No factor in history is more important in saving or tarnishing a person's reputation than time. The longer an individual lives, the greater the chance of his or her making a name for themselves no matter how badly they got started or how poorly they trailed out towards the end. Just think of German Army officer Kurt Waldheim who helped commit war crimes in Greece during WWII, only later to become UN Secretary General, or Winston Churchill who survived his party switching, and disastrous Gallipoli campaign to become Britain's wartime PM. Only the really good ones, like Martin Luther King and Tony Crosland, die young, usually from foul causes. A long life usually provides some basis for saying something favorable about a world leader just because they have been around so long.
Then time gives historians all kinds of reasons for revising assessments of deceased leaders. Events may turn out to see them in a more favorable light than originally thought, and the opening of archives, both official and private, often provides a basis for seeing them in a different way - one which sometimes benefits the person in question. Jack Kennedy and Harry Truman have both benefited in this way. Of course, the more revisionary history there is, the more arguments, one way or another, can go on - what may promote everyone's reputation who participated in the process.
In few cases do all the factors come more readily to mind than in that of Polish Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II. A most surprising victor in a bitterly fought election after the surprising death of this predecessor, Pope John Paul I, to the Pontificate, he was almost cut down by an assassin's bullets before he had really gotten started, but, fortunately, he survived, and went on a make a name for himself as the world's leading evangelist, the faithful's staunchest pastor, and the poor's greatest protector.
By the time he was finished, he was seen, after the UN's Secretary General, as the world's leading politician, with heads of states recognizing him worldwide, and heads of governments constantly seeking audiences with him to gain approval for their policies, and legitimacy for their rule. All recent American Presidents sought audiences with him to boost their appeal with voters and fellow politicians, and Reagan even gave the Roman enclave diplomatic status in 1983. The Nordic states finally ended the Reformation by granting diplomatic relations with the Vatican during his tenure as Pontiff. Britain, that great bulwark against the so-called Anti-Christ, ultimately succumbed, with Queen Elizabeth even paying the Pope a visit.
Actually, this impression is quite removed from the much dirtier reality, as we have slowly learned. While Wojtyla was known for this piety, prose and poetry in first Nazi-occupied, and then in Soviet-occupied Poland - often prone to lapse into deep thought while involved in most mundane matters - he was a quick learner, and at no time was this better illustrated than when he became Pope. Not only did he prudently adopt the name of his fallen predecessor, but he also refused to support anything he had stood for.
During the previous half-century, the Curia had completely made peace with the financial and political interests which had dominated Benito Mussolini's fascist regime. The Curia itself was controlled by P2, a mysterious Masonic Lodge, which had converted the Vatican Bank - which was untaxed by the Italian government, thanks to its Concordat with El Duce - into a multi-national one which had all kinds of connections with Mafia and extreme right-wing interests worldwide for making illegal stock transactions and conducting similar money laundering.
P2's founder was Licio Gelli who had the closest political friendships with politicians like former Nazi Klaus Barbie, Nixon Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi, the Bushes, and Ronald Reagan. It constituted a "shadow government" for all kinds of Axis war-criminals who were seeking to save their skins, and their skimmings of Nazi loot from the fallout of WWII. By the time Wojtyla became Pope, Gelli was coordinating Operation Glaudio, its plan to roll back the Iron Curtain with a network of 15,000 agents and informants if a shooting war erupted with the Soviets.
The bank itself was run by American Bishop (and later) Archbishop Paul Marcinkus who relied heavily upon P2 members Michele Sindona and Roberto Calvi for arranging corrupt transactions with companies it owned, thanks to its vast war-profiteering under Pope Pius IX. It had been particularly successful in fleecing Serbs and Jews, an estimated 500,00 people, who had been rounded up by the Ustasha, the Croatian secret police, during WWII.
When Pope John Paul I aka Archbishop Alberto Luciani let the Curia's Cardinal Villot know that he planned to rid the Papacy of its bank, and of many of its Masons on September 28, 1978 - only 33 days after he had been elected to the Holy See - he was dead within six hours from a massive heart attack. The new Pope had immediately indicated that he planned something like this when he addressed the Vatican press corps thus: "We have no temporal goods to offer, no econimic interests to discuss."
While a house physican claimed that death was the result of myocardial infarction, no autopsy was ever performed - the Curia claiming falsely that there was no precedent for such a procedure - and no death certificate was ever issued. The Pope had been taking Effortil - a drug to correct low blood pressure - and conspiracy theorists, given the circumstances, seemed quite right in claiming that it was the result of an overdose. Villot had immediately called the papal morgue rather than any physician when he first heard about the Pope's incapacity. He added to suspicions by removing from the death scene without a trace all important evidence - the drug bottle, the Pope's last writings in his dead hands, and the vomit which was lying on his night clothes - which could help determine its cause.
"When Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, won election as Luciano's successor he received an immediate briefing on the radical plans of Pope John Paul I," Jonathan Vankin and John Whelan have concluded in their account of the real story of the Godfather, Part III in The 60 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time. "He implemented not a single one." (p. 118)
Instead the new Pope established an iron-grip on the Church, reminiscent of how communists ran the Soviet Union from the Kremlin, and his Polish compatriots from Warsaw. In canon law, he strengthened the hand of the Curia in determining doctrine, promotion, and recognition. John Paul II had little tolerance for debates and critics within the heirarchy about questions regarding social and economic questions, celibacy among the priesthood, and the place of women in the church. Priests were instructed to sign the "mandatum" which upheld the magisterium of the Pope in such matters. John Paul II even expected bishops in diocese throughout the world to oversee the hiring of teachers in all Catholic colleges and universities.
And, of course, the Pope would brook no compromise when it came to questions of contraception, homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia - policies which seem to fly in the face of the dire conditions confronting today's world. How anyone can maintain such stands with an overpopulated world being daily decimnated by AIDS, other diseases, and a lack of basic needs, and people who contract them dying slow, hopeless deaths is beyond me. In fact, the Pope's own death seems an ironic twist of the issues, with him finally succumbing despite all kinds of desperate measures - a tracheotomy to keep him breathing, food tubes through his nose and stomach to keep supplying nutrition, an electric shock which restarted his heart after he had suffered brain damage because of a stoppage, etc.
John Paul II did not simply lay down the law but saw to its implementation. "A consumate politician," Kenneth L Woodward wrote in this week's Newsweek, "he nonetheless forbade priests in Latin America from joining political movements and those in the United States from holding elective office." The Pope hated everything about Jesuit "liberation politics" among America's suppressed native peoples, and is well remembered for admonishing Father Ernesto Cardenal, the Sandinistas' Culture Minister, for practicing it in Nicaragua.
People may have forgotten, though, that the prohibition against priests holding elected office in America was directed specifically against Father Robert Drinan, S.J., former Dean of the Boston College Law School, and a Congressman from Massachusetts when Watergate broke. Drinan introduced the first impeachment petition into the House against Nixon on July 31, 1973, claiming rightly that he ordered the secret bombing of Cambodia, and engaged in various "high crimes and misdemeanors", especially the secret taping of Oval Office conversations, and ordering the illegal break-ins by E. Howard Hunt's Plumbers. Drinan, in sum, was one of the very few real statesmen at the time, as Jimmy Breslin in How the Good Guys Finally Won wrote, and the Pope was certainly not among them when he prevented Drinan from continuing.
And this too might have come back to haunt the Pope. By the time that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan gained office, John Paul II had largely outlived his usefulness. He had changed the character of the Church, set its new agenda, and started carrying it out, and there was no need for him to continue. Someone else could certainly carry on in his footsteps. The nearly-successful assassination of the just inaugurated Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr., on March 30, 1981 almost made that a necessity.
As I have already written in the Trowbridge Archive, the Reagan assassination was the result of a plot, one to get rid of President Carter if he threatened to get re-elected, especially through some kind of 'October Surprise', and the plan was scrubbed when it no longer seemed necessary. And when this assumption apparently proved unfounded, the plotters settled for shooting Beatle John Lennon instead because Hinckley was no longer available. The Lennon assassination reactivated Hinckley, though, because he was so distressed by it, but by then, he knew how he had been used and abused earlier, and turned on the man responsible, the President. It is a case of blowback without parallel.
Moreover, John Paul II had proven a big disappointment in stoking up the conflagation that charismatic Lech Walesa and his Solidarity trade union movement was creating in Poland's shipwards. The dramatic rise of food prices in the summer of 1980 caused such a wave of hidden discontent that the Kremlin feared that the Polish communist government in Warsaw would not survive unless it instituted a crackdown - what it consistently declined to do for fear of a bloodbath. On August 27th, the Pope, who Poles contended had burned his party card when he became Pontiff, persuaded Edward Gierek's government to agree to their demands for independent unions, and organizations of self-government - what seemed to strike at the heart of continued communist rule in Eastern Europe.
It turned out to be hardly anything at all. Polish Primate Stefan Wysyn´ski, who was the real Catholic leader behind the strikers, died, replaced by the much more conciliatory Cardinal Jóseph Glemp. Gierek was ultimately replaced by the much shrewder General Wojciech Jaruzelski who was finally willing to bite the bullet, and put down the dissidents by force. And all the while, the Pope, starting with his meeting in the Vatican on January 15th with Walesa, was stringing him along - to just sit tight, and let things work themselves out. Things did not work themselves out until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 when a Solidarity-led government finally came to power with the collapse of the communist one-party state.
It was just six weeks after the assassination attempt on Reagan that Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca fired two shots into the Pope's chest at close range in St. Peter's Square, one of which just missed his aorta, and the plot, and it was quite clearly one, seems to have been desinged to divert attention away from the While House, and the Papacy, given their brewing prolems. During the fallout from the attempt on the Pope's life, both Washington and John Paul II tried to hide from one another who they thought had really tried to kill him, why, and what they were doing about it. As soon as the Pope was truly fully recovered, Reagan paid a visit to the Vatican Library on June 7, 1982 during which they traded pleasantries and confidences about the ill-advised consequences of the Yalta agreement which confused everyone, and led nowhere. It seemed like just more stringing along which both leaders are noted for
Then Casey's CIA, Italy's SISMI, and agents of the Curia tried to prove that Ali Agca was not a lone assassin, and certainly not one connected to neofascist Turks but really one that Bulgarian intelligence had activated for the KGB. The Italian intelligence agency thought that it had nailed down the Moscow connection to the killing just six days after it occurred when it provided evidence from a Warsaw Pact meeting that the assassin had been trained by the Soviets. It, unfortunately, turned out to be a forgery.
Then two journalists with deep Agency connections, Claire Sterling and Paul Henze, wrote books which claimed that the neo-fascist Grey Wolves did it essentially as a favor for the Bulgarians. Then papal investigators tried to connect Agca with his alleged Bulgarian handler, Colonel Sergei Antonov, by walking him through what happened apparently during their meetings by using an identical apartment, except for one notable feature, in the same building.
Agca reminded one of James Earl Ray, MLK's alleged assassin, when he constantly changed his story, so much so that the Pope, like King's survivors, finally agreed to meet with their nemeses, acknowledging that they were not really responsible for what happened.
It all provided good cover for the collapse of Banco Ambrosiano, the largest private bank in Italy, when it was discovered to be missing $1,300,000,000 - what was finally traced to the Vatican Bank. It refused to allow any investigation of it, claiming successfully papal immunity, but it did agree to give creditors $241,000,000 in compensation for its "moral involvement" in its illegal deals - like supplying Solidarity with $12,000,000.
Calvi, whose life was depicted in the film God's Bankers, was jailed for four years, and fined £8,200,000 for the illegal export of money from the bank, and was found hanging from Blackfriar's Bridge in London on June 17, 1882 while out on appeal - what was orginally judged a suicide but was changed to murder at a second
inquest, caused by his survivors. Gelli received a 12-year sentence for the affair, and is currently living as an exile in America - at the retirement community of Sun City in Arizona. Sindona died in prison from a poisoned cup of coffee.
Given the rot surrounding Rome, it was hardly surprising that the Pope devoted his last years to travel, and reflection. His evangelical efforts, and supporting those of others - beatifying and canonizing more than all his predecessors combined - seem intended to compensate for the failings of his underlings, especially in the American child sex-abuse scandal - what Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law was obliged to cover up at great expense.
In the Pope's later writing, he pretty much scrapped his earlier ideas about the dignity of labor (1983) and the evangelization of its culture for keeping up with the G8 in such matters when he wrote his 1991 pastoral letter, "One Hundred Years", emphasizing the virtues of globalism and free markets in making an economically and socially more efficient capitalism.
Terry Eagleton, the cultural theorist at Manchester University, best summed up John Paul II for me when he wrote for The Guardian: "He was one of the greatest disasters for the Christian Church since Charles Darwin."