(Today Pope John Paul II is being canonized, so I am rerunning this assessment of his papacy from 2011.)
Sometimes a great historical figure is not as recognized as such during his lifetime. Other historical figures are recognized as monumentally important even while they live. John Paul II, who was beatified yesterday, was definitely in the latter category. He was the most important Pope of the last century, and the first pope I think of what will be viewed by future historians as a great Catholic resurgence. It will take centuries for historians to fully assess his almost 27 year long papacy, but here are some of the factors that I think they will note.
1. He largely stopped the post Vatican II chaos-After Vatican II the impulse to transform the Church into an institution fully reflecting the current views of cultural elites in the West wreaked much havoc. Paul VI, a good and holy man, drew a line in the sand with Humanae Vitae, but he lacked the stomach and the will to fight it out with those who would have transformed the Catholic Church into what the Anglican Church is now: a dying institution, adrift from any allegiance to traditional Christianity, and fully in accord with the mores and beliefs of the secular elite of the West. Many were rubbing their hands with glee after the death of Pope Paul, in confident assurance that a new liberal pope would complete the transformation of the Church into something akin to Unitarianism with fancy dress. Instead they got John Paul II, a Polish fighter who had stood toe to toe with the atheist rulers of Poland and was not the least frightened or impressed by the forces that sought to neuter Christ’s Church. The chaos and low morale of the Church could not be completely reversed in one papacy, but John Paul II began the process and made a huge amount of progress.
2. Presiding at the Funeral of Communism-During World War II, both the Nazis and the Communists slaughtered a huge number of Polish priests, viewing them as deadly enemies. How very right they were! The Polish Church, in the midst of one of the worst persecutions sustained by the Catholic Church in the last century, never lost faith that the Church and Poland would both ultimately outlast the totalitarian regimes and emerge triumphant. John Paul II was the embodiment of this robust confidence that Communism, like Nazism, was merely a brief historical abberation that could and would be defeated. The rise of Solidarity was completely predictable to him, and his embrace of it made a crackdown by the Polish Communist regime, and its Kremlin puppet masters, impossible. John Paul II and Ronald Reagan in the Eighties brought about the largely peaceful collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and laid the groundwork for its collapse in the former Soviet Union. The heirs of Joseph Stalin learned to their sorrow that the type of power wielded by a skillful and determined pope cannot be counted in divisions but rather in human hearts.
3. Culture of Life-In the teeth of an overwhelming movement among Western elites to jettison the belief that human life is sacred, John Paul II rededicated the Church to that proposition and waged a long uphill struggle throughout his papacy against abortion and euthanasia. Like Moses, John Paul II did not live to see the victory in this fight, but ultimately we will win, and his brave stand at a crucial moment in history will be one of the reasons why.
4. Pope of the people-With modern means of transportation, a vigorous Pope can treat the whole world as his diocese by globe trotting and that is precisely what John Paul II did. In the Nineteenth Century, modern means of communication, the telegraph, photography and newspapers, were skillfully used by Pius IX to forge a personal contact between the Pope and average Catholics. Pope John Paul II took this a step farther by bringing the Pope to the average Catholic. A masterful stroke and superbly executed.
5. Vocations-Pope John Paul II began the process by which the hemorrhaging of priests was staunched and laid the groundwork for the rebound we are now seeing in vocations to the priesthood in most of the Church outside of Europe. Much needs to be done still, but without the efforts of John Paul II the situation now would be of truly crisis proportions.
6. Theology of the Body-One of the crises of our time is the alienation between some men and women caused by rapidly changing relationships between the sexes brought on by modern life. John Paul II addressed this in his Theology of the Body. Go here for a good overview. The exalted view of John Paul Ii of the love between man and woman in marriage of course ties in perfectly with his defense of the sanctity of life. In many ways love was the central theme of the papacy of John Paul II.
7. Centesimus Annus-With the collapse of Communism, in 1991 John Paul II released Centesimus annus, an overview of the mistakes of Marxism and the challenges that remained in a world where Capitalism now seemed supreme. Go here to read it. The most significant two paragraphs:
42. Returning now to the initial question: can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system, and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?
The answer is obviously complex. If by “capitalism” is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative, even though it would perhaps be more appropriate to speak of a “business economy”, “market economy” or simply “free economy”. But if by “capitalism” is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality, and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative.
8. Liberation Theology Rejected-In the Sixties and the Seventies of the last century, elements within the Church engaged in a strong flirtation with Marxism and the idea that the Kingdom of God could be brought about by class struggle and rebellion. The idea was completely hare-brained, but it attracted quite a following. John Paul II explained that the liberation that Christianity brought had nothing in common with the power grab the Marxists were seeking. Go here for resources regarding the statements of John Paul II on Liberation Theology.
This list only touches some of the main features of the papacy of John Paul II, a papacy that will be discussed endlessly as the centuries pass. Was everything perfect about his papacy? Certainly not. I have explored on this blog areas where I think the policies and actions of John Paul II were mistaken and I will do so in the future. However, overall I think John Paul II had a very successful pontificate. He took the rule of the Church on his shoulders and brought us through a very rough period. It was a privilege to be alive in his papacy, one of the most significant in the history of Mother Church.
Blessed John Paul II pray for us, and intercede with God to give us future wise shepherds to guide the Church with the faith and skill that you amply demonstrated.