The Tarnished Legacy of John Paul II

As usual, the irreverant iconoclast Christopher Hitchens is around to throw cold water on the mourning of beloved a public figure. His Slate piece, “What no one else will say about John Paul II,” was published Friday, but it was no April Fool’s joke.

First, he derides the superstitious aspects of the papacy:

The papacy is not, in theory, a man-made office at all. Its holder is chosen for life, by God himself, to hold the keys of Peter and to be the vicar of Christ on earth. This is yet another of the self-imposed tortures that faith inflicts upon itself. It means that you have to believe that the pope before last, who held on to the job for a matter of weeks before dying (or, according to some, before being murdered) was either unchosen by God in some fit of celestial pique, or left unprotected by heaven against his assassins. And it means that you have to believe that the public agony and humiliation endured by the pontiff was also part of some divine design.

For such things, though, there is always a “divine mystery of God’s will” that’s “incomprehensible to mere mortals” escape clause.

Hitchens’ next point, though, hits closer to home:

A few years ago, it seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running. The man had knowingly reassigned dangerous and sadistic criminals to positions where they would be able to exploit the defenseless. He had withheld evidence and made himself an accomplice, before and after the fact, in the one offense that people of all faiths and of none have most united in condemning. (Since I have more than once criticized Maureen Dowd in this space, I should say now that I think she put it best of all. A church that has allowed no latitude in its teachings on masturbation, premarital sex, birth control, and divorce suddenly asks for understanding and “wiggle room” for the most revolting crime on the books.) […] [T]he Vatican itself—including his holiness—was a part of the coverup and obstruction of justice that allowed the child-rape scandal to continue for so long.

This is indeed something that seems to be forgotten in all the tributes pouring out for a man who is undeniably a great historical figure. The inexplicable moral failure of the Roman church generally and this pope in particular to protect its weakest members is indeed a dark cloud that it will never fully escape.

Update: WaPo’s Alan Cooperman adds,

During his long reign, Pope John Paul II apologized to Muslims for the Crusades, to Jews for anti-Semitism, to Orthodox Christians for the sacking of Constantinople, to Italians for the Vatican’s associations with the Mafia and to scientists for the persecution of Galileo. He apologized so often, in fact, that an Italian journalist compiled a book of more than 90 papal statements of contrition. Yet the pope never apologized for the most shocking behavior that came to light on his watch: sexual abuse of children by priests and the church’s attempts to hush it up. To some alleged victims, that is a puzzling omission and a deep stain on his legacy.


“I would say there’s a significant amount of responsibility in the lap of the papacy for the sexual abuse crisis, not only in the United States but around the world,” said Rev. Thomas Doyle, a former Air Force chaplain who has counseled many victims and advised them on lawsuits against the church. “Given that the Vatican insists on hierarchical authority and micromanagement, I think they have to take responsibility.”


To many victims and their families, however, the pope’s actions fell short. Under John Paul, they contend, the Vatican was more aggressive about stamping out dissent within the priesthood over birth control than it was about protecting children.

Michelle Malkin, Steve Bainbridge, and a flock of others are rightly heaping praise on this pope’s humanitarian achievements and being critical of some distasteful cheap shots taking place elsewhere. I’ve posted previously about the great good this pope did and believe his great leadership in other areas will likely outweigh this tarnish on his legacy. But for a man who spent so much energy preaching on the evils of premarital sex and homosexuality to essentially ignore the systematic homosexual pedophilic rape within his own church is baffling. Given the effusive praise pouring out 24/7 at the moment, including talk of sainthood for John Paul II, it’s not unreasonable to consider the man’s whole record.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jay says:

    Heh. In my tribute I touched on both the inescapable scandal, and the God or “they” taking the previous Pope out.

  2. George says:

    The Church is (in one sense) a human institution comprised of sinners.

    What an ignorant post!

  3. Just Me says:

    Unless the man was Hitler, I really don’t think right now is the time discuss the criticisms.

    Although I disagree with how the church dealt with the issue of priests abusing children, I just don’t know that now is the time or the place to lay it all at his feet, and I am not even sure how much it should be layed at his feet. Maybe somebody who is Catholic and understands how much oversight the Pope has over these issues can elaborate more.

  4. McGehee says:

    Scandal or not, the world is a whole lot better off for his having lived.

    There remains much to be done, yes — but he had to leave something for his successors to do…

  5. Hobb says:

    This whole ‘world mourns the pope’ media hysteria reminds of me of the the rank hero-worship of Regan and crap movies like Spiderman 2.
    Most objective assessment of Pope JP2 (aka as a media savvy authoritarian, who handled the 20th century by refused to compromise on the Churches’ most irrational and immoral doctrines) is lost in the deluge of fawning tributes.

    What’s most bewildering is that most of the media and mourners (including R.Cs) currently fellating his cooling corspe do not subscribe to any of the “Great One’s” most dogamtic teacherings.

    Hey Folks! You keep screaming for HEROS and GREAT LEADERS. You promise to put reason and morality aside if only a Powerful Man-Father will touch your empty modern lives. Keep calling and they will come…and with them an ocean of blood and tears.

  6. Only a Flesh Wound says:

    You deserve the previous comment soiling this blog and the blogosphere, due to your execrable timing. I’m not Catholic, or religious at all, but still find your post akin to farting in an elevator.
    Listen to your choir: “fellating his cooling corspe.”
    Wipe the boogers off your nose. Sheesh.

  7. It’s interesting that Hitchens doesn’t know the difference between the religious authority of the Roman Catholic Church, which the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom to follow, and the civil authority governing that piece of land within Italy. Both are run by the same people ultimately, but it’s like confusing Paramount and CBS because they’re owned by the same parent company.

    He also shows how little he understands the Christian view of God’s sovereignty over all things. He’s assuming God would never want someone elected pope for a very short time. I can think of half a dozen different potential reasons God might have wanted this, and anyone who can’t either hasn’t tried or simply isn’t creative enough.

    It’s interesting that people won’t mention the abuse scandal, whereas hardly anyone was content to do nothing but praise Reagan when he died. There always had to be some tagline mentioning his critics or pointing out that he wasn’t as popular when he was president as he was later. I haven’t heard one negative comment in the major press so far, not even a criticism of some of his more conservative views.

    I disagree with the silly notion that somehow it’s immoral to mention negative things about someone right after their death. How does it make a difference to them? Somehow you have to respect the dead right after they die, but you can say as offensive things as you want two weeks later? When you remember someone, why not remember how the person really was? I’m not sure I agree fully with your assessment of him, and I’m not even sure the RCC hasn’t done something. I don’t know the facts, really. Still, those who insist that now isn’t the right time to raise these questions just seem to me to be inventing a moral principle out of thin air. I’m sure John Paul II would want people seeking the truth rather than seeking t bury it in the name of some silly idea that you can’t raise serious questions about someone (or even about something associated with that someone) when reflecting on the legacy of that person’s just-completed life.

  8. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘A few years ago, it seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running.’

    MA AG Tom Reilly stated he had no basis to file charges eventhough he received a lot of criticism to do so. There were never any charges filed or plans to file.

  9. Anderson says:

    I suspect that by the time the child-abuse sh*t hit the fan, the Holy Father was in sufficiently poor health that he could know only what the Curia wanted him to. This is of course a variant of “if only the Tsar knew!” but it may be true nonetheless.

    I also suspect that the RCC has been used to dealing with pederastic priests for no small time now, and the Curia thus took the problem for granted in a way that made them see the media coverage, not the crimes themselves, as the threat to be addressed.

    Let’s hope the new Pope has the courage and faith to make strong pronouncements on these abuses.

  10. Mark Witherup says:

    Kick the old Pope when he’s dead…. my what balls you have. What an A-Hole!