I was having lunch at the University Club with my colleague professor Astrik Gabriel when word came that Karol Wojtyla had been elected pope. At the time I knew next to nothing about him and part of the excitement I felt was due to the fact that a dark horse had come from the back of the field to win. My colleague Gabriel, with roots in Europe and ever au courant on matters ecclesiastical, was able to tell me more about the new pontiff but not even he, I am sure, had any idea of what a blessing had just been conferred on the Church.
On his first visit to the United States, there was a reception for academics at the Catholic University of America at which the Holy Father called Jude Dougherty, the Dean of the School of Philosophy, to the stage for a hearty embrace. My friend the pope. Dougherty had been Karol Wojtyla’s host when he visited this country as cardinal and spoke of the pope with a faintly proprietary air; he claimed to have predicted the election before the fact. In any case, here was the pope acknowledging Dougherty in public to the chagrin of a few sour-faced nuns who were sporting defiant pins: Why Baptize Us If You Won’t Ordain Us? Anyone who thought that question made any theological sense had an impediment to ordination that had nothing to do with her gender.
It was impressive that a man who had become pope and was on a whirlwind visit, being whisked from place to place, nonetheless took the time to recognize an old friend. On a later occasion, Jude and I were at a meeting in Rome and one day a car arrived to take him to Castel Gandolfo for lunch with the Holy Father. Some of us stood staring enviously after the departing vehicle. When it returned, I asked Jude what the Holy Father had said. He thought for a moment. “I did all the talking.”
Perhaps only the dean of a school of philosophy could make that statement. On all other occasions, John Paul II has been the most articulate pope in history, producing documents of substantial length on fundamental topics from the first year of his papacy. His magisterium now amounts to a lasting contribution to the Church.
Monsignor William Smith has shown that, however random the encyclicals and apostolic constitutions might seem, they actually follow a very definite pattern, covering key points of doctrine in an eventually comprehensive way. When to this we add the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we confront a veritable magisterial monument. He has seen himself as the pope of Vatican II, and his writings bear out that claim.
Surely there has never been more clarity as to what the Church teaches than there is now, thanks largely to the Holy Father. So why is there so much confusion on fundamental matters? The moral doctrine of the Church has been systematically distorted by moral theologians since their 1968 dissent from Humanae Vitae. It becomes increasingly unlikely that the aging dissenters will recant their errors, and only their slow replacement by teachers who have the mind of the Church can repair the damage. In many ways the pope has bypassed those who have refused to play their proper role in the Church. His wide-ranging travels and his voluminous writings have brought him into immediate touch with the faithful, with tremendous effect.
Orthodoxy may seem to be in diaspora, but it is there and expanding and eventually, God willing, it will once more characterize the administrators of our institutions of higher learning.
One hears grumbles about some episcopal appointments. It is said that the pope is not an efficient bureaucrat. Longevity has its risks. We get used to greatness and to sanctity. But imagine the world without John Paul II and you have an almost lunar landscape. Where is there another with his brilliance and holiness and courageous zeal?
No doubt there are several who are being prepared unbeknownst to themselves. I may live long enough to have another lunch when the old message will come again. Habemus papam. But I pray that the pope survives me, rather than vice versa.