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...

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About the Author

Terrence W. Tilley is chair of the Theology Department at Fordham University.