From the outset, John Paul II had a two-fold mission as pope: to bring the insights and values of the suffering church of the East (especially Poland) to the comfortable churches of the West, and to bring an end to what conservative cardinals and bishops at the time of his election regarded as the postconciliar drift of the church—an implied, if not a pointed, criticism of Pope Paul VI.

John Paul II believed that his election in 1978 was fraught with immense historical and providential significance. He recalled what his fellow Pole, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had told him: “If the Lord has called you, you must lead the church into the third millennium.” And so it happened.

A key part of John Paul II’s grand pastoral design was to unite the spiritual forces of the world’s three monotheistic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—against the common enemies of materialism and secularism. With regard to Islam, he (unsuccessfully) sought cooperation rather than confrontation. He even inserted criticism of the ongoing Persian Gulf War into his 1991 encyclical Centesimus annus (n. 52).

John Paul II boldly reached out to Jews. He was the first pope to visit the chief synagogue in Rome and was also the first to open formal diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. In a dramatic ceremony in St. Peter’s Basilica in March 2000, he publicly asked forgiveness “in the name of the church” for the sins of Catholics against Jews throughout history and particularly at the time of the Holocaust. His subsequent visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial, served to italicize this commitment.

The obvious strengths of John Paul’s pontificate were in his “foreign policy,” that is, in his dealings with forces, events, and communities outside the Catholic Church. He became for many in today’s world a lone, powerful voice for spiritual values and integrity, and for moral consistency and courage. I would add to the list of John Paul’s strengths his prophetic denunciations of poverty and of governmental favoring of the rich and powerful over the poor and powerless in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, and his three major social encyclicals, Laborem exercens (1981), Sollicitudo rei socialis (1988), and Centesimus annus (1991), in which he reaffirmed the church’s “preferential option for the poor.” John Paul II was an unyielding defender of life at every point on the human spectrum, from conception to death. While he was a steadfast opponent of abortion and of euthanasia, he also condemned capital punishment and the use of military force, except under the rarest of circumstances.

John Paul II had a decisive hand in accelerating the implosion of the Soviet Union, particularly through his persistent and stalwart support for the Solidarity labor movement in Poland. Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged as much. The pope himself was far more modest about his achievement than were some of his most partisan supporters. He did not single-handedly cut down the Soviet tree, he insisted. He simply shook it so that its already rotting fruit fell more quickly to the ground. Even for that, he deserves full marks as an agent of global justice, peace, and freedom.

The pope was also fully committed to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. He was privately criticized by some for organizing and personally participating in the Assisi conference for world peace in 1986, where he conversed and prayed with leaders and representatives of the world’s great religions. Undoubtedly, some eyebrows were raised when he invited the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and a representative of the Orthodox Churches to assist him in the opening of the Holy Door of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls to inaugurate the Jubilee Year 2000. Those eyebrows must have been raised even higher in 1996, when, at a vesper service held on the occasion of the fourteen-hundredth anniversary of Gregory the Great’s sending Augustine and his fellow monks to re-Christianize Briton, the pope invited Archbishop Carey to walk in procession with him, in cope and miter. Archbishop Carey was accompanied by his wife, Eileen. On the same occasion, the pope gave Archbishop Carey a gold episcopal pectoral cross. These papal actions may not have been so much in contradiction to, as they were ahead of, official policies and pronouncements laid down in the past by his own Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF).

In one of his most important encyclicals, Ut unum sint (1995), John Paul II acknowledged that, while the Petrine office belongs to the essential structure of the church, the manner in which the papal office is exercised is always subject to criticism and improvement. He invited pastoral leaders and theologians of other Christian churches to enter into dialogue with him about the manner in which his office is exercised and to recommend ways in which its exercise might conform more faithfully to the gospel.

Finally, I would single out for special praise John Paul II’s efforts, following in the footsteps of John XXIII, to take seriously his primary pastoral role as bishop of the diocese of Rome. He did so by regular visitations to parishes for Sunday liturgy and other sacramental and ministerial activities, as well as to other institutions, such as hospitals, where his presence brought comfort and hope.

In order to pursue his overarching pastoral design, however, the pope believed from the beginning of his pontificate that the church itself had to be placed under greater discipline. He amended the Code of Canon Law to include dissent against official church teaching, whether infallibly rendered or not, among those transgressions that are “to be punished with a just penalty” (can. 1371).

The censuring of theologians Hans Küng, Charles Curran, and Leonardo Boff, and the excommunication in 1997 of a seventy-one-year-old Sri Lankan theologian, Tissa Balasuriya (who was restored to full communion a year later), at least temporarily damaged the close relationships that had been forged between theologians and the bishops at Vatican II. More recent CDF investigations of Jacques Dupuis, SJ, and Roger Haight, SJ, have been equally damaging. Punitive actions taken against Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle and Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, and the deposition of Bishop Jacques Gaillot of France without any meaningful prior involvement of the national conferences of Catholic bishops of their respective countries were disturbing even to many bishops whom the media would otherwise label as “conservative.”

In embarking on a hard-line course of enforcement of doctrinal and canonical discipline, John Paul II had, by implication, rendered a negative judgment about Paul VI. Following the Second Vatican Council, many Catholics had expected that the papacy would become more collegial in its governing style, that is, more like that of the first Christian millennium than the second, more like the pontificate of John XXIII than of Pius XII. But under John Paul II the governmental operations of the Catholic Church became more centralized, not less. Pastoral decisions that one would have expected to be left to the local bishops or to national conferences of bishops (for example, regarding the translation of liturgical texts) were reserved to the Vatican.

Many bishops complained that new bishops were often appointed without prior consultation or even in the teeth of their direct opposition, and that the agenda of the various world and regional synods of bishops were too strongly controlled by the Roman curia. Even the final statements issued by those synods were sometimes modified and reshaped to fit the curia’s perception of issues.

The pope also disturbed many Catholics, including members of the hierarchy, with the kind of movements and religious communities he clearly favored, for example, Opus Dei (whose founder was canonized in such rapid fashion that even some cardinals were dismayed by the process), and the Legionaries of Christ, whose founder and leader was appointed by the Vatican as a delegate to the Synod of the Americas in spite of accusations of sexual abuse.

On any list of deficiencies, the appointment of bishops stands at or near the top. Nowhere was John Paul II’s apparent determination to purify the church of critical and independent thought more evident than in the types of men he promoted to and within the hierarchy. In his pontificate, it seemed that only those priests could be made bishops who opposed the ordination of women, who regarded the use of every means of birth control—apart from natural family planning—as a mortal sin, and who opposed married priests—unless, of course, they were former Episcopal or Anglican priests who had come over to the Roman Catholic Church in protest against their own church’s ordaining of women.

In the end, my assessment of John Paul II’s pontificate stands somewhere between those to my left who concede no achievements, only deficiencies, and for whom John Paul II had been, as some of them liked to put it, “a disaster,” and those to my right who can see only perfection and heroic virtue and who dismiss any and all criticism as if born of elitist disaffection or even disloyalty to the church.


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

Rev. Richard P. McBrien, the Crowley-O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of Catholicism and The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, both published by HarperOne.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2005-04-22 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.