John Paul II

Assessing His Legacy

In the last chapter of my Gifford Lecturers (With the Grain of the Universe: The Church’s Witness and Natural Theology), I suggested that the great Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder and John Paul II represent the theological politics necessary to sustain the work of theology in our time. I am sure many thought I was being disingenuous. Anabaptist and pope are surely strange bedfellows. But I had no devious intentions. I believe that John Paul II’s reassertion of the Christological center for Roman Catholic theology has ecclesiological implications that are not unlike those represented by Yoder.

In his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, John Paul II made Christ the center of the church’s witness in a manner that shaped all his papacy. Those external to the Catholic world may think it odd to congratulate a pope for being “Christological.” But John Paul II, schooled on the resources needed to oppose totalitarians, called Catholic theology back to its animating center with a renewed sense that Jesus matters. I think, moreover, it is no accident that John Paul II later issued Fides et ratio, for he rightly understood that any recovery of right reason requires an uncompromising recognition that the God who can be known through reason is the God who has made himself known in Christ.

John Paul II’s effort to help Catholics understand that they are members of a world church was a correlative of his Christological convictions. Natural theology and natural-law ethics seemed to make sense when the popes viewed Europe as their pastoral backyard. It was John Paul II’s great vision—a vision that Rahner rightly thought to be the result of Vatican II—to see that European Catholicism no longer defined what counts as Catholicism. John Paul II, like Yoder, began the exploration of what it might mean for the church to live in a situation in which we are not the “establishment.”

That John Paul II sought to be a “non-Constantinian pope” does not mean he abandoned the church’s pastoral responsibilities toward Europe and the West. But as his most recent book (Memory and Identity) made clear, he understood that the developments often associated with the Enlightenment created a new challenge for Christians in the cultures of the West. In particular, he was not impressed by the creation of wealth in societies like those of Europe and America. He seems to have understood, as Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested, that from the perspective of the gospel, capitalism is as bad for those who succeed by its standards as for those who fail by them. Without romanticizing poverty, John Paul II understood the significance that Catholicism remains the church of the poor.

John Paul II’s travels, moreover, suggest that he had to go where the poor live. It is clear he understood that Rome could be a prison. He had to travel so that Catholics in the West might understand that they are not the church. Catholicism is a material faith and Christians rightly desire to see the pope in the flesh. John Paul’s willingness to be present anywhere in the world was the attempt to resist any suggestion that the church is an invisible reality. If Christianity is connections, this was a pope who connected. He was able to make connections because people sensed he was a man of deep faith who resisted letting the responsibilities of his office compromise what truthfully needed to be said.

I particularly admired the last years of John Paul II’s papacy. Frail and feeble, he carried on. Political leaders are generally required to be vigorous and manly. Over the last years of his life, John Paul was anything but. He seemed, in many ways, a broken man. Yet what a wonderful witness it is that the office of unity of the church of Jesus Christ would be found in one so broken.

I am aware that many will find my admiration for John Paul II too cheap. I am, after all, a Protestant. I have not had to suffer from or struggle with some of his more “conservative” sides. I cannot mount a defense against such criticism, but I hope the reasons for my sense of his significance are nonetheless good ones. John Paul II longed for Christian unity. It was a loving longing that those of us who remain outside the Roman Catholic Church could not help but respond to with love for him and the church he led.


Click here for other reflections on the papacy of John Paul II.

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: 

Stanley Hauerwas is professor of theology at Duke Divinity School.

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