Pope John Paul II

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 6 1999 3:30 AM

Pope John Paul II

The fearless politician.

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Much of the liberal Catholic case against the pope deals with sexuality. It is even said that he has a "woman problem," which supposedly finds expression in his defense of church positions on an all-male clergy, contraception, and abortion. Yes, abortion is anathema to John Paul II, who is bemused by suggestions that he has an "obsession" with the subject, but he condemns abortion because he sees it as not only anti-life but also anti-woman.

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The pope has endorsed sexual equality in the workplace and in society, but there is no doubt that he subscribes to a Christian version of difference feminism. In a 1988 apostolic letter on the "dignity and vocation of women," the pope warned that "in the name of liberation from male domination, women must not appropriate to themselves male characteristics contrary to their own feminine 'originality.' "

What is so "original" about women? In a 1962 retreat for university students in Krakow, the future pope, espousing what sounds like the Gospel According to Carol Gilligan, told female participants that "women are more feeling and intuitive people and become involved in things in a more sensitive and complete manner." In separate remarks to male students, Wojtyla argued that "in men, the intellect has a certain supremacy over the heart, and this is why Christ entrusted responsibility for the Gospel as idea to them."

This view of sexual differences suggests that for John Paul II, opposition to women priests is not simply a tradition inherited from his predecessors or even an emulation of Jesus' decision to call only men as apostles. For John Paul II, as for Paul VI, the male monopoly on priesthood is required by "theological anthropology." The pope has ratcheted up its importance by decreeing that the male monopoly on priesthood is an article of faith that must be "definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

His obstinacy on the issue is cited as proof that John Paul II is indifferent to one of the major themes of Vatican II: Christian reunion. The picture is more complicated. While the pope has warned the archbishop of Canterbury that the ordination of women as Anglican priests poses "an increasingly serious obstacle" to reconciliation between Rome and Canterbury, he has indicated a surprising willingness to compromise on a seemingly more fundamental obstacle to reunion: the papacy itself. In a 1995 encyclical, John Paul II broached the possibility that, in the interests of Christian unity, he or his successors might "find a way of exercising the [papal] primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation." He went on to note that in the first 1,000 years of Christianity the bishop of Rome "acted by common consent as moderator" when Christians disagreed about belief or discipline.

This tantalizing suggestion of a scaled-down papal office was seized on by the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission this May in a report that suggested Anglicans should accept a circumscribed papal primacy as a "gift to be shared." The pope's suggestion also dovetails with a new interest among some Protestant theologians in a "universal primate" who would serve as a focus of unity for world Christianity. (What it does not comport with, ironically, is the papal role as John Paul II has so effectively enlarged it. Would a "tiebreaker" bishop of Rome have any use for an airplane or a Popemobile?)

Here is perhaps the ultimate example of John Paul II's fearlessness: a willingness at least to consider some diminution in the scope of his office in exchange for an improvement on the current "imperfect unity" of Christendom. But churches that ordain female clergy might have their own "woman problem" in accepting a scaled-back papacy that came with theological strings attached. The pope surely knows this, which suggests that his target might not be the churches of the Reformation, but the Orthodox and other ancient churches of the East. Although estranged from Rome for hundreds of years, these tradition-rich churches long have fascinated John Paul II, who comes from a part of the world where Latin and Byzantine Christianity overlap. And one more thing: The Eastern churches do not, and likely never will, ordain women.

Michael McGough is editor at large in the Washington bureau of thePittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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