So John Paul II is dying. May he rest in peace.
This pope was not someone I felt warmth toward. He denied the humanity of my core identities; I'm a woman and a lesbian. So I am not an admirer.
But actually, what dug the guy into a hole in my esteem (as if anyone cared) was his choice not to allow Catholic social teachings about the dignity of work and the blessedness of those marginalized by society to lead the Church along the path of liberation. In the 1970s, Latin American theologians began to sketch out what a Christian "preferential option for the poor" might mean in countries where the rich routinely treated the poor as sub-human. Most famously, the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza is recorded as having pronounced, upon being introduced to a Costa Rican educational and literacy program: "I want oxen, not men in my country".
John Paul II was confronted with a choice in Latin America: would he continue the practice of the Roman Catholic hierarchy of ministering to the needs of the rulers and absolving the suppression of the poor or would he throw the weight of the church behind economic and political justice? He chose the former.
The signal moment was his visit to Nicaragua in 1985, when he responded to crowds of faithful Catholics who had learned to speak for themselves through the Sandinista revolution, with an imperious "Be Silent!"
The moment was dramatic:
At six o'clock on the evening of March 4, just as the heat of the tropical sun was beginning to wane, the white-robed pope stood on a high platform before 700,000 people in Managua's vast July 19 Plaza, and read in strong, measured tones from a prepared text about Church unity. But less than halfway into his homily, shouts began to drown out polite, approving applause and finally the pope himself. The slogans quickly went from the ecclesiastical to the political: "We want a Church that stands with the poor!" "We want peace!" "Between Christianity and the revolution there is no contradiction!" And finally: "Power to the people!" An angry John Paul II three times yelled: "Silencio!"
This kind of unruly popular self-assertion was simply not something the Papal institution could allow.
A sympathetic and nuanced commentator, Roberto Suro who covered the pope for Time and the New York Times in the 1990s, describes what followed:
This set in motion a very deliberate strategy to crush liberation theology that was carried out over the course of about the next five years through a series of--looking back, you can see now--a series of very clear steps. One of the chief theologians, Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan monk from Brazil, was called to Rome for questioning in the same way that Galileo was questioned during the Inquisition--in fact, in the same building that Galileo was imprisoned in.
You had groups of bishops hauled to Rome for lecturing. And a very deliberate strategy of naming conservative, in some cases extremely conservative (politically speaking), bishops throughout the continent. …
And after that there was no further discussion of the possibility of the Catholic Church as a vehicle for real social change in Latin America.
Suro argues that the Polish experience, in which the Catholic Church survived for centuries as the repository of national Polish identity, despite invasions, changes of rulers, and even Soviet Communism, gave John Paul II a bedrock belief that the institution was to be preserved at all costs, without bending to particular social conditions and winds of the Spirit that might arise from them. And so a man committed to some quite radical social teaching, a man who often spoke up for the poor and against war, yet threw down in the end for the oppressive powers that be.
Suro quotes a Peruvian priest observing the pope speaking to an adoring audience of Incas in the mountains: "All I know is, it's not going to help them eat."