Pope John Paul II’s More Friendly, More Foreign Vatican

By Margaret O'Brien Steinfels

Published October 10, 2003, issue of October 10, 2003.
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News photos of an ailing John Paul II unable to deliver a speech in Slovakia in September were heart-rending. Unwilling to give up but unable to carry on, the figure of the 83-year-old Polish pope, virtually immobile and slumped in his chair, was a far cry from the vibrant and strapping 58 year old who was elected pope on October 16, 1978.

Observations of this 25th anniversary next week in Rome will celebrate one of the longest and most significant pontificates in the history of the Catholic Church. At the same time, speculation about John Paul II’s successor will only intensify — as will more delicate talk about when the next pope will take office and, more importantly, in what direction he will take the church.

The trajectory of John Paul II’s quarter-century papacy offers some guidance.

At his election in 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was the archbishop of Krakow, where he regularly tilted with the Polish Communist party over the rights of Catholics, including the right to construction of new churches; he even jousted with his elders in the Catholic Church over these confrontational gestures.

Tad Szulc, in his insightful 1995 biography “Pope John Paul II: The Biography” (Scribners), captured and deftly described Wojtyla’s “Polish” years. A former journalist and native Polish speaker, Szulc seems to have had unprecedented access to the John Paul’s daily life in the Vatican, and more importantly, to his Polish friends and colleagues. Szulc’s portrait is of a courageous, intelligent and energetic man, dedicated to the flourishing of the Polish church. As head of the worldwide Catholic Church, Wojtyla found far different and more diverse challenges.

The man the world greeted as pope in 1978 promised to be both more accessible and engaged with world issues. Certainly he was more physically vigorous and intellectually prepared than his immediate predecessors. Indeed, he has lived up to those expectations, making a number of departures from Vatican policies, regularly issuing letters and well-conceived (if increasingly conservative) encyclicals, and traveling far and often, over the Christian and non-Christian world alike.

Probably the most dramatic and important of his initiatives was the active role he played over his first decade in office in encouraging the transformation of the Soviet empire. He supported the Polish workers’ Solidarity movement, rallying Western material and diplomatic support to their struggle. He encouraged the Catholic churches in Czechoslovakia and Hungary to become more assertive — a decided change in Vatican diplomatic policy. And finally, he counseled a peaceful end to the Iron Curtain and backed the architect of Glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev, in his reform of the Soviet system.

The pope also worked to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. Both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI had offered reconciling gestures. John Paul II went further by recognizing Israel, working to remove the cross erected at Auschwitz, visiting the Jewish synagogue of Rome, calling for remembrance of and teaching about the Holocaust, apologizing for what he called anti-Judaism and praying at the Western Wall.

These words and gestures have not always satisfied critics — Jewish and Catholic alike — of Catholicism’s antisemitism, and the proposed beatification of Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII remains a highly neuralgic issue. Yet there is little doubt that John Paul II has gone further than some Vatican officials might have imagined — or have wished for.

Within the Catholic Church itself, on the other hand, matters have taken a somewhat different turn. If in his world travels, interviews and gestures of friendship to political and religious leaders John Paul II continued the trajectory of Vatican II and further opened the church to the world, he has seemed increasingly over the years to try to close the church back in upon itself. An enclave mentality seems to have taken root in the Vatican, which increasingly sees the church and its teachings under assault from what the pope has called the “culture of death”: individualism, consumerism, secularism and materialism.

John Paul II, for all of his personal warmth and charisma, is a pope deeply troubled by the consequences of the unprecedented reforms that marked the Catholic Church following the end of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. There were changes in the liturgy, Latin was abandoned and altars were turned to face the people. Centuries of pious strictures were lifted on the daily life of priests and nuns, making many of them activists in some of the poorest parts of the world while encouraging others to abandon the clerical and religious life. What would be described by many as an increase in independent thinking among theologians, educated lay people and oppressed peasants in developing countries is seen by the pope as forms of dangerous fragmentation.

Though John Paul participated in Vatican II (he was the youngest bishop in attendance), and has been counted as a man of the council, his pontificate has diligently steered in a more conservative direction. The intense devotional life and discipline of a priest accustomed to the conservatism of his native Polish church is not a model easily retrofitted onto other equally distinctive expressions of Catholicism — in the United States above all, but also in Latin America and in the smaller Catholic churches of India, China, Japan and other countries of Southeast Asia. This effort to restrain from above has produced in many churches a kind of resistance to Vatican decisions and orders. The result in many places has been immobility, if not paralysis, over clerical celibacy, women’s rights, liturgical reform and doctrinal expansiveness.

By the force of his personality and intelligence, along with the power of appointment, John Paul II has been able to maintain this standoff. Given that his successor is likely to come from among the like-minded cardinals he has named — John Paul II has appointed all but five members of the College of Cardinals eligible to vote for the next pope — the Vatican is unlikely to produce a pontiff who will depart significantly from the current pope’s policies, external and internal. That is good for the world, but not so good for the Catholic Church.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, a former editor of the Catholic biweekly Commonweal, is completing a project on American Catholics in public life.

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