John Paul II - the Pope Who Made Himself a Commodity - is Dead

Translated from Battaglia Comunista 4 - April 2005


We are printing here a translation from Battaglia Comunista, monthly paper of our comrades in Italy. The translation has tried to convey the sense of irony that is brilliantly illuminated in the original but inevitably some of the puns and comments are difficult to render in a foreign language. We can afford the sense of irony because the fate of the Catholic Church is not of any interest for communists. Now that Joseph Ratzinger has been elected Pope Benedict XVI the continuity with the past is assured. Ratzinger was not just the old Pope's closest adviser for more than twenty years. He was also one of only two Cardinals out of 117 in the Sistine chapel conclave which elected the new Pope who had not been appointed by John Paul II (and thus also by himself!).

Much has been made of the time Ratzinger spent in the Hitler Youth but this is irrelevant compared with the Catholic Church's shameful collaboration with Nazism. Pope Pius XII was known as "Hitler's Pope" for a good reason. He never once issued a statement against the crimes of the Nazis and reserved his first condemnation of war crimes for... the Allied bombing of Rome in 1943. True it was war crime, but when we also consider that a Catholic priest ran the Nazi puppet state of Slovakia gleefully delivering up Slovakia's Jews to Auschwitz we can see that the nurturing of anti-Semitism for a couple of millennia wasn't the only task carried out by the Church in Europe.

As it is Ratzinger won't be any more reactionary than his predecessor since between them they have already set out the agenda. Ratzinger ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, better known as the Inquisition which was revived by John Paul II. Between them they ensured that Catholic priests who supported "liberation theology" were denounced as Marxists and all their opponents were silenced. John Paul II had already done his bit for US imperialism in its struggle with Stalinist imperialism in channelling money to Solidarity in Poland but he delivered more after his election to the Papacy. When Archbishop Oscar Romero criticised the pro-US "death squads" (the army in a different guise) in El Salvador in 1981, he was publicly told by the Pope that his criticisms were "unbalanced". A few weeks later he was shot dead in his own cathedral. Strangely coincidental but the Pope had just given an audience to the leaders of the Arena political party which controlled the death squads. But then, as they tell us, the Pope was a man of peace.

For communists people's individual beliefs are a matter of conscience. Religion is, as Marx noted, the "sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. " Religion constructs illusions to compensate for the unhappiness in this world. Communists demand that people abandon their illusions but recognise that this can only occur when the conditions of life in the world, conditions, which require these illusions to make life bearable, are changed. Of course, we recognise that organised religion opposes any attempt to get rid of present society on which it has grown so fat, and those who want to construct a better world will have to expose religious ideology as superstitious nonsense. However, in truly communist society religion will become archaic, a curiosity from the past, but this won't happen overnight and it won't come through any form of oppression.

The Church is not a neutral actor in the world. It is itself one of the greatest property holders in the world and it has been an instrument of imperialist foreign policy. We can be sure that, as Marx famously observed about the Church of England, all churches will fight much harder to defend every single article of their property rather than any articles of their creed...

John Paul II - the Pope Who Made Himself a Commodity - is Dead

As soon as it was announced that the condition of the Pope's health had irreversibly worsened a media frenzy took over. The event was transformed into a spectacle worthy of Barnum and Bailey's Circus, as if nothing like it had ever happened before. Whilst he was still alive radio, television and newspaper front pages began his funeral oration and a river of rhetoric, full of banalities and commonplace clichés were poured out on believers and non-believers alike, with the aim of celebrating this greatest of men, his uniqueness and his teachings. However, it was a journalist who, for fear that the spectacle would end differently by departing from the script he had already written, could not disguise his own disappointment at the delay in the arrival of death, and overreached himself by asking an unfortunate doctor how was it possible that the Pope could have survived so long! Once it was certain that death was near, the commemorative tide knew no bounds. His illness, already paraded with some ostentation for some time, assumed something like the function of the salvation of the crucifixion, and the man who was suffering was like Christ on the cross, notwithstanding the fact that he was medically treated until the last in a way which only the privileged few in our society can be!

Then the last breath so long awaited by the media enriched the scene. His corpse, which in the blink of an eye had become a holy relic, being that of a hero without blemish and without fear, a paladin of freedom, of peace, of social justice, the enemy of oppression, father of all, in short a saint and as such exposed to the adoration of the faithful swarming in from all over the place for the last goodbye. Rome, like Mecca, except that it is a Christian and therefore a superior civilisation as that other Lord's anointed, our Silvio (1), rashly stated a little while ago!

Until now death has been a special commodity, exhibited as little as possible, and always with a bit of tact. It was no more than the accompaniment to grieving, the incurable sense of loss, the anguish provoked by it, the reminder of the transitory nature of this life. Even the gravedigger, who makes a living out of it, is looked upon with a kind of hidden disgust though no-one can escape the need for his trade.

But for Wojtila (2) none of this would have made any sense. No-one before him had understood better how much the transmission of the dominant ideology was intimately connected with the mechanisms of production and consumption of commodities and, how religion could not only not escape from that fact but how it could become one itself. In due course Wojtila had even turned himself into a commodity, its fetish and its high priest... a commodity of the media but commodity nonetheless. And what a commodity! It is a commodity soaked with all those "immaterial" qualities such as the salvation of the after-life and the consolations of eternal life for the sufferings which the weakest endure on this earth.

Though the places and the language have been changed by him and for him: the liturgy is shifted from the church to the football stadium and it doesn't take much for the host to be transformed into a bottle of Coca Cola. To adapt to these needs awful but effective neologisms are created: the car in which he travels becomes to "Popemobile", the young with backpacks who climb on each others shoulders to listen to the word are "Popeboys", just like advertising spiel whilst a million T-shirts with his picture go like hot cakes. Perhaps it was no accident that the televising of the interminable funeral was broken only by adverts, whilst on the other hand, the electoral campaign for the regional elections had to doff its cap and step to one side for the funeral coverage.

This representative of free market thought was going around the world saying that communism (by which he meant Stalinism) was the evil empire and that capitalism, the home of commodities par excellence, was the kingdom of good. Then the evil empire collapsed and the nakedness of the kingdom of good was exposed in all its wickedness. The commodity-high priest of the market plunged himself into the gospels of recommending moderation against the excesses of the free market and a little more spiritually against the widening consumerist "materialism". He thundered against poverty, against war, even against social injustice but only by putting up with them would we arrive at a shining future in the kingdom of heaven. He thus invited the faithful to pray to the Madonna but never to struggle. Even against the war in Iraq he thundered his "no" strongly but without ever mentioning oil, the financial returns or the imperialism which created it. Even here he gave a "no" against the form but not against the substance. We need therefore to recognise that rarely is the contradiction between what the Church says it is and what it really is so completely synthesised in one man as in this Pope who departed decorated like a shaman, applauded like a film star or sporting champion, and worshipped like the latest model of mobile phone.


(1) "Our Silvio" is Berlusconi. Italy's richest man, controller of most of the media and... Prime Minister increasingly in the Mussolini mould. His statement about Islam was in relation to his support for US war in Iraq

(2) Karol Wojtila, Bishop of Krakow became Pope John Paul II in 1979.

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