THE WORLD has been immensely moved by the death of Pope John Paul II in a manner that is as significant an event in the history of his papacy as any during his lifetime. He is said to have met and addressed more people face to face in Rome and abroad in his 26-year reign than any human being in history, and many of them reacted as if the encounter established a personal bond. Television magnified that effect many times, and he seemed to instinctively understand its demands even on his deathbed.
What explains this spontaneous, overwhelming reaction? Partly it was his character, for he had a natural ability to communicate warmly with every member of a vast crowd. Partly it was his humanity, honed in prayer and burnished in intense and prolonged suffering, which seemed to make visible in his person, as it were, his profound teaching about the dignity of every human being. Young people who flocked to him en masse saw the real heart of the man. He made them feel better about themselves. He gave Catholic Christianity a human face.
This character was also key to his impact on world events. The people of Eastern Europe, his native Poland in particular, resented living under Communist rule, but were also resigned to it. He knew from his experience as a Polish cardinal that changing this mood to one of courage and hope might be enough to destabilise the entire regime. He understood the profound contradiction at the heart of Marxist philosophy which claimed to liberate the workers but had instead oppressed them. The message that later made him so attractive to young people in the West was the message he brought to the striking members of Solidarity, the free Polish trade union: that each one of them had infinite value in the sight of God, therefore they should not be afraid. It was from these reflections that Pope John Paul II developed what will be one of his most important legacies, the updating of Catholic social teaching so that it could offer a relevant and realistic ethical judgement on the modern global economy.
His most important legacies Thus did his roots in Poland shape his papacy from the start. The same is true of his reconciliation with the Jews. As a Pole he, unusually, had Jewish boyhood friends. John Paul II’s deep sorrow and shame at the way Christians had treated the Jews throughout history revolutionised the Catholic theological perception of Judaism for ever. But this also taught him how religious conflict could have devastating consequences for human life, an insight which impelled him to begin to build bridges with the Muslim world. By his efforts, the dangerously self-fulfilling scenario of a “clash of civilisations” between the Christian West and the Islamic world has largely been neutralised. Muslims knew that the Pope supported neither of the wars against Iraq, and was their true friend.
All these effects and influences of his papacy can be admired as much from outside the Catholic Church as from within. These are what those who wish to attach the rare appellation “Great” to his name have in mind. But greatness in Popes is more usually associated with reform than with reaction, and there was undoubtedly a reactionary side to his papacy. The Vatican under his leadership increased its central control of the local Church to the extent that loosening the ties may well be a priority among the cardinals who will begin meeting in conclave to elect his successor on 18 April. While air travel and the media made him the world’s most famous public figure, modern technology and his sheer longevity introduced an inevitable distortion in the balance between centre and periphery.
His prolific intellectual output left little room for disagreement; and on a series of issues, notably the ordination of women, debate was prematurely curtailed. He wanted a Church of one mind, his mind. It was not a good time to be a theologian.
A negative response to liberation theology Under his leadership, and exploiting his immense prestige, the Vatican frequently overruled pastoral judgements made by bishops in their own dioceses, especially in Germany over the issues of abortion counselling clinics, and over the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion. The German cardinal-archbishops will now be looking to reassert the rights of the local Church against the universal, an issue over which there is ongoing public disagreement between two of the curia’s most influential figures, both German papabili, Cardinals Ratzinger and Kasper. This mood will be shared by many others, including English-speaking cardinals who have not appreciated insensitive Vatican interference over reform of the English liturgy; and they will find allies not least in Latin America, where the Vatican under this Pope has tried consistently, but contrary to the local Church’s instinct, to disengage it from difficult issues of social justice.
The Pope’s negative response to liberation theology, above all his failure to help Archbishop Oscar Romero before he was assassinated, was one of the calamities of his papacy. It was as if he were determined to apply to his task in other countries and indeed continents all that he had learned in Poland, but only what he had learned in Poland, including a conviction that it was the destiny of his native country, crucified and resurrected, to act as “Christ among the nations”. And that included a refusal to heed any of the signs of the times in the profound changes over the last half-century in interpersonal or sexual relations, especially in the West. He saw no need to replace the sexual mores of the conservative Polish culture in which he grew up with anything new.
The task of the conclave That had been, above all, a world without Aids. Of all the judgements made by the Vatican under this papacy, that concerning the prohibition of the use of condoms in the fight against this disastrous epidemic in Africa was rightly the most notorious. It symbolised a commitment to dogmatism in the face of appalling human suffering. It is one of the great mysteries of the last 26 years why this pope of immense humanity failed to respond adequately to the Calvary that Aids has become. It is Africa that is being crucified today, not Poland.
History should be given time to reach a fair and balanced judgement. That is why calls for instant canonisation are inappropriate, sometimes motivated by a desire to bathe all positions and policies in the glow of sanctity and thus to bind his successors. The task of the conclave of cardinals will be to distinguish the man from the message, and not to let their immense admiration for the former, commit them uncritically to the latter. It needs to pray, but also to think.