Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II

1 January 2014

About 40 years ago, I asked a distinguished and knowledgeable mathematician “Who invented the computer?” He looked at me and replied, “Many people, but if you want a name – Alan Turing.” Much the same answer can be given in answer to the question “Who is responsible for the overpopulation, poverty and hunger in sub-Saharan Africa, “Many people, but if you want a name – Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II.”

In 1960, the future Archbishop Wojtyla wrote a book about sex, marriage, and family planning called “Love and Responsibility”. It is described by his friend Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka as being like “an essay on the phenomenology of colour by a colour blind physiologist”.

How wonderful he was when dealing with communism, so knowledgeable, so widely connected with all involved, so sure-footed in all his actions, his friendship with Gorbachev, his fame and power in Poland, no one else could have done it so well, getting the world out of communism without conflict. No wonder he is popular.

Unfortunately, he also believed he was a great expert on sex. He believed he knew it all and that he was the world’s greatest authority on the subject, and he went on and on and on about it, especially about the damage done by contraception. This unshakeable belief was all about a subject he didn’t really understand – who does? – although he was undoubtedly loaded with a vast amount of information.

Pope Paul VI found talking about this subject embarrassing, Karol Wojtyla did not, quite the opposite, and he was a very forceful character not at all hesitant as many people thought Pope Paul to be. As against Cardinal Wojtyla, Pope Paul hadn’t a chance.

A Polish editor believed that 60% of Humanae Vitae came from Cardinal Wojtyla. Perhaps an exaggeration, but there’s something in it. (See John Cornwell’s The Pope in Winter p 43/44. Cornwell notes on page 46 that Wojtyla was in Rome in 1967 to receive his Cardinal’s hat and that he and Pope Paul “became ever closer”.) Of course, many other factors affected Pope Paul’s decision: his own natural conservatism, pressure from Cardinal Ottaviani and Bishop Colombo – the pope’s theologian – and also the group of ‘no change’ theologians who Ottaviani gathered together when all the prelates and theologians who had voted for a change had left thinking they had done their work. But, besides all this, it’s difficult to doubt that Cardinal Wojtyla with his utter certainty and forcefulness had a great effect.

This absolute certainty Pope John Paul II had about sex continued throughout his papacy. He thought it extremely important to get his views across and he spoke about it very frequently. Those attempting to provide family planning to the poor were astonished by the extraordinary reach and persistence of the Vatican’s opposition to all actions aimed at enabling poor women and couples in the less developed world to limit their childbearing to the number truly desired.

Non-Catholics who are concerned about relieving extreme poverty do not always pull their punches when criticising the Church’s views on the use of artificial contraception. Dieter Ehrhardt, a retired German civil servant and former UNFPA Representative, who helped to manage Germany’s efforts to provide family planning in developing countries, has just produced a book at his own expense called “The Family Planning Fiasco – How the Vatican subverted family planning in the developing world.” A retired USAID expert reviewed it and ended with “But in the less developed countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, the Vatican induced opposition to effective birth control practices still imposes excessive fertility, grinding poverty and killing fields unending.”

This criticism is from good men wanting to do good, wanting to ease the sufferings of the very poor. It is an important and widely held point of view and we need to take note of it.