Pope Wojtyła as Boss

“Polish Managerial Style plus Heresy Hunting”


John Paul IIStanisław Obirek

During Wojtyła’s time, there was a simple gauge of conservatism:
contraception, abortion, celibacy—those were non-negotiable
 If you accept this, you’re one of us.
If you don’t, then thanks a lot, you won’t be promoted.


Grzegorz Sroczyński in conversation with former Jesuit,

Professor Stanisław Obirek.


Translated by Piotr J. Małysz


GS: What did Wojtyła see in McCarrick [who would, eventually, go on to become the Archbishop of Washington]?

Obirek: Effectiveness. To use the language of corporate business, he generated results. McCarrick was an incredibly resourceful man. Even more so, he was a genius. He knew how to open up the hearts and purses of Catholic folk. The amounts were staggering. Hundreds of millions of dollars, half a billion. Those were the amounts he raised in his charitable campaigns in the US. Now that’s some fundraising! American Jesuits have taught me how it’s all done: “direct mail fundraising,” “direct debit,” “doorstep”—it’s a whole industry. It is not reprehensible in itself—numerous institutions in the US function in this manner. And Cardinal McCarrick was one of the most talented fundraisers. He regularly supplied the Vatican with gifts from American benefactors.

GS: So, I provide the cash and, therefore, I can get away with… dot, dot, dot… I will show up at a Vatican function with a young male lover, and will, with a lewd smile, claim he’s my nephew—and no one will say a word?

Obirek: Let’s not be so crude. In Poland, money is immediately associated with corruption, bribes; and people right away start saying that McCarrick brought cash-filled envelopes to [the Pope’s secretary Stanisław] Dziwisz, so everyone protected him. Now, I am sure he did bring envelopes with cash to Dziwisz. He had an uncanny feel for human weakness, a knack for manipulation, but none of that is the point. He passed himself off as a pillar of the papacy. He says quite a bit about it in his letters, that he will help save the Vatican at a time of distress.

GS: Save it from what?

Obirek: From bankruptcy. The context is important here. In the 1980s and 90s, the Vatican was in huge trouble, following the collapse of the Ambrosiano Bank. I was in Italy at the time, and I watched it all at close quarters. Cardinal Marcinkus was accused of money laundering, some unbelievable scams, and collaboration with the mafia. All that gave rise to gigantic reparations. McCarrick, with his cunning, his international connections among politicians, and his fundraising gifts, was a godsend for the Vatican. Wojtyła refused to acknowledge that this hugely gifted cleric abused seminarians, that there were stories circulating about his sexual exploits. He received a denunciatory letter. “Look into it,” he ordered. The papal court started investigating, but in such a way as to deliver the kind of report the pope wanted to hear: “It’s all gossip.” So McCarrick was promoted again. John Paul II believed McCarrick had incredible talents. Besides, they’d known each other since way back when.

GS: Where did they know each other from?

Obirek: They met at the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia and they developed a liking for each other. McCarrick was a go-getter, and Wojtyła loved it. McCarrick had the kind of characteristics that Wojtyła adored.

GS: What sort is that?

Obirk: As I said earlier, effectiveness. McCarrick created a new kind of seminary in the US, a seminary open toward people from other countries, for example from Brazil; he had a connection to the Neocatechumenal Way. Wojtyła considered all dynamically developing movements fascinating. They were to be elements of the new evangelization and Catholic expansion. Wojtyła was also impressed by the new model of bishop who is not just some backwater granddad but a manager, who cares for the global development of Catholicism and traverses the globe for the good of the Church. McCarrick really went everywhere, sometimes, to be sure, accompanied by his male lovers; and everywhere he would win people over. One finds in him an ingenious cheekiness and brazenness. He gave a lot of interviews. Journalists adored him. He became the face of an engaged, expansive and modern Catholicism. Wojtyła was crazy about all that.

GS: Crazy?

Obirek: Manipulators have a decent sense of human frailty; they know what note to strike. Dark clouds had been gathering over McCarrick all the time. Cardinal John O’Connor, the Bishop of New York, realized it could all end in a gigantic scandal. And that it wasn’t all about some gossip. There had just been too many stories about fishing trips where McCarrick had forced seminarians to perform sexual intercourse. So, before McCarrick’s next planned promotion, this time to be the Cardinal of Washington, D.C., O’Connor writes to the Vatican: “Don’t do this, or it will end in a wild scandal.” He knew what was afoot. The American church had by then found itself in the eye of a cyclone. Reports of sexual abuse by priests were multiplying. The investigation depicted in the movie Spotlight was about to commence. The Boston Globe prints a series of articles about priests’ molesting underage children. Over 70 priests stand accused. There are some 1000 victims. There’s Cardinal Law, who for years had swept it all under the carpet. A book comes out focusing on Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ. Newer and newer reports see the light of day.—And nothing! Secretary Dziwisz is unavailable, Wojtyła and Ratzinger are out of reach. The US media are abuzz, but the Vatican is silent. At the same time, bishops accused of sexual misconduct are promoted—including McCarrick.

GS: But why?

Obirek: I don’t know.

GS: Rafał  Betlejemski writes: “What puzzles me is the overall conspiracy to make an idiot out of JPII. I do not agree with that. I observed the Polish pope for 27 years and I never had the impression he was an idiot. He spoke beautifully; he was well read. So whence the sudden idea that JPII didn’t know anything, that he had no clue, that he was taken for a ride by McCarrick, led on a wild goose chase by Secretary Dziwisz, that he had no idea, wasn’t interested, didn’t read the documents? Whence the idea that he promoted who he was told to and singed whatever Dziwisz gave him to sign? Do you really believe that this exceptionally intelligent man, who knew the church inside and out, who allegedly became ‘the most powerful leader of his time’ and ‘the man who overthrew communism,’ do you believe this man was a simple idiot? Please don’t tell me all that!”—Would you agree?

Obierek: Well, this is rather spiteful, but commonsensical. It is hard to believe Wojtyła was clueless. Good tsar, bad boyars—at least this is the idea so far.

GS: Idea?

Obirek: That one of the boyars, Dziwisz, known as the Great-Henpecked in the Vatican, hid everything from Pope Wojtyła. This is the direction taken by the Polish Episcopate, which can be seen in the statements by its president, Archbishop Gądecki: the pope did not know till the very end what was going on in the Vatican, he was too ill and infirm, all the correspondence had been intercepted by the secretary, and the good tsar had no control over the flow of information. What we see is an attempt to transfer the dark sides of JPII’s pontificate onto Secretary Dziwisz and a few American bishops who obfuscated McCarric’s case. “It’s all only rumours,” they wrote.

GS: Am I to understand that, in your opinion, Wojtyła knew about and deliberately covered up the scandals?

Obirek: No. My opinion is my opinion. I hate to exaggerate in this matter considering that, for quite a while now, I have borne the label of John Paul II’s critic. “It’s all clear. Obirek, a former priest, is traumatized, and he needs to take his trauma out on others.” That’s what some say about me. Okay, I agree with it all.

GS: Agree?

Obire: Agree that they may be partially right. But even if they are not right, I do need to be on my guard. Thanks to a Jesuit education, I’ve come to know the vast literature about the Vatican and countless people that have studied it. For decades. That’s why I am in a position to share my expertise with you.

GS: Okay. So you say that McCarrick provided results.

Obirek: But not in such a vulgar sense that it was all about bagfulls of money, which he bankrolled the Vatican with. That’s not why he was promoted. Wojtyła was taken with a model of mass Catholicism, self-financing, based on voluntary donations. In the same way he was fascinated by the effectiveness of the Legion of Christ and Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado, whom he promoted. Such was the spirit of the time. Reaganomics, neoliberalism, effectiveness, managerial style. Wojtyła bought into all that. Let me say something apparently unrelated: [Polish-British sociologist] Zygmunt Bauman analyzed big corporations, which back in those days selected the most ruthless firers as their CEOs. People linked exorbitant profits with group lay-offs. Those CEOs would clean things down to the bare bones and produce excellent balance sheets. They would then sell the company—and pocket a sizable commission. Pathological types were chosen to undertake all that, ruthless psychopaths. A specific set of psychological traits was conducive to a corporate career, which made upper management carbon copies of each other. Now, it was the same at the Vatican.

GS: The Church as a corporation?

Obirek: Of course. That’s what it looked like in Wojtyła’s day. An entire system of smiles, promotions, audiences, blessings and paybacks, all of which went to people that exhibited specific character traits. At the same time people who even dared to formulate critical opinions, like Hans Küng and a whole constellation of the more exceptional theologians, found themselves cut off from promotion prospects.

GS: If Wojtyła had been a corporate CEO, what would you call his style of management?

Obirek: Vistula-banks managerial style, as we say today. That is, a style that is authoritarian, characterized by complete control that brooks no dissent, in Polish “zamordyzm” (grabbing someone by the mug, so to speak).

GS: Because that’s how the Papacy has always operated, or because that was what Wojtyła was like?

Obirek: Wojtyła was like that. As boss, he was an uncompromising micromanager, and he was extremely sensitive to any criticism. He bore grudges with an uncommon persistence. He enforced obedience in order to preserve conservative doctrine in the church’s ranks. The moment he became pope in 1978, it took him only a couple of months to direct lots of energy to going after Hans Küng, who for my generation was a star of a Catholic theology that was open. At the time, I was studying philosophy with the Jesuits in Kraków, and it all really got me down. Küng was deprived of the right to teach theology in December 1979 before Ratzinger even showed up at the Vatican as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger arrived in Rome only in 1981, and it was only then that he became “Wojtyła’s Rottweiler.” When this double barrel got down to work, killing off all creative and interesting currents in world theology increased exponentially. They worked well together, with swiftness and precision.

GS: Killing off?

Obirek: You can see this well in comparison with others. Paul VI deprived no one of the right to teach, even though his 1968 encyclical met with mass opposition in the Church. Especially in the USA and in Germany. Charles Curran, a professor at the Catholic University in Washington, formulated biting and critical judgments. For a dozen or so years, it did not occur to the pope to deprive him of the right to teach Catholic theology, even though Curran tore into Paul VI’s encyclical with abandon.

GS: Do you mean Humanae vitae?

Obirek: Yes.

GS: So, the “contraception encyclical”? Or am I trivializing it?

Obirek: You’re not trivializing. That’s what it was largely about.

GS: And Paul VI did not “take out” the critics?

Obirek: He did not.

GS: And John Paul II? How many of his critics did he take out?

Obirek: Oh, man, the main ones, with big names, went into several dozen. That’s how many are on the list. I could not even count the lesser ones. The killing off took many forms, because rescinding of the missio canonica—that is, withdrawal of the right to teach—is one thing. But there was also something like a chilling effect. Currently, on Polish turf, this is the style of the Prosecutor General Zbigniew Ziobro. What I have in mind is the erection of a whole system of advancement and disciplinary methods which promotes persons who meet the criterion of total loyalty. It attracts two-faced people, not particularly bright, but determined on making something of themselves at all costs. There was a whole swarm of yes-men that appeared in theology during Wojtyła’s time. And they clapped the loudest. Especially if they suffered from a lack of intellectual gifts. Then they looked with glee at various Küngs and Currans who were removed for the very attempt to stage a difficult dialogue with modernity. Those former ones, on the other hand, with their theology that resembled a flail [or a bludgeon], were promoted without the slightest hitch. You know, there are whole lists of names in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s communiqués: Accused of this and that and that, has no right to teach. The faithful are to be warned that this person is dangerous. Because he called into question the immaculate conception, papal infallibility, or—I don’t know—critically investigated Trinitarian dogma. The accusations, it must be added, were most frequently overblown. Bernhard Häring, a most wonderful and sensitive German theologian, a Redemptorist, who insisted on the dominant role of the motif of love in theology, met with harassment toward the end of his life. He was a sick old man; he wasn’t able to defend himself.

GS: Let me get this straight. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regularly warned God’s people against unorthodox thinkers?

Obirek: Of course. The faithful were routinely warned that this or that person assaulted the unity of the Church, that they were dangerous. “Do not read their books. They have no right to teach you.”

GS: And when a priest or a bishop was accused of sexual misconduct, there were no accusations of a similar sort?

Obirek: No.

GS: So, you go after some with all speed but do nothing in the case of others?

Obirek: Those were the priorities.

GS: And if you criticize the Vatican, then what? You disappear?

Obirek: Not immediately. First, you are forbidden to talk to the media, a common and popular practice in Poland today. Wojtyła’s method.

GS: Method?

Obirek: “The Vatican Style of Governing.” That’s what it was called. He really was a pro at silencing uncomfortable and critical voices. The Polish Church has copied it all. There is a rather typical example of this management method. [In 1989] a hundred or so German theologians and moral teachers issue the so-called Cologne Declaration. They protested against repressive and authoritarian policies that operated by rescinding the right to teach, policies that foreclosed any discussion of contraception and women’s ordination. The repressions against the signatories consisted in barring anyone who signed the document from any position of oversight in the Church. Any position! It’s not that they couldn’t become bishops but also a chair at some lesser Catholic university or prior of a monastery in Backwater—they couldn’t assume any of those functions.

GS: So, if some theologian in Pernambucco wrote something unorthodox about the immaculate conception, it was immediately investigated by the Vatican?

Obirek: That actually is not a bad example. Imagine two theologians in Sri Lanka who—as is common in Asia—live in context where Christians add up to a fraction of a percent of the population; so there are all kinds of naughty thoughts that come to their minds when it comes to dogma. One of them wrote something not quite right about original sin, and it was immediately registered at the Vatican as heresy. Usually, it would all happen through anonymous letters. Some kind soul would send mere quotes from an entire publication to the Vatican. But that would have been enough to initiate official proceedings. Sometimes newspaper clippings alone sufficed.

GS: The Vatican hunted down newspaper clippings?

Obirek: A mere rumor would do, an anonymous tip with a quotation out of context, to set in motion the entire control machinery. Here’s an example I witnessed myself at close quarters. Fr. Jacques Dupuis, an old Jesuit who had spent 40 years in India. I met him when he was around 80 years old. All his life he had been considered a conservative theologian. But toward the end of his life the Hindus sent him off to Europe and he became professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. He began making statements about interreligious dialogue, which in a classic—that is, anonymous-tip-based—way led to Fr. Dupuis being accused of heresy. “The integrity of salvation in Jesus Christ is under threat!” He was interrogated many times by the Congregation and personally by Ratzinger. Luckily, as a Jesuit, he found a defender in the order’s Superior General, who did not drop the ball. During the interrogations, as the accused, he as a matter of procedure was barely able to speak for himself, just like during the days of the Holy Inquisition; instead, he was repeatedly asked to sign a statement to the effect that “I will never say it again.” They showed no particular interest in the matter. All he had to do was sign the statement. He was given the retraction statement in several versions. But in the end he signed none.

Let’s move now to June 2000, around the time of McCarrick’s upcoming promotion—all in light of his widely acknowledged immoral conduct. But it is not McCarrick that the Vatican is preoccupied with. What we get instead is the declaration Dominus Iesus, which is aimed at Fr. Dupuis. That was what the Vatican was busy with, what it focused its resources on. So, on the one hand, we have an old theologian, devoted to the Church, a theologian who throughout his entire life did nothing else than teach about the Lord Jesus, but who now in his old age stands accused of heresy. On the other hand, we have a man who for many years has been surrounded by doubts about his moral integrity, but he still gets promoted to be cardinal and is considered to be a star of world-wide episcopate. But it is Fr. Depuis who is deprived of the right to teach and on whom enormous resources are spent to hit him, in addition, with the lofty sounding declaration Dominus Iesus, which the entire Congregation must no doubt have labored on.

GS: So, what was the key to making it within the corporate structure?

Obirek: Flattery. As well as absolute and unquestioning acceptance of conservative doctrine, that is, the following set of issues of interest: contraception, abortion, clerical celibacy.

GS: Pardon me for saying this, but this sounds like it’s been taken out of someone’s ass.

Obirek: Unfortunately, yes. A control set.

GS: Control?

Obirek: A simple test of loyalty to conservative doctrine, focused on “those issues.” Seminaries during Wojtyła’s time started operating on the same basis: mediocre but loyal. If you tick off the control set—you’re an A student. Plus “zamordyzm,” the “grabbing by the mug,” a style manifested in spying and informing on one another. An absolute monarchy, but not an enlightened one. All this is not without its effects. The promotion mechanism in a corporation governed in this way is only negative.

GS: What do you mean?

Obirek: Take a look at the hundred-plus Polish bishops. Show me one charismatic figure that stands out in some area. Will a single one of them say anything important or write something interesting? Anything? That’s how they were potty-trained. What we see here is a straightforward effect of several dozen years’ worth of a church shaped by Wojtyła, Dziwisz, Kowalczyk, Glemp, Gulbinowicz, Głódź. It’s a whole gallery of figures whose sole virtue was faithfulness and loyalty to Wojtyła and admiration for him. Plus an obsession about others’ morality.

GS: Others’?

Obirek: Because by some curious coincidence, all those “control topics,” endlessly harped on [today] in the homilies of [Kraków’s archbishop] Jędraszewki and other leading intellectuals of the Polish church, are issues which have nothing to do with them. Safely remote because they have to do with a woman’s body, with abortion, with LGBT, and so on. And so, there is nothing that has to do with the problems of their lives: the consumerism of the Church’s servants, the clergy living above their station, or—I don’t know—the problem of the dignity of Poland’s working people, which also is an uncomfortable topic because it touches on the miserly wages and poor treatment of those people that labor at the bottom of the corporation called “The Church.” There are no topics like that; there are only safe topics that have nothing to do with “us.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in one of his very first interviews Pope Francis said something like that: everybody asks me what I think about abortion, while there are so many other important issues. He is right. He is still dealing with Wojtyła’s legacy.

GS: Because Wojtyła left behind a church focused on “those issues”?

Obirek: Absolutely. If some hierarch is mentioned who made a successful career in the Church during Woytła’s papacy, check what kind of topics he routinely addresses. You say: “ass and thereabouts.” And I, unfortunately, have to agree with you.

GS: Was this a product of Wojtyła’s sexual obsession or what?

Obirek: I don’t think he had a sex obsession. It was rather a good key for checking loyalty. A good one because it was as simple as the assembly of a flail. “Four legs good, two legs bad.” It yielded a simple gage of conservatism: contraception, abortion, celibacy—those were off limits and beyond debate. If you accept this, you’re one of us. If you don’t, then thanks a lot, you won’t be promoted. It is all very clever because it requires flexibility, bendability.

GS: Flexibility?

Obirek: Well, it requires breaking. Take my word for it: most of the theologians promoted during Wojtyła’s pontificate do not really believe contraception is a sin. They know this is nonsense. But if you make someone believe any nonsense you like, and he or she becomes flexible, bends in that direction and accepts this humiliation, then, well, this means that person is now fully loyal. It was a really ingenious idea to test and break people with this kind of conservatism.

Let me say something that won’t fly well because Wojtyła is considered to have been a great intellectual. From the time he became pope, he advanced an anti-intellectual model. He was gripped to the bone by his obsession with doctrine sheltered from critical commentary. And those three topics were ideal for this kind of doctrinal guardian. Plus a fourth one: women’s ordination. It, likewise, was untouchable. Whenever I wrote that the Vatican’s focus on fighting these sort of deviations is stupid and limiting, that it only bears witness to anti-intellectualism, I was always shouted down. “But John Paul II is an outstanding philosopher.” “He is the architect of wonderful scientific debates at Castel Gandolfo.” The physicist Stephen Hawking was lectured by Wojtyła during one of those debates that he shouldn’t busy himself too much with the world’s beginnings: “One mustn’t look into God’s own calendar.” To which Hawking replied: “But that’s what I am interested in.”

GS: A joke. A typical Wojtyła joke.

Obirek: A joke but also not a joke. Who was he to set limits to the questions of science? When it was all over, Hawking said, “I’m glad not to have been alive in Galileo’s day. I would have ended up just like him.”

GS: So, Wojtyła was dogmatic?

Obirek: He went with a vengeance after people who desired to use their intellect in the service of the faith. With no patience for nuance.

GS: Like a CEO who makes life unlivable for subordinates who are more intelligent than him?

Obirek: What am I supposed to say in reply? Yes, and of course? That idiots were promoted, or those who were cleverly flexible? Well, let me say it then. During Wojtyła’s time, it was mediocrities who enjoyed successful careers. That’s why we are in the midst of ruins. The Church after twenty-seven years of Wojtyła is charred remains.

GS: Charred remains?

Obirek: Pople Fracis has all this time been dealing with the disastrous state in which Wojtyła left the Church. If you look at one local episcopate after another, and the curse of covering up pedophilia, it all looks like a domino. Here and here and there—it’s the same thing over and over. One place after another where the same schema of tolerating the worst sex crimes keeps repeating itself. Because that’s what the mechanism of corporate advancement was like in Wojtyła’s day. They were trained constantly to bend down in theological matters: don’t step out of line, or it will end poorly. And that’s how they behaved in all other matters. Mom’s the word! That’s how they were taught; that’s why they advanced their careers.

I know the States quite well. In 2004, I was in St. Louis. The bishop there, Raymond Burke, who Francis got rid of rather quickly, was just a crude homophobe. But he brimmed with conservatism, which Wojtyła liked. I was watching the presidential campaign, with John Kerry going against George W. Bush. Abortion came up. Kerry, a Catholic, said that, although he considered abortion evil, he would not force his views on the rest of America and advocate for a ban at all costs. Bishop Burke declared, in response, he would never again admit him to Holy Communion. All this prompted Thomas Reese, then the editor-in-chief of an opinion-shaping Jesuit periodical, “America Magazine,” to suggest the following. Let’s give some space in our periodical both to Catholics who support Bush and to those who support Kerry, they all have their arguments; let’s let them articulate those in a Catholic venue. What did the Vatican do? It forced the provincial of the Jesuits to fire the editor-in-chief. Because he dared to create a space for debate in a Catholic magazine! Mind you, this wasn’t some unheard-of deviation, like questioning the Holy Trinity, but simply a desire to have a discussion. Unbelievable!

GS: So what’s the upshot of all this?

 Obirek: Don’t you understand? This is a signal for the entire corporation, a signal to each and every one of those who work in it: be quiet or we’ll let you go. Regardless of what is happening, regardless of what you don’t like—lie low. Every company whose CEO operates like that goes bankrupt. It may prosper for five, ten years, but then a scandal breaks out—just like with Enron—because people are trained in operating uncritically and they stop sending warning signals to the management. The Polish church is decaying for this very reason, that is, because, first, mediocre theologians were able to advance their careers in the church. They were figures as if out of a cabaret who made hair-raising pronouncements about reality. They ticked off the obligatory set—the three points regarding “those issues”—and they were promoted. All this is also a product of Wyjtyła-style anti-intellectualism, because theology faculties were reduced to the role of trade schools which train priests who are worse than they were before they started. The faculties graduate people who are disastrously ill prepared to confront pluralist reality. But when it comes to the “control set,” they’re all A students.

One of the most interesting experiments of the 20th century—I mean liberation theology—was destroyed. The Boff brothers, Gustavo Gutierrez in South America, they were all deprived of the possibility to shape their own communities and churches. Catholics saw it and they abandoned the faith because of Wojtyła’s obstinacy. Now, he didn’t have to stamp it out—he could have engaged in polemics, even sharp polemics with liberation theology. But he was afraid to debate because he didn’t really have the theological acumen. An average guy with great aspirations, so he preferred to ban and destroy since he had the power. Paul VI would, I think, have responded polemically; so would Ratzinger. Ratzinger was a conservative to the hilt, but he is an exceptional theologian, so he’s not afraid of debate. I’m not even speaking of Francis, who would likely have allowed liberation theology to become one of the local options. By contrast, Wojtyła threw himself into stamping out heresy with uncommon abandon. He devoted excessive energy to it. The most creative and faithful bishops, such as Oscar Romero in El Salvador, who was beatified by Francis, had been marginalized during Wojtyła’s pontificate. Instead, he promoted careerists whose sole task was stamping out ideological gangrene. Every yokel, as long as he strongly denounced liberation theology, could count on being promoted in South America. What else would you expect if such were the road to career advancement?

I find it simply horrific. “Bishop X has been said for a long time to like boys.” It’s a terrible euphemism: “He likes boys.” What does it mean? He’s simply a pedophile. “What reached the Vatican was simply rumors about McCarrick, so Wojtyła was unable to take it all seriously.” This is what I read in the Polish media. But how come that at the same time a rumor did reach the Vatican about bishop X, Y, or Z to the effect that he “questions the dogma of papal infallibility” or “undermines the immaculate conception”—and the whole machinery would be set in motion in no time at all? Some priest out in the boonies wrote an article favorable to liberation theology, and immediately an investigation was rolled out with all the bells and whistles.

This imbalance of interests is unbelievable. And it has remained like that in the Polish church where the Wojtyła-style of management has been established and taken root. Doctrine, when it comes to sexual issues, is razor-sharp. No dissent, no discussion. At the same time the sexual exploits of some of the clergy are widely tolerated. Some priests have the reputation of sex maniacs, but this does not hold them back from career advancement, because they are “talented managers” who, in addition, “courageously criticize abortion and permissive ideology.” So, they are on the right side, unyielding; they defend the doctrine and legacy of JPII.

Take, for example, Fr. Dymer, who was known as the Jankowski of Szczecin. [Fr. Jankowski of Gdańsk was, in the 1980s, an important Solidarity member and supporter. He’s since, however, been credibly accused not only of pedophilia but also of serving as an operational contact of the communist security services.] In the 1990s, a city-wide scandal breaks out. Victims and their parents report [Fr. Dymer’s abuse of minors] to the bishop. The nuns confirm the accusations because they are no longer able to turn a blind eye to the lurid goings-on and they want to help the victims. The bishop brutally hushes up the whole thing. At any rate, Dymer seems to have some business connections and contacts with the right-wing politicians, so Bishop Głódź painstakingly sweeps the whole thing under the rug.

Do you know how long it took to conduct a canonical investigation into Fr. Dymer? Twenty-five years, believe it or not. That’s how long the church needs to verify accusations. A quarter of a century! Can you imagine that? But when Fr. Lemański says something controversial in some interview or when Fr. Boniecki [of Tygodnik Powszechny] publishes an op-ed that doesn’t “conform to the party line,” within a mere week he is placed under a ban on speaking to the media. People like that are moved around and silenced. It’s a real shame. The imbalance is bad—but it is Wojtyła’s legacy.

GS: But what was his pontificate like as a whole?

Obirek: Theologically? Non-existent. Dramatically weak. Regression. My favorite theologian, Karl Rahner, published a book in 1984, shortly before he passed away, Faith in a Wintery Season. Because for him, 1978 brought with it an ice age that permeated everything that was creative.

GS: But are there any Wojtyła encyclicals that are interesting? Theologically interesting?

Obirek: John Paul II’s social encyclicals do stand the test of time. Those that address the dignity of work, etc. That’s for sure. But nothing followed all that. On the outside, one got Wojtyła’s smiling face. Slogans meant to seduce non-Catholics; empty gestures to the effect that we do want to engage in dialogue. But within the Church’s ranks, all one got was harsh discipline, while labor enjoyed zero dignity. You can see all that in the molestation scandals, because if a bishop uses his position to seduce his subordinates, that is, seminary students [as was the case, for years, with the Archbishop of Poznań, Juliusz Paetz], what we come out with is dignity of work brutally trampled underfoot.

GS: Will anything of value remain, then, after the twenty-seven years of Wojtyła’s pontificate? Nothing?

Obirek: I wouldn’t say that. Not at all. What will remain is two images. I’m sorry, three. All connected with interreligious dialogue. The pope’s visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome and the cordial embrace with Italy’s chief rabbi, Elio Toaff. “You are our beloved brethren and—one could say—our older brethren” is what Wojtyła said then. The second important image is Assisi, the meeting between representatives of other religions. And of course, the Wailing Wall, where Wojtyła prays and leaves a note asking the Jews for forgiveness. An incredible sense of gesture, an actor’s moment, as it were. Unfortunately, however, those were all gestures directed to the outside. And within the Church…

You know what, let me say something very personal. What drew me to Catholicism back in 1976, when I entered the Jesuit Order, was its openness. What I saw around me was bleak and grey communism, and the Church seemed to be an interesting alternative, colorful, global, engaged in discussion. Thomas Merton, Karl Rahner, Bede Griffiths, Jean Daniélou, Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar—it was the wonderful world of  a Catholicism that was open. I intuitively went in that direction because it was an antithesis of the ideologically dead communism. Then Wojtyła suddenly becomes pope; and what had drawn me to the Church became the object of persecution and restriction. Wojtyła issued prohibitions and demanded blind obedience to doctrine as he understood it. It rather quickly came to remind me of the stifling atmosphere of the People’s Republic of Poland.

GS: Is the Vatican’s report on McCarrick the first step in removing Wojtyła from the altar?

Obirek: I don’t think so. But on the other hand, the Vatican has never made gestures such as the report. So, I don’t quite know what will come afterwards. Three days after the report’s publication, the editorial staff of the National Catholic Reporter asked the American bishops to forego the public veneration of John Paul II. I believe the Vatican rhetoric will follow suit: One will need to point out that John Paul II was a child of his times, that his judgment regarding pedophilia lacked sharpness, that he tolerated people such as McCarrick, Degollado, Law, and others who, by means of flattery, cunning and Machiavellian tactics, swept him off his feet. It will all keep going in this direction. This may seem like a shocking idea but it is very American and pragmatic: Let him be a saint only for personal devotion; if you want it, you’re certainly welcome to it.

GS: There is a formula for that?

Obirek: Yes.

GS: And then the status of his sainthood would be lowered?

Obirek: There’s a nice phrase for it: “a contextualization of the saint.” What it means is that, yes, he did bad things, but such were the times.

GS: He slaughtered the pagans, but they all did that back then?

Obirek: Well, yes. St. Bernard of Clairvaux encouraged murdering the infidels and he supported the crusades, but such were the times. But that’s not why he became a saint. He loved the Mother of God and wrote Mariological treatises, which can build up our souls to this very day. That’s all that we recognize. Or take St. Thomas, well known for his approach to women.

GS: So what’s to come? If other cases come to light which will demonstrate that Wojtyła was in the know and knowingly swept things under the rug, will he then be pulled down from the altars?

Obirek: I don’t think so. He’ll just be erased.

GS: Erased?

Obirek: Origen is an example par excellence. He was one of the most outstanding fathers of the Church. He has never been pronounced a heretic. He’s just been shunned. Shunned because in regard to a number of issues he simply went too far. For example he performed auto-castration, and there are other “works for the sake of the faith” that can also be credited to his account. In his own way, he treated Holy Scripture too literally, and something had to be done about it. So he wasn’t cited. I think something similar will happen to Wojtyła. I’m quite sure the Polish bishops’ idea to make him a Doctor of the Church will be dismissed. I’ve been to several conferences on the Second Vatican Council and it’s rather surprising Wojtyła simply isn’t mentioned. People talk about John XXIII, they talk about Francis, while Ratzinger and Wojtyła are tactfully avoided. When asked about this out in the hallways, the conference participants say that neither contributed anything new. “Wojtyła? Well, there just isn’t much to say.”


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Stanisław Obirek (b. 1956) is a Polish theologian, historian and anthropologist of culture. He is professor ordinarius [the highest professorial rank] at the University of Warsaw, where he lectures in the human sciences. A former Jesuit, he was the President of Krakow’s College of the Jesuit Fathers. Obirek is, most recently, the author of Wąska ścieżka: Dlaczego odszedłem z Kościła (A Narrow Way: On Why I Left the Church) and two books coauthored with Zygmunt Bauman and available in English, Of God and Man and On the World and Ourselves.


The interview can be found in the original Polish at https://next.gazeta.pl/next/7,151003,26537236,wojtyla-jako-szef-nadwislanski-styl-menadzerski-plus-tropienie.html#s=BoxOpMT  NB: No authorization has been sought for this translation.

See also: John Paul II