The Strategy of John Paul II

John Paul II inherited a church bewildered, divided and growing rapidly weaker — in short a church in manifest crisis. The Pope’s response has been a systematic strategy of restoration. How has he set about doing it?

It is impossible to understand the present Pope’s work and strategy without examining the historical situation he inherited. From the time of Pope Pius IX right up to the death of Pius XII in 1958, the papacy and so the Catholic church was broadly committed to neo-triumphalism, that is to the notion that all authority in the church in dogmatic and moral teaching, no less than in administrative rule, lay in the papacy. The views of the popes varied, but within fairly narrow limits. During the final years of Pius XII, the church in its external aspects seemed healthy. It had never been more numerous or, apparently, more stable. But the brighter spirits within found its atmosphere of uncreative conservatism oppressive, and its immobility dangerous. There was a widespread feeling that the church had run out of dynamism, both intellectual and spiritual, and that it might become the victim either of an unpredictable explosion from within or, more likely, of gradual and ultimately uncontrollable apathy spreading from below.

So the papacy determined on an act of leadership, of reform from above. John XXIII (1958-1963) “opened the windows” of the Vatican, as he put it, and summoned the Council. It should be said that the Curia warned at the time that the Council would serve as an open invitation to radicals of all kinds to press their claims. But the opportunities received more attention. The Council was undoubtedly “popular” in the sense that most of the informed elite who take a strong personal interest in the affairs of the church, from bishops to foreign journalists, welcomed the event. During the first session, Pope John intervened decisively to prevent the curialists from stifling free and wide discussion. After his death, Pope Paul VI continued the Council and, though he did withdraw from its deliberations two inflammatory subjects, clerical marriage and contraception, he allowed the gathering to take its full natural course and to produce an enormous body of work.

What is the verdict on the Council now? It disappointed the progressives, in that it did not reverse the First Vatican Council, introduce a “conciliar era, downgrade the pope from autocrat to constitutional sovereign and perpetuate itself in some form of legislative body. The general synods which followed it remained consultative an advisory only. In theory at least, the pope retained all his powers intact. On the other hand, his freedom to use those powers, or to use them without open opposition, appeared to have been curtailed by the atmosphere generated by the Council. This became clear in 1968, when Paul VI’s reaffirmation of the church’s ban on artificial contraception in his encyclical Humanae Vitae aroused unprecedented criticism even among the clergy, and to some extent remained a dead letter.

On the other hand, the consequences of the Council horrified traditionalists. They lamented the grievous losses: Latin as the primary language of the liturgy; the Tridentine liturgy itself, now changed beyond recognition; ancient services and devotional practices; famous saints from the early centuries, now “exposed” as mythical; much sumptuary material, from the cardinals’ red hats to the papal tiara; the old baroque altars of churches, which in many cases were removed or destroyed — in short, the systematic dismantling of the devotional aesthetic of the Counter-Reformation, a deliberate dispersal of the mysterious opacity and evocation of the supernatural with which Catholicism has always surrounded itself. At the same time, the absolute distinction between priest and layman was now obscured. The combined result of all these changes was to banish the reverential awe with which Catholics had always regarded the machinery of their church, and the men who carried on its activity.

Looking back, the Council can be seen as merely one manifestation of the world-wide challenge to authority in every field which was the outstanding characteristic of the 1960’s, the spirit of the age. It was a decade of illusion in which eager spirits were led by long-continued prosperity to believe and propagate many Utopian notions — that poverty could be abolished, cruelty and violence banned, every freedom infinitely extended and voraciously enjoyed, and a democratic and egalitarian paradise established on earth. The vast and unconsidered expansion of higher education was a product and accelerator of these forces of illusion, pouring onto the scene countless armies of young graduates, who shared these fantastic hopes and set about elbowing aside the obscurantist and authoritarian elders who — they claimed — alone prevented the realization of the dream. In the process, many ancient and valuable institutions suffered irreparable damage— some were destroyed completely — and not even the Catholic Church was immune. Far from it.

Well — we know what happened. The liturgical reforms authorized by the Council were treated as a mere platform on which to erect a superstructure of experimental worship. Lay folk, men and women, invaded the altar. Priests often abandoned their liturgical garb, even their vestments. The clergy embarked in politics, and so progressed to militant political activism, even violence. The notion of prayer, devotion, intercession and grace, of a church revolving round the sacraments, and of a clergy whose principal duty was to administer them, was pushed into the background.

Moral theology was revised, often on a do-it-yourself basis. Catholic clerics were now found willing to exculpate adultery and fornication, acquit the divorced, extenuate homosexuality and other sexual perversions, and apologize for the milder forms of pornography — as well as ceasing to reprobate artificial contraception. The annulment of defective marriages became much easier. A new leniency was displayed, on an ever-increasing scale, in releasing members of the clergy from perpetual vows, so that a trickle of ex-priests and nuns became a torrent. Some of these people, released on the world without the smallest ecclesiastical penalty, remained in full communion, often as hyper-active lay-persons, and promptly agitated for yet more fundamental changes.

Inevitably the passion for change invaded the sphere of dogmatic  theology. Progressive theologians had played a prominent role among the experts of the Council and they now became the honored doctors of the newly liberated church. Their pupils and disciples were given key jobs in Catholic seminaries, universities and schools began to drive forward the frontiers of orthodoxy to include the ever-widening territories hitherto regarded as dubiously speculative or plainly heterodox. The church’s Magisterium, or teaching authority, came under special challenge. Even more disturbing, and following a pattern long established in the Protestant churches of the West, fundamental axioms of Christianity, such as the Incarnation, were brought under suspicion. The fear grew that there was no tenet of the faith of ordinary Catholics which was now immune to reinterpretation — often in quite unrecognizable guise — or indeed outright abandonment.

The decade of illusion was followed by the decade of disillusionment. In the mid-1970’s, the collapse of the great post-war economic boom demolished the easy Utopianism which had been so prevalent in the secular sphere. Religion was not immune to this returning sobriety. As the Seventies progressed, the risks pointed out to Pope John when he called the Council were now seen to have been only too real. The bill for “renewal” was now being paid: damaged authority, lost certitudes, lowered discipline, and a thinning out of the ranks of the faithful. The Catholic Church, hitherto impervious to the ravages of secularism which had afflicted all the Protestant churches, began to experience for the first time declining congregations. There was a fall in vocations and a terrifying loss of ordained clergy and nuns.

Two striking instances. Throughout Pius Xll’s time, the Jesuits, the largest and best-trained body of men in the church, continued to expand — from 26,000 in 1939 to 34,000 in 1958, and a grand total of 36,000 when the Council first met in 1962. By the end of the Sixties the expansion had been reversed, and during the Seventies the Jesuits declined by a third — the number of students and novices dropping from 16,000 to a calamitous 3,000. When Pope John Paul II took office, there were fewer Jesuits than in the 1920’s.

Again, in John Paul’s own diocese, Rome, he found a lamentable state of affairs — to serve the 3,000,000 Catholics there were only 1,153 priests, half of them from religious orders and many of them foreign. In 1978, the diocese itself produced only 7 ordinands.

The truth is, Pope John Paul II inherited a church which was shell-shocked, bewildered, divided, demoralized and growing rapidly weaker. A church in manifest crisis. There had been an uncoordinated and chaotic revolution, and what was now called for was a systematic strategy of restoration. John Paul II seems to have grasped that from the start. How has he set about doing it? Firstly, John Paul is the only pope of modern times to give primary emphasis to the pastoral functions of his office. He is a notable teacher and expositor of the faith, and he has used to the full the resources of modern jet and helicopter travel to address personally a strikingly high proportion of the world’s 750 million Catholics. About two-fifths of them have now had the opportunity to see and hear the Pope in their own countries.

The need for a pastoral pope was undoubtedly in the mind of the Sacred College when it convened after the brief and tragic reign of John Paul I. Modern popes had tended to be administrators and diplomats, without much experience in dealing with the preoccupations of ordinary Catholics. They tended to be typecast, too, by Pius IX’s carefully contrived image of “the prisoner in the Vatican,” courageously upholding triumphalist claims and timeless spirituality from the isolation of his palace. Though both John XXIII and Paul VI broke out of the “prison,” neither had worked as a parish priest or a local ordinary. John had been a diplomat all his life and Paul had no pastoral experience until made Archbishop of Wan. One of the merits of John Paul II, in the eyes of his selectors, was that he had come up all the rungs of the pastoral ladder and in particular had ample experience of applying both the principles of modern pastoral theology and the consultative procedures introduced by the Second Vatican Council to a mass Catholic apostolate. His book Love and Responsibility (1960) is by far the best modern exposition of Catholic teaching on marriage, and the Family Institute he founded in Cracow has been notably successful in dealing with practical cases of difficulty. His pastoral work epitomized Poland’s unique post-war success in maintaining congregations, vocations and very high ratios of baptisms and church marriages.

Those who chose John Paul cannot have been disappointed with his pastoral work. He has made himself a real and revered spiritual leader to a larger number of Catholics than any of his predecessors and to a great many non-Catholics, and even non-Christians, as well. He compares his journeys round the world to a bishop visiting his diocese. They are also, he says, “collegiality in action.” And they are too, as he put it, “an authentic pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the living people of God.” He has been criticized for the number and the scope of his overseas visits and for their resumption so soon after the near-fatal attempt on his life. He admits that his critics are right, “speaking from the human point of view,” but “providence guides me and sometimes it suggests that we do certain things to excess.”

He has also been accused, by Catholic intellectuals of the Left, of being a “populist pope.” But Jesus Christ was a “populist:” that is, he loved the common people and they loved him in return. What such critics find so hard to accept about John Paul is that while being, by any standards, a man of great learning and intellect, a professional philosopher, a poet and dramatist, a notable teacher and voracious reader, he has never been a member of the closed intellectual caste. He shares the humble devotions of ordinary Catholics. He loves the rosary and the cult of the Blessed Virgin. He honors local saints and visits their shrines and the sites of their miracles with enthusiasm and faith. No pope, not even Gregory the Great, sang hymns more lustily. What makes John Paul a great pastoralist is precisely the range of his Catholicism. Simple Catholics, whether they be Poles or Latin Americans or Africans. recognize in him someone who shares wholeheartedly in their mode of worshipping God but whom they can also respect and honor as a wise and scholarly teacher.

The second chief characteristic of John Paul’s pontificate has been the deliberate and systematic manner in which he has restored the church to stability. There can be little doubt that the evolutionary changes introduced by John XXIII in the early Sixties were necessary; and equally little doubt that they got out of hand in the Seventies. The church was careening downhill to secularity and confusion. John Paul applied the brakes with some force and so far he has kept them on. But it is important that John Paul’s restoration should not be misunderstood. He is not a reactionary pope. He has not striven to reverse the Johannine revolution and has hotly defended the memory of his patron, Paul VI. No one played a more creative part in the work of Vatican II or has taken more trouble, both as diocesan and pontiff, to give practical shape to its principles. He accepts the liturgical changes and the downgrading of Latinity, though he regrets both. He has never sought to limit free discussion within the church; he has, in fact, publicly expressed regret for past errors in this respect, notably in the Galileo case. There is a strong libertarian side to John Paul’s character, nurtured not the least by his experiences under two totalitarian tyrannies, the Nazis and the Communists.

But the Pope has been insistent that the Roman Catholic Church is not a do-it-yourself community but an ordered institution under law. Its hierarchies must be allowed to function and their decisions must be honored, its authorized procedures must be followed, and its canons must be obeyed or changed by due process. He has emphasized, again and again, that power in the church rests with the bishops. They must be trusted and obeyed by the faithful and above all by the clergy. Collectively, at both a provincial and a global level, they are the governing body of the church. Of course, an episcopal body may sometimes malfunction, and then the reserve powers of the papacy must be brought into play. Clearly, one of the functions of his overseas visits had been to exert a steadying influence on local hierarchies. But in general John Paul has shown great trust in the wisdom and sense of the bishops and allowed them ample latitude in interpreting general policy in the light of the special conditions of their localities.

John Paul has made it clear that the episcopate, as the normal source of authority, cannot function effectively without a loyal and disciplined priesthood. To him, the priesthood is the central institution of the church; the priest is a very special person, selected by divine summons to sacramental tasks no one else can perform. In his eyes there is an absolute distinction between priest and laity. He fears that it became blurred during the Seventies and one of the first objects of his pontificate was to restore it. He made it clear that the laity might not usurp priestly functions, in the celebration of the mass and, above all, in the administration of the Eucharist. Priests must be leaders in their parishes, respected and looked up to by their congregations.

But this respect must be earned by dedication and self-sacrifice. In his exhortations to priests, John Paul has instructed them to emphasize their special status, their sacramental apartness, by observing traditional clerical dress and rules of conduct. He has reasserted in unequivocal and. he hopes, final form, the church’s teaching on sacerdotal celibacy, which he sees as essential. He has courteously but firmly rejected demands for women priests. Above all, he has made it plain that perpetual vows are indeed perpetual, and that priests can be absolved from them only in the most exceptional circumstances: The flood of secularized priests has been drastically reduced. He has thus ended the period of demoralizing uncertainty in which some priests speculated on the removal of the celibacy rule and others had come to regard vows as dispensable. The remoralization of the clergy has been a central part of John Paul’s strategy, not least among the regular clergy and among women religious. In the case of the Jesuits, the largest and once the most highly disciplined of the orders, he has had to take drastic and humiliating steps to bring about more effective direction. To some extent the troubles of the Jesuits reflect the troubles of the church as a whole, and if he succeeds in giving them back their élan, the overall cure will be accelerated, for a healthy Society of Jesus is a mighty instrument in the hands of a determined pope; but all that remains to be seen.

As for the laity, John Paul’s policy has been to provide them with what they need most: reassurance. To Latin Americans he has made 4t clear that the church is not a political organization, engaged in promoting revolution and violence. To Africans, he has emphasized that it is not about to embark on a process of “acculturalization” which would destroy the church’s universality. To Catholics everywhere, but especially to those living in the affluent societies of the West, he has stressed the church’s commitment to what might be called “Ten Commandment Christianity” and its total rejection of market-research religion. Nervous and agitated hands will not be permitted to dilute the essence of Latin Christianity, that potent concentrate distilled over two millennia, which has provided spiritual intoxication for the elite and daily comfort for grateful millions over a huge arc of human history. For Pope John Paul has grasped the salient truth of Catholic sociology. The people of the Catholic faith value it not because it is yielding but because it is inflexible. Not because it is open -minded, but because it is sure. Not because it is adaptive and protean but because it is always and everywhere the same. It is the one fixed point in a changing world, and if it changes itself (as from time to time it must) such transformations must be as imperceptible as a glacier’s, moving with majestic gravity along a path preordained by its own nature. Catholicism has the time-scale, not of women’s fashions, but of geology.

Alas — would that John Paul could do for the liturgy what he has done for the priesthood! But that tragedy now seems irreversible. The liturgical edifice of Latin Christianity, in its unified Tridentine form, was once one of the most precious and complex manifestations of the human spirit which our civilization has been able to devise. It was art, ethics, philosophy, history and worship in one. Its Latinity gave it both geographical ubiquity and historical continuity, so that words spoken in Rome in late antiquity had the same meaning and significance when uttered near the summits of the Andes in the 20th century.

There is no evidence that when John XXIII summoned the Council he had any intention of adopting a vernacular liturgy. Nor did Paul VI ever clearly announce that he favored a liturgical revolution. Yet that is what happened. Many busy and eager hands tore at the ancient fabric. Heavy ecclesiastical flywheels moved slowly; little wheels spun in destructive fury. Committees assembled, dispersed, reconvened in endless series. There seems to have been no master plan, no central guiding spirit. But by the time the incense cleared, all that was left of the Tridentine liturgy was a beautiful ruin, and from amid the scattered stone and charred embers there arose the plebian cacophony of homespun services, to the music of adolescent toys. The result was misunderstanding for the young, confusion for the middle-aged and heart-break for the old. Latin largely disappeared, and with it went what Coleridge, writing of poetic diction, called “the willing suspension of disbelief” which a hieratic or arcane language brings to the contemplation of something which is necessarily mysterious. Some much loved services like Benediction largely disappeared. Uniformity receded. A Catholic traveler no longer knew what to expect or whether he could understand it. Above all, attendances — to increase which was the ostensible object of the entire reform — fell dramatically.

John Paul cannot and has not attempted to reverse these lamentable events. He recognizes that Latin and the Tridentine liturgy are now probably lost causes. What he had done is to limit the extent of the damage by insisting that diocesan bishops enforce the new liturgical rules, such as they are, and that unauthorized experiments cease. He has thus ended some grievous abuses, especially in the United States, and he has also given limited encouragement, to the revival of Latin services, making it easier to get permission to hold them. He has insisted that the insidious process known as “acculturation” — that is, the attempt to reflect non -European cultures in the Catholic liturgy, and indeed over a much wider range of practices and even dogma — should cease, or proceed only under the closest Vatican supervision. As he said in Kinshasha, it requires “a great deal of theological lucidity, spiritual discernment, wisdom and prudence.”

John Paul has also put the brakes on the ecumenical movement, though it should be emphasized that this movement acquired its own momentum and has created its own powerful lobby within the church. In the West, the idea is seen primarily in terms of a Protestant-Catholic dialogue. But for the Vatican it is far more complicated. It is at the center of a multiple process of theological diplomacy in which concessions to one interlocutor may be seen as further intransigence by another.

So far as the Anglicans or Protestants are concerned, much of the detailed work on what are regarded as the three principal areas in dispute — the definition of the Eucharist, which includes the conflict between transubstantiation and consubstantiation, the ministry, including recognition of Anglican orders, and authority, which incorporates papal claims to infallibility, has been completed. The difficulties are not insurmountable, granted goodwill, which certainly exists on both sides. The problem lies elsewhere. John Paul is painfully aware that he is not negotiating with a stable partner. The Anglican Church is changing as fast, if not faster, than Roman Catholicism did during the most volatile phase of Pope Paul VI’s pontificate. There is, as John Paul sees it, no sign of this process ending or of any determination among Anglican opinion-formers of wanting it to end. Anglicanism, he thinks, is suffering from the same nervous sickness which afflicted Catholicism when he inherited it, but has not yet had the courage to call in a doctor. For Rome, now in the process of recovery, there is no great advantage in acquiring a new, exceptionally mobile and possibly contagious partner.

In any case the recovery of Catholicism must have priority. It is now getting back its old courage and assurance, but the process takes time. John Paul noted this point in his letter to the German episcopal conference on 15 May 1980. How, he asked, can one church negotiate with another effectively if its own affairs are not in order and it is not wholly clear about its own beliefs? And who or what is to clarify those beliefs unless it be authority? He wrote: “Only a church deeply consolidated in the faith can be a church of authentic dialogue.” “Only a mature faith can be an effective advocate of true religious freedom, freedom of conscience and all human rights.” In order to engage in the adventurous course indicated by the Council, the faithful must have special confidence in the Holy Spirit and its activity. How does that manifest itself in Roman Catholicism? Why, through the Magisterium and the doctrine of infallibility. But these are precisely points at issue in the ecumenical dialogue.

They have also been points at issue within the Roman church in recent years, and John Paul had proceeded to clear up that matter too. In December 1979 the Doctrinal Congregation issued a condemnation of some of the teachings of Father Hans Kueng, the most vociferous and intransigent of the theological rebels. His rows with the church go back to the early 1960s, episodes in a continuing saga, a sort of theological soap opera, presented by Kueng and his admirers as one man’s struggle for freedom of expression against the intolerant machinery of Roman authoritarianism. Against this background Kueng became a best-seller. It was crucial to his appeal to a wide audience that he was not just an ordinary theologian but an officially accredited Catholic theologian locked in struggle with repressive superiors. That gave his conflicts the drama of rebellion. Kueng has compared theology to an investigation, and contrasted his own free-lance inquiries as a private detective with the official police-like inquiries of the church. But the truth is that throughout the 1960s and 1970s Kueng was an official theologian himself, indeed a highly privileged one. Without this official status, it is most improbable that his work would have found a large audience, for its intrinsic merit is not striking.

No one, least of all John Paul, wanted to stop Kueng pursuing his theological inquiries, and publishing the results. The only question was whether he could teach theology as an official exponent of Roman Catholic doctrine. In his many public statements and in his dealings with ecclesiastical superiors, Kueng had contrived to give an impression of personal arrogance, intellectual intransigence and contumacy towards recognized authority. In John Paul’s view these are not acceptable characteristics in an official Catholic theologian, leaving aside the specific points condemned by the Congregation. Early in 1980 the German bishops withdrew Kueng’s license to teach theology at Tubingen University, though this did not prevent him from continuing to direct the Institute for Ecumenical Research. To John Paul this seemed a fair solution. No one is seeking to silence Kueng. He is simply no longer an authorized teacher of specifically Catholic doctrine. In his letter of May 1980, John Paul commended the German bishops for their decision. It was absurd, he said, for a man to want to teach Catholic doctrine if he does not agree with it. “Does a theologian who no longer accepts completely the doctrine of the church still have the right to teach in the name of the church, and on the basis of a special mission received from her? Can he himself still wish to do so, if some dogmas of the church are contrary to his personal convictions? And under these circumstances can the church … continue to oblige him to do so?” For Kueng to continue in his official role would thus be a lie. John Paul cut through the verbiage and propaganda to get straight at the real issue — Kueng’s position and role as an official theologian was essentially dishonest, and had to be ended.

This was the most important and controversial of John Paul’s disciplinary measures. He has taken other steps. In May 1979 he authorized the Prefect of the Doctrinal Congregation to publish an official letter on the church’s teaching on eschatology, to clear up misunderstandings. In January 1980, he assembled all the Dutch bishops, who had been bitterly divided and quarrelling among themselves over various aspects of pastoral theology, at a national synod in Rome. At the end of it, the bishops unanimously reaffirmed 46 propositions endorsing the traditional practice of the church, -specially in matters of authority – notably the authority of bishops over priests and of priests over laity. Proposition 21 stated that the bishops were “unanimous in their desire to follow faithfully the decisions of the popes and to maintain the role of celibacy.” The Dutch synod was important because it covered the whole spectrum of the church’s daily work and its hierarchical organization. In effect, while endorsing the proper work of the Council, it put the clock back to where the church stood before the disintegrating process set in under Paul VI, and the fact that John Paul was able to obtain unanimous assent to this document from the hierarchy of the most “progressive” Catholic country, was a measure of his victory in restoring Catholicism.

Of course, the reassertion of the age-old characteristics of Catholicism, such as celibacy for priests, will not bring reunification nearer in itself. In one of his letters to bishops, John Paul quoted the Council decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, and noted that it was “significant” that it did not speak of “compromise” but of “meeting in a still more mature fullness of Christian truth.” In John Paul’s view it is not a question of the churches moving towards one another to reach a lowest common denominator in the middle, but one of moving forward on complementary trajectories which at some stage must meet. That may prove a very long business. He writes: “Nothing is so foreign to the spirit of ecumenism as a false irenicism which harms the purity of Catholic doctrine and obscures its genuine and certain meaning.” The best foundations for ecumenism, he insisted, were “certainty of the faith” and “confidence in the power of Christ.”

For the foreseeable future, John Paul clearly places more substantial hopes in the parallel negotiations with the Eastern Orthodox churches. He knows much more about these communities, and they are more stable entities. They are not being buffeted by a secularizing wind and by conflicting eddies of internal turbulence. Moreover, the Roman church already has a kind of bridge to the Eastern churches in the shape of the Uniates (of the Ukraine), of whom John Paul has much experience, and to whom he has devoted a great deal of attention. He has also taken a lot of trouble with the various Eastern patriarchates and especially with the so-called Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

John Paul considers it important that, while going ahead with bilateral and even multilateral talks with other churches, the papacy — which stands in the middle — has a special responsibility to see the problem of Christian unity as a whole. He regards it as significant that the effective breach with Orthodoxy, in 1054, occurred immediately prior to the rapid and thrustful development of Roman canon law in the closing decades of the 11th century — the “Hildebrandine Reformation.” The two developments were clearly connected. The emergence of Rome as the court of final appeal in a centralized system of church law was, of course, the foundation of the papal triumphalism of the later Middle Ages, which itself was a major causative factor in the Protestant Reformation. It is arguable, then, that the Reformation was in some sense a consequence of the schism with Orthodoxy. If, therefore, unity is to be sought in a spirit of historical logic, it is well to begin at the beginning and heal the breach with Constantinople first. Only thereafter will it be profitable to seek a final accord with Canterbury and the other Protestant churches.

This accords with other considerations John Paul has in mind, both tactical and strategic. Although it is true that in the 20th century Anglicans and Orthodox have often had warmer relations with each other than either body has had with Rome, this is more a reflection of their common fear of Roman dogmatic imperialism than of any identity of views. Doctrinally, Orthodoxy and Protestantism are very far apart. In Greek eyes, the Latin Church is Protestantism, and the Reformed churches are mere non-conformist offshoots of the original schismatic trunk. If, mirabile dictu, Rome were to conclude first a successful reunion with Canterbury, the likelihood — the certainty, almost — is that such an accord would make progress with Orthodoxy more difficult. That is one reason why Rome will not even contemplate the notion of women priests, and is dismayed at Anglican and Lutheran compromises on this issue, for it knows the Orthodox churches are strongly and unanimously opposed to such a reform. More important, however, is Rome’s belief that healing the schism with Orthodoxy will, in practical terms, prove more easily attainable than any deal with the Protestant West. Prudence then dictates that it should have priority, more particularly since the compromises on Rome’s assertion of its primacy and authority needful for any agreement with Orthodoxy would be highly relevant for subsequent negotiations with Protestantism, to which of course the Orthodox churches would be a party, and possibly a persuasive one.

The Pope’s guidance to the church in its response to secular ideologies has been equally ingenious and long-sighted. Unlike most prelates, he possesses a profound knowledge of the theoretical aspects of Marxism -Leninism, as well as long and painful experience of how its adherents behave in practice. What he has managed to do with great skill is to repudiate in toto both the theory and practice of Communism while keeping the respect and affection of the classes for which it professes to speak. He has grasped the real weakness of Communist regimes: they are essentially middle-class dictatorships of party functionaries and bureaucrats, lacking any real contact with or sympathy for the workers. John Paul’s stress on human rights, his passion for economic justice. and not least his obvious relish for popular religion and the popular culture of song and dance, have made him a workers’ pope and his church a workers’ church. He has no great love for the progressive individualism of the West, either; and his strictures on the grosser aspects of Western society (especially in America) have been severe. He rejects totally the values of materialism, that is, the view of life which accords priority to the demands of the senses. But whereas he regards materialism as an excess of the Western system, which does accord (in theory at least) priority to spiritual values, he rightly insists that materialism is the very essence both of the theoretical Marxist dialectic and of the practice of Communist regimes. Whereas Marxism is irredeemable, capitalism can be spiritually reformed from within. As such. it is not incompatible either with the interests of the workers. or of the teachings of the church. John Paul has thus constructed a solid and logical social platform from which to preach to the world.

John Paul’s aim and hope has been that a re-disciplined and stabilized church can settle down to a period of tranquility in which it can digest and profit from the reforms of the last quarter-century. But it would be wrong to regard the achievements of his first six years, however welcome, as negative. His is essentially a creative spirit, as is revealed in his remarkable encyclicals, which are both original and highly personal. In Redemptor Hominis and Dives in Misericodia he outlines a philosophy of Christian humanism which is peculiarly attuned to the tragedies and challenges of the 20th century. No pope of modern times has ever produced work of this quality. It may be, indeed, that if John Paul’s life is spared, his pontificate will broaden out into a second and far more creative phase, culminating in a third Vatican Council designed to prepare the church for the 21st century. It is possible. What we can be sure of, however, is that in his first six years, John Paul has firmly reestablished an apostolic and pastoral church on its traditional foundations of orthodoxy, discipline and hierarchy.

  • Paul Johnson

    Educated at the Jesuit independent school Stonyhurst College, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, Johnson first came to prominence in the 1950s as a journalist writing for, and later editing, the New Statesman magazine. A prolific writer, his books are acknowledged masterpieces of historical analysis.

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