The Pope in Winter. The Dark Side of John Paul 11's Papacy
by John Cornwell. Published by Viking, £20
This book is by no means a biography and it has more than the air of a polemic about it. It is, though, none of the worse for that and perhaps it is only a writer like John Cornwell who is able to offer such a portrait of John Paul's papacy as it draws to its end.
Cornwell is a well-established Vaticanologist, who has the ear of anonymous insiders, not least his chief source, whom he calls Mgr Sotto Voce. But no writer is helped by the notorious secrecy that surrounds every aspect of the Vatican and thus he lacks the availability of large numbers of those kinds of sources who can throw at least some light on presidencies and premierships.
Cornwell is also someone philosophically and temperamentally at odds with his subject. He is, first and foremost, a man of the Second Vatican Council: a firm supporter of the aggioramento; a believer in collegiality and the local church, and the importance of the ministry of the laity. Despite John Paul's words that he, too, shares (indeed, guards) this inheritance, his actions, as Cornwell all too clearly demonstrates, so often do not match the rhetoric.
Thus, this was never to be an objective account of the office of a man who will be judged, for all his failings, as one of the great forces for freedom in the 20th century. This is something that Cornwell seems to recognise by entitling his prologue "John Paul the Great", and the word "great" is one which appears occasionally in the book. But he gives less weight to achievements than to shortcomings.
The Pope's own view of his own mission was shored up (in his own eyes, at least) not long into his papacy when he saw, in the revealed third secret of Fatima, a Marian-inspired escape from death by assassination in St Peter's Square in 1981. This is a contentious reading of the third secret at very least.
The Church may think in terms of eternity but its present leader is very often a man of his time: one with a long experience of the pre-conciliar Church but also one who had suffered under Nazism and Communism. His early unwillingness to compromise was shown when he saw the pitfalls of both John X111's and Paul VI's policy of accommodation with Communism. This helped John Paul to be probably the most decisive figure in the fall of the Berlin Wall, much more so than even Gorbachev or the self-interested Reagan and Thatcher.
But what he found in the wake of the red flag being run down the pole pleased him as little as when it flew over the capitals of Eastern Europe: greed, pornography, a lack of moral sense, a voracious economic system, the decline (in Poland especially, a terrible irony) of respect for the Church. This was almost predictable, given the way the old system was dismantled and the inevitable reaction against all that had gone before.
But to John Paul it indicated the hollowness of modern society, which he has attempted to counter both with his attitudes to the free market and both spiritual and material poverty, but also in attempting to create a Church of his making rather than that ordained by the cardinals in council. This is a Church where freedom urged for the wider world is not granted to Catholics, lay or ordained. John Cornwell tells the stories of the Pope's attitude to fresh air in the cloisters as well as seats of learning. He believes that the centralisation of the Church and, to an extent, the kind of man given the red hat, has made bishops reluctant to act in the face of scandal, notably that of child abuse. He also believes that the Pope's increasing physical and mental frailty (he gives some horrifying examples of memory lapse) has enhanced the power of the curia and of people like Cardinals Ratzinger and Sodano.
The abuse scandals and papal attitudes to sex take up several chapters. With the former, the Church has been more concerned to protect its own than to bring justice to victims. Casting contraception, homosexuality and abortion under the rubric of "the culture of death" is both nonsense and, in some aspects, theological erroneous. It reveals how profoundly misunderstands the psychology of human relationships and sexuality hardly surprising in a Church run by elderly celibates.
Cornwell gives short shrift to the Pope's ambivalent dealings with other faiths, his attitudes to, "dissident" theologians, pluralism and women and saint-making. One would have liked to have known something of the tussles with Archbishop Levebre or what John Paul said (if it were possible to know) when he met his would-be assassin Mehmet Ali Agca in his cell.
It is interesting to speculate what might have happened with, say, the abuse scandal, which has so destroyed trust in the priesthood and the Church itself, had John Paul died, say, 10 years ago. But even then he would have left a legacy over which arguments would still be made. As it is, he lives on, in so many ways, in many ways an admirable and great Pope but a flawed one.
Much written about the John Paul 11 has been as unblushingly partisan as Cornwell is unashamedly critical. But there is a "dark side" to this papacy and Cornwell has produced a book that is perhaps a necessary corrective to too many other studies and one which, when the scales of history are adjusted, will offer its due weight.
Terry Philpot is a journalist and writer and contributor to, among other publications, The Tablet
First posted LONDON - 17 January 2005 - 960 words