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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In the early evening of Oct. 16, 1978, the newly elected Pope John Paul II appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and told the crowd that he had accepted election even though "I was afraid in receiving the nomination." If so, it was the first and last time that the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow had known fear. Six days later, when he was invested as pope, John Paul II was commending the Christianity of courage. Echoing the assurances of the angel who told Mary of Nazareth that she would conceive and bring forth the son of God, the 58-year-old pope told the throng in St. Peter's Square: "Be not afraid."

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John Paul II is not afraid--of religion's cultured despisers, of geopoliticians who find his near-pacifism naive, of liberal Catholics who accuse him of betraying the spirit of the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II"), of feminists who suspect that he sees only two acceptable roles for women--virgin and mother. He is unafraid of his own infirmity, caused by advancing age and by the residual effects of a 1981 assassination attempt. Finally, and perhaps most interesting, John Paul II has intimated that he might be unafraid even of a downsizing of the papal authority his charisma has done so much to dramatize.

Born in 1920 to the wife of a Polish soldier, the future pope was a precocious intellectual, actor, and poet who worked in a quarry and a chemical plant during World War II. Imbued with the popular Catholicism of Poland--marked by effusive devotion to the Virgin Mary (an aspect of John Paul II's spirituality that discomfits Protestants and liberal Catholics)-- Wojtyla began studies for the priesthood in 1942 in an "underground" seminary made necessary by the Nazi occupation.

After the war he studied in Rome, boarding an ecclesiastical fast track: auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958; archbishop in 1964; and cardinal in 1967. Though Communist officials regarded him as more pliable than other churchmen, he proved unafraid to confront them in the cause of freedom for the Polish church. When Wojtyla was elected pope, after the 33-day reign of the Italian John Paul I, the international press portrayed him as the darkest of dark horses. In hindsight, his ecclesiastical networking during and after Vatican II made him a logical candidate once it was clear no Italian cardinal could win election.

The rest is history, from which liberal and conservative Catholics draw strikingly contrary conclusions. The pope took the Gospel and his magnetic personality on the road--forsaking the throne, on which past popes were carried through St. Peter's Basilica, for the Popemobile. The year after his election, John Paul II returned to Poland for nine days and encountered a rhapsodic reception that more than one biographer credits with helping to sow the seeds of the Solidarity movement's later challenge to the Communist regime.

Elsewhere on his world tour, which has passed through 119 countries, he kept faith with his predecessors John XXIII and Paul VI in defending the dignity of workers and anathematizing the arms race. He called for negotiations rather than the use of force in the Gulf War and in Bosnia and Kosovo. He has been critical of international sanctions against Iraq, and he hopes next year to visit the birthplace of the biblical patriarch Abraham there. These and similar initiatives pleased political liberals inside and outside the church; not so the Vatican's use of its quasigovernmental status to oppose population-control initiatives that the pope feared would contribute to the "culture of death."

The style of John Paul II's papacy has occasioned as much comment as its substance. Past popes were remote and magisterial figures, but capitalizing on his relative youth, his actor's panache, and a mastery of mass communications, John Paul II changed all that--unafraid of diluting the papal mystique through overexposure.

The pope's roadshow has never had an exclusively Catholic cast. He has met with Rome's chief rabbi and has joined in worship with Lutheran bishops and, in a historic 1982 ceremony in Canterbury Cathedral, with the spiritual leader of the Church of England, which broke with Rome in the 16th century.

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S ome would dismiss this as photo-op ecumenism and note that Anglicans are not invited to take Holy Communion in Roman Catholic churches, despite agreements by an Anglican-Roman Catholic theological commission on the meaning of that sacrament. Anglicans were also dismayed when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's doctrinal watchdog, signed a document that seemed to rehabilitate a much-criticized 1896 papal bull declaring the holy orders of Anglican clergy "absolutely null and utterly void."

It isn't only in his policy toward other churches that John Paul II is accused of preaching reform and practicing reaction. Vatican II gave rise to a less hierarchical and more outward-looking Catholicism and set the stage for once-unthinkable innovations like plainclothes nuns and the celebration of the Mass in English and other modern languages. Liberal Catholics concede that John Paul II may follow the letter of the council's decrees but, mindful that "the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Corinthians 3:6), they see in Vatican II a trajectory of further change that this pope has frustrated. John Paul II is not oblivious to these criticisms, just contemptuous of them. It is his duty, he writes in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, to "interpret [Vatican II] correctly and defend it from tendentious interpretations." It seems the pope enjoys confounding his critics. He recalls that on one trip to Poland he offended local adherents of the "enlightened agenda" by emphasizing the Ten Commandments. "For such people," he said, "the Pope becomes persona non grata when he tries to convince the world of human sin."

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.

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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