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The Pope’s Mixed Legacy

The foremost memory of John Paul II will be for his heart. When I conjure up an image of the pope, it is invariably in connection with some gesture of warmth and loving kindness to a child, to a widow, to the poor.

John Paul’s ministry was devoted principally to the suffering third-world countries and his dedication to those in pain made him justly famous, inspired our own goodness, and electrified the world. I confess, even as a non-Catholic, to a considerable sadness at his passing, attached as I am to the image of an elderly and gentle man, battling illness and weakness, continuing to shower affection on the suffering masses.

In this sense, the papacy of John Paul will forever be remembered as an outstanding success because his life and the symbol he came to represent established religion’s foremost premise: that leading a Godly life makes one into a Godly individual, that a life of faith transforms its practitioner into an exemplar of compassion. The exemplary love that the pope came to represent was in itself a healing of sorts for those who looked at the all-too-questionable history of the Catholic Church and wondered whether hypocrisy was at its core.

The pope brought a luster and a majesty to the Catholic Church seldom seen in a man of world religious stature and in this sense may even be considered Christendom’s greatest pope because of the long ministry of love that he practiced. For this reason, all who call themselves religious owe John Paul a debt of gratitude for the respectability he brought to all who believe in God.

But for all that, John Paul’s legacy will be mixed. He rose to the challenge of defeating communism early in his pontificate but failed considerably to condemn the terrorist threat at the end of his pontificate.

As the Solidarity movement in Poland began to pick up steam in the late seventies and early eighties, the world waited with apprehension for the inevitable Russian invasion to squash the boisterous pro-democracy movement. At that time John Paul II, still a very new pope, wrote a letter to the secretary of the Soviet Communist party saying that he would resign the papacy to join the front lines of Solidarity if Russian tanks entered his homeland. With that letter, he helped to save Poland and is justly commended for playing an integral role in the collapse of communism.

And yet, twenty years later, as George W. Bush prepared the world for an invasion of Iraq in order to rid that country of the world’s most brutal tyrant, who had already slaughtered and gassed more than a million of his own people, the pope saw it fit not only to oppose the war in Iraq, but to summon Tariq Azziz, Saddam’s diplomatic puppet, place his holy hands on Azziz’s head, and say, “God bless Iraq.”

That an American politician could have seen Saddam’s evil and scoffed at world censure in order to topple a barbarous dictator, while the world’s foremost religious authority was gripped by an inexplicable moral blindness, shall forever remain a stain on the legacy of an otherwise great man.

Two years later, the pope followed up this bizarre practice by offering draw-dropping comments on the occasion of the death of Yasir Arafat: “At this hour of sadness at the passing of President Yasir Arafat, His Holiness Pope John Paul is particularly close to the deceased’s family, the authorities and the Palestinian people. While entrusting his soul into the hands of the Almighty and Merciful God, the Holy Father prays to the Prince of Peace that the star of harmony will soon shine on the Holy Land.”

In a second statement, Joachim Navarro Valls said in the pope’s name that Arafat was “a leader of great charisma who loved his people and sought to lead them towards national independence. May God welcome in His mercy the soul of the illustrious deceased and give peace to the Holy Land.”

That the world’s foremost spiritual shepherd could describe himself as being close Arafat’s family, rather than the thousands of murdered men, women, and children who were Arafat’s victims, was an astonishing act of sacrilege. That the most influential religious figure alive could describe the death of a terrorist as “an hour of sadness” and call a mass murderer an “illustrious” soul was downright frightening. That the man Catholics regard as the Vicar of Christ on earth could have said of someone who stole billions from his impoverished and desperate nation that he “loved his people” is an affront to everything Jesus stood for.

Likewise, the pope chose not to use his considerable authority to condemn Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda network, and the many other terrorist organizations that have made a once-peaceful planet so dangerous to inhabit.

How can we understand such actions and such comments coming from a man who I do not question for a moment was devoted with all his heart to the human family? How could such a genuinely pious man have unwitting allied himself with such unspeakable evil? And how could a leader of such incredible love have shown such callous indifference to victims of torture and murder by blessing and praising their murderers?

The great failing of John Paul’s life was that he actually loved too much. Like a parent who cannot see the failings of a child, John Paul refused to accept that real evil lurks in the heart of men. John Paul II so loved God’s children that he could not see that there were those whose actions had erased the image of God from their own countenance and forever severed themselves from a compassionate Creator.

John Paul loved the innocent but he never hated the wicked. He loved justice, but he all too seldomly condemned injustice. He fought for the poor and the oppressed, but he would not fight their oppressors – the exception being Soviet oppressors. Declaring in word and deed that hatred of any sort was an ungodly emotion that dare not be given sanctuary in the human heart, John Paul II never summoned the faithful to have contempt for the wicked, instead extending them the considerable softness of his gentle touch.

The result of such misguided affection is that as the pope departs this world, loved and sincerely admired by the earth’s inhabitants, he leaves behind a planet where it is American soldiers, fighting and dying for democracy around the globe, who are doing more to create a Godly habitat on earth than even John Paul’s priests and pastors.

As a Jew, I shall forever remain indebted to John Paul for the respect and affection he extended to the Jewish people. The pope twice visited the Rome’s synagogue, diplomatically recognized the State of Israel, wrote movingly of the wonders of Judaism in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, visited the State of Israel, and met endlessly with Jewish leaders through the long years of his reign.

But as an American I shall remain saddened that as the world joined in a chorus of condemnation of the American people for removing the Taliban in Afghanistan and establishing a democracy in Iraq, the pope did not remind the nations of the world that the real enemy is not those who fight evil, but those who soil God’s green earth by drenching it in the blood of innocents.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is a nationally syndicated talk radio host and the author of several best-selling books. His newest book, Hating Women: America’s Hostile Campaign Against the Fairer Sex (ReganBooks/HarperCollins), is due out this week.

About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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