On Friday, the now all-digital Newsweek marked Benedict XVI's impending departure from the papacy by turning to British writer Tim Parks, who took the opportunity to air his grievances against the current pontiff's predecessor, John Paul II. Parks bemoaned "how reactionary and old-fashioned" the Polish-born bishop of Rome was for daring to believe in Catholic devotions and in divine providence.
The Cambridge and Harvard-educated novelist later indicted John Paul for daring to speak out against a whole host of left-wing causes:
...Wojtyla [John Paul's birth surname] opposed liberation theology in South America, warned an AIDS-devastated Africa not to use condoms...went cold on the Anglican Church when they allowed women to become priests, opposed official recognition—let alone marriage—of gay couples, and so on. All over Europe, church attendance was falling off rapidly. It didn't matter. Wojtyla had brought an energy and humanity to those musty robes and antique ceremonies that allowed everybody to believe that the Church with a capital letter was alive and well.
This kind of prejudiced, condescending tone filled the writer's article, "Benedict's Act of Grace." Five paragraphs in, Parks asserted, "Papa Ratzinger's sudden and surprising resignation, and particularly the tone of sadness and defeat with which it was announced, in mumbling Latin, as if hoping the use of that dead language would somehow shield him from the full blast of the world media...has to be seen in the light of John Paul II's extraordinary success and popularity."
"Mumbling Latin"? When and if the author reaches 85 years old, one would hope that he's a bit more sympathetic to the understandable foibles of the elderly. He continued by lamenting how "Wojtyla's great stroke of luck was that he took over the papacy in circumstances that allowed him to make conservatism popular. The papal role is tradition incarnate. Pomp and theater. You can be a reformer and perhaps be loved for it, but reform is always a threat to something as ancient as the papacy. Much better to be a popular conservative."
Parks's animus towards John Paul II, and the papacy in general, became even clearer as he vented about the first years of the Polish pontiff's reign, which centered on the struggle against communism in Eastern Europe:
Not only was Wojtyla not Italian, he was Polish. Poland was Europe's victim nation par excellence; the Poles had suffered under the Nazis and were suffering miserably under the Soviet Union when Wojtyla was elected. They attracted automatic sympathy. Wojtyla was on the side of democratic reform against Soviet communism. Again he could seem revolutionary without holding, in theological or social terms, any liberal opinions at all. He was on our side in the one battle of the time that counted; his healthy pink face under Rome's ancient mitre, his robust peasant physique in the symbolic silk trappings of his office, galvanized the whole of a decrepit and rusty tradition and thrust it like a battering ram against the Iron Curtain. How could we not be delighted?...When the Soviet Union began to break up in the late 1980s, many insisted it was all Wojtyla's doing: without the pope, Eastern Europe would never have been free.
These political excitements, the man's endless travels, his smiling face upon kissing the earth in more than a hundred countries, his undeniable charisma hid the fact of how reactionary and old-fashioned he was. And how superstitious: close to death after the assassination attempt, he was conscious enough to ask surgeons not to remove his scapular, a small devotional vestment dedicated to the Virgin; later he seemed to attribute his survival to the fact that the shooting had taken place "on the day and at the hour when the first appearance of the Mother of Christ to poor little peasants has been remembered for over 60 years at Fátima, Portugal." Who does not love a man with magic on his side? In reality the pope's body had been put back together by five hours of expert surgery.
The author was just clearing his throat, however, as he reserved his harshest language for a retrospective on John Paul's failing health at the end of his life:
Finally he [John Paul II] gave us his illness, Parkinson's, in gleaming robes. In 2000, soccer fan that I am, I remember watching the so-called Match of Faith, sponsored by the church as part of their Jubilee celebrations. Wojtyla was to be present at the Olympic stadium in Rome for an all-star match that set Italy against the rest of the world. Throughout the game the camera switched repeatedly from the players to a slumping pope who clearly had difficulty lifting his heavy, round head from hunched shoulders. "The real champion here is Giovanni Paolo," the commentator repeated with determined enthusiasm. "A real athlete for God."
Only a man with immense reserves of popularity could have done this to us. The slurred voice, the failing body. He gave us the old and ugly lesson of mortality. Yet the fervor of TV pundits and newspaper editorialists never relented. They just could not get enough of his decrepitude. At times he looked little more than those mummified bodies in vestments you see in some crypts in southern Italy. Clearly incapable in the last months of even the most elementary tasks, this man continued to occupy the papacy to his last rattling breath. "You don't climb down from your cross," he apparently told his secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz....
In other words, how dare the now-deceased pope show us the inherent dignity of the dying!
Parks devoted the last few paragraphs of his piece to knocking Benedict XVI's papacy, all the while continuing his tirade against a press that supposedly lionized both the outgoing pope and his former boss (if the writer really wanted his fix of negative press for the Pope, he need only visit CNN.com):
...[T]his new pope simply lacked the radiant energy of his predecessor....suddenly the lavish robes and heavy ecclesiastical trappings were more impressive than the man himself. The actor wasn't even up to the costume, never mind the part....In the absence of an engaging personality, the reactionary politics he shared with Wojtyla became all too obvious; likewise the gaffes at the expense of Muslims, the bizarre claim, in Africa, that condoms actually encouraged AIDS.
Eventually, Ratzinger was simply overwhelmed with all the bad news that Wojytla's glittering tenancy had been storing up: the pedophile scandal; another banking scandal; his own butler arrested as a spy; the dramatic collapse in church attendance in Ireland. One can imagine the man's sense of failure. In Italy, the media did everything to pretend that things were just as positive as under Wojtyla—there is simply no end to the capacity for denying the obvious in certain circles. Casting about for reasons to praise, journalists repeatedly asked us to be excited by the notion that this German pope was a sophisticated theologian; a thinker, they declared with inexplicable enthusiasm, who had actually proved the compatibility of reason and faith. It is hard to imagine anything less inspiring.
The British writer concluded with a bizarre backhanded compliment of the German pontiff at John Paul II's expense. In his view, Benedict XVI's move to abdicate apparently opens the door to changing the Catholic dogmas so repugnant to the cultural left:
...Ratzinger, arguably, in a single gesture, has done more for the church and the papacy than Wojtyla ever did....One of the most depressing tenets of Catholic doctrine has been its fear of extending personal choice into those areas of life where the church feels we must just accept our fate: we must not use contraceptives, we must not choose to leave a partner we married many years ago, we must not choose the moment of our deaths, however much pain we are in. By remaining in his job until his death, a pope was to show that he too accepted his destiny and renounced personal choice. For 600 years no pope had resigned his position. Wojtyla's much-televised terminal illness stressed this culture of masochistic acceptance in a quite grotesque orgy of pathos. And now, in a single, simple gesture, the arch-conservative Ratzinger finally shows us what it means to exercise reason in harmony with faith. In a few Latin words he tells us that he is a man, not the pope, and that there is nothing to be gained by his staying nailed up there on the cross of papal duty, for him or anyone else. It is an act of rebellion and individual choice that demystifies the papacy, but suddenly makes it possible again, opens the way, post-Wojtyla, for a different, less heady, kind of leadership. It is extraordinary to think, though, that with this one sensible decision, this unimpressive man has set himself in the history books more surely and radically than his interminably glamorous predecessor.
To quote King Theoden from the movie adaptation of Tolkien's The Two Towers, "What can men do against such reckless hate?"