John Paul II

Assessing His Legacy

In life, John Paul II evoked powerful reactions. Books by George Weigel and John Cornwell represent sophisticated versions of those reactions. In Witness to Hope, Weigel was nearly hagiographical. His writing on John Paul II is adulatory in the extreme. With other neoconservatives, he enlisted the pope in his causes. For some of those causes, especially support of laissez-faire capitalism, the pope would resist the draft.

In Breaking Faith, Cornwell found John Paul II the emblem, if not the root, of what ails the Roman Church. With other liberals, he excoriated the pope for his seemingly restorationist approach to ecclesial issues in general and theological issues in particular. Yet neither is this view fully fair. Beyond the hype and the glitter, the bile and the frustration, what were John Paul’s distinctive contributions?

Clearly, his support for the Solidarity labor union in Poland led to the end of Communist hegemony in Central Europe a decade into his reign. His media-soaked travels evoked real, but probably ephemeral, responses from many young folk. Whether he was scolding the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1983, praying with world religious leaders at Assisi in 1986, making a pilgrimage around the Mediteranean in 2001, or praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, he was an ecclesial activist. He tried to use his office to say and to show what it meant to be a Catholic Christian. His great encyclicals, from Redemptor hominis through Fides et ratio, form an important legacy.

As an old man worn down by Parkinson’s disease, he seemed more a figurehead for Vatican dicasteries thanan active leader. Not an unusual occurrence at the end of a long pontificate.

How to understand that pontificate? One key is the title of John Paul’s controversial motu proprio (a unilateral act undertaken on his own initiative) revising canon law. The rather unusual title, Ad tuendam fidem, recalls the Latin collect for the feast of Pope St. Pius X, which begins Ad tuendam catholicam fidem (to preserve the Catholic faith). As Pius X was a defender of the faith against modern deviations, so was John Paul II. As Pius X was the pope of the Eucharist, so was John Paul II.

From his Holy Thursday letter of 1980, Dominicae cenae, to his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharista, John Paul II intimately connected Christ, the institution of the Eucharist, the hierarchical priesthood, and the church. It is no wonder that a hierarchical form of “communion ecclesiology” flourished in his pontificate. One could put it this way: without the priest, no Eucharist; without the Eucharist, no church; without the church, no salvation. And no one “who is not baptized or...who rejects the full truth of the faith regarding the eucharistic mystery” can receive the Eucharist (Ecclesia de Eucharista, 38), although some individuals not fully incorporated into the Roman Catholic Church may receive the Eucharist in some special circumstances. Maintaining eucharistic proprieties, supporting the vocation of the priest, and refusing to allow any “watered down” theology to sully the communion that is the church were major themes of his pontificate.

Like Pius X, John Paul II had skirmishes with theologians, challenged the modern world both intellectually and morally, and signed off on a syllabus of errors (Pius X’s Lamentabili sane exitu against modernism; John Paul II’s Dominus Iesus against theologies of religious pluralism). Both also had curial officials who cultivated networks of spies throughout the world who related deviations in theology or ritual to Rome.

Pius X did not have the instantaneous communications network that John Paul II had. Pius was a prisoner of the Vatican and John Paul was certainly not. Indeed, memories of his pilgrimages focus on the massive attendance at his celebrations of the Eucharist. And unlike Pius X, John Paul II did build upon Leo XIII’s legacy of Catholic social teaching in his encyclicals Centesimus annus and Sollicitudo rei socialis. John Paul, a sometime philosophy professor, could also appreciate the contributions of the secular culture of his time in ways that Pius could not in his own era.

Both Pius X and John Paul II worked for the goal of preserving the faith, ad tuendam fidem, in analogous ways. Pius’s legacy was theologically debilitating, but, devotionally a profound achievement. John Paul’s pontificate was theologically stimulating and controversial, but given the profound level of defection from the practice of Catholicism—especially participation in the Eucharist—in Europe (and to a lesser extent in the United States) over the last century, the devotional center of this pontificate seems unlikely to endure.

In the end, as always, it will take an act of God to preserve the faith, no matter what popes do and say or fail to do and say.

 


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

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: 

Terrence W. Tilley is the Avery Dulles, SJ, Professor of Catholic Theology at Fordham University.

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