John Paul II's election 30 years ago was an act of divine providence, says Garry O'Connor Thirty years ago, on October 16 1978, Karol Wojtyla, the unknown cardinal from a far country, was elected Pope. Three years ago, the death of John Paul H produced an extraordinary global outpouring of grief. The headlines that appeared at the time seem incredible now: "John Paul the Great" (The Mirror); "Safe in Heaven" (The Mail on Sunday); and "Catholicism hasn't been this chic since Bloody Mary burned Rowan Williams's first Protestant predecessor at the stake" (The Guardian).
But today John Paul's impact on the world and what he had to say during the 26 years of his papacy is in danger of being buried.
WojtyIa's pontificate overlapped with some of the most profound and momentous changes in history.
First, the 70-year-old Marxist empire crumbled. If John Paul wasn't a primary cause he had a profound influence on the process. His reasoned statement as to why Soviet Communism fell is important today: "In a sense Communism as a system fell by itself. It fell as a consequence of its own mistakes and abuses ... itfell by itself, because of its own inherent weakness" (his italics).
Second, the IT revolution had an incalculable and as yet undigested impact on the human mind and body. This has its positive side, but it has also led to an increasing enslavement to the dictates of the corporate capitalist world and produced a global sameness. It has removed from within man the inner god of conscience and the freedom which stems from recognition of truth. It has substituted what John Paul 11 called "a God outside of the world". This has made a God working through man "useless", Man is now "supposed to live by his reason along, as if God did not exist".
Third, there were scientific advances of all kinds that seemed to promise the fulfilment of Nietzschean dreams of the "superman".
Fourth, there was the untrammelled rise of runaway capitalism, the beginning of whose comeuppance is with us now.
John Paul II offered an all-embracing response to these four transformative revolutions. But today this is more and more forgotten or rubbished by liberal materialists and even in some cases by Catholic traditionalists.
John Paul's message was that man has a higher purpose, a different destiny. Key to this was his denunciation of western culture and capitalist evangelism as a "culture of death". For these fundamental changes in mankind's condition, that headline phrase, together with his unremitting attacks on the appetite of greed and selfish hedonism, are more apposite than ever.
John Paul warned us that "Godless evangelism, supported by the world's great financial resources... was striking [we should now say "has struckl at the very foundation of human morality to spread another form of totalitarianism under the appearance of democracy".
The outward symptoms of the present global crisis are that of what is euphemistically called a "banking crisis". This suggests somehow that it is nothing to do with how we think of as being human, just a technical slip-up, a miscalculation from which its perpetrators, the scapegoats (at the same time both evil and rewarded) are named and blamed.
But it is far more than that. and far more than in previous plagues or financial crashes, a direct symptom of a universal culture of death enshrouding the modem world. John Paul's 1995 encyclical Evangerium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life") challenged liberal democracy in the way it separated freedom from truth. In his last decade John Paul targeted abortion, euthanasia, contraception and embryonic stem-cell research with that rallying cry for those engaged in a battle for life.
But when the Pope employed this admittedly addictive and sensational phrase he did not have in mind directly murderous institutions in which social, educational, juridical and political norms had been destroyed by tyrant regimes. He had in mind the kind of vampire society which now dominates the western world. Remember. the driving force in a vampire's life is to maintain him or herself by sucking blood from others the society of the Marquis de Sade, where nature red in tooth and claw rules, and where "the selfish gene" and the survival and selfgratification of the fittest is the only creed.
Since John Paul's death, and considering the appropriate statistics, we have descended much further down that slippery slope of the vampire cult in our consensual belief that people are ends in themselves, and can be used as a means to an end.
A Radio 4 programme two weeks ago on the subject of abortion illustrated this trend better than any theory: never once did it divert from its consumerist attitude to supplying for the listener guides to the most painless, cost-effective (in terms of pain, discomfort, and money) and above all quick-fix ways of achieving the elimination of the unwanted foetus.
One participant, a young woman reluc tantly aborting, was asked to give advice to a novice: "Don't think about it. Consider it like `Wham, barn, thank you ma'am'," she said, using the derogatory phrase of unfeeling male sex. So much for the Pope's .brilliant Theology of the Body, or his wise reflections in his 1960 book Love and Responsibility. Never once was the question of morality or the sacredness of life raised. The animus of the programme, its thrust. was directed toward the usual utopian dream peddled by the media: how wonderful if abortion could be reduced to a procedure to the level of contraception. But as John Paul pointed out, more contraception leads to more abortion.
My point here is that the Radio 4 programme's consumerist approach was exactly identical to that of discussing and obtaining the best, most advantageous, most painless mortgage rates or profit The banking crisis is a materialist crisis, or rather a crisis of the materialist philosophy dominating the globe. As such it is the predictable culmination of John Paul's prophetic phrase "the culture of death".
And now we are on the edge of the abyss of self-destruction. Capitalism appears to be crumbling from its own internal contradictions, presided over by the increasingly wizened and defensive figure of President Bush with his halting, muddled words of socialist relief.
More important than ever is the message John Paul left behind. He urged us "to reject eclecticism. scientism, pragmatism and nihilism", all of which -deny the meaningfulness of being and consequently the truth as the indispensable ground of freedom".
Garry O'Connor 's Universal Father: A Life of Pope John Paul II is published by Bloomsbury in paperback