The pope, who is due to visit Baltimore next Sunday, is a titanic figure of our time, a troubled time which is ravenously hungry for heroes.
Even a decade ago, in his "Oxford Dictionary of the Popes," the Anglican priest-historian J. N .D. Kelly could write of him: "Few popes have had such wide-ranging intellectual equipment, and none has had such a far-ranging impact."
In addition to his astonishing intellectual gifts, he has shown incredible energy, iron-clad determination, courage and magnanimity (when not dealing with troublesome theologians).
He has radiant charisma and is obviously deeply concerned about the human family.
Many thoughtful observers, however, have reluctantly concluded that the present pope, extraordinary though he is, has not been an unmixed blessing for the Church and for humanity.
First some background: Catholic teaching does not hold that a pope cannot err or sin; that he has a direct pipeline to the mind of God, and is thus protected from making decisions that history will prove to be disastrous; that a pope's normal, everyday decisions are infallible and cannot be reversed by a subsequent pope.
Indeed, in the 1300s the incubating idea of infallibility was promoted by interested parties eager to keep one pope from reversing the decisions of an earlier one.
So the theory was actually a way of shackling papal freedom.
According to the 1870 definition of the First Vatican Council, the pope cannot err when as supreme bishop, and in the name of the whole Church, he clearly intends to define a matter of faith or morals.
So, papal infallibility is a very limited prerogative rarely invoked. It was not invoked for Pope Paul VI's encyclical against contraception, "Humanae Vitae."
Finally, Catholic teaching does not hold that the choice of a particular pope reflects the will of God.
Despite these facts, there are many devout Catholics who subscribe to a triumphalist myth of the papacy. For them, popes can do practically no wrong. Emotionally, their overmastering concern is the triumph of the Holy Church, not the triumph of the holy truth, and the humble, lifelong search for it.
Children think their parents are, or should be, all-knowing. As mature adults they learn to make distinctions and accept their parents' limitations.
A conspicuous example of an immature "il papa knows best" mentality is TV's Mother Angelica and her awesomely unsophisticated, self-satisfied and occasionally wasp-spirited theology.
"Get out of the Church!" is her sisterly suggestion to those who disagree with her. Talk about infallibility.
It is easier to maintain the papal myth to the degree that you are innocent of both theology and history. (And what is history but theology teaching by examples?)
But if you regard the Apostle Peter as the first pope, you must start reckoning with the biblical account of St. Paul's attack on St. Peter for the betrayal of the Gospel of truth. (See Galatians 2: 11-21.)
That wasn't the last betrayal. The history of the papacy and its links with the Inquisition, the Crusades, nepotism, the selling of indulgences and spiritual offices to the highest bidder, witch-hunting and the persecution of Jews and heretics, show it to be one of the most checkered religious institutions on record -- to put it gently.
Individual popes of the especially scandalous 10th century have been called "the dregs" (by St. Robert Bellarmine), "the most iniquitous of all the monsters of ungodliness" (by the future pope Sylvester II) and a "blackguardly ignoramus" (by the historian-priest Philip Hughes).
In a moment of rare Vatican candor at the start of the Reformation, Pope Hadrian confessed in 1522: "We know full well that for years the Holy See itself has been guilty of grave abuses all kinds of evil. All of us, prelates and priests, have abandoned the right way."
The remarkable man of probity who will visit Baltimore on Oct. 8 is the 265th or so Bishop of Rome. No one is sure how many popes there have been. Some who died before they were installed are officially counted; sometimes it is not clear whether a man was pope or an anti-pope.
As for the first "pope," it isn't at all clear from the Gospels that Peter's undoubtedly special standing among the disciples was transmissible. Other Apostolic privileges (such as the ability to add to "the deposit of faith") were not.
After Peter's martyrdom (around 65 A.D.), the church in Rome may actually have been managed for a while by a group of presbyters, one of whom was in charge of "foreign affairs" -- that is, dealing with other churches.
This functionary may have developed into the head of the Roman church.
Management consolidated slowly
In early Christianity, the practice of diocesan management by a single bishop developed only gradually. The idea that the bishop of Rome has absolute jurisdiction over all other churches developed very much more gradually and problematically.
After all, Jesus seemed convinced that the end of the world was near. Would he have planned in detail for a Church that would last down the centuries?
The infant Church believed that the Second Coming of Jesus was near, and much of the development of the Church resulted from the realization that this coming might be indefinitely postponed.
Under those circumstances, there was much to be said from the organizational point of view for the glacial shift toward a single authoritative leader to settle the multiple doctrinal and moral disputes that erupted almost from the beginning. Christian unity in the early Church is another myth.
But that doesn't mean that such a leader would be practically divine or that any specific arrangement was explicitly intended by Christ or by God.
On television, I once heard John Paul informally say, "It's my Church."
Is it not Christ's Church, or the Church of the Christian faithful or, jurisdictionally, the Church of the full college of bishops?
But John Paul II acts as though it is his Church, and I am sure he struggles to serve it heroically and in faithfulness to a divine tradition as he interpets it.
Yet that tradition sees other bishops as true heads of their own dioceses, and not merely branch managers for the one true headquarters in Rome.
For centuries, bishops were chosen by the faith communities that they were to lead. As Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) said: "He who presides over all should be chosen by all."
Only in recent times has Rome had so much to say about the choice of bishops.
Pope John Paul, who was elected 17 years ago on the 16th of this month, has now chosen most of the Roman bishops in the world.
Selection based on loyalty
Unfortunately for the liberating spirit of the Second Vatican Council, he has chosen bishops chiefly on the basis of their unquestioning loyalty to current Roman policy, especially on the matters of birth control, celibacy and women priests.
Since 1978, any Roman priest who has raised questions about these matters -- which are not irreformably defined -- has had little or no chance of becoming a bishop.
The choice of bishops has become a matter of mind control and monopolistic power.
Rome chooses fewer and fewer bishops with essential pastoral experience, open minds on open questions, and a candid gospel spirit animated by the "freedom of the children of God."
More and more decisions are made at lower levels in an effort to please bishops who are passionately dedicated to pleasing Rome or supremely fearful of displeasing it.
In some countries, such as Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland, this imperial stance has caused great resentment and disaffection.
In one diocese, Rome's choice had to walk over protesting bodies to get to his installation. One "safe" bishop, the Cardinal of Vienna, resigned recently in the midst of a scandal.
In a September article in the National Catholic Reporter, the priest-sociologist Andrew M. Greeley wrote of the bishops whom the present pope has appointed for the United States: "In all its 200-year history, the American hierarchy has never been in worse shape."
John Paul is said to have significantly influenced Pope Paul VI's 1968 anti-contraception encyclical, "Humanae Vitae."
He appears preoccupied with the birth control issue (and sexual mores in general). He seems battle-girt against the defiance of papal power implicit in the widespread rejection of that encyclical by laity, priests and even bishops (mostly secretly).
Elected in 1963, Paul VI faced a no-win dilemma.
If he changed on contraception, he would be undermining confidence in papal moral teaching.
If he did not, he would be undermining papal authority anyway (as indeed he did), worsening the problem of world overpopulation and poverty, and going against the overwhelming majority of his own 72-member birth control commission.
That majority included Baltimore's own Cardinal Lawrence Shehan. On the key question, "Is contraception intrinsically evil?" Cardinal Shehan voted no. Surely he voted prayerfully and in purest conscience.
Yet he ended up defending the opposite opinion and reprimanding priests whose consciences agreed with his. Papal loyalty makes terrible demands.
But in essence and no doubt in sincere but tortured conscience, Pope Paul VI chose papal consistency over individual and world pain.
Error with wicked consequences
I and many of my betters regard Paul VI's decision as wrong in theory and wicked in consequence. Thank heavens it is widely disregarded, though many governments are still afraid of the Vatican (or presumably lock-stepping Catholic voters). Not all episcopal questioning of the pope's stand against contraception has been secret.
A few years ago the head of the German Bishops' Conference, Karl Lehman, said the pope speaks a fundamental "no" to birth control but is not concerned with the consequences. (How can he be, when he is tragically locked into his papal logic?)
The German bishops, however, "see more clearly the concrete situation and the pain it causes people."
Another prelate, Austrian Cardinal Franz Koenig, lately insisted that "the world overpopulation question cannot be simply ignored." ("What problem?" papalists liked to say before the pope himself acknowledged it.)
In the Church, the cardinal added, "too little is said of the fact that conscience is the final standard."
When "Humanae Vitae" was published, New York's Cardinal Cooke said it would be a mortal sin (meriting hellfire) for a Catholic to reject it.
This, even though in his compassionate encyclical the pope himself did not mention mortal sin even in connection with contraception.
Other, less parroting hierarchies issued statements that acknowledged the ultimate role of conscience (the foremost Vicar of Christ, according to Cardinal Newman).
They said that Catholics who practice contraception for conscientious reasons should not deprive themselves of the sacraments.
Recently, the president of Peru, Alberto K. Fujimori, announced his plan to challenge the Church on contraception in his address to Beijing's international women's conference.
Risk of hellfire
In instant riposte, the Primate of Peru, Cardinal Augusto Vargas Alzamora, declared that it would be a "grave sin" for anyone to practice contraception -- even poor families who often have as many as 10 children.
So these wretchedly impoverished souls must choose between the risk of hellfire and one of their few joys -- sexuality without fear of childbirth and of leaving their born children motherless.
I am sure the Vatican was pleased, but I for one was not, nor was I when the pope lectured against birth control before Manila's dispossessed slum-dwellers and in crisis-ridden Africa.
"What's going on," asked an indignant cousin of mine with five children -- "a numbers game to produce more Catholic bodies at whatever price? This honors God?"
These are some of the reasons why many concerned and informed Catholics will have mixed feelings about the pope's visit and all the adulation he will receive.
Events like these nurture the papal myth, a myth that is doing grave harm to the Church and the world community.
The Catholic faith does not require its members to "believe" in the pope (actually an idolatrous idea), but in the transcendent God and in the essential Jesus of the Gospels.
Catholics honoring their own God-given consciences must not allow themselves to be victimized by any pope's greatness, however prayerfully self-assured, nor by his necessary and even tragic imprisonment within papalistic presumptions.
Reviewing Tad Szulc's new life of John Paul II, the editor of the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal wrote: "The Church has survived bad popes; it can survive a great one."
Yes, but at what cost?
The Rev. Joseph Gallagher, former editor of Baltimore's Catholic Review, is a retired priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese.