"The Pontiff in Winter" is eighty percent hagiography. It glosses over Pope John Paul's culpability for 20 million AIDS deaths, citing his opposition to disease-preventing condoms in one place and the statistical consequences of that policy elsewhere, but leaving it to the reader to make the connection. But Cornwall does quote the UN Secretary General's assertion that the current Roman Catholic theology is one that favors death rather than life.
On the issue of Karol Wojtyla's much-touted ventures into ecumenism, Cornwall leaves no doubt that the only ecumenism the pope was willing to consider was the other side's unconditional surrender. To Wojtyla, all non-Catholics were in a "gravely deficient situation," and Lutherans and other Protestants were "not Churches in the proper sense."
To the Vatican hierarchs currently dominating (some might say enslaving) the world's half-billion Catholics, right and wrong are whatever the hierarchs say they are. When four bishops denounced the archbishop of Vienna for his child molesting, a bishop from the Wojtyla faction told a TV station that the four would "roast in Hell." When Boston's cardinal Law covered up the crimes of pedophile priests, the pope initially ordered him not to resign, and later appointed him to an influential sinecure in Rome. And Wojtyla personally suppressed reports that priests in 29 African countries were infecting nuns with AIDS, and had impregnated more than thirty of them.
Previous carefully censored media reports of the "third secret" prophecy by the surviving perpetrator of the Fatima hoax were consistent with the alleged prophecy being newly composed for political purposes. Cornwall's printing of the entire prophecy supports the interpretation that it really was composed in 1944, since it was so far removed from reality that even National Inquirer would have been reluctant to claim so many mistakes by a "psychic" as a hit. As Gary Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books, "Either the Virgin's crystal ball was clouded in 1917, or Lucia's imagination was overstimulated in 1944."
As a virtual insider, with almost unrestricted access to the Vatican hierarchy, Cornwall was able to see for himself that, for at least the last five years of his papacy, John Paul II was less than compos mentis. After Wojtyla met with the archbishop of Canterbury and other Anglican dignitaries, he asked an aide, "Tell me, who were those people?" Cornwall concludes that, "John Paul was at best only partly in control, either of his own mind or the decisions of his close associates."
Despite practising-Catholic Cornwall's attempt to write a charitable and balanced account of John Paul's pontificate, it is difficult for anyone to read this book with his brain in gear and fail to conclude that, as long as tyrannical popes are able to appoint the oligarchs who will choose their successors, the Roman Catholic Church is going to remain the most oppressive, totalitarian religious tyranny on earth, with the Scientologists and Moonies not even close contenders.
A well-written book, which can be appreciated and understood by
Catholics and non-Catholics alike. (For those who seem to think
that the only criticism of the late Pope comes from those who
don't understand the Catholic Church, let me state here that I
am a practising, progressive Catholic).
There were no great surprises for me - I've long been concerned
at the high-handedness of Pope John Paul and the Vatican Curia;
this book confirmed my opinions while supplying a lot of
background information explaining, as far as anyone can, how
and why John Paul acted as he did.
Probably the most appalling aspects of John Paul's pontificate -
to a liberal thinker - were the hypocrisy of encouraging
rebellion against left-wing regimes while clamping down on
any protest against right-wing rulers; and the encouragement
of tale-telling and denunciation of anyone who might even
vaguely be suspected of harboring opinions not in full accord
with the pope's own views - a mindset worthy of both the Nazi
and Communist regimes under which he himself had suffered.
Cornwell details many such instances of Vatican repression.
There is another major act of hypocrisy - the branding of
homosexuality as "intrinsically evil", and the refusal of
needed pastoral care for religious homosexuals at the same time
that the Vatican has done its best to put the issue of priestly
paedophiles to one side, and has to this day failed to issue
either a free-ranging enquiry or to apologise to the victims.
Both issues are explored in the book, although it could be
argued they deserve a book of their own.
I suspect that the full extent of the damage done to the Church
by John Paul II won't be fully realised until the Pontificate
after the current one, when the only choices for a new Pontiff
will have to be made from the ranks of those ultra-conservatives
appointed as Bishops under the late Pope, and the Church will
find itself hopelessly outdated and irrelevant. Cornwell sees
clearly the already huge divide between the Vatican hierarchy
and the Church on the ground, and it's unlikely that the
division will be healed by Benedict XVI or his successor. Far
more likely is the scenario that under a succession of arch-
conservatives, engineered by John Paul, the imortance of the
Catholic Church will be increasingly diminished in a world that
is changing faster than anyone could have envisaged at the
start of John Paul's reign.
This is a valuable book, honest and forthright - if anything,
it is kinder than it might have been.