Pope John Paul II contributed to the collapse of the Soviet system and pressed home spiritual values in a world he saw in steep moral decline. Papa Wojtyla castigated Reaganomics and That cherism even as the Berlin Wall fell. He followed John XXIII in extending the hand of friendship to the Jewish faith. When he died, in April 2005, John Paul bequeathed the more-than-billion-strong Catholic Church (16 percent of the population of the plant) to a 78-year-old German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger.
Both men survived the Second World War, in strikingly different circumstances. Wojtyla was a slave worker in a Polish quarry. He directed and acted in anti-fascist plays in an underground theatre and attended a secret seminary. He helped Jewish refugees. Ratzinger was a member, albeit reluctandy, of the Hitler Youth, and served as an anti-aircraft gunner in the Wehrmacht, whiling away periods of inaction by reading Goethe and Schiller. He would look back nostalgically, as if through a mist of incense, on the rich Catholic liturgy and ornate vestments of churches in his Bavarian homeland.
He would never see the Third Reich as a German phenomenon. Preaching at Auschwitz many years later, he said he had come there as a son of "that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises ... with the result that our people could be used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power". In the 1950s he became a seminary student and rose, via academic theology, to the top Vatican job of protecting doctrinal orthodoxy. Finally, he was elected Pope Benedict XIV after a conclave of only two days.
Had John Paul II been alive today, as the global financial crisis unfolds, observers would praise him for his unique moral guidance. Benedict XVI, however, is embroiled in a squalid quarrel that has compromised his moral authority. On 24 January 2009, he rescinded the excommunication, imposed by John Paul II in June 1988, on four dissident Catholic bishops, one of whom is a blatant Holocaust denier. The men are members of a breakaway Catholic group known as the Society of Saint Pius X. They were illicitly raised to their bishoprics by the society's founder, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, also excommunicated in 1988.
The leader of the four is one Bernard Fellay, who has been negotiating reconciliation with Benedict for several years. Another, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, has in the past, …