From the Editor…

Published in Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), Letters, Volume 13

How many divisions has the pope?
As Eamon O’Flaherty observes in his review of Irish media reaction to the death of Pope John Paul II (TV Eye, pp 52–3), ‘remarkable claims have been made about John Paul II’s influence on world history, the most notable being that he was the main architect of the downfall of communism’. On the other hand, the purpose of his visit to Ireland in 1979 was to stem the rising tide of secularism, and in the years immediately following many battles (for example on abortion and divorce) were won by his divisions. But judging by recent statistics on Sunday observance, declining vocations, births outside marriage, etc., it seems that that war is being lost.
This raises one of the ongoing dilemmas faced by historians. Is the onward march of history determined by the will and actions of ‘great men’ or by social and economic forces akin to Adam Smith’s ‘hidden hand’? How can we explain the apparent ‘success’ of John Paul II on the wider world stage and his apparent ‘failure’ in Ireland? As Professor Ron Hill outlined in our last issue, another ‘great man’ of history, Mikhail Gorbachev, was equally ineffectual in stemming the decline and eventual collapse of the old Soviet Union. Was the election of a Polish pope in 1978 part of that process or would it have happened anyway? Will the election of a German pope, Benedict XVI, make any difference to the ongoing secularisation of Europe?

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Judging by the bulging mailbag, reader response to the last two issues has been unprecedented, especially in relation to last issue’s interview with Peter Hart: it certainly bears out the old adage that ‘history is an argument without end’. Peter Hart will respond to his critics in the next issue (July/Aug. 2005).


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