|A statue in Gdansk, Poland, shows Pope John Paul |
and President Ronald Reagan walking together as
joint architects of the collapse of the former Soviet
I mentioned in yesterday’s posting the “complex ambiguities of Pope John Paul’s papacy” and I want to clarify what I meant. John Paul II was an extremely popular pope and in many circles his papacy is glossed over without careful examination as one of the brighter spots of the Church in the last century, but truth demands that a more critical look be taken and a more balanced appreciation be rendered.
I was living in Rome in the final years of Pope John Paul’s papacy and was, in fact, in Saint Peter’s Square earlier in the afternoon of the day he died. An interviewer from the BBC randomly picked me out of the crowd, knowing only that I was an English speaker, and asked to talk with me. (When he found out that I am a professional historian and was a Romanista, I ended up being taken on by the BBC and several other networks as a commentator during the funeral of the Holy Father and the election and installation of Pope Benedict.) The reporter asked me for my evaluation of the Holy Father’s reign and I answered by quoting Dickens: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
It was the best of times in terms of John Pauls’ incredible ability to move world-wide audiences to be able to see possibilities for human betterment. In particular it was the best of times because it marked the collapse of the Marxist ideology which had ensnared hundreds of millions of people in totalitarian regimes that could offer their citizens nothing worth having in this mundane sphere and no hope for the eternal sphere. The remarkable events of his 1979, 1983, and 1987 visits to Poland chipped away at the first of the dominoes to fall. John Paul’s battle cry was “Solidarity” by which he advanced the socio-economic-political idea—in contradistinction to both Marxist and capitalist ideologies—that members of society have a set of mutual responsibilities towards one another that require a collaboration in which those who have act to alleviate the distress of those who lack, not merely by relieving the needs but by creating just social structures that work to mutual benefit. Such solidarity not only undermines the “class struggle” of Marxism but also the “income inequalities” of free market capitalism. The Pope’s ideal of “Solidarity” was taken up by the Poles and became the battle cry to topple the Marxist regime there. Unfortunately it has yet to be heard in the income-inequality nations of the West but Pope Francis is working to change that—much to Rush Limbaugh’s and Ken Lagone’s annoyance. (You go, Francis.)
It was no one less than Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Communist premier of the Soviet Union, who has said that Pope John Paul was the principal architect of the collapse of the Marxist dictatorships of the former Soviet Bloc. But Pope John Paul is also credited with a significant role in bringing down the dictatorships in Paraguay, Haiti and Chile and there is no doubt that he was a major player in the arena of human rights in the second half of the twentieth century.
John Paul was also remarkable in the strides the Catholic Church made in ecumenism during his pontificate. His particular interest was with the Orthodox Churches of the East and while—and probably because of the Polish-Russian tensions arising from the stress being put on the Soviet Empire by John Paul in working for Polish autonomy—the Russian Orthodox Church was never brought into closer ties with Catholicism, John Paul made some remarkable progress with the other Churches of Orthodoxy. More remarkable, however, was his subtle recognition of Anglicanism. I remember seeing him come to the Holy Doors of the Pauline Basilica escorted on the one side by Metropolitan Athanasias of the Greek Orthodox Church and on the other by Archbishop George Carey of Canterbury. Pope John Paul consistently treated the Archbishop of Canterbury on a par with the Orthodox. While the Catholic Church still officially has not recognized Anglican Orders, the protocols established by John Paul (and not later followed by Pope Benedict XVI) gave an implicit acceptance of Anglicanism. A similar breakthrough came on October 5, 1991 when Pope John Paul celebrated Vespers with the Lutheran primates of Sweden and Finland and the Lutheran Bishop of Oslo. All sat in copes and miters, the Bishop of Rome and his separated brother Bishops, in front of the papal altar in the Vatican Basilica. Lex orandi, lex credendi: liturgical praxis establishes the doctrine we hold in belief. Without yet giving official recognition to the valid orders of these separated brethren, the Pope showed that we can begin to construct a path through the complex issues of restoring full unity to the Church.
In short, I think we can say that as far as “foreign policy” went, John Paul’s papacy was hugely successful. As far as “domestic policy”: well, that is a different story.
The internal governance of the Church in the papacy of John Paul II was a disaster. While he was extremely popular personally, his teaching went unheeded by most Catholics. During his funeral, while I was doing consulting for the BBC and other news outlets, I had the opportunity to speak with hundreds who had come to Rome (among the four million pilgrims who came to Rome for the funeral). It was an overwhelmingly young audience—mostly in their twenties and thirties. “Yes,” they assured me they “love this Pope.” “He was a great Pope.” “It is like losing a grandfather.” “Do you agree with this Pope,” I asked “on homosexuality?” “Do you follow his teaching on pre-marital sex?,” “On contraception?,” On marriage in the Church?” The answer was overwhelmingly, “No—but we loved him. We don’t agree with him, but we love him.”
John Paul was without impact on the consciences of the vast majority of his followers—not only on contraception or same-sex relationships, but on the very issues where he found success in his program of smashing Marxism. Westerners in general and Americans in particular cheered on his attacks on Marxism, but did they embrace his theory of “Solidarity?” Nothing could be further from “Solidarity” than the Trickle Down Economics of the Reagan Presidency or the Thatcher Ministry. To push his campaign against Communism to victory in the Soviet Bloc, John Paul formed a political alliance with the Reagan White House that compromised the papal integrity when it came to economic morality. The symbiotic relationship of the Reagan administration and the John Paul Papacy resulted in the fact that the Catholic Church could hardly be believed in its call for economic justice. The heritage of John XXIII and Mater et Magistra and Paul VI and Popolorum Progressio was squandered and Catholicism became identified with the radical selfishness of Reaganomics.
Furthermore, after the American Bishops’ pastoral letters on the nuclear arms race (The Challenge of Peace, 1983) and economic justice (Economic Justice for All, 1986) there was a very sharp change in the sort of men who were appointed to be bishops in the United States. In 1984 the Reagan administration established formal diplomatic relations with the Holy See—something the Vatican had long sought but which had always met with much opposition in the United States from those non-Catholics who saw such relations as giving formal recognition to one religious body over others in violation of the American Constitution. Such favors came at a price and that price was bishops who would not ruffle the political right. The Social Justice wing of the Catholic Church in the United States was pushed more and more to the margins and the Jadot Bishops (those bishops appointed during the time Archbishop Jean Jadot was Apostolic Delegate, 1973-1980) who were the voice of “Vatican II” Catholicism melted into obscurity as the new breed of John Paul bishops replaced them. The Church’s social activism –that is the Social Gospel—was more and more in the hands of brave and committed laity who felt cut-off from their own bishops who ignored the grave structural injustices in our society and “obsessed” (to use a current word) on select issues that reinforced the right-wing agenda and distracted the faithful from an integral approach to Christian moral life.
John Paul paid a heavy price for selling out to the political right. When he cried out against the Gulf Wars—I and II (1990-91 and 2003-2011), the American bishops did not echo the cry. Far from it. Editorials appeared in many Catholic diocesan newspapers on how these wars met the criterion for “just war.” No, the focus remained on abortion and the rising “threat” of gay rights. The fear was universal health care and the implications that would have for Catholic institutions. Catholics were admonished for not falling in line behind their “shepherds” and a political agenda that was morally a very mixed bag. “Cafeteria Catholics” were denounced for their selective agreement with Church policy, while those who accused them themselves were picky eaters at the magisterial table.
In the end, John Paul left—as far as the American Church goes—a dispirited faithful who felt alienated from their bishops and caught in the crossfire of the culture wars that have been undermining the larger American society. Is he John Paul the Great? Only time will tell—this title has only been awarded to three popes so far, and it takes centuries before history grants it. Will it do so for John Paul? Hmm. John Paul was an enigmatic Pope. It was an ambiguous papacy. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.