Pope John Paul II A Divergent Viewpoint

Friday, April 08, 2005

Pope John Paul IIPope John Paul II: 1920-2005
by Joshua Adams

The death of Pope John Paul II brings with it a curious mixture of genuine sadness and polite indifference. Sadness not for the pope himself, whose religion promises eternal life, but for those he leaves behind, those who stood vigil in St. Peter’s Square, and those who pack the churches of Krakow, Lagos, Rio De Janeiro, Paris, Manila, Los Angeles and elsewhere. For the faithful, John Paul II was a living embodiment of decency, humility and truth. Their grief is that of a family who has lost its head, and their grief, whatever one’s position on the Catholic Church and its teachings, is real. It deserves acknowledgment, empathy, care.

Even so, a stubborn reticence remains. This is likely because, while Catholicism has bloomed in the developing world, recent years have seen sexual abuse scandals shatter its image in our society, one already at odds with many of the church’s teachings. Thus, the doubled nature of John Paul II’s papacy is everywhere in evidence, nowhere more so in his death. The pope saw the end of an ideology, Communism, that replaced God with the State; thanks to dogged reporters at the Boston Globe and elsewhere, we know the Church kept the State from investigating and trying in a timely fashion criminals who wore the vestments of God.

What the Vatican knew about the sexual abuse problem in the United States — not to mention incidents of abuse in other countries, such as Ireland — will haunt the church even as it buries its leader and begins the process to find his successor. We know that John Paul II thrust the Roman Catholic Church squarely into the great political debates of our time. What we don’t know is whether the political positions the church championed will end up saving it or hastening its demise. One thing is certain: in the United States, giving credibility to the church in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals remains a difficult task, to say the least.

Because of its position as both a political entity and a religious community, the church enters politics backed by an assumed spiritual authority. Occasionally, this is a blessing, even for progressive politics; witness the pope’s opposition to the war in Iraq, or to the death penalty. More often, of course, the church’s positions under this pope were frustratingly conservative, even by the standards of many lay Catholics, or the Second Vatican Council, if not, say, Mel Gibson. The authority on which those positions rest is, rightfully, under question, but, lamentably, not in those places where questioning would make the most difference. Can it possibly be moral for the church to evangelize heavily in Africa, while simultaneously arguing against the use of condoms that might stem the AIDS epidemic there?

Even the late pope’s detractors acknowledge his sheer endurance when it came to his bringing the church to the people. Now, with the images of his frailty fresh in our minds, we are liable to forget the vigor with which he assumed the duties of his office in 1978, when his predecessor’s papacy came to an abrupt end after a mere 34 days. John Paul II was the most well-traveled pope in the long history of that office. He traveled so much, in fact, that his trips generated controversy within the Vatican among those who thought his time would be better spent administering the Vatican bureaucracy. His successor will likely have the impossible challenge of somehow combining both of these tasks.

Although it is difficult to ascertain exactly what the papal world tours accomplished in the way of theology, it’s clear they did have a political use. Travel allowed the pope to spread his priorities throughout the globe, and to identify priests sympathetic to his vision of the church. The likelihood of the pope’s successor hailing from outside of Europe is significant; John Paul II appointed the vast majority of the eligible voters in the College of Cardinals, many of whom are from the developing world. But the chances of his successor deviating from his doctrinal positions is basically nil, for the very same reason.

Papal travel did have another purpose: public relations. The sheer size of the crowds who turned out during John Paul II’s pastoral visits still astonishes years later. He understood the power of celebrity, a power that, as the papacy has evolved, has thankfully taken the place of a morbidly uncouth realpolitik. After all, Michelangelo wasn’t going to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling — under which the College of Cardinals will convene to vote for a new pope — until Pope Julius II threatened to declare war in 1508. Some things really have changed for the better.

One of those changes for which John Paul II was personally responsible? A new injection of humility into the church’s dealings with other religions. Commentators have given credit to the late pontiff for his apologies to the Jewish people regarding the Vatican’s behavior during the Holocaust and previous centuries of European anti-Semitism. This is rightfully so — these apologies were badly needed and grossly overdue. Also cited are the pope’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim world; in 2001, he became the first pope to visit a mosque, in Damascus. Less publicized, but equally significant, were the pope’s efforts to bring about a reunion of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, riven by the Great Schism of 1066, and his gestures of reconciliation to the Anglican Church, which, thanks to Henry VIII’s marital difficulties, enjoys many of the rituals of Catholicism with none of the guilt.

To the extent that Christianity remains distinct from other religions in its emphasis on reconciliation, John Paul II was an exponent of the best of his faith. But although the pope led an extraordinary life, it was also, in some crucial ways, a representative one, too. Lest we succumb to the temptation to unduly lionize him, we remember that, just as he could speak eloquently about the dignity of all human persons while denying women the right to be priests, his church struggles to overcome its ancient, deeply authoritarian history in engaging modern life. This philosophical chasm may dull enthusiasm for Catholicism in the United States and Europe, but, in the developing nations, John Paul II convinced millions that the church had something to offer, something that only a combination of ecclesiastical authority and Christian faith could provide.

Time will tell whether the church’s authority will rise or fall with the regimes of those countries in which it now flourishes. For now, in those far-flung former colonies of Western empire, the fire of Christendom still burns, and the memory of Karol Wojtyla with it.

E-mail Joshua Adams at joshua at uchicago dot edu

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