The death of Pope John Paul II has given rise to a deafening barrage from the world’s media and politicians, asking us to listen respectfully to the many tributes and to take part in the mourning for ‘the Holy Father’. They are telling us that this is a true World Event, and there’s no doubt that the media campaign has already made it one.
Why are the Catholic Church and the Papacy still so important to our rulers in the 21st century?
The Catholic Church is indeed a true power of this world. For nearly two thousand years its has been lined up with the Thrones, Powers, and Dominions which the early Christians warned against. At its origins, Christianity came from the poor and the exploited. The first Christians, influenced by radical sects like the Essenes and the Zealots, were in revolt against the dying Roman Empire and they wanted all things to be held in common. But the Catholic Church and the Papacy came to preside not over the new Heaven and new Earth which the first Christians had hoped for, but over a new society of exploitation – the feudal system. In the days of feudalism, no king or emperor in Europe could by-pass the Church of Rome or altogether control it. It was a political, military, economic and ideological bastion of the first order.
The bourgeoisie’s rebellion against feudalism was initially wrapped in the clothes of Protestantism, and after that the Catholic Church lost its monopoly in the ideological domination of society. Later the Protestant reformers were succeeded by secular and anti-clerical bourgeois radicals, as in the French revolution of 1789. But once the proletariat raised its ugly head and threatened the egalitarian idyll of capitalist exploitation, a significant part of the bourgeoisie returned to the comforts of religion. And although the bourgeoisie had effectively conquered the globe by the end of the 19th century, it never succeeded in developing the entire world in its progressive and democratic image. It left large parts of the world ‘underdeveloped’ and still ideologically attached to old religious illusions.
Today the capitalist system has been in decline for almost a century. And one of the proofs that we are in the last stages of this decline is the revival of religion as a key source of ideological intoxication. In the world’s mightiest country, ‘born-again’ Christianity has a real influence not only over large sectors of the population but even in the highest echelons of the Bush administration. In the Middle East, Asia and Africa, fundamentalist Islam poses as the only answer to the misery of the oppressed. In Israel, messianic religious parties have a major say in national politics. In Europe and America, the neo-pagan fantasies of the New Age have grown in strength. Many of these ideologies hold that we are living in the Last Days; and, in a sense, they are right. Their own renaissance is an expression of the profound irrationality and hopelessness of a decomposing social order.
The role of the Catholic Church in all this should not be forgotten. There are a billion Catholics world wide and the Church of Rome still wields enormous influence in the ‘less developed’ regions: Africa, Asia, and especially Latin America. It remains a major force of social control. This control is partly exerted through the overtly reactionary doctrines which were reinforced under John Paul II’s reign, such as the Vatican’s position on contraception, which particularly since the advent of AIDS has brought about a veritable slaughter of the innocents all around the world. But the Church serves capital no less faithfully when it acts as a false opposition to the status quo. Thus John Paul II himself is being presented as the voice of all the impoverished victims of ‘excessive’ capitalism, while radical clerics like the ‘Liberation Theologians’ of Latin America work side by side with the left parties and the trade unions to divert the potential for mass revolt into the dead-ends of democracy and nationalism.
And even in Europe, the Catholic Church still has an important place in the sordid operations of the capitalist system. During the 1930s and the Second World War, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were in cahoots with the Catholic hierarchy, which gave tacit assent to the Holocaust. To this day, the Papacy refuses to acknowledge its full role in these crimes.
During the Cold War period, the Vatican became an important player in the struggle of the western bloc against Atheistic Communism (in fact, the Stalinist form of capitalism) in the east. And John Paul II, as a Pole, was uniquely placed to act as an envoy of western imperialism towards the eastern bloc. In his obituaries, he is being fêted as “the Pope who changed the world”, “the Pope who defeated Communism”. He certainly played an indispensable role in defeating the mass strikes of the Polish workers at the beginning of the ‘80s, giving his full backing to the Solidarnosc union which undermined the class movement with its religious, nationalist and democratic sermons.
Since the old bloc system broke down at the end of the ‘80s, the Papacy has returned to its more traditional imperialist alignments with the powers of Old Europe. It is this, rather than some deep devotion to the cause of humanity, which lies behind the late Pope’s critical stance on the Iraq war.
Thus we as communists will not be joining in the glorification of this or any other Pope, and we look forward to the day when the power of the churches and religions will at last be overcome. For just as you can only become King by exploiting the peasants, you can only become Pope by selling your soul to the powers that be.