The death of John Paul II on Saturday afternoon, at the age of 84, may bring a collective shrug of secular shoulders. Folks who were already sick of hearing the daily medical report on the old man in the silly hat won’t pay much heed to the glowing obituaries or lavish funeral rites. It’s a Catholic thing; the rest of us wouldn’t understand.
But despite all the God talk that will ensue over the next few days, John Paul’s relevance extended well beyond the walls of the Vatican or the sacristy of St. Whatshisname down the block. Whether or not you accept the idea that John Paul was a spiritual leader with an infallible ability to interpret the teachings of Jesus Christ, there is no denying that he was as much a political figure as a religious one.
And an influential one, too. His voice on matters like the Iraq war, which he condemned, or communist rule in Eastern Europe carried a lot of weight: If an Italian newspaper account on recently opened files of the East German Stasi is to be believed, John Paul’s opposition to Soviet rule was so powerful that the KGB plotted to kill him in 1981.
At .2 square miles, it’s the world’s smallest country, but the Vatican certainly punched above its weight during John Paul’s papacy. At U.N. meetings in the 1990s on population policy, the Vatican opposed language that acknowledged a universal right to abortion or that suggested condoms might be used to stop the spread of AIDS. The rest of the world listened to those complaints. On a lot of them, the Vatican won.
And John Paul never shied from making direct calls to Roman Catholic politicians, as he did in July 2003, when he asked them to block or repeal laws permitting gay marriage. The Vatican’s views on stem cell research are part of that debate as well.
Some of this clout might die with John Paul. But his particular interpretation of Catholic doctrine is unlikely to perish, because he has stacked the college of cardinals with his ideological allies. According to the BBC, he was still making appointments of bishops as late as Thursday.
All the obits of JP II are going to mention that he was the beloved leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics. Keep in mind that Americans make up only 6 percent of that total. The heart of the church is elsewhere, and its growth is in Asia and Africa. We can shrug our shoulders all we want at the next pope and the late one. But someone is listening.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 29, 2005