I will admit that I was raised in an anti-Catholic household, for all that I lived in a heavily Catholic town and never saw my parents behave in any kind of bigotted way to any individual face-to-face. In my father, the attitude was partly a remnant of anti-Irish UK views inherited perhaps from his Scottish father, even though my father was raised in Australia where tender concern for English sensibility has been dead as doornails since Gallipoli, or further back when the "First Australians" were carried over in HM's prison ships.
But growing up with the British view of world history, even as seen through an Australian prism, predisposes one to a sense of Catholicism as epitomized by the reign of Bloody Mary, or by the Inquisition itself. In my childhood historical fantasies, if I was not in the century of my birth, then most likely I could be found fighting the Spaniards.
To a US adolescent in the late 60's, the Catholic church was another and one of the major institutional forms of hypocracy and oppression. Luckily I was moved out of this sort of black-and-white view of things as a college student, when I studied Jung with a theology doctoral candiate at the Harvard Divinity School who was later able to overcome that very significant obstacle and be ordained a Catholic priest. He taught me a lot about the complexity of personal belief in Christ, for a Christian---in some ways I think I came to appreciate the full embodiment of that complexity as it can be seen in Catholic theology, as opposed to the more rationalized versions of Christ and his teachings that have grown out of the various Reformation and Protestant movements of the last four hundred years.
Even so---I'm dismayed by the tsunami of sychophantic drivel that has washed over us as the Schiavo deathwatch has switched seamlessly to the Papal deathwatch, and now the actual death itself. Mark Kleiman, over in his "reality-based community", dares us, despite his generally liberal point of view, to say anything critical about JPII until the grass is green on his grave. I guess I can't work up that level of pious suspension of belief, despite the genuine grief of some Polish friends at his passing.
As a man, there was so much to admire about Karol Wojtyla, but this is also what has always made his extraordinarily rigid interpretation of doctrine so dismaying. Tremendously physical, courageously opposing two of the great fascisms of our time---Nazis and Soviet imperialists---a multilingual world traveler with special attention for neglected realms of Catholicism in Africa and Asia---he nevertheless continued to enlarge upon the most conservative of the doctrinal streams to have emerged in the Church in the wake of the Reformation.
Spanning several sessions and Popes, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) sought to establish Catholic doctrine in contrast to the emerging tenets of a "reformed" Christian Protestant church, or family tree of Protestant churches. By virtue of its reactionary nature, the Council at most times was among other things a struggle between the Bishop of Rome and the other Bishops, and their representatives, to establish the Catholic Church on a more centralized (Roman) versus a more distributed (Episcopal) basis. This debate is one of the reasons, for example, that Henry VIII could break with the Church at Rome and still consider himself a Catholic.
The ultramontain version of things ("a term used to denote integral and active Catholicism, because it recognizes as its spiritual head the pope") was fixed in cement by the very next Council, the First Vatican Council of 1870. This is the point where the doctrine of Papal Infallibility becomes dogma. Per the Wikipedia:
papal infallibility is the dogma that the Pope, when he solemnly defines a matter of faith and morals ex cathedra (that is, officially and as pastor of the universal Church), is always correct, and thus does not have the possibility of error.
While many catholics apparently haven't heard about or understood the Pope's infallibility
A recent (1989-1992) survey of Catholics aged fifteen to twenty-five from multiple countries (the USA, Austria, Canada, Ecuador, France, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Peru, Spain and Switzerland), showed that 36.9% accepted the dogma of papal infallibility, 36.9% denied it, and 26.2% said they didn't know. (Source: Report on surveys of the International Marian Research Institute, by Johann G. Roten, S.M.)
it is also true that Papal infallibilty has less scope than non-canon lawyers might suppose:
The only statements of the Pope that are infallible are statements that either reiterate what has always been taught by the Church or are ex cathedra solemn definitions (which can never contradict what has formerly been taught)
Since ex cathedra solemn definitions are very rare, it turns out that infallibility basically inheres in reiterating what has always been taught by the Church.
And here we reach the real glory and damage of the reign of Karol Wojtyla. As Lord Buckley sayeth, in his sermon The Naz, "when He laid it, He laid it!". It is hard to imagine a more activist Pope. The damage is that his doctrinal instincts were so entirely reactionary.
John Paul II was also considered to have halted the progressive efforts of Vatican II, becoming a flagship for the conservative side of the Catholic Church. He continued his staunch opposition of contraceptive methods, abortion and homosexuality.
A controversial point of the John Paul II papacy was his October 1, 1986 letter to all bishops that described homosexuality as a "tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil" and "an objective disorder". His book Memory and Identity claimed that the push for homosexual marriage may be part of a "new ideology of evil ... which attempts to pit human rights against the family and against man."
...Regarding abortion, the Pope wrote that: "There is still, however a legal extermination of human beings who have been conceived but not yet born. And this time we are talking about an extermination which has been allowed by nothing less than democratically elected parliaments where one normally hears appeals for the civil progress of society and all humanity."
...The Pope also criticized transsexual and transgender people, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which he supervised, banned them from serving in church positions and denied church workers the ability to change records and otherwise accommodate them, as well as considering them to have "mental pathologies".
And while JPII's advocacy for the poor of the world was constant and consistent, he organizationally and doctrinally destroyed the actual adaptation of Catholic teaching to political struggles on their behalf (aka, Liberation Theology---see also Roy Edroso on this topic at alicublog, via Majikthise).
Like much else in the 60's, Vatican II seemed to herald the dawn of a saner and more inclusive exercise of hierarchical power. But we must have been deceiving ourselves on everything from Vatican doctrine to Kennedy's foriegn policy, to see what has grown from these hopeful shoots. Who would not mourn a man like this, who has the grace even to die so publically, over such a long period, with such forebearance? But his papacy has been far too long for the good of many now excluded and anathemized Catholics and perhaps for the Church itself.