Holy thoughts

Memory and Identity: personal reflections

Pope John Paul II <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 198pp, £12.

I like my popes intellectual. I like them citing Aristotle, Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Sartre and Dostoevsky. As my sister-in-law once remarked: "If I hear another priest start off a sermon by talking folksily about what he saw on TV the previous night, I'll scream!" It is gratifying, in this volume of conversations with Pope John Paul II, to be treated to philosophical cogitation. The Holy Father might not approve of Bentham, and it would be difficult to imagine him endorsing Sartre (who was once on the Vatican's index of prohibited texts), but he recognises them as great and significant thinkers.

John Paul II has long reflected upon such big ideas as freedom and responsibility, love and redemption, totalitarianism, capitalism and the nature of evil. He also deserves respect for having lived through two totalitarian dictatorships: Nazism and Stalinism, both of which he actively opposed. When Irish feminist friends say to me, "Face it, the Pope's a fascist", I reply: "Honey, he lived under fascism. We didn't - remember?"

However, this book, while providing many insights into the thinking of John Paul II, has its limitations. The Holy Father sticks dogmatically to a particular point of view. He is a patriotic Pole, and that provides a certain Polonocentric view of Europe, the world and the universe. Chopin is the greatest of musicians; Saint Faustina Kowalska the ace saint.

He is not tolerant on matters such as abortion and gay rights, and doesn't cloak his views in politically correct phrases: he calls abortion the slaughter of the unborn, comparable to an exterminating holocaust. He is not heavy about homosexuality (he cannot have helped noticing that many holy and good men within the priesthood are homosexual - including, it has been suggested, Pope Paul VI), but he deplores the EU's push to recognise gay civil unions. He also has his knife into the Enlightenment, which he regards as a root cause of totalitarian evil.

This is not new in Catholic thinking. The French revolution has long been deplored as the wicked event that dispensed with God, put egocentric man at the centre of the universe and launched the notion that nationalism could replace faith. There is a link between the French revolution and totalitarianism: Adolf Hitler's writings bristle with the sort of nationalism that the French revolution inspired. But still, evil things happened long before Voltaire and Rousseau put pen to paper - even among Christians. Isn't Original Sin a more likely candidate for this flawed tendency? The Holy Father does admit that the French revolution also had some admirable results (he exalts human rights), but that is an example of good outcomes sometimes flowing from bad events.

This Pope is as scriptural as any Protestant. Even his Marian devotion is rooted in scriptural thought. He is far from being a feminist, but he has a sensibility for the feminine in faith and values, and for the maternal character of the Catholic Church - Mater et Magistra. More than any previous pope, I think, he is aware of the suffering of the Jews, and Israel is central to his thinking. His account of surviving the assassin's bullet is both touching and human. And I like the way he quotes his own poetry: a poet should always quote himself.

Yet the book bottles out of asking one important question. How could there have been such a rash of paedophilia among men of God - priests who, surely, started out wanting to serve both the Lord and the community? This is a question that a great moral thinker needs to address.

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, What Britain really thinks