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In the Flow, but Against the Tide

By Eugene Robinson
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page B07

In all that will be written about Pope John Paul II, one of the most remarkable men of the last half-century, the word "compassionate" will often appear. But the word "sentimental" probably won't. He was as clear-eyed and purposeful in the pursuit of his goals as any chief executive, and it would dishonor him to be any less clear-eyed in reviewing his life and work.

John Paul II changed history with his implacable opposition to communism and the astute, skillful role he played in helping to manage the fall of the Soviet bloc. That has to stand as his most important achievement, a towering legacy. But it would be a mistake to overlook some other hallmarks of his papacy.

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One episode that sticks with me is the way he pulled Brazil -- which has nearly 140 million Roman Catholics, more than any other country -- onto the path he had chosen.

In the 1980s, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, was one of the world's leading proponents of "liberation theology" -- a movement of leftist priests who saw attacking poverty and inequality as the church's most important mission. Arns led the biggest Catholic diocese in the world, a sprawling fiefdom centered on the most populous city in the Southern Hemisphere. His words carried weight, and he took some positions at odds with the Vatican -- calling condoms an acceptable "lesser evil" in the age of AIDS, for example, or questioning whether all priests should have to be celibate. And he defended younger liberation-theology priests whose views were practically insurrectional.

John Paul II solved the problem by shuffling the organizational chart. In 1989 he split away big chunks of Arns's diocese, reducing his power -- and, most significantly, taking out of his jurisdiction millions of poor people who lived in the shantytowns on the city's periphery. Nine years later, the aging Arns was named archbishop emeritus and replaced with Cardinal Claudio Hummes, whose views are more in line with the Vatican's. Upon taking up his post, Hummes declared that it is only through contact with Jesus Christ -- not through politics -- "that we can start correcting social injustices."

I remembered the Arns situation because it said two things about this extraordinary pope. First, his intolerance for anything smacking of woolly-headed leftism shows how he raised individual freedom to preeminence, making it a necessary condition for true social justice. "Freedom is the measure of man's dignity and greatness," he told the U.N. General Assembly in 1995. Freedom first; justice next.

In economics, he was a market capitalist; in politics, he believed in democracy. He continued to express his social concerns, sometimes forcefully -- he advocated on behalf of the poor, supported debt relief for Third World countries, opposed the war in Iraq -- but his speeches and encyclicals make clear his view that individual freedom is the essential goal.

Second, he was conservative on issues such as birth control, celibacy and the role of women in the church, and he imposed that conservatism on the rest of the church. During his long papacy, John Paul II shaped the church as much through his personnel decisions as through his words. He may have ensured that his conservatism will outlive him, since he put in place the great majority of the cardinals who will gather in the Sistine Chapel to choose his successor.

In his advocacy of freedom, John Paul II was very much a part of the flow of history -- in fact, he helped create and sustain that flow. In his deep conservatism, however, he was in many ways beating against the tide.

Throughout the world, many millions of Roman Catholics use condoms and other methods of birth control, both for family planning and to stem the spread of AIDS; Brazil has slashed its AIDS infection rate dramatically with programs that advocate condom use, essentially imploring citizens to ignore their church. Meanwhile, celibacy is a deterrent that contributes to a widespread shortage of priests. In the United States and elsewhere, many women are demanding a greater role in the church. And all across Latin America, the metropolis of Catholicism, newly elected left-leaning governments are putting social justice back at the top of the agenda.

Shortly, the College of Cardinals will announce a successor with a puff of white smoke. That man is unlikely to have John Paul II's charisma or strength of purpose -- few men do. Without John Paul II's great gifts, nonetheless, the new pope will have to decide whether to continue to resist these worldly trends -- or let the church flow in a new direction.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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