Insights of a Family Friend

Suppose all the people called Roman Catholic had wanted to say goodbye to the pope. Allow them three seconds each for a handshake and a blessing. The parade of the first million would have taken only 36 days. But by the end of this pontificate there were one billion people who are called Catholic. The parade of greeters and blessees would have consumed 96 years of the pontiff’s time. One needs few more statistics than those included in this act of imagination to get some sense of the size and scope of the Catholic flock and the duties of the Catholic shepherd named John Paul II. Those of us who have responsibilities toward a family, a parish, a classroom or an office will have difficulty even effecting that act of imagination.

Assigned the task of writing a book on Protestantism, unimaginatively named Protestantism, more than 30 years ago, I looked for the boundaries of the subject. Almost everything Catholics believe some Protestants believe somewhere or other. The only focus of Catholic faith that all Protestants (and Orthodox, and all other non-Catholic Christians) reject is the papacy, as defined by the Catholic Church. The Oxford English Dictionary, for a few lines forgetting the existence of Orthodoxy, defines Protestantism as the Christian churches or bodies which repudiated papal authority.


If the pope is not ours, however, we remain officially sisters and brothers and thus members of the family. Most moves John Paul II made bore upon the rest of Christianity, and many of them had an impact on the rest of the world. John Paul II was colorful, charismatic, intellectually powerful and an activist pope. He was perhaps the most widely recognized person in the worldonly Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan would have been rivals in such rankingand certainly in the church. Only Pope John XXIII will be seen decades from now as a comparably influential 20th-century bishop of Rome, chiefly because he opened the church through the Second Vatican Council. Pope John Paul II had more years and took more opportunities to lead and to shape the church and those parts of the world that he could reach. His legacy will be felt and debated for centuries. The arguments and assessments began almost from the day he was elected and will intensify now with his death.

Nothing within the church moved John Paul II more than the internal diversity of peoples who shared a common loyalty. Nothing disturbed him more than the internal pluralism represented by individuals and sectors of the church where there was dissent from this or that feature of Catholicism that he considered essential. He spent much of his life, including the years before he was pope, delineating how the church should posture itself in respect to its internal life and external affairs.

In 1975 Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Kraków wrote, The church possesses a special interiority and a specific openness. Attentiveness to the special interiority of the church led the pope to set an agenda that was focused on preserving, interpreting and dispensing an integral set of Catholic teachings and practices that he saw to be challenged and threatened by modern Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The specific openness of the church led the same pontiff to set forth a program whose point of convergence led him to take risks in the human city, the polis. One of the grandest ironies of his career was that even as he forbade other priests from engaging in formal politics, he himself was involved in it in headline-making fashion virtually every day. Convinced that he had formulas for keeping the interiority specific and the openness special, John Paul II set out on a pontificate-long effort to get other Catholics to agree with him and serve within boundaries he setor, he would say, reset.

Sexuality and Authority

I sometimes summarize the end-of-the-millennium theme of Christians in all communions as sexuality plus authority. By sexuality I mean to code all elements of bodily existence. Technological changes in our time have made possible in vitro fertilization, many modes of aborting fetuses, new methods of employing artificial birth control and the transplanting of organs. New claims for human autonomy and individualism, for freedom and rights, including those of self-determination, have developed. Taken together, these changes made up much of the scheme of modernity that has proven such a challenge to the pope and to all believers.

The pope could visit Denver and have 400,000 young people pad around behind him without making much news. But when he said the words abortion or birth control or homosexuality, all the reporters’ notepads would flip open, and the television cameras would be turned on. John Paul II wanted to address the changes on this front mainly by holding the line, even to the point of drawing some snickers and sneers when he was interpreted as telling Catholic married couples not to have too much fun when enjoying sex within marriage. But no one who takes seriously the meaning of life, faithfulness, generativity and the human future could fail to be moved by the gravity this pope displayed when he discerned the weight of the situation and addressed it from his point of view.

The same impulses that led to his dedication to autonomy and individualism with respect to bodily existence were at work in the realm of governance, of leadership and followership, in church and world. Mass higher education produced a new kind of informed and restless Catholic laity, many of whom were ready to challenge the pope from right or left on almost every issue. The mass media brought news of dissent from anywhere to everywhere instantly and inspired the amassing of support of further dissent wherever there were Catholics.

A Catholic layperson described the change this way: It used to be that what the pope, the bishop or the priest said was binding; now the priests have to convince us before we follow. People like to be led, but leadership has to be charismatic and compelling, not coercive and unconvincing. A pope who moved with ease among the non-Catholic laity, especially the poor, and who could be expansive with non-Catholic Christians where little was at stake grew more tense as he met challenges from Catholic laypeople, especially women, who became expressive as never before during his pontificate, and then from clerics, who, he thought, forgot their place in the hierarchy and overstepped the bounds of obedience.

That the pope learned more than he acknowledged about the shift from coercive to persuasive leadership is clear from the fact that, for all the disturbances of dissenters and all the impulses he must have had to clean the house in fell swoops and with brisk sweeps, the number of priests he tried to rein in or rule outthe Küngs and Boffs and Lefebvres and Currans can be numbered on the fingers of two hands. The pope’s ineffectiveness at getting more than a very small minority of Catholic women of child-bearing age to agree theologically or behave as prescribed in the matter of birth control was a manifest signal of the limits of unconvincing teaching. Likewise, the fact that majorities, when convinced, followed him in his interpretation of Catholic teaching against abortion revealed how ready for followership a persuaded communion can be.

Still, efforts to preclude further debate on these and analogous issues have only loaded up the agenda for the pope’s successor, who will continue to have to deal with challenges on both fronts. To Catholic questioners and dissenters, including the most reverent and respectful and would-be obedient, it often looked as if, when the pope’s arguments were most weak, he would speak out most forcefully but without picking up much assent.

Communism and Capitalism

John Paul II was deeply involved in the fall of Communism. Some biographers wanted to make him central, given his involvement as Pole and pontiff in the challenge of Poland, through Solidarityhe loved the word and the conceptand his international diplomacy in general. Their claim is often challenged; it is very hard to connect cause and effect in human affairs. If the fluttering of a butterfly wing, chaos theorists tell us, can have a role in the development of a tornado in Kansas, then human actions include even more elements of chance, serendipity and inexplicability that will make claims of the sort we have just mentioned controversial. One can say that it surely did not hurt that the pope was Polish, that he cared greatly about human freedom and life in Eastern Europe, and that he enlarged and enjoyed his role both in diplomacy and actions consequent to the end of Euro-Communism.

Even more complex is the pope’s legacy with respect to what the world conveniently counterposes as a system and an ideologynamely, capitalism. In his various economic pronouncements and encyclicals, John Paul II said just enough to inspire free market ideologues to make him sound like St. Adam Smith or as a late-starting articulator of Max Weber’s Protestant ethic. Plenty of commentators in the Catholic economic camp isolated such capitalist-sounding sentences and used the pope for their cause. But no sooner would they quote such lines than their critics would counter with paragraphs in which the pope issued cautions, made criticisms and prophesied: the market does not automatically produce activity congruent with human need. Wherever he traveled in the Rich World, the pope denounced consumerism, one expression of market economy gone amok, as a threat to the soul and a selfish blinding of the haves to the needs of the have nots. If on the sex and authority front the pope usually sounded defensive, on the world-systems and economic front he was assertive and positive.

Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations

While John Paul II traveled much and carried on many dialogues, he is not likely to be remembered as the shaper in this field that John XXIII and Paul VI were before him. He could not have made more clear than he did his intention to improve relations with the Orthodox, next to whom he had grown up as a Pole. And yet there were no breakthroughs. Toward the end, in fact, there were setbacks on the Catholic-Orthodox front.

When the pope was elected, some prophesied that he would not do well with Protestants, because, again, as a Pole, he had hardly known any. That prophecy inspired not a few of us to remind observers, maybe not to know us is to love us. The pope did come to know Protestant leadership, but his preoccupations were with the special interiority of Roman Catholicism, and his openness to Protestants did not reveal much ambition to effect change, however friendly his gestures were.

On the interfaith front, there were also frustrations and failures. While he certainly intended to be friendly to Jews, Vatican policies in the Middle East were often interpreted by Jews as off-putting. On several occasions the pope reached out tentatively to Muslims. They could not get their own act sufficiently together to respond well; most planned meetings ended in mutual frustration or did not come off at all. During John Paul II’s adult years, the world of Islam was prospering. One-seventh of the global population was Muslim at mid-century, and one-fifth had become so by the time of the pope’s death. His successor will have to make relations in this area a prime theme on his agenda for the new millennium, especially since Islam and Christianity bump into each other in so many places, not least of all in sub-Saharan Africa.

One looks at the globe with what we imagine to be the pope’s eyes. He liked to look toward the east, homeward, as he dealt passionately with Communism and Orthodoxy. He liked less to look northwest and west, to Western Europe and North America, where the challenges of modernity and the lures of autonomy, consumerism and dissent troubled him most. He loved to look south, at the subcontinent of Asia, Latin America and Africa, where he saw the great growth of Catholic and other kinds of Christianity, and, with that growth, challenges and opportunities.

Because he refused to consider the ordination of women or the ordination of married men over the decades of his pontificate, a clergy shortage will be felt in all but the southern and poor worlds into the indeterminate futureor at least, as some of us, including this uncredentialed prophet, like to say, one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half pontificates from now. During his rule, the total number of men and women religious, priests and seminarians declined, a decline that appears more drastic when reckoned against Catholic population growth. There are more and more priestless parishes, and this creates problems with respect to the Mass. The rich Catholic imagination and tradition should inspire fresh ways to effect and interpret the authority to administer the sacraments. If nothing dramatic occurs to reverse trends, the center of worship and church life, the Eucharist, will consequently be moved to the margins. The pope’s efforts to preclude even discussion of these themes looked to many restless and creative Catholics as though he had lost faith in his power to persuade.

Near the end of his life the pope made a last valiant peacemaking effort, but it was thwarted. Thoroughly aware of the menace of terrorism and of bloodshed in the Middle East and elsewhere, and as friendly as he might on occasion be with American leaders, he vigorously opposed the idea and then the reality of pre-emptive war on the part of the United States in Iraq. While his words rallied Catholic dissenters against that war policy in America, he seemed to convert few other Catholics to his way of peace. This was also the case on the justice and mercy front, where he opposed capital punishment to little effect in the United States.

One other theme will mark the recollection of John Paul II’s years. While some of us might argue with many implications of his teaching and even with some of the foundational reasoning, we remain in his debt for the grand theme expressed in his masterpiece Veritatis Splendor: [T]he cornerstone of my pontificate is to explain the transcendental value of the human person. If you believe in God, you cannot behave in the same way as a person who does not believe in God. Basic belief in God, as revealed in Christ and nurtured in the church under the Holy Spirit, has as its corollary a belief in the idea of human dignity. Whatever else Pope John Paul II set out to teach or to practice, he always kept that dignity before his eyes and those of the church and the world. Being specifically open to the demands that theme will provoke in the new century should be one sign of the influence of Pope John Paul II upon all who came into the zones where this great man acted with dignity, with gravity.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018
Kevin Clarke tells us about his reporting from Iraq.
Olga SeguraOctober 19, 2018