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Earl Doherty

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April 7, 2005)

Roman Catholic Pontiff, John-Paul II (1978-2005) - Passed away at the age of 84 after a long and debilitating illness, which years of his own prayer and that of millions of followers could do nothing to alleviate. Lack of response to these entreaties was attributed to the will of God. Commentators recalled another example of the non-efficacy of papal supplication when, in 1983, John-Paul was unable to land his plane in Canada's Northern Territory because of persistent fog, perhaps due to the will of the weather gods. Miracles on the general world scene were also in short supply during his tenure, except for those confirming the status of several Catholic figures elevated to sainthood.
     Among the accomplishments of John-Paul's lengthy pontificate was an ongoing campaign by the Vatican to uphold what detractors regard as a catastrophic encyclical by Pope Paul VI in 1964, placing an absolute ban on artificial contraception and birth control
also in accordance with the will of God. Measures by the Catholic Church, in addition to strict directives from the pulpit, included interference and obstructionism at all political levels, from the UN to many international conferences, against efforts to control world population, to support family planning and to promote sex education. To this was added an intensified opposition to the millennia-old practice of abortion, toward which societies around the world, developed and developing, were increasingly adopting a more liberal view, in conjunction with the growing recognition of the rights of women.
     Memorable results of these Vatican initiatives included the suspension of significant amounts of foreign aid to nations and local organizations which promoted the aforementioned programs, leading to such side effects as social deterioration and the spread of AIDS, an increase in aborted fetuses floating down various African rivers, and the accelerated burning of South American rain forests as farmers in Catholic countries sought to create living space for their burgeoning families. Accusations that the Catholic Church was helping to dig the grave of the planet were dismissed as fear-mongering. Trust was placed in God, who the Bible said took care even of the sparrows of the air
though it was to be noted that there were fewer sparrows these days, perhaps because the air was less fit for flying or breathing.
     The late John-Paul II was also noted for his continuing commitment to certain conservative practices within the Church, in particular his opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood, on the grounds that Christ chose only men to be his apostles, this too being the divine will and having nothing to do with the allegation that Christianity arose in a society that was even more sexist than modern-day portions of Rome. The Vatican countered by emphasizing the special contribution of women in church affairs, linking it with the Pope's expanded emphasis on devotion to the Mother of God, whom Christian women were urged to emulate. It was said that the Virgin Mary smiled down upon John-Paul from Heaven's kitchen, where no one has to wear shoes anyway.
     A continued unyielding stance against the acceptance of married priests was linked to another problem faced by the Church hierarchy. Concurrent with Vatican concerns for the proper fulfillment of the world's women was its concern for the well-being of its children, particularly in those parishes overseen by the Catholic clergy. Just as the Deity took care of the sparrow, He was no doubt trusted to care for the lives of those innocents who risked falling victim to their own natural predators, and while condemning the latter's unholy predilections, the Vatican felt there was no need for a zero tolerance program or other drastic measures to reduce the dangers to little children who, in Jesus' words, were called upon to "suffer" in order to come to him
though some said this was a misinterpretation of Scripture.
     Concern for the world's poor failed to extend to liquidating some of the treasures of Vatican city or the Church's wider wealth, which is said to rival the GNP of many small nations. The Church was allowed to lament poverty, as long as no demanding financial measures were required to alleviate it, somewhat in the vein of the late Mother Teresa who amassed donations of hundreds of millions of dollars without actually improving the lot of Calcutta's poor, and who failed to be understood in her belief that poverty and the poor's suffering was a natural and holy state, blessed by God.
     The Church under the late Pope's watch also reiterated a strong stand against homosexuality, pointing to its condemnation as an abomination by God's own directive in Leviticus, right beside those other eternal divine truths prohibiting the wearing of garments woven with more than one type of fiber (perhaps in line with those who consider polyester to be an abomination), the withholding of a worker's wages past the evening of the day worked, and the ban on associating with women who are undergoing menstruation, not to mention the lengthy and detailed instructions in that same biblical book on the proper conduct of regular blood sacrifices of animals to please the Lord's nostrils. Observations by more than one theologian that enlightenment has progressed since ancient biblical times (though it was not clear if the enlightenment reference was to God), led some second-class citizens to wonder why God couldn't also have progressed to become less homophobic. In any case, those primitive sanguinary requirements to placate the Old Testament Deity had been replaced, it was said, by the more enlightened measure of sending God's own Son to earth to be shredded, gutted and slaughtered in a blood sacrifice on the cross, in order to invoke divine forgiveness of mankind for its sins and to teach love and forbearance.
     The Catholic Church under John-Paul II might be said to have done a little to reverse age-old superstition and medieval thinking. Some progress was made on the doctrine of Hell, a place whose existence, if not repudiated, was made a little less uncomfortable. John-Paul offered the opinion that rather than an eternity of physical torment (though this was not definitively ruled out), Hell was primarily a place of the soul's separation from God
which could be regarded as a good or bad thing depending on one's point of view about the quality of divine company and the joys of a sexless Heaven.
     Some progress was also made on certain scientific fronts. It became official Vatican policy under John-Paul II that the earth did indeed go around the sun, Galileo having been right after all, and that the biblical writers might have misconstrued Joshua's astronomical adjustment in the facilitation of his conquest of Jericho. Other formal apologies for the Church's Inquisitional practices over several centuries and the burning of witches were also addressed, though talk of compensation died on the order paper. Perhaps the greatest advance in scientific progress on the part of the Church was made in the matter of Darwinian evolution, which the Papacy endorsed 'in principle with limitations,' thus bringing at least one aspect of the Church's outlook into the 20th century, though this endorsement seems not to have affected all Catholics in the United States, many of whom count themselves in the ranks of those who believe that God created the world and everything in it within 6 days about 6,000 years ago.
     Some regard the Church's continuing stance in certain areas of rational thinking as less progressive. The world, in its view, still remains under the evil influence of the arch-demon Satan (though not to worry, the good angels are helping to keep him and his minions in check); other, non-Christian, religions are still basically of the infidel variety and divorced from the one true faith, salvation being of dubious attainability on the part of 2/3 of the world's people who do not recognize Jesus as their personal Savior, and even non-Catholic Christian sects remain under a cloud. As noted earlier, nothing has been done in the direction of modern enlightenment in the matter of belief in God's requirement of a blood sacrifice for sin on the part of one of his own family, and the gruesome picture often seen on our TV screens of the late pontiff wearing and carrying on a pike the image of a crucified man as the symbol of the world's salvation still strikes too few people as incongruous.
     All this, of course, could be said to be the achievement of a succession of Popes and religious leaders generally, in forestalling the development of science and rationality and the capacity for critical thinking in the minds of the faithful. As the world enters the 3rd millennium following the life of Christ (who, rumor has it, never existed), there are those who believe that, thanks to institutions like the Vatican, humanity has yet to live up to its potential for an earth- and reality-based human wisdom and morality, or for the fulfillment of evolution's tantalizing promise.
     Be that as it may, John-Paul II is acknowledged to have been a charismatic leader, widely respected and loved. In the view of many, however, this did not translate into any significant accomplishments in his quarter-century at the Church's helm, much less progressive ones. He is survived by several thousand like-minded officials of the Catholic Church, one of whom will be selected to succeed him. There are those who hope that this successor will be a man of more progressive outlook, perhaps in the tradition of the "John" half of the cognomen the late pontiff assumed.
     Funeral services will be held tomorrow at St. Peter's Church. Come early to obtain a good seat.

Earl Doherty

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