One of the more remarkable expressions of the openness and the atmosphere of universal communication in Western society is that religious figures are judged by their impact on other religious communities as well as their own.

The legacy of Pope John Paul II that had the greatest impact on Jewry may well be one that he left to all of humanity—his role in inspiring and sustaining the Solidarity movement. Poland’s breakaway was a major factor in bringing down the Soviet system. For one shining movement, thanks to the deep personal connection between Karol Wojtyla and the Polish people, obedience to God became resistance to tyranny. With his powerful, gentle goading, national identity became the vehicle of human dignity and freedom while religious devotion reinforced moral conviction and conscience to defy imperialist oppression. Upheld by John Paul’s spiritual force, Solidarity—despite relentless pressure—refused to stoop to anti-Semitism to protect its popularity with the masses.

In enabling the downfall of the Soviet Empire, John Paul II helped overthrow the most consistent postwar enemy of the Jews. Since the 1940s, the Communist system in its totalitarian insistence on uniformity had been the implacable enemy of Soviet Jews and their right to be themselves, religiously and culturally. Similarly, Stalinism was the most powerful antagonist of the Jewish right to statehood and self-determination. Time and again, after military defeat had brought the Arabs to the brink of acknowledging and settling with Israel, the Soviet Union restored their military capacity and revived their genocidal fantasies. Given the continuing power of evil in the world, John Paul II’s model that human spiritual solidarity can ultimately win out over force and repression to attain political freedom and cultural dignity without violence is not yet proved. Still, the witness of his life continues to deepen and extend such a vision within human consciousness.

The direct extraordinary gift John Paul II gave to Jewry was his historically unprecedented affirmation of the validity of the Jewish covenant, that is, of Judaism. Up to his reign, there was a direct connection between theological liberalism (and the desire to extend the innovations of Vatican II) and the will to renew the relationship of Catholic Christianity and Judaism. John Paul II was conservative. Yet he continued and extended the recasting of attitudes toward Judaism. On November 17, 1980, in Mainz, Germany, he spoke of the dialogue as “a meeting of the people of God of the Old Covenant, never revoked by God,” and that of the New Covenant. In the first-ever papal visit to any synagogue (Rome, 1986) he reiterated that “the Jews are beloved of God, who has called them with an irrevocable calling.” He spoke of going beyond “a mere co-existence,” and affirmed that Jewish-Christian relations were predicated on recognition and respect for each religion “in its own identity beyond any syncretism or any ambiguous appropriation.” These revolutionary declarations definitively undercut the supersessionism which dominated Christian attitudes toward Jews and their religion for almost two millennia. The policy was further extended by the document We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah, in which the Vatican acknowledged both past Christian failures and the theological weight of the Shoah as a new lodestar for future theological attitudes. If this were not amazing enough, John Paul’s Vatican worked out an agreement establishing diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. This pact constituted a repudiation of the tradition that Jews were condemned to be permanently in exile as long as they did not accept Christ. John Paul II climaxed his lifelong message with his visit to Israel in 2000. His prayers at the Wall and his qvittel (written request) for forgiveness for the past were the coda of his remarkable outreach to the Jews.

The third great legacy of John Paul’s life for Jewry is still the most controversial. His unyielding opposition to abortion and to feminist calls for equality and access to the priesthood resonated with Orthodox views but not with liberal streams in Judaism. His continuing ban on most forms of medical interventions in fertility, his reluctance to remove misbehaving church leaders, his resistance to admissions that the church (as against individual Christians) has failed morally, his strengthening of Marian veneration, and his support for the beatification of questionable popes (Pius IX and Pius XII) have not been well received.

But John Paul raised his theological position to another level by developing a broad theme that his promagesterium, proauthority, profamily, prolife, antifeminist, antigay teaching was in fact the defense of a culture of life. He stood in the breach against a media-driven, escalating hedonism (turning into drugs and pornography), individualism (turning into narcissism), and liberalism (turning into relativism). The emerging postmodern culture, he argued, was growing beyond one of materialism and excess into a culture of death, despite the good intentions of those who paved its way. (John Paul also linked this stand to opposition to the death penalty and a tendency to critique the use of force in world affairs.)

It is too early to conclude what the full impact of John Paul’s teachings about the culture of life will be. By creating some bulwarks in defense of traditional values, John Paul generated counterweight forces that operate to keep economic improvement, individualism, and egalitarianism healthy and restrained rather than allowing them to become overwhelming and destructive. Others would argue that women’s access to religious leadership and public expression, and other believers’ greater autonomy in expressing their personal, sexual, or familial identities will prove to be more crucial in raising the quality (and even quantity) of life.

Despite his outstanding contribution to the Jewish-Christian relationship, John Paul II gave too many mixed messages (embrace of Arafat, “Christianization” of the Holocaust, defense of Pius XII, secrecy of Vatican archives) to be the Jews’ most beloved pope. That title goes to Pope John XXIII, who threw open the windows and refreshed the relationship between Catholicism and the Jews (even as he did the relationship between the church and the modern world). Yet, John Paul’s gifts to Jewry go beyond John XXIII’s. The Talmud teaches that “in death, the truly righteous become larger than [in] life.” When the final assessment is made, the Jewish community worldwide will recognize this historic contribution and call him blessed.


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

Rabbi Irving Greenberg is president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation and the author of For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity.
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.