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RELIGION: Long Live the Pope, Somehow

Elisa Marincola

ROME, Mar 3 2005 (IPS) - Pope John Paul II has overcome yet another crisis, this time after a trachea operation to aid breathing. His health gets worse by the day, but he remains the Pope.

There is a Roman saying, ‘The Pope is dead, let there be a new Pope’. But these days a lot of people are hearing what the saying does not say: it does not speak of a papal resignation. No pope has quit in centuries.

That question has arisen because Catholics are coming to fear a scenario where the Pope lives but cannot function. No Catholic law or precedent exists to deal with a mentally incapacitated pope. The Catholic faithful worldwide are praying for his life, and wondering what a long illness could mean for the Church.

Vatican spokesman Joaquim Navarro Valls has sought to calm such fears by saying that the Pope felt better and spoke throughout his hospital stay.

This Pope has survived a good deal. His strong constitution helped him recover from a shooting by Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca, on May 3, 1981. He had a tumour removed from his colon, he survived a broken shoulder and a broken thigh bone, an appendix removal, and now ten years of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological disorder.

His health is of concern to more than a billion followers of the Catholic faith who look to the Pope to show the path in both the religious and the temporal fields.

Daily administration is now in the hands of close officials, including his influential private secretary Archbishop Stanislaw Dzwisz, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the number two Vatican official.

But Pope John Paul II’s once dynamic papacy has lost much of its steam, and unresolved issues are piling up for his successor.

The Pope has had a mixed record. The Catholic Church expanded under him in Asia and Africa, but lost followers in the industrialised world. That includes Poland where he comes from, and Latin America which is home to about half of all Catholics.

Despite his progressive hands-on public image, he is not without his critics, particularly over his inflexibility on issues with international ramifications such as birth control in Africa, or on matters such as divorce, abortion, homosexual unions and rights for unmarried couples. The Vatican declared itself against all these at a conference in 2001.

“This Pope won’t leave anything to the Church except the attempt to hush up the Church itself,” Gianni Avena, chief editor of Adista, an independent news and research agency on Catholic and other religious issues told IPS.

The Pope, christened Karol Jozef Wojtyla, found the Church in ferment when he took over in 1978. The Church was then in a process of opening up to the world from its closed clericalism.

The new Pope changed all that. Avena says the Pope set about restoring strict orthodoxy, building up the power of the Church, and using this also to defeat communism. He used the powerful traditional Catholic group Opus Dei and other conservative groups to negate the renovation message that the earlier Vatican Council II had sought to promote.

The great power left to Opus Dei, a kind of independent order outside the control of bishops, tilted the Catholic church heavily to the right, the Pope’s critics say.

Within a few years of his taking over, the Roman Curia (the administrative body of the Vatican) and dioceses worldwide were filled with traditionalist officials who sought to build up a powerful and clerical church as an alternative to the earthly world.

To mark the 25th anniversary of his election as Pope, Adista published a long list of names of officials, theologians, priests and nuns it said had been persecuted, removed or suspended by the sacred office. No pontiff before him had repressed dissent so systematically, Adista claimed.

Giancarlo Zizola, an expert on the Vatican, told IPS the Pope did not accept the attempt of local bishops to integrate the message of the Gospel into national cultures. Such attempts by Indian bishops and by the African clergy were put down.

Avena says the Pope failed also to open up to women’s rights. “No pope before him was so hard on the role of a woman. He imposed strict doctrines such as denying women an opportunity to be ordained as priests. It was as though to say that they are not equal to men.”

The future will have to be different, critics say.

The Roman Curia is at present dominated by Greek-Roman theological and ecclesiastical thought. The Vatican will have to give up this tradition of authority, Zizola says.

He says Churches in the south will have to play a major role, considering that they represent more than two-thirds of the faithful. This weight is likely to be expressed at the next conclave to elect Pope John Paul II’s successor.

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