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Papacy as paradox: a mixed legacy

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."

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