The media pontiff is losing his good press.

 It has been a while since any newspaper headline anointed John Paul II as the pope with the whole world in his hands. This amiable and athletic prelate retains his natural ability to transfix an audience. But two years after his startling election as history’s first Polish pope, there is a growing ambivalence about the former archbishop of Krakow.

It is no longer just the troublesome church gadflies like Hans Kung or Edward Schillebeeckx who sound alarms about the pope’s disheartening conservatism. Church moderates of all stripes also worry that this pontiff may have adopted a policy of irreversible reaction. They fear that the pope does not really believe in collegiality, that synods like the one 216 bishops were summoned to Rome to attend late last year are an idle exercise. John Paul II, many now feel, has inaugurated an imperial papacy.

A ghost hovered over the stark, modern Vatican hall where bishops from all over the world spent most of the month of October. It was not the Holy Ghost, but the ghost of Humanae Vitae never left the synod. This controversial encyclical bans “unnatural” birth control, and states that each and every marriage act must be open to the transmission of life. (Sex outside marriage does not officially exist for Roman Catholics.)

Many of the bishops arrived in Rome last fall with high hopes for reinterpreting this troublesome legacy of Paul VI. Many of them blame the rigid doctrine of Humanae Vitae for the dramatic erosion in church support since 1968. That was the year Pope Paul ignored the advice of two committees of bishops as well as the findings of his own special commission on birth control, and drafted the Humanae Vitae. Catholic church attendance in the West has been declining ever since.

The American bishops brought to Rome what many of them regarded as irrefutable evidence. While the Holy Father sat and listened. Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco presented his statistics. In the United States, 80 percent of Catholic women use contraceptives. Only 29 percent of American priests believe that contraception is intrinsically immoral. Just 13 percent of American priests would deny absolution to those who use artificial contraception. Cardinal Basil Hume, the archbishop of Westminster (head of the Catholic church in England) followed. Most Roman Catholics, he told his fellow bishops and the pope, “cannot accept the total prohibition of the use of artificial means of contraception.” It is not fair to say simply “that these persons have failed to overcome their human frailty and weakness. The problem is more complex than that.” These people, the British churchman concluded, “are often good, conscientious, and faithful sons and daughters of the church.” These statements created a widespread feeling of exhilaration. At last these long-held, long-suppressed views were getting aired.

The bishops were not asking for a complete repudiation of the Humanae Vitae. The 2,000-year-old church does not make such sweeping gestures. They simply were pointing out, as archbishop Quinn put it, “that Paul VI himself did not consider this the last word on the subject,” Let the church, Quinn urged, “put the encyclical in terms people can understand,” Twenty-one expert witnesses were called on to discuss family planning methods in keeping with what the bishops felt were church demands and the people’s needs.

The pope was unimpressed. Though the Humanae Vitae is not considered infallible church doctrine, and thus could be shaped to conform to changing times, John Paul II, when he stopped listening and addressed the bishops himself, showed he was personally unwilling to tamper with the traditional church dogma. “You could hear the door on change slam shut. Bang.” says one American priest who attended the synod.

All couples, the pope stressed, “are called to holiness in marriage.” The pontiff seemed to be proposing marriage as a heroic ideal. In fact, he compared marriage to the priesthood in its sanctity and said priests would not easily be released from their vows since the church holds husbands and wives to theirs. “As far as the pope is concerned,” says Father Vincent O’Keefe, a high- ranking Jesuit based in Rome, “the Humanae Vitae firm and fixed.”

The general of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arrupe, attempted to soften this harsh dogmatism. He suggested that a tendency toward an ideal, rather than its achievement, is all that should be expected of frail mortals. Father Arrupe quoted Pascal on Jesus, “You would not be seeking me if you had not already found me.” But the pope came down hard against this gradualist approach. He did not comment on the plight of the thousands of disenchanted Catholics, the “good, conscientious, and faithful,” referred to by Cardinal Hume, who cannot meet him on the mount, but who wish nonetheless to remain in the church. The church, John Paul II made clear, will not meet them halfway. Nor did the pope acknowledge any link between Humanae Vitae and the terrible poverty in those parts of Christendom where births are a matter left entirely to divine providence.

There appears to be an equally wide gulf between the pope’s views and the views of his Western bishops concerning the role of women. The American bishops had prepared a fairly forward-looking document on the status of women for the synod. While stopping short of women’s ordination, the American clergy accorded women equal status in all other areas. Not so the pope. Consistent with his East European heritage, John Paul II sees the woman exclusively as the heart of the hearth, nurturing and caring for her family. The professional woman is, to this pope, anathema—an absurd figure, “slavishly imitating” her male model, and rejecting her “specific vocation” as wife and mother.

Hans Küng recently challenged the pope on these views in an open letter printed in newspapers around the world. “Can we credibly stand up for women’s rights in modern society, “ Küng asks, “when in the Church women continue to be treated as subjects with inferior rights?” Küng is wrong here in ascribing to the pope any semblance of support for women’s rights before finding his feminism wanting. John Paul II simply does not believe that women should be “liberated” from their traditional roles. He feels this liberation is being forced on them and is having grave consequences. Among the most serious, in the pope’s view, is the alarming divorce rate, which he blames almost entirely on the women’s liberation movement. The pope’s view of women is highly colored by his strong feelings for the Virgin Mary and the special place she always has occupied in his theology.

The pope’s attitude toward women as not necessarily inferior to, but vastly different from, men was evident in his recent controversial remarks on adultery. These came during one of the pontiff’s Wednesday morning audiences, which lately he’s been using as a forum for his views on human sexuality. On this particular occasion, the pope warned men not to lust after their own wives. “Adultery in the heart is committed not only because a man looks in a certain way at a woman who is not his wife,” he pronounced, “but precisely because he is looking at a woman that way. Even if he were to look that way at his wife, he would be committing adultery.” The most sympathetic Vatican observers said these views emerged from the pope’s special regard for women, rooted in his Polish Catholicism. The pope, these observers maintain, was showing his tender concern for women, and his feeling that they must never be treated as mere possessions or sex objects, but as cherished individuals. Few observers could muster this much sympathy.

Nowhere does the pope treat the demands of frail flesh with less patience than on the subject of divorce. Officially, divorce is not a problem for the Roman Catholic church. It simply is not done. Until now, the Vatican’s way of dealing with irretrievably broken unions has been through the tortured route of annulments. In the last decade, these Vatican-sanctioned dispensations have increased 5,000 percent. John Paul II is about to change that. One of the pontiff’s closest advisers, the curial conservative Cardinal Pericle Felici—who, as head of the Apostolic Signatura, is sort of the chief justice of the Holy See—says this alarming leniency toward annulments “damages the family,” and will stop.

On the far broader issue of the fate of millions of Catholics who have divorced and remarried despite church dogma, the pope was equally unbending. Canadian cardinal Emmet Carter had urged the synod to study the orthodox church’s more tolerant method of readmitting the remarried to the sacraments. Several Scandinavian bishops echoed this plea for a more generous treatment of divorced Catholics. The pope, in response, said that the divorced may share in the life of the church “by praying, hearing the word . . . by promoting charity and justice.” But under only one condition may these Catholics be admitted to the sacraments—that is, participate as anything more than passive observers of church rituals: if “such a man and woman take on the duty of living in total continence, that is abstain from acts that are proper only to married couples, and when there is no scandal.” In other words, total chastity, a life as brother and sister, is the price of admission to the altar of the stern God whose earthly shepherd now sits on the throne of Saint Peter. The pope does not seem to recognize that, to most of his flock, a life of platonic harmony with another person is not the same thing as marriage.

“The Holy Father is not just repeating age-old church formulas,” says Father Vincent O’Keefe. “He’s voicing his own views as to what love and responsibility should be. He’s no rubber stamper.” How will bishops translate these astringent views on sex, sin, and the sacraments into practice, once back home? Well, that “will be tough,” Father O’Keefe admits. Many American clergymen will pay minimal attention to the pope’s highly retrograde views on women, divorce, and contraception. “We’re miles ahead of the pope on all of these issues,” one synod participant said.

That church liberals chafe under this pope’s reign is no surprise. But the wide middle is increasingly dissatisfied as well. The respected London-based international Catholic journal, the Tablet, in a recent editorial, claims that the pope’s acceptance of Humanae Vitae as “unquestionable, and yet as demonstrably unwork- able, leaves a gap between practice and doctrine which is agonizingly clear.”


FEW OF THE bishops who left the autumn synod did so with an élan like the one that carried them home after those exhilarating days of John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council. But members of the Curia, which administers the Vatican and is sheltered from the ferment in the minds and hearts of millions of Catholics, appeared satisfied. They have come into their own. Cardinal Felici, who has worked tirelessly since Vatican II to dilute its more potent effects, seems now to have carte blanche in doing so. When the synod fathers presented a battery of grim statistics about the third world’s unchecked population explosion. Cardinal Felici blandly declared that statistics mean nothing. The confusion that had overgrown church dogma and practice during the final years of Paul VI has evaporated. So has the spirit of Vatican II.

There is a new element of secrecy and even fear that comes out in conversations with church leaders. The pope ordered the bishops to keep secret the 43 propositions put forward at their synod on issues like birth control, marriage, and divorce. After Archbishop Quinn’s forthright statement that American priests face “grave personal problems” over the Humanae Vitae, many bishops wrote letters to the pope disavowing any connection to Quinn’s views, pledging their unflinching support of the pope’s stand. Quinn himself ended up apologizing to the pope and said he wished the whole subject would just go away. For the remainder of the synod, “the sting was taken out of Quinn,” one observer said.

During the recent US National Conference of Bishops, held in Washington, DC, Quinn went a step further in his self-repudiation. “Certain positions reaffirmed by the synod fathers,” Quinn told his fellow American bishops, “admittedly do not conform to the views and ideologies of some commentators and observers to the synod.” So much for the statistics, presented by Quinn himself, showing that 80 percent of American Catholics “do not conform to the views and ideologies” of the church ban on birth control. “But to assert that a representative body of the world’s bishops was forced into a given position or acted in sheer hypocrisy,” Quinn concluded, “is both uncivil and untrue.”

More and more American Roman Catholic clergy will be adopting a policy of benign neglect toward the Vatican. The pope’s teaching will be stated but, in most cases, not enforced. “Nothing will change,” one mid-western priest said. “For us it’s business as usual.” It’s a long way from Rome to Milwaukee.

Even those who continue to admire John Paul II admit he may have already lost a great deal of effectiveness. But they point to his deep faith and his reflective, philosophical bent. They take comfort in the fact that by papal standards he is still very new in office. And there is his other side. The pope has attacked the pursuit of profit for its own sake, the inhuman materialism of the consumer society, and the undue concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, at the expense of the many. And he retains an ability to turn a reserved crowd into a cheering chorus. Very few politicians share this gift.

But it’s too late for the motto roma locuta, causa finita. The bishops, priests, and the faithful can no longer be dealt with as so many appendages of the Vatican, It is too tender a moment in the church’s life for its leader not to listen to the painful stirrings of growth and change. The bishops who write letters disavowing any connection to the few who stand up and speak their minds do not necessarily serve the Holy Father’s best interests. Karol Wojtyla, a son of Poland, is too familiar with examples of central authority that spent itself by ignoring the sounds of discontent for too long.

Kari Marton writes from Europe for the Atlantic Monthly and other publications.