Last Thursday, in a ceremony timed to coincide with the moment of his election 25 years earlier, Pope John Paul II celebrated a mass in St. Peter’s Square. His slumped posture and slurred words and his inability to walk or stand at the altar or to read all of his sermon made it apparent that the health of the 83-year-old pontiff continues to deteriorate and that the reign of this great — and greatly controversial — Pope is nearing its end.
As the end draws near and one takes stock of the impact and legacy of John Paul II, one is struck by contradictions. On the one hand, he is, appropriately in this global era, truly a global pope. He speaks eight languages, has visited 129 countries on 102 trips, and has, in an era of jet travel, instant televised news and the internet, brought the Church into the lives of millions of people throughout the world.
He is also, in the broadest sense, an ecumenical pope. In 1986, he was the first pope to visit a synagogue. In 2000, on a trip to the Holy Land, he prayed at the Wailing Wall and left a letter asking forgiveness for the suffering of Jews at the hands of Christians. And in 2001, on a visit to Damascus, he entered a mosque — again, the first pope to do so. Only a hoped-for trip to Moscow and reconciliation with Russian Orthodox Church seems to have eluded him.
Yet as global and ecumenical as he may be, John Paul II is above all a Polish pope. Indeed, of all his trips, historians are likely to regard the one he made to Poland in June 1979 as the most important, at least in geopolitical terms. For more than anything else, it was that visit, which featured masses held across the country day after day, attended by hundreds of thousands, and televised to millions, that set in motion the chain of events that, in time, brought about the demise of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
In the early years of his pontificate, John Paul II created an impression that the Church would be socially progressive. His sermons in Poland in 1979 could only be regarded as empowering those without power. Reflecting the Poland he knew as a priest, bishop and cardinal, he warned against the atavistic tendencies of capitalism. And he exhibited a far greater concern for the downtrodden of the world than had his parochially Italian predecessors.
And yet the Church today stands as a bastion of social conservatism: opposed to abortion and the right of women to determine whether they will give birth; opposed, despite the pandemic scourge of AIDS, to contraception; opposed to the priestly ordination of women; opposed to the marriage of priests; opposed to the civil recognition of same-sex couples; opposed to divorce.
Only three of the 264 other popes in the Church’s two thousand years have served longer than John Paul II and few have shaped the structure and doctrine of the Church as much. Over the past quarter century, he has appointed virtually all of the cardinals who will elect his successor — the 135 among the nearly 200 who are under 80-years-old — and even revised the rules by which a Pope is elected. And he issued 14 Encyclicals, the supreme statements of Catholic doctrine, that have indelibly defined Catholic doctrine according to his moral and spiritual vision.
Despite the enormous impact of his pontificate on its structure and doctrine, the Church enters the 26th year of his pontificate in a state of crisis. Throughout Europe and in North America, vocations have plummeted, attendance has dropped off dramatically, churches and monasteries have closed, and many fewer people regard themselves as practicing Catholics.
No doubt these developments to some degree reflect processes of European and American change over which the Church has little control, such as the long-term secularization of culture. But those processes have been helped along by the doctrinal choices made by the Church under John Paul II. By adopting and rigidly upholding its opposition to abortion, contraception, divorce and same-sex unions, the Church has made itself increasingly irrelevant to the lives of many Catholics. And the revelations that the Church hierarchy tolerated and, indeed, covered up massive numbers of cases of pedophilia and sexual abuse have repulsed even more.
Despite all of the accomplishments of this Pope, the time has come for the Church to turn back to a kinder, gentler, and more humane vision of Catholicism.
David Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of undergraduate studies in the Political Science Department.