttling round the world, invoking the awe and devotion of his adoring fans, even if he can no longer fluently or coherently address them. He is locked on to a rigid treadmill of duty that can end only with his death, as the statement issued on his behalf from his bed at the Gemelli hospital last weekend made clear.

He is convinced of his divine mission, secure in the protection of the Virgin Mary, persuaded that her intervention - as foretold to the Portuguese peasant children of Fatima three years before his birth - deflected the assassin's bullet from his vital organs. Cornwell quotes a Polish friend: "People around him see the sweetest, most modest person [but] he is by no means as humble as he appears. Neither is he modest. He thinks about himself very highly, very adequately."

How is the church going to follow such an act? It cannot go back to electing octogenarians in a world of dynamic, youthful leaders. But can it bear another such as John Paul II?


Papacy as paradox: a mixed legacy

By Jason Berry  |  March 27, 2005

The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II
By John Cornwell
Doubleday, 336 pp., illustrated, $24.95

Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way
By Pope John Paul II
Warner, 230 pp., $22.95

As a catalyst in the fall of Soviet Communism, Pope John Paul II became a commanding figure in global politics, assuring his role as one of history's great Catholic pontiffs. In the twilight of his papacy, enfeebled by Parkinson's disease with hospital visits for breathing problems, and a tracheotomy, John Paul made his very body a reminder of Christ's sacrifice for humanity.

Behind his courage and virtue lies a papacy with more than its share of failures. In the last decade, clergy sex abuse scandals have rocked North America, Australia, Ireland, Argentina, and Chile. Globally, more men have left the priesthood than entered in the last 50 years; seminary enrollment in Western countries has plunged. John Paul's comments on the abuse crisis have been scattered and contradictory; his remarks on the vocations crisis ignore extensive literature critical of the medieval celibacy law, including psychological studies presented at the Vatican.

The pope's ''Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way" is an autumnal book of tender meditations. ''By choosing celibacy, the sacred ministers themselves manifest the virginal love of Christ for the Church, drawing forth the supernatural vigor of spiritual fruitfulness," explains John Paul. He pays tribute to married priests of the Eastern-rite church who ''have proved just as heroic as their celibate counterparts" in resisting communism. In portraying the priesthood as a priestly caste, he praises a 1967 encyclical by Pope Paul VI that reaffirmed the celibacy law.

Priestly heroism is a leitmotif in this slender volume, much of it drawn from John Paul's years in Poland. At 21, having buried both parents and his only sibling, Karol Wojtyla found a home as a clandestine seminarian during the Nazi occupation. The church was the moral and political opposition through the decades of postwar Communist dictatorship as Wojtyla rose to become the cardinal of Krakow. His idealization of the clergy leaves no room for empirical research. ''Some, seeking to argue against the discipline of celibacy, draw attention to the loneliness of a priest or a bishop," he writes. ''On the basis of my own experience, I firmly reject this argument. Personally, I have never felt lonely."

In ''The Pontiff in Winter" the English author John Cornwell approaches John Paul's experiences in Poland as the key to understanding his papacy: The church held firm, united in resisting communism. Returning as pontiff, John Paul spoke to huge crowds in his country; he funneled support to Solidarity activists, helping to destroy the Soviet chokehold. ''A culture of death" is the phrase John Paul has used to describe the communist ethos. But transferring the moral absolutism of that political struggle into sexual ethics has forced a reliance on moral teachings powdered by ancient views, positions many Catholics consider dictatorial.

John Paul virtually equates abortion and birth-control practices. ''Sins against sexual morals and the sanctity of life were intrinsically evil: There could be no mitigating circumstances," writes Cornwell. The pope refused for several years to sign dispensation papers for men who had left the priesthood and wanted to marry, a reaction Cornwell calls ''bullying and uncompassionate."

Many church scholars consider this papacy a retreat from the collegial spirit of Vatican II. John Paul expanded the monarchical power of his office by undercutting the authority of national bishops' conferences. Cornwell considers this key in the abuse scandals. ''The bishops have acted in precisely the way disempowered employees behave. They did their best to keep the problem out of the media; they covered up, moving erring priests from place to place . . . they failed to reform the clerical caste, the regimes in their seminaries, their methods of recruiting priests."

John Paul's failure in the abuse crisis is epic. Ignoring information from bishops about such cases for years, he lavished praise on the Legionaries of Christ founder the Rev. Marcial Maciel despite a 1998 canon law case in which nine men presented statements contending that Maciel sexually assaulted them in seminary. No other priest in Rome was so scandal-tainted. ''John Paul continued to extend him special privileges after the allegations were made," writes Cornwell. ''Hence, there was no need of investigation, no need of self-questioning, no need for apologies, and, above all, no need for change."

Cornwell's 1999 book ''Hitler's Pope" provoked a historians' debate over the silence of Pius XII during the Nazi atrocities. Praising the current pope for his accomplishments, Cornwell's critique is eloquent, with well-reported insights about the Vatican. His conclusion, however, is rather sweeping. ''His major and abiding legacy, I believe, is to be seen and felt in various forms of oppression and exclusion, trust in papal absolutism, and antagonistic divisions. Never have Catholics been so divided; never has there been so much contempt and aggression between Catholics. Never has the local Church suffered so much at the hands of the Vatican and papal center."

That judgment is too harsh. Pope Clement V in 1305 abandoned Rome for Avignon, where the papacy became fathomlessly corrupt, thus provoking Dante to install him in ''The Inferno." A later 14th-century pope, Urban VI, tortured cardinals in his curia. Several Renaissance popes were a huge scandal (though they did fund great artists). Is the church more divided today?

The great flaw of John Paul's papacy is his hostility to pluralism, the failure to provide balance to a church of many parts. The monarchical mind extends from the bishops' history of concealing sex offenders to the Vatican's punishment of theologians who question church teachings that disdain the moral wisdom of ordinary people in their sexual lives, with an imperial indifference to learned findings on celibacy.

The miracle of the church is that lay people endure the hypocrisies of the power structure, finding a plane of faith in the sacraments.

John Paul's opposition to the invasion of Iraq, his outreach to Jews and Muslims, his call for ''purification of the historical memory" within the church are epic virtues. Yet his papacy is a paradox, the greatness of his early years shadowed by a failure to confront the manifest decay within the folds of ecclesiastical life, rather than romanticizing the clerical state.

Jason Berry's books include ''Lead Us Not Into Temptation" and ''Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II." 

May 15, 2005

'Universal Father' and 'The Pontiff in Winter': The Loneliest Job



A Life of Pope John Paul II.
By Garry O'Connor.
Illustrated. 436 pp. Bloomsbury. $24.95.

Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II.
By John Cornwell.
Illustrated. 336 pp. Doubleday. $24.95.

NOW that the first Polish pope has been succeeded by his Vatican protégé, the first German pope in almost 500 years, an incident from decades ago will get more attention. In 1965, Poland's bishops, led by Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, sought a rapprochement between Polish and German Catholics, at odds since the war. The Poles' letter to their German counterparts closed, ''We forgive you and ask your forgiveness.'' There was an uproar. A Polish workers' group accused Wojtyla of meddling outside his competence, and ignoring that ''the direct guilt for bringing about the Second World War and its bestial course falls exclusively on German imperialism and fascism.''

Most non-Catholics will instinctively find the workers' position more sensible, and then have an uneasy sense that they must be wrong to. For surely the future pope knew what he was doing. Surely his ''forgiveness'' arises from specific Catholic doctrine; it is not simply a pompous version of the lay virtue of the same name. But what is that doctrine and what is its point? Here we hit a central problem with religious biographies: Since knowledge of doctrine is deepest among believers, ''experts'' are partial almost by definition. In the case of a pope as controversial as John Paul II, biographers are likely either to venerate him as the embodiment of Catholicism or contemn him as its corrupter.

Garry O'Connor falls into the former camp. His ''Universal Father'' leans heavily on other biographies. It weaves a heroic yarn with a bathos that the late pope often merits. Wojtyla's trials, growing up outside Krakow, were various. He lost his mother at 8, his older brother at 12 and his father at 19. When he was in his early 20's, the Nazis killed a fifth of the people in Poland, including many Jewish friends and priestly mentors. Wojtyla kept pure in a storm of immorality. A Jewish neighbor recalled that his was the only family that never showed any evidence of ''racial hostility.'' He was an endearing mix of delicacy and machismo. He was swept away by the theater, wrote poetry and plays and read abstruse philosophy in foreign languages. He was also an athlete who made his living laying rail track and quarrying limestone, and would walk for miles in midwinter to pray at his father's grave. He longed (and applied) to become a Carmelite monk, yet he was a stirring orator long before June 2, 1979, when millions thronged the streets in Warsaw to see him, chanting, ''We want God!''

O'Connor's previous biographies were of British stage figures, from Ralph Richardson to Alec Guinness (who, we're told, thought the Pope had ''one of the finest speaking voices he had ever heard''). This treatment of John Paul II is bizarrely literary, with close readings of (and long citations from) the Pope's early drama and poetry, comparisons to Beckett and Sartre and extravagant metaphysical conceits about his papacy: ''So now it is, as a supreme example of the artist in life, that we approach Wojtyla in his last years: stage-manager, playwright, director and leading actor all in one, but all in the service of God.''

Clunky though such metaphors are, O'Connor's insistence on aestheticizing the Pope gives his theology a shape. On John Paul II's terms, there is nothing self-contradictory about, say, fighting for the dignity of the third-world poor while opposing their use of condoms. The recruitment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) in 1981 to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is generally taken as a evidence of John Paul's orthodoxy. O'Connor (puckishly?) claims it is evidence of his liberality. Ratzinger's own view was that a hard-liner like himself was necessary because ''this pope's natural inclination is to say 'Yes.' ''

John Paul II's liberality was in evidence at his most obdurately conservative moments -- and vice versa. He showed physical courage in the face of Nazism and Stalinism, not to mention terrorism, the Mafia and Latin American rightism. He secretly funneled money (perhaps $50 million) to the Solidarity movement in Poland. But he was never a political resister and was given to insisting that ''even Communist bureaucrats were created by God.'' His visit to offer forgiveness to Mehmet Ali Agca, the hired assassin who shot him in St. Peter's Square in 1981, is consistent with his approach before he was in the public eye. He did not urge active resistance to the Germans during World War II. He prayed, organized secret theatricals and, after the departure of the Nazi troops who had used his seminary as a barracks and prison, himself cleaned out three rooms full of their excrement. The essentially apolitical nature of his engagement with politics became clearest when Communism fell, and he leveled the very same critique against the ''virus'' of Western capitalism that he had leveled against the Soviets: ''Christ will never approve that man be considered, or that man consider himself, merely as a means of production,'' he preached in Poland in 1979. ''This must be remembered both by the worker and the employer, by the work system as well as by the system of remuneration; it must be remembered by the state, the nation, the church.''

Grant this antipathy to the instrumentalization of humans, whether for profit or for pleasure, and you are halfway to sharing the late pope's views on sex and contraception, which O'Connor calls ''the raw nerve'' of the last papacy. This is not the same as saying they will appear reasonable outside of their doctrinal context. But O'Connor is certainly right to say that in determining whether John Paul II was conservative or progressive, we will find that he was not ''in some respects one, and in some respects the other, but instead something else entirely.''

The Cambridge scholar and Catholic journalist John Cornwell would agree that the controversy over John Paul II is not a matter of left versus right. For Cornwell the decisive opposition is freedom versus order, and the pope, by centralizing Vatican power along discredited 19th-century lines, has ''undermined the discretion, the authority, the integrity and the strength of the local, diocesan church.'' The first half of ''The Pontiff in Winter'' covers the same material O'Connor does; the second treats the last five years of John Paul II's papacy. Cornwell is a dogged reporter who prides himself on having details only a Vatican insider would, from John Paul's preferred aftershave (Penhaligon) and cough drops (Fisherman's Friend) to the ''feminine'' handshake of his right-hand man, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz.

The great achievement of ''The Pontiff in Winter'' is to engage John Paul II's artistic and intellectual achievement in a knowledgeable and neutral way. Cornwell is left lukewarm. He finds Wojtyla's best-known play, ''The Jeweler's Shop'' ''wooden'' and dull. (''Had a pope not written it, the piece would surely have been consigned to oblivion.'') He grants John Paul's depth as a philosopher. But he deplores his stilted, academic prose, and gives examples, including a speech at Unesco headquarters in Paris during the early 1980's, where the pope described the human person as an ''ontic subject of culture'' that ''contains in itself the possibility of going back in the opposite direction to ontic-causal dependences.'' Cornwell shows that a large part of the pope's intellectual legacy will be the spadework he did far from the public eye -- particularly his dogged efforts to purge anti-Semitism from catechetical texts in Eastern Europe.

For all his reportorial virtues, Cornwell cannot conceal his dislike of the last pope. He has a tendency to blame him for everything and its opposite. Writing about 9/11, Cornwell faults the pope both for saying (through intermediaries) that the United States had a right to self-defense in attacking Afghanistan and for implying that the long-term solution to terrorism would involve forgiveness of the terrorists. He faults the pope for unduly streamlining the process of beatification and canonization, and then for failing to beatify the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered by rightist death squads in 1980. He faults the pope for waning enthusiasm among the church's Western communicants, but hints that the two million young Catholics who gathered in Rome on World Youth Day 2000 were potential fascists, carrying ''resonances for an older generation of the mass hysteria of rallies of a different nature.''

Cornwell's history of the last five years argues both that the pope was often a gibbering, (literally) drooling incompetent who should have resigned or been forced to, and that he was morally responsible for many of the church's recent failings. Cornwell's rundown of the priestly abuse scandals is impressive for not being limited to the American Catholic clergy, vicious though their conduct was (so far, 11,000 minors sexually assaulted by 4,400 priests, according to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York). He gives due space, for instance, to the less widely known scandal of African priests using nuns as AIDS-free harems.

But Cornwell is inconsistent, and even canting, when he seeks the causes of the American scandal. ''Priestly abuse,'' he writes, ''is invariably about unequal power relationships rather than sexual hedonism.'' Invariably? If it were purely an urge to power that deviant priests were indulging, they could have satisfied it by making their victims mow the rectory lawn free. And does Cornwell really believe it? A key charge on which he rests his case that John Paul ''created an ambit hospitable to clerical abuse of minors'' is that John Paul II -- by refusing to release priests from their vows of celibacy -- thwarted a lot of libido. Then there is a problem of timing. Many of the most appalling episodes of molestation -- including the Shanley and Geoghan cases in Boston -- were well underway in the 1970's. These were some of the ''local, diocesan churches'' that John Paul II had to work with when he came to power.

Cornwell's view of the conflict between top-down ''fundamentalism'' and bottom-up ''pluralism'' is unduly Manichaean. But he is right to see that the church now faces a choice between schism (if it goes too liberal) and a '' 'remnant' catacomb church'' (if it goes too conservative). That this tension worsened during the papacy of John Paul II does not necessarily prove the pope was at fault. It may mean only that Christianity has proved a much harder faith to practice ''moderately'' than both its defenders and its detractors used to assume.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a columnist for The Financial Times and a contributing writer for The Times Magazine.