Papal reflections

Published : Mar 25, 2005 00:00 IST

Memory and Identity: Conversations Between Millenniums (in Italian) by John Paul II; Rizzoli, Rome, 2005; pages 226, $15.62.

THE book was officially launched in the interval between the Pope's two visits to a Rome hospital in February. At the time of writing, he is convalescing after a tracheotomy required to relieve him of breathing difficulties. For the first time in his pontificate he was unable to deliver his traditional Sunday Angelus blessing in the Vatican. He delegated an aide to perform it. The illness has sparked renewed media speculation about John Paul II's capacity to continue in office and about his successor.

It is the Pope's fifth book since Crossing the Threshold of Hope was published a decade ago. Memory and Identity is based on his reflections on the ideological conflicts of the 20th century - "the ideology of evil", freedom and its limits, nations and nationalisms, the dangers of democracy, Europe, and the relations between Church and state.

John Paul II is perturbed by the nihilism of Western civilisation and points to the inadequacies of parliamentary democracies. According to him, democracy risks becoming an instrument for undermining the "law of God". He writes: "We have to question the legal regulations that have been decided in Parliaments of present-day democracies. The most direct association which comes to mind is the abortion laws. Parliaments which create and promulgate such laws must be aware that they are transgressing their powers and remain in open conflict with the law of God and the law of nature."

The Pope illustrates his argument further by citing the catastrophe of the Holocaust. "It was a legally elected Parliament which allowed for the election of Hitler in the 1930s." The German Parliament gave Hitler the powers that paved the way for the conquest of Europe, the creation of concentration camps and the initiating of the so-called "final solution" of the Jewish question, which resulted in the extermination of countless "sons and daughters of Israel".

Elsewhere in the book, the Pope points an accusing finger at the European Parliament over attempts to endorse marriage between homosexual persons. He writes: "It is legitimate and necessary to ask oneself if this is not perhaps part of a new ideology of evil, perhaps more insidious and hidden, which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man."

The strong words targeting parliamentary democracy provoked instant controversy, particularly on the lines that the Pope was comparing abortion to the Holocaust. The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Paul Spiegel, told the German daily Netzeitung: "The Catholic Church does not understand or does not want to understand that there is a tremendous difference between factory-like genocide and what women do with their bodies."

At the book's launch in Rome, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, known to be close to the Pope and an upholder of the Church's conservative line, denied that the Pope equated abortion with the Holocaust. The German Cardinal said that the Pope was, in fact, "calling our attention to the permanent temptations for humanity and on the need to take care not to fall into the pitfalls of evil".

Memory and Identity is published by the Italian publishing house Rizzoli, which announced that it will bring out 14 editions of the book in 11 languages over the next few months. As many as 330,000 copies of the first edition, available only in Italian, is ready. It is based on conversations John Paul II had with two Polish friends, the philosophers Krystof Michalsky and the late Jozef Tishcner, in 1993 at the Papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. "All this is the opening of the Pope's heart," said the Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls, at the official launch. "Someone taped them and transcribed them, but it remained unpublished until now."

In contrast to his sharp critique of Western society, the Pope appears to take a more benign view of the areas that once formed part of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe. According to him, the major threat to Central and Eastern Europe comes from the unquestioning acceptance of the nihilism that is widespread in the Western world. Human values in Eastern Europe are less devalued than in the West. He finds that in the countries of the ex-Soviet bloc the conviction is still alive that God remains the highest guarantee of human dignity.

The dominant trends in contemporary Western society, says Memory and Identity, are determined by the advancing forces of "anti-evangelisation", which propagate the idea of living as if there is no God. These ideas fuel the spread of permissiveness and phenomena such as free love, divorce and abortion. The hold of such ideas has reached the extent of being able to draw ever-growing support for causes such as euthanasia and genetic manipulation. John Paul II ascribes responsibility for this state of affairs to powerful economic forces that seek to impose their philosophy even on the countries of the developing world.

In his meditations on evil, the Pope, Karol Wojtyla, who grew up in Poland in the shadows of Nazism and Communism, examines the damaging effects of these ideologies in the 20th century. Besides the extermination of Jews, he mentions the liquidation of political opponents of the regime in Poland after the Second World War and the killing of Catholic and Orthodox clerics in Russia and of peasants in Ukraine. His reflections lead him to the conclusion that "the ideologies of evil are deeply rooted in the history of European philosophical thought".

Tracing the origins of this orientation, John Paul II singles out the Cartesian revolution, with its concept of "I think, therefore I am", as the key moment in the history of philosophy in establishing the centrality of the "Ego", while relegating "Being" to a secondary place. Thus, the Pope argues, if man can decide by himself - "without God" - as to who is good or evil, then he can also decide to do away with a group of human beings, as testified by the history of mass murder.

The philosophical arguments here, however, beg the question on the historical role of the Vatican in the rise of Nazism. Under pressure from the Vatican, the German Catholic Centre Party did not unite with the Social Democrats and the Communists to oppose Hitler. Instead it provided the necessary parliamentary backing for the Enabling Act (1933), which gave Hitler the right to rule by decree. An agreement - the Concordat - was signed between the Vatican and Hitler in July 1933. The subsequent legal institution of complete dictatorship was facilitated through meetings between the Nazi leadership and the Vatican.

The critique of individualism and liberalism in Memory and Identity is a well-known theme with John Paul II. During the 26 years of his pontificate, he has frequently pronounced on the failings of the liberal state, accusing it of permissiveness and moral relativism. Quoting from the Gospels, he has strongly condemned the excesses of capitalism and has denounced the abuses generated by neo-liberal economic ideas.

PERSONIFYING major contradictions, John Paul II is a charismatic figure and the first Pope to have travelled widely. Modern communications have helped transmit to distant parts of the Church images of an old man clearly in bad health but discharging his onerous responsibilities thereby securing the admiration, love and respect of an immense number of people even in the non-Catholic world.

It is pertinent to recall that this Pope has asked pardon for the past conduct of the Church during the Crusades and the Inquisition, and for the more recent anti-Semitic and racist excesses of its adherents, including for events in China under foreign imperialism.

He presides over the Church, however, at a time when practising Catholics are dwindling in Europe. It is estimated that Christians in Europe are around 73 per cent of the population, and steadily declining in percentage. The Church faces major problems regarding the number of active priests.

In the last two decades, the number of active priests and nuns in Europe has reduced by half. In this context, John Paul II's conservative views on ethical questions, particularly on issues such as contraception, abortion and divorce, are considered to have caused a serious crisis of credibility for the Catholic Church. As a reaction, liberal Catholic groups such as Catholics For Free Choice in the United States have been challenging the Vatican's position on global cultural issues.

Noted U.S. biblical scholar and historian Thomas Cahill opines that the history of the papacy is largely a political history rather than a history of religious leaders. "John Paul II is probably the most important political figure in the second half of the 20th century. Instead, in religious terms his attitude is conservative," Cahill told Italian Radio. Cahill is the author of a biography of Pope John XXIII, the progressive Pope who convened the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), a momentous attempt by the Church to open up to the modern world.

The pontificate of John Paul II represents a reversal of the process initiated by the Second Vatican Council, that is, it marks a return to doctrinal orthodoxy and a conservative line on ethical issues. "The Church always has need for reform, otherwise it becomes a mere institution. An area in which the Church has failed is in achieving unity with other Christian Churches," Cahill said.

According to him, John Paul II, as the head of the Catholic Church, is responsible for two major mistakes. The first regards the repression of liberation theology, which originated in Latin America, and spread to India, the Philippines, South Korea and Africa. Liberation theology laid stress on the social dimensions of the Gospel message and called for a commitment to the liberation of the poor. "From an international point of view and in the world of theology, John Paul II's first error was his refusal of liberation theology, which had elements of Marxism. His second major mistake has been in the area of sexuality. He cut out the laity from the Church in the discussion on sexuality. The laity is much more concerned about sexuality than the clergy and could bring much more experience into finding solutions to these problems," said Cahill.

Memory and Identity closes with the most personal section of the book, wherein the Pope recollects events after he was shot at St. Peter's Square in May 1981 by the Turkish gunman Mehmet Ali Agca.

It is the first time that he has written about the attempt on his life, and he describes his feelings and the pain in the moments after being shot. He speaks of forgiving Agca immediately after the assassination attempt, as he was being taken to the hospital. Finally, he describes vividly his meeting later with his would-be assassin.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment