The legacy of John Paul II

Forceful leadership stirs hearts and controversy

On Monday, Pope John Paul II marks his 22nd anniversary at the helm of the Roman Catholic Church - one of the longest, most energetic pontificates in history.

The familiar white-clad figure, who redefined the papacy as global pastor and evangelist, has made a vivid imprint on the world while placing his stamp firmly on the direction of his church.

Greatly respected for his moral leadership in confusing, tumultuous times, John Paul II is at the same time - and particularly among Catholic faithful - a controversial figure. Even as he fulfills his goal of leading the church into the new millennium, many followers feel the pontificate has gone on too long and are at odds with its traditionalist teachings.

The debate over his legacy has already begun. Higher marks are often given for his impact on the world than on his own institution, but in both arenas, observers say, the pope's influence is tempered by apparent contradictions in his own outlook.

Spending his formative years in the crucibles of Nazism and communism, this son of Poland emerged with a profound commitment to freedom and social justice along with a staunch traditional Catholicism.

"He is a complex figure," says Chester Gillis, associate professor of theology at Georgetown University. "There's a personal holiness ... and a great courage to confront injustice wherever he finds it," and there is also "doctrinal conservatism ... and a kind of authoritarian character to his personality."

John Paul II is thus seen as:

•The pilgrim and pastor who reaches out to his flock in all climes and circumstances, and the determined pontiff who cuts off dissidents and clamps down on the authority of bishops.

•The advocate for the suffering and oppressed, and the rejectionist of contraceptive measures that could protect from AIDS and reduce the demand for abortion.

•The champion of democracy and human rights in the world, and the supreme pontiff forbidding even discussion of some issues within his church.

Perhaps one of the most brilliant men ever to serve as pope, he has failed to persuade many Catholics to follow some of the church's definitive teachings.

On the world stage

The election on Oct. 16, 1978, of the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries grabbed the world's attention. That the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla turned out to be a robust, youthful man with a charismatic presence and a thirst for globe-trotting heightened the appeal.

But it was the strong moral voice in times of crisis that won the admiration of Catholics and non-Catholics alike. John Paul II's greatest legacy to the world, most people agree, is his role in spurring the collapse of communism, a role acknowledged by Mikhail Gorbachev.

"It was his moral leadership which gave rise to the Solidarity movement in Poland," says R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at University of Notre Dame. "He'll be remembered more than anything for articulating communism's betrayal of human freedom and the inspiration he gave to those who helped bring it down nonviolently."

During his nine-day visit to Communist-run Poland in June 1979, the pope spoke boldly to the people about human dignity and the need for moral renewal. The effect, says biographer George Weigel in "Witness to Hope," was to lead many to the fundamental decision, "Let's stop lying." The power of intimidation was undermined, and by the time the pope left, "a revolution of the spirit had been unleashed."

In August 1980, the independent trade union, Solidarity, was born. At crucial moments in subsequent years - when crackdowns on Solidarity were imminent or Soviet intentions to invade became known, John Paul II intervened skillfully with the Polish leadership and with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Solidarity's success was the spark that lit the flame of nonviolent revolution in Eastern Europe.

The pope has used his bully pulpit to speak out on many moral issues, from the death penalty to abortion to the inequities of capitalism, which has not always won him favor. Outrage greeted the Vatican's intervention at the 1994 UN population conference in Cairo, where it successfully precluded abortion from being considered as a family-planning method. Critics charged the result could have a disastrous effect on efforts to curb global population growth.

The pope doesn't apologize for wielding such muscle against the secular values of contemporary civilization, which he sees as "a struggle against God." His has been the clearest voice against utilitarian worldviews that fail to put human beings at the center of concern, and against self-assertive individualism. He has, in fact, set himself the goal in his encyclicals and other writings of articulating a fully Christian alternative to the humanistic philosophies of the times.

And he has reached out to other religions to join him. Beginning with a 1986 meeting at Assissi, "the pope has tried to fashion a kind of superalliance," says Richard McBrien, professor of theology at Notre Dame. "He thinks the great world religions must fight together against the common enemies of materialism and individualism."

One of his most visible legacies is the shift in attitude toward Judaism. "This pope has probably done more to strengthen Catholic-Jewish relations than any other in history," says Rabbi James Rudin, of the American Jewish Committee. "His memory is seared with the destruction of the Jewish community he knew well" during his Polish boyhood.

The pope has taken a series of steps, from the visit to Auschwitz on his 1979 Poland trip to his journey to Israel in March 2000, which added symbolic power to key statements such as the declaration of anti-Semitism as a sin against God.

Relations with other Christian churches are not on as warm a note at the moment. While John Paul II has been a champion of ecumenism, a Vatican statement made earlier this month, "Dominus Iesus," sent a jolt through Christian circles. Reaffirming the Catholic Church as the one road to full salvation, it was aimed at Catholic theologians seen as toying with relativistic ideas, but its peremptory tone seemed to cast doubt on the results of 35 years of interreligious dialogue. It even "had a chilling effect on Catholic-Jewish relations," Rabbi Rudin says. Italian Jewish leaders last week cancelled participation in a Vatican-sponsored dialogue.

The pope's greatest disappointment lies in the failure to make any significant progress on his highest ecumenical priority - ending the schism with Eastern Orthodoxy, where the status of the pope himself is a prime issue.

Shaping the Catholic Church

Through his unflagging travels, his personal piety, and his stature on the world scene, John Paul II has won the tremendous affection of the faithful. "He's enlivened the spirit of Catholicism," says Marion Gaworecki, of Lynbrook, New York, "and renewed faith for me and many Catholics." His travels have also strengthened the church's global reach.

Those of traditional bent are deeply appreciative of the way he has clarified church doctrine and reestablished internal order.

But others are distraught over teachings they consider out of touch with reality, or angry over what they see as a retreat from Vatican II. The worldwide council called by Pope John XXIII in the 1960s, Vatican II dramatically reshaped Catholicism for the modern age, calling, among other things, for Mass in languages other than Latin, a new emphasis on the Bible, openness to other faiths, decentralization of authority within the church, and increased participation by laity.

By the time John Paul II became pontiff, however, the church was in turmoil, with liberals and conservatives in dispute over interpretation of the teachings. The pope's aim became "to bring clearer articulation to the teachings of Vatican II," says Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things. "The Council has been the manual for his whole pontificate."

Some see it differently. "He's basically tried to restore the Catholicism of the 1950s in terms of how the church is governed," says Father McBrien, author of "Lives of the Popes." "The pope functioned like an absolute monarch, and the Roman curia ... bossed the bishops around."

The pope is criticized for pulling back on decentralization, sharpening distinctions between clergy and laity, and making appointments based on absolute loyalty. He expects oaths from those teaching at Catholic institutions and insists on approving policies agreed on by nationalconferences of bishops.

"He interprets Vatican II as describing the church's relationship to the world, but having less to say of a reforming nature about the church's internal affairs," Dr. Appleby says.

Other sources of anguish are his peremptory rejection of women's ordination and of married priests, both of which are obstacles to ecumenical progress with other churches as well. To some, the pope's decisions seem irrational given the huge losses in numbers of clergy in several parts of the world.

"Whether priests are married or not doesn't matter; whether women are priests or not - those are not issues that go to the heart of what it means to be Christian," McBrien says.

Another potential problem for the church's future is the way perhaps millions of Catholics have decided not to pay attention, particularly on issues of contraception, divorce, even abortion. Ms. Gaworecki is a traditionalist. "He is God's word on earth," she says, "and I will abide by whatever he says. Birth control, divorce just aren't up for discussion."

But Dr. Gillis, the author of "Roman Catholics in America," says, "They are charmed by his personality, but the vast majority of Americans completely ignore what he teaches."

"I'm not sure that over the long run the church can hold all these issues at bay and continue to have positions antithetical to social culture and maintain the loyalty of its people," he adds. "Today, people accord authority to personal experience in a way they didn't 50 years ago ... and that's not only in America."

Father Neuhaus acknowledges the failure to persuade, but is convinced it's possible. "This pope has developed an enormously exciting theology of human sexuality.... It will be one of the tasks for whoever is the next pope to communicate in a more accessible way John Paul II's teachings."

Weigel suggests this pontificate "has been the most consequential since the 16th-century Reformation." Others say the ultimate impact of John Paul II's legacy will depend on the man who succeeds him.

He has appointed most of the cardinals who will choose his successor, so his traditionalist legacy will last a while. But almost no one is enthusiastic about another long pontificate, so this time, many say, an older man is likely to be chosen. "They're going to be exhausted after this one," McBrien says. "They'll want to catch their breath."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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