A Long Shadow: The Legacy of John Paul II


May 1, 2005

Considering that in modern times no two popes have been more unalike than Pius IX and John XXIII, the extent to which John Paul II combined them in his own approach to being pope and did so, apparently, by conscious design—was little short of startling.

Blessed Pius IX, whose tumultuous 32-year pontificate (from 1846 to 1878) may have been second in length only to St. Peter’s, began as a relatively liberal pontiff but turned profoundly conservative; today he’s remembered as the pope of Vatican Council I and the definition of papal infallibility. Blessed John XXIII—folksy, expansive, and aggiornarnento-minded—in his comparatively short reign (1958 to 1963) not only threw open the windows of the Church but, in doing so, let in the whirlwind called Vatican Council II.

John Paul II provided a hermeneutic clue to his own pontificate when, in a gesture of rich symbolism, he beatified both men in the same ceremony on September 3, 2000. It was very much as if he had said, “I am a sign of contradiction in a decadent age, like Pius IX, and I am as engaged with my times as John XXIII.”

“Sign of contradiction” and “pastor to the world” make for a complex legacy. Much about the papal office is determined by doctrine and law, but much depends on the strengths, weaknesses, and personal tastes of the man who occupies it. Pope Benedict XVI—the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger—will shape the papacy according to his own vision; but he will pick up where John Paul left off, and John Paul’s pontificate both expanded and limited what he can do.

To understand how that is so, one needs to grasp the achievements of John Paul II—and also the ways in which his pontificate came up short—and relate these to the problems Benedict XVI faces.

When a reporter asked me what John Paul’s main achievements had been, I listed five. Taken together, they illustrate the Pius IX/John XXIII dualism at the heart of his pontificate.

1. Helping bring about the fall of Communism

Who was most responsible for the fall of Communism, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War? Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev both have their champions. But a good case can be made that it was John Paul II who did more than anyone to bring about these astonishing events. His central contribution was to ignite the religious fervor and national spirit of the Polish people—instilling in them self-confidence and hope during his epochal visit to Poland in June 1979 and sustaining them in the often difficult decade that followed.

John Paul never claimed this credit for himself. But his analysis of the fall of Communism in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus nevertheless was a reminder of what he had done. Citing the “violation of the rights of workers” and the “inefficiency of the economic system” as causes of what happened, he added in his inimitable style:

The true cause of the new developments was the spiritual void brought about by atheism, which deprived the younger generations of a sense of direction and in many cases led them, in the irrepressible search for personal identity and for the meaning of life, to rediscover the religious roots of their national cultures, and to rediscover the person of Christ himself as the existentially adequate response to the desire in every human heart for goodness, truth and life.

“Marxism had promised to uproot the need for God from the human heart,” the encyclical notes, “but the results have shown that it is not possible to succeed in this without throwing the heart into turmoil…. In a certain sense, it was a struggle born of prayer, and it would have been unthinkable without immense trust in God, the Lord of history, who carries the human heart in his hands.”

2. Filling the leadership vacuum in the Church

Pope Paul VI served the Church faithfully and well. He saw the Second Vatican Council through to completion in three momentous sessions after the death of John XXIII. He took the necessary steps to put conciliar decisions into effect. He published the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed Catholic teaching that contraception is wrong, in the face of bitter opposition by dissenting theologians and halfhearted support from many bishops.

Long before he died in 1978, however, Pope Paul was a visibly weary man and a sometimes melancholy one—a pontiff who seemed more than ready to be summoned to his reward. Although he spoke and wrote eloquently about many things, there was an absence of follow-through from the top. Abuses flourished in the Church. Catholics grew increasingly confused.

At this point John Paul II arrived on the scene: a vigorous, charismatic pope filled with self-confidence and zeal. “Be not afraid,” he urged, and to their surprise, people found that they weren’t. The fog of uncertainty lifted; the sense of drift was dispelled. Progressives were furious at having a strong new hand on the tiller of Peter’s bark, but that made no difference to John Paul. The strong hand remained in place until the end.

3. Being a credible voice for orthodox faith

Historian Owen Chadwick says nothing more effectively sundered the papacy from European secular culture than Pius IX’s condemnation of the final proposition in his famous Syllabus of Errors of 1864. This 80th and last proposition read: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” Anathema, thundered the pope.

“No sentence ever did more to dig a chasm between the pope and modern European society,” Chadwick writes in his A History of the Popes; 1830-1914. He may be right. Considering the horrors that lay ahead in the 20th century in the name of progress, liberalism, and modern civilization, it can be argued that it was preternatural good sense on Pope Pius’s part to say he wanted no part of these secular shibboleths. The Syllabus was and still is reviled in any event.

Karol Wojtyla, an original philosophical and theological thinker, a playwright and poet, sought as pope to speak to the secular culture of his times. From the believer’s point of view, he succeeded—for example, in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio as well as in certain other documents. Here at last, in an age of agnosticism, was a credible, even compelling spokesman for faith.

4. Defending human life

On issues from contraception to the war in Iraq, John Paul II opposed the culture of death. With the possible exception of his great and good friend Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who in 1979 rattled a celebrity audience in Oslo in her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech calling abortion “the greatest destroyer of peace,” human life had no stronger defender in our times than this pope.

His struggle on behalf of life had many milestones. An especially notable episode occurred in 1994, when he fought the Clinton administration and the international population-control lobby to a standstill at the United Nations’ International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo. To be sure, that performance left American liberals, both Catholic and non-Catholic, sputtering in rage and may well have cost John Paul his own Nobel Prize. But these were prices he was more than glad to pay.

In 1995 he set out a comprehensive rationale for treating human life as sacred in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae. It covered not only abortion but euthanasia, capital punishment, and much else. He kept up this effort to the end, with Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issuing two tough documents in 2003 on the duty of Catholic politicians and voters to be pro-life and to resist the legalization of homosexual unions.

5. Admitting the faults of the Church

In the name of “purification of memory,” John Paul carried out a systematic program of admitting the historical sins and failings of Catholics and expressing regret. Galileo, Martin Luther, the Saracen adversaries of the Crusaders, Hus, Calvin, Zwingli, Jews, women, and many other individuals and groups received papal mea culpas in this way.

“For an ancient institution such as the Catholic Church, nothing is more difficult than to ‘revise’ its history,” remarked Luigi Accattoli, Vatican correspondent of the Corriere della Sera of Milan. “Nevertheless, the pope is convinced that this re-examination is necessary for the proclamation of the gospel…. But even prior to that, it is demanded out of a sense of loyalty and truth.” Many Catholics agree.

Conservative churchmen schooled in triumphalism sometimes squirmed at these admissions of fault. But they lifted from Catholic shoulders the heavy burden of having to pretend; now Catholics had the pope’s own warrant for saying simply about certain matters of historical fact, “We were wrong.” This purification of memory was also an indispensable clearing away of roadblocks to Christian unity.

Abbreviated as it is, even this short list suggests the extraordinary scope of the achievements of Pope John Paul II. To a marked degree, nevertheless, many of the biggest challenges facing Pope Benedict XVI are mirror images of these accomplishments—problems that John Paul II either couldn’t solve or that arose at least in part from things he did so well. Extraordinary as his pontificate was, it set the stage for major battles in the years ahead.

That can be illustrated in a number of ways.

For example, even though the threat of secular humanism in its messianic, Marxist form has largely disappeared (thanks largely to John Paul), his successor now must confront Western, consumerist secular humanism free at last of the Marxist challenge. John Paul also fought this second adversary but fell far short of conquering it.

His failure to have a reference to Europe’s Christian roots inserted in the European Union’s constitution was symbolic of this defeat. The pope’s frustration with the de-Christianizing of large parts of the West found voice in Ecclesia in Europa, his 2003 synthesis of discussions at a European bishops’ synod three years before.

Deploring the “practical agnosticism and religious indifference” at the heart of what used to be Christendom, John Paul caustically observed that in today’s secularized, hedonistic Europe it is “easier to be identified as an agnostic than a believer.” It is a major question for Pope Benedict what, if anything, can be done to turn that around.

As John Paul fought the Clinton administration over abortion and population control and two Bush administrations over Iraq, so now his successor may feel a need to go even further in resisting America’s project of reshaping the world in its image via globalization and/or military force. If he does, the confrontation between Washington and Rome could test the loyalties of American Catholics co-opted by the weltanschauung of American secular culture. And if huge numbers of nominal Catholics choose nation over Church, as they might, there could be a speeding-up of the slide into “remnant” status of the Church in the United States, which many observers contend is already under way.

This would be in sharp contrast with the strengthening of European Catholicism that accompanied Bismarck’s Kulturkampf and other assaults on the Church in the late 19th century. “Persecution is said to help churches if it is inefficient, as these persecutions were inefficient. They helped to make the Catholic Church solid and unified,” Chadwick remarks. Undoubtedly the Church today needs holy, courageous leaders, certainly, but a Bismarck or two wouldn’t hurt.

Problems in the Church arising from John Paul II’s very strength as a leader are also part of his legacy. Not just progressive priests, religious, and laity, but some rather middle-of-the-road bishops were unhappy with the centralization of authority in Rome that was part of the John Paul years. Apart from a few exceptions like the retired archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, the bishops kept their uneasiness to themselves as long as John Paul was in charge, but that will not continue under his successor.

From the start, Benedict XVI will be under pressure to shift the balance in Church governance in the direction of decentralization. Under the rubric of collegiality, cardinals and bishops will urge strengthening the synod of bishops, giving more clout to national bishops’ conferences, weakening the Roman Curia, and convening Vatican Council III.

There will be a host of guarded episcopal challenges on several issues: ordaining older married men—viri probati, as they are called—to relieve the shortage of priests, giving tacit approval (beyond what’s given now) to contraception and divorce, opening up the process by which bishops are chosen, allowing greater local options in liturgical matters for the sake of inculturation, and much else.

Demands also will be heard to speed up ecumenism by concrete steps toward unity with Anglicans, Lutherans, and Orthodox bodies that share Rome’s interest in this goal. (Not all do—for example, the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, which are deeply suspicious of Rome.) It will become clearer that Pope John Paul II started a time bomb ticking in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, which invited suggestions regarding changes in the exercise of papal primacy. One result may be that left-right, liberal-conservative fissures among Catholics, so apparent in John Paul’s pontificate, will grow even worse in the pontificate ahead.

John Paul’s effort to engage the post-Enlightenment intellectual world in dialogue appears not to have gotten a serious hearing among secular intellectuals. Movers and shakers of Western secular culture at best patronized him as an honorable anachronism—a man of moral stature whose exhortations could be ignored.

Pope Benedict comes on the scene at a time when Western elites generally do not regard the Catholic Church as a serious interlocutor. Despite the best efforts of John Paul II, the evangelization of culture didn’t advance significantly under his leadership and may have regressed. The new pope naturally will wish to correct this state of affairs. But how? Considering the lack of success by the splendidly qualified Pope Wojtyla, no one now has the foggiest idea.

The struggle between the culture of life and the culture of death presents a similar picture. The old pope was a towering champion of life, but the anti-life assault continues on a growing number of fronts, thanks to the deadly combination of utilitarian ethics and scientific hubris. Although the fight over abortion has hardly ended, this struggle more and more is shifting to other issues in the area of genetic engineering. Attacks on marriage and family are also growing in the name of homosexual rights, as these are understood in secular, libertarian terms.

Many Catholics, including moral theologians, have lined up with the other side in this epochal contest. It will be a touchstone of this pontificate whether Pope Benedict simply accepts these defections or takes serious disciplinary action.

John Paul’s “purification of memory” project also seems not to have produced the hoped-for results. In fact, confessing Catholic faults may simply have whetted appetites for more.

So, for instance, admitting historic Catholic guilt for the persecution of Jews hasn’t halted the tendentious smear campaign against Pope Pius XII. Meanwhile, Catholics eager to please Jews have taken up the mantra that the Old Covenant remains efficacious and there’s no special reason for the conversion of the Jewish people. For someone who takes the New Testament seriously, this is a theologically dubious line fraught with disturbing implications for the soteriological role of Christ.

Catholic relations with separated Christians involve intractable difficulties of their own. Some Orthodox seem more interested in belaboring the Catholic Church for its faults than admitting their own churches’ failings and moving on. Anglicans enter into formulas of agreement with Roman Catholics on issues like authority and the primacy of the pope but pursue a self-indulgent path on doctrinal and moral questions. Unless Pope Benedict is willing to confront these contradictions and speak words of fraternal correction, official ecumenical and interreligious relations could turn into a dangerous charade.

In looking for models to adapt and use, John Paul II seems to have turned especially to Pius IX and John XXIII. Where will Benedict XVI look? To John Paul II? Someone else?

It’s said in some high ecclesiastical circles today that, appalled by the ravages of dissent, the new pope will undertake a crackdown on dissenters that will make John Paul’s approach look pale. If so, the new pontificate could turn out to resemble that of St. Pius X (1903-1914), whose all-out fight against modernism drove that complex heresy underground without destroying it.

But the prediction could be wishful thinking. Others see a more likely model in Leo XIII. His lengthy pontificate (1878-1903), coming after the still-longer reign of Pius IX, cultivated a deliberately more moderate tone, including the engagement with current socioeconomic issues expressed in Rerum Novarum (1891), the seminal document of modern Catholic social thought. Perhaps significantly, nevertheless, in 1899 Leo XIII condemned a heresy he called “Americanism.”

Taking into account the trajectory of recent trends and events, one can at least hazard a few guesses—only that—about what Pope Benedict will do.

Up to a point, he’ll try to oblige bishops who want a more collegial approach to governance and a measure of decentralization. Partly, this will involve strengthening the synod of bishops; partly, trimming the Curia’s wings. Modest steps may be taken toward opening up the selection of bishops by giving laity and lower clergy more of a voice.

Ordaining older married men may get approval on an experimental basis—especially in places in Western Europe where bishops or bishops’ conferences ask for it as a way to deal with the shortage of priests. As long as the experiment with viri probati lasts, though—and that could be many years—there will be no other changes in the discipline of priestly celibacy. But it’s far from certain that, barring strenuous efforts that he may or may not care to undertake, the pope will be able to hold the line on things like “pastoral” practice regarding contraception and divorce.

There will be a lot of talk about Vatican III, but Benedict XVI isn’t likely to convoke a council—not early in the pontificate, at least—for the excellent reason that doing so when pressure tactics and the manipulation of public opinion have become a way of life in Church affairs could be a formula for disaster.

The preferred tactic for dealing with theological dissent, sexual offenses by priests, serious liturgical abuses, and similar problems is likely to remain what it mainly has been for some time now—attrition. Although waiting for troublemakers to die out hasn’t worked very well up until now, the new pope may consider that preferable to head-to-head confrontation, which is likely to have tepid support from bishops and to encounter fierce resistance from old-line religious orders.

As a corollary, Pope Benedict may devote even more attention than John Paul did to nurturing the Church in countries of the southern hemisphere, where Christianity’s vitality is greatest. Without writing off the supposedly mature Catholicism of North America, he may reason that Catholics there brought their present troubles on themselves and will have to solve them the same way—if they can. As a deeply committed European, however, Benedict will probably expend substantial time and energy on the search for solutions to the old continent’s spiritual ennui that eluded even his energetic predecessor’s grasp.

Terrifying demands will be made of this pope. The pontificate may be filled with turmoil and strife. Progressives will seek to undermine him, with the willing cooperation of the media. As the new man struggles to define the papacy, he’ll be conscious of 264 predecessors looking over his shoulder, and in a special way of John Paul II—to say nothing of the Person whose worthy vicar on earth he wishes to be. But only to a very limited extent will he be a new Pius IX or John XXIII, a Pius X or Leo XIII—or even a new John Paul II. He will be himself. We can only wait and see what that means.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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