John Paul II became Pope in 1978, just as the emancipatory 60s were declining into the long political night of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. As the economic downturn of the early 70s began to bite, the western world made a decisive shift to the right, and the transformation of an obscure Polish bishop from Karol Wojtyla to John Paul II was part of this wider transition. The Catholic church had lived through its own brand of flower power in the 60s, known as the Second Vatican Council; and the time was now ripe to rein in leftist monks, clap-happy nuns and Latin American Catholic Marxists. All of this had been set in train by a pope - John XIII - whom the Catholic conservatives regarded as at best wacky and at worst a Soviet agent.
What was needed for this task was someone well-trained in the techniques of the cold war. As a prelate from Poland, Wojtyla hailed from what was probably the most reactionary national outpost of the Catholic church, full of maudlin Mary-worship, nationalist fervour and ferocious anti-communism. Years of dealing with the Polish communists had turned him and his fellow Polish bishops into consummate political operators. In fact, it turned the Polish church into a set-up that was, at times, not easy to distinguish from the Stalinist bureaucracy. Both institutions were closed, dogmatic, censorious and hierarchical, awash with myth and personality cults. It was just that, like many alter egos, they also happened to be deadly enemies, locked in lethal combat over the soul of the Polish people.
Aware of how little they had won from dialogue with the Polish regime, the bishops were ill-inclined to bend a Rowan-Williams-like ear to both sides of the theological conflict that was raging within the universal church. On a visit to the Vatican before he became Pope, the authoritarian Wojtyla was horrified at the sight of bickering theologians. This was not the way they did things in Warsaw. The conservative wing of the Vatican, which had detested the Vatican Council from the outset and done its utmost to derail it, thus looked to the Poles for salvation. When the throne of Peter fell empty, the conservatives managed to swallow their aversion to a non-Italian pontiff and elected one for the first time since 1522.
Once ensconced in power, John Paul II set about rolling back the liberal achievements of Vatican 2. Prominent liberal theologians were summoned to his throne for a dressing down. One of his prime aims was to restore to papal hands the power that had been decentralised to the local churches. In the early church, laymen and women elected their own bishops. Vatican 2 didn't go as far as that, but it insisted on the doctrine of collegiality - that the Pope was not to be seen as capo di tutti capi, but as first among equals.
John Paul, however, acknowledged equality with nobody. From his early years as a priest, he was notable for his exorbitant belief in his own spiritual and intellectual powers. Graham Greene once dreamed of a newspaper headline reading "John Paul canonises Jesus Christ". Bishops were summoned to Rome to be given their orders, not for fraternal consultation. Loopy far-right mystics and Francoists were honoured, and Latin American political liberationists bawled out. The Pope's authority was so unassailable that the head of a Spanish seminary managed to convince his students that he had the Pope's personal permission to masturbate them.
The result of centring all power in Rome was an infantilisation of the local churches. Clergy found themselves incapable of taking initiatives without nervous glances over their shoulders at the Holy Office. It was at just this point, when the local churches were least capable of handling a crisis maturely, that the child sex abuse scandal broke. John Paul's response was to reward an American cardinal who had assiduously covered up the outrage with a plush posting in Rome.
The greatest crime of his papacy, however, was neither his part in this cover up nor his neanderthal attitude to women. It was the grotesque irony by which the Vatican condemned - as a "culture of death" - condoms, which might have saved countless Catholics in the developing world from an agonising Aids death. The Pope goes to his eternal reward with those deaths on his hands. He was one of the greatest disasters for the Christian church since Charles Darwin.
Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at Manchester University
© 2005 Guardian Newspapers, Ltd.