The phenomenon of the mass media praising the recently deceased Pope as an exemplar or demigod is almost as inappropriate as the equivalent frenzy that followed the death of Princess Diana. Yes, the Pope was an opponent of communism – though not in fact an especially significant one. Yes, he deserves credit for taking a stand against antisemitism within his Church – though he did not hesitate to elevate several notorious antisemites to sainthood, and utterly failed to bear witness when President Assad, in his presence, resurrected ancient antisemitic blood libels and hailed the Pope as a fellow enemy of The Jews. Perhaps his most praiseworthy attribute (which is notably under-recognised, even in the current festival of appreciation for him), was his firm defence of the proposition that morality is not arbitrary or relative but objective – though even this great and rare virtue is offset by the embarrassing fact that his actual grasp of right and wrong over many issues of current controversy was ludicrously shaky compared with, say, the average person in an American street.
For as Christopher Hitchens points out, Pope John-Paul II opposed contraception that would have saved millions from AIDS, the Iraq war that liberated millions from tyranny, and stem cell research that would advance medical science and save lives, and was likewise a dogmatic and implacable opponent of much that would improve the human condition as well as his own Church. Many people with more deference than sense will continue to claim that he was a moral giant for some time to come, and that is a large part of the Catholic Church's problem. Millions of people follow its advice uncritically because they regard it as a supernaturally certified moral authority. This has given the Catholic Church enormous power but little capacity to improve, and almost none of the checks and balances that could offset the tendency of that power to corrupt.