The state of TIAH
August 26th, 2006
Alternate Historian's Note: Today's post is from Guest Historian Tom Oliver, whose format will break from our normal one, as you'll see below. Our thanks to Tom for giving us the day off, and if you would like to do the same, just email me.
Italian Cardinal Albino Luciani, 65, was elevated to the papacy as John Paul. Though in sickbed for weeks with a highly mysterious ailment, following just a month of being pope, he made a 'miraculous' recovery. Though perceived as an intellectual lightweight and 'out-of-his-league' by critics in his first month of his papacy, his brush with death (due to circumstances never fully explained) changed such perceptions. He was one of the longest-serving popes in modern history, dying at the ripe old age of 93, in 2006. He outlived the man he had mistakenly predicted would be pope some day, the conservative Pole, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla.
John Paul was a hugely popular pope with the masses; unpretentious, and a moderate in terms of theology. There was great consternation among conservative elements in the Church when the pope allowed for certain types and uses of contraception. The public cheered him for allowing the Italian police authorities access to information related to the Vatican Bank and its murky relations to the Banco Ambrosiano, data which led to the huge scandal that rocked the Italian government and financial elites for a decade (and led to the disgracing of a media magnate, Berlusconi, for his attempts to protect friends with biased reporting in all his media outlets.)
John Paul was far from popular with many conservative Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, such as President Ronald Reagan; the pope's improving of Church ties to the Soviet Union, and dismissal of many pro-US clergy, seemed to conservatives to be prolonging the Cold War and strengthening the USSR's diplomatic position on the global stage. When John Paul made a public pronouncement against the installation of US Pershing II missiles in West Europe, US and Vatican relations soured for decades (though the US is rumored to have stealthily installed them anyway). The Holy Father's stance towards the Russians was seen as lacking in moral clarity vis a vis which side in the Cold War was more committed to true human freedom – it was 'moral equivocationism', in the words of then Vice President George H.W. Bush, in 1983. The pope was given high marks by most Balkan experts across the political spectrum for his calming, 'non-partisan' pronouncements regarding the possible breakup of Yugoslavia after Marshal Tito's death in 1980 (a breakup which never occurred, ethnic aspirations being assuaged with strongly autonomous ethnic republics that remained within a loose federation.) However, John Paul was criticized for not speaking out against a robust yet ostensibly 'humanitarian' Soviet intervention in 1987 that prevented land-grabbing, 'score-settling', or population-removal attempts, albeit with a marked favoring of the Orthodox Serb (fellow Slav) brethren of the Russians. (This intervention continues to this day; the Russians accuse the US of arming Croatian, Bosnian Muslim, and Kosovo Albanian independence movements that wage armed struggle against the Soviet 'peacekeepers'.)
Though the dream of many neoconservatives, in the successive two-term Reagan, Bush, and Dole administrations, of regime change in Moscow has yet to be realized (as of 2006), most liberals dismiss any conservative carping about the significance of John Paul's "not standing up to the Communists". Many liberals either believe in the moral equivalency promulgated by John Paul, or at least the non-confrontational approach he took toward the Soviets, or feel that the political importance of the Vatican in the late-twentieth and early twenty-first centuries was highly exaggerated by the neocons.
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