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Richard Cohen

The Whole Picture on John Paul II

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page A23

Television is a silly medium. Just pay close attention next time the government announces that housing starts are down. TV news programs will show houses being built because, obviously, you cannot film what is not happening. This explains the disproportionate way Pope John Paul II's death was reported on television. There's nothing but good film on the man. The human consequences of his policies are largely missing. They are always off-camera.

I intend no harsh assessment of the late pope since, above all, I admired and respected him. He was that abstraction very close to my heart -- a political (not cultural) liberal -- who hated communism and disliked rapacious capitalism and confronted authoritarian regimes wherever he found them. He cherished human life and for that reason opposed the death penalty as well as abortion -- a moral lesson to our own president. On the war in Iraq, he was indistinguishable from many liberals here. He simply opposed it. He indirectly confronted the church's lamentable record on anti-Semitism by recognizing Israel and making innumerable statements of understanding and commiseration -- the easy stuff, I think. Still, it was something.

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But it does John Paul II neither justice nor respect to treat him as nothing but a celebrity. He was that, of course, and he cultivated the image because he was, at heart, an evangelical. But he was also the author of 14 encyclicals and numerous rulings whose net effect was to make the church stubbornly conservative on issues that matter to us all. I am not referring now to his adamant opposition to the ordination of women or married men or even his ban, reiterated in his last encyclical, on divorced Catholics receiving Communion. These are matters for Catholics to decide among themselves.

There are other areas, though, where John Paul II's teachings affected non-Catholics. I am referring now to his implacable opposition to birth control -- not just abortion, mind you, but the mere use of condoms. In January, for instance, a spokesman for Spain's Catholic bishops, Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, said in Madrid that "the time has come for a joint strategy in the prevention of such a tragic pandemic as AIDS, and contraception has a place" in that fight. The next day the church said the spokesman had misspoken. "It is impossible to advise the use of condoms," the bishops said in a statement.

This was no aberration. It is church policy and it has its biggest impact precisely where the church is strongest, Latin America and other parts of the Third World. Elsewhere, particularly in Europe, Catholics have largely ignored the pope. Italy, almost entirely Catholic but entirely Italian, has the lowest birth rate on the continent. It is the underdeveloped world where birth control is most needed. It is there, where medical services are the most meager, that the AIDS pandemic poses its greatest threat and where condom use is the cheapest and most effective preventative measure. The pope counseled abstinence, a wholly unrealistic piece of advice. It works until it doesn't.

The cult of the pope which John Paul II nurtured was useful. It made him an enormous force for good in the world, but it also obscured his obdurate doctrinal conservatism and his intolerance of dissent. (He silenced his critics, not always by the force of his argument but sometimes simply by fiat.) He serves to remind that faith -- the quality most of us lack and which we therefore admire most in others -- can be a form of blindness. As the driving force behind the pope's willingness to duke it out with communism, it did wonders for us all. On the other hand, a faith-based inability to distinguish between the taking of life and the prevention of a pregnancy -- or the spread of AIDS -- is not something to be admired or, to my mind, understood.

John Paul II was that rare occurrence, the authentically charismatic figure. He was keenly aware of the power of the media and in this sense he was the first truly modern pope. But the spotlight he kept trained on himself left the human consequences of his policies in the dark. They include, above all, the poor and the ignorant whom he no doubt loved, but not in a way that gave them truly effective control over procreation or protection from AIDS. He was a celebrity, for sure, and a wonderful man, certainly, but he had an impact on the world we all live in beyond what we could see on television -- much of it good but some of it, regrettably, bad. It is the whole picture.


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