End Notes: Long Live the Pope

A dissident theologian who writes a syndicated column has, not for the first time, written longingly of the death of the pope. The poor devil sees the papacy of John Paul II as an unaccountable aberration, a deflection from the supposed progress that marked the period from the end of the Council until 1978 when Karol Wojtyla was elected to the Chair of Peter. But with the longed-for death of the pontiff, the whole bad dream can be blown away in a puff of white smoke.

No doubt the past seventeen and a half years have been trying ones for those who imagined that Vatican II had abrogated the previous centuries and opened the windows to a populist Church that would, needless to say, be ruled by the “Second Magisterium.” The Second Magisterium, an invention, I believe, of Karl Rahner, is the banner under which largely freelance theologians consider themselves to be rivals of the Holy See. Since 1968—ten years before John Paul II—they have been huffily interposing themselves between the pope and the people of God, assuring the latter that they need not take direction from the Vicar of Christ on earth.

The late Peter Hebbelthwaite—who also longed for the present pope to die but preceded him into that bourne from which no traveler returns—wrote a massive book on Paul VI in which the hitherto bete blanche of the dissidents turned out to be ever so much nicer than had been thought—when contrasted with his successor. As for Humanae Vitae, which had been the occasion of global warming among theologians when it appeared, apparently it had been foozled past the pope by Cardinal Ottaviani, or some other unreconstructed foe.

All can agree that the history of the Church during the past seventeen years would have been unimaginably different without John Paul II. Those of us who pray for him daily—and of course this must include all priests in their masses, whether or not they be dissident theologians—are scarcely grateful enough for this wise and holy man. Being a man, he is of course a mortal. The time will come—may it be far off—when he must die and a successor be elected.

In 1927, when he was at work on the book that would be called The Primacy of the Spiritual, Jacques Maritain, in his correspondence with Charles Journet, cites the plea of Catherine of Sienna to Gregory XI: “Don’t make me complain of you to Christ crucified; there is no one else to whom I could complain, for you have no superior on earth.” Unlikely as it seems, dissidents might get a successor more to their liking and we could find ourselves in the plight of St. Catherine. I suppose that is the position dissidents imagine themselves to be in now.

Yet how different their complaints are from those of Catherine. She wanted the Bishop of Rome to come back from Avignon to the city where he belonged. She wanted the pope to be the pope. They complain that he is too much of a pope. They imagine themselves besieged by an authoritarian Vatican.

In reality, they are treated with unimaginable gentleness. The Torquemada in us sometimes longs for a swifter response to the disruptions of the dissidents who seem to think the decalogue was smuggled in from Poland under cover of night and sprung upon an unsuspecting Church. But the tares and wheat continue to grow together.

Meanwhile, the stature of John Paul II continues to grow. We watched a vigorous athletic man bound from airplanes and kiss the tarmac in seemingly ceaseless travel. And then he was shot in St. Peter’s Square. He never fully recovered. Now he is visibly aging, moving slowly and in apparent pain. But the flow of his pen has never ceased. There has never been a pope like him.

The magisterium of his encyclicals and other writings stands in striking contrast to the dismal dirge of the dissidents. We are all mortal, but John Paul II can say of his magisterium what Horace said of his poems: Non omnis moriar. I shall not wholly die.

But such immortality is only a pale image of the eternity that awaits Karol Wojtyla and, God grant, all the rest of us as well, dissidents or not.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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