by John Gallagher
April 01, 2005
For anyone under 30, it's hard to imagine the Catholic Church as anything other than an ideological monolith -- intentionally insulated, closed to outsiders and incredibly hostile to gays and lesbians. After all, these are the folks who labeled us "morally disordered" and even "evil." And for that, we have John Paul II to thank.
More than any other pope in the modern age, he was a man of his time and place: the years of the Cold War and Eastern Europe. In such an environment, it's easy to develop hard and fast beliefs, especially when you have the institutional force of two millennia backing you up. It's not a coincidence that John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher all took their place on the world stage at the same time. The world was easy to portray in black-and-white terms (as it is again today) -- them against us, evil vs. good. (Guess which side you're supposed to be on.) And urging them on was the firm conviction that the liberal excesses of the '60s and '70s -- including gay liberation -- needed to be corrected or, more accurately, wrung out of the system as vigorously as possible.
But unlike Reagan and Thatcher, John Paul II had absolute authority. Even Ron and Maggie couldn't claim to speak for God (although in Thatcher's case you have to believe she was tempted to lobby for the Supreme Being role for herself). And the result of that absolute authority is a church that slammed shut the window of change that was opened during the Second Vatican Council. For a brief moment, it was possible to look at the church as a progressive force for good in the world. Thanks to John Paul II, that moment is gone.
And thanks to John Paul II, homosexuality has risen to the top of the list of modern evils. This elevation was due to his own experiences. As a young man, he lived through the Nazi occupation of Poland. As a bishop and then cardinal, he endured the repression of a communist regime. Once communism fell, something else had to take its place as the ideology of evil. With the rise of gay rights, we were the easy pick to fill the void.
It's not that John Paul II didn't take aim at other targets. There's always that hardy perennial -- abortion. But you have to admit that nothing seems to have spurred the Church and John Paul II on as much as homosexuality. Bishops who were considered weak on the topic, such as Bishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, were essentially laid off. Dignity, the gay Catholic group, was banned from holding services in local churches.
The pinnacle (or nadir) of the John Paul II papacy has to be the notorious Halloween letter, issued in 1986, which declared gays and lesbians "disordered," "self-indulgent" individuals who "threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people." So much for pastoral outreach. Even the pope's last major statement, his recent book, tore into homosexuality as an ideology of evil.
Don't expect the new pope to make any changes. Imagine a court packed with conservatives getting ready to select the next president. (OK, so you don't have to imagine it.) That is the operating definition of the College of Cardinals, which will choose the new pope. Since practically all were appointed by John Paul II, who enforced a pretty stringent litmus test for conservative ideology, it's hard to imagine them picking somebody from left field, so to speak.
One name being thrown around is Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the author of the Halloween letter. As pope, he would serve for what would be a limited time (he is 77, after all, so the odds are against a very long papacy) while the church sorts out its next move. If you don't think things could be worse, think of a Ratzinger papacy. He's the James Dobson of the Vatican, watching to make sure that no one strays an inch from the philosophical hard line. With him as pope, every day would be Halloween.