25 years of John Paul II

[Editors’ note: In the October 10, 2003 Commonweal, the editors took stock of John Paul II on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his papacy.]

John Paul II, who marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of his papacy October 16, has been the only pope many, perhaps most, Catholics now alive have ever known. His influence, like his enormous energy, will, and conviction, has been extraordinary. By one estimate, no other person in history has been seen—or at least glimpsed—by more people than the peripatetic Karol Wojtyla. Five million in the Philippines. A million in Chicago. How many millions in Poland? It adds up.

John Paul has shaped the church and the world in incontestable ways, from what he has written to “strengthen the brethren,” to the dramatic and crucial role he played in the fall of Soviet communism and the liberation of his beloved homeland. He has transformed the papacy, keeping it free from political entanglements while making it a unique moral voice on the world stage. Whatever complaints Catholics have about the pope’s lack of tolerance for theological pluralism or dissent, he has been a steady and impassioned voice for human dignity and rights, for the sacredness of all human life, and for the transcendent nature of the human person. He has placed the church firmly on the side of political freedom and at the side of the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. In a tumultuous time, this unselfconsciously pious pope has been a remarkable presence even among those who look askance at the idea of the sacred and spiritual.

It is a daunting challenge to assess such a pontificate. If John Paul has been a charismatic and powerful force for good in the world, there is no denying that he has also been autocratic and shortsighted in his dealings with bishops and theologians. He sees himself first as a universal pastor, but his pastoral decisions have been far from infallible. American Catholics, while holding a high opinion of John Paul’s personal virtue, have reason to be skeptical, even angry, about the quality of the bishops he has appointed. The sexual-abuse scandals that have shaken the American church have also shaken the faith of the laity in the pope’s judgment, since nearly without exception the bishops most implicated in the scandals were John Paul II appointees, and some were even his confidants. One mark of a leader is to what extent he allows those under his authority to flourish as leaders in their own right. Given the demoralization and polarization in the American church, it is hard not to conclude that the pope who could so shrewdly take the measure of his Communist opponents has been markedly less successful in understanding his flock in the United States. This is also evident in John Paul’s profound intellectual distrust of American freedoms, which rest on less certain assumptions about the exact nature of truth than the pope’s own essentially Thomistic views allow. Although the pope’s defense of the unborn has been right, even heroic, his description of Western democracies as a “culture of death” was ultimately unhelpful in the effort to change hearts and minds about abortion and related issues.

For many Catholics, the central question surrounding this papacy is whether it has fulfilled or betrayed the mandate of the Second Vatican Council. That is a debate that will not soon end. Conservative Catholics have rallied ’round John Paul’s unyielding stance on such things as birth control, priestly celibacy, the ordination of women, and his disciplining of so-called dissenting theologians. Liberal Catholics have generally interpreted these actions as turning away from the spirit, if not the letter, of the council—a return to the authoritarian practices of the preconciliar church. Still, this pope helped transform the papacy from a politically defensive and bureaucratically inert institution into an outspoken defender of human rights and a vibrant evangelical enterprise. John Paul’s profound belief in the council’s call for the church to engage the larger world and to renew its mission by returning to the sources of Catholic tradition is evident in both his ambitious ecumenical agenda and in his efforts to tighten the church’s Christological focus.

Where he has been less faithful to the council’s vision has been in his unwillingness to share any real decision-making authority with his fellow bishops and in his seeming deafness to lay concerns, especially in matters of episcopal appointments and sexual morality. Where Vatican II clearly endorsed a broader consultative process within the church, especially among bishops, this papacy has instead pursued a consolidation of power. Equally worrisome has been the pope’s enthusiasm for lay movements such as Opus Dei, which seem secretive, power hungry, backward looking, and not surprisingly, ultramontane.

John Paul has a lofty view of the papacy, one that too often isolates him from those with whom he shares responsibility for safeguarding and passing on the tradition. No one can doubt this pope’s devotion and dedication to the church, but neither should it be doubted that the church would benefit from a papacy that did not feel the need to carry the weight of the church and the world on its shoulders alone. If Vatican II brought anything truly new into Catholic life, it was the idea that all the people of God, not just the pope and the curia, share responsibility for the fate of the church. John Paul’s extraordinary sense of mission, his mystical understanding of his own destiny and vocation as pope, can sometimes turn his “service” into a form of domination.

It is only one of the paradoxes of John Paul’s character and papacy, that a man with a deep, and often well-founded, skepticism about the modern world has been so adept at catching and holding the world’s attention. John Paul’s intellectual legacy is substantial and challenging, yet when we think of this pope it is hard not to think first in images: the man of physical vigor on taking office, kissing the tarmac in a hundred different countries, beaming at the millions of Poles who welcomed him home, forever waving from the “Popemobile,” embracing his would-be assassin, praying at the Western Wall and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, slumped over with Parkinson’s disease. And on and on.

There are other images, of course, equally true to the man. There is John Paul on his arrival in Nicaragua wagging his finger and admonishing Father Ernesto Cardenal, the Sandinista’s minister of culture. There is the pope listening in stony silence at the National Shrine to Sister Teresa Kane’s appeal for the ordination of women (see Susan Ross, page 12). There is his stubborn refusal to embrace fully the martyrdom of Oscar Romero and his bringing the Jesuits to heel in 1981 by suspending their constitution and imposing a new father general on the order. And there is the specter of a courageous but physically incapacitated pope, clinging to the office out of a sense of his own indispensability.

Few lives are as public—and perhaps as lonely—as that of a pope, and few papacies have been so comprehensively documented as this one. John Paul is simply an unignorable force in the consciousness of our time. Yet in the end, as Robert Wilken writes in this issue (page 11), perhaps the image that best captures the temperament and personality of this complicated man is the ones of him on his knees in prayer. John Paul is a man so steeped in the habits of prayer and the reality of faith, that he seems most at ease, most himself, when in silent communication with God. This is not the only thing one should ask for in a pope, but surely it is both the first and the last thing we could wish for in Peter’s successor.

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