October 16, 2018, marks the fortieth anniversary of the election of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II. On October 22, his feast day, John Paul II received the pallium during his public installation. His 26-1/2 year pontificate was the third longest in papal history.
From the perspective of four decades, let me provide some reflections on that ground-breaking papacy.
John Paul Brought the Papacy into the Modern World and Humanized It
Having had 40 years of non-Italian popes makes it hard to remember what a break Wojtyła’s election was with four centuries of custom. John Paul, whose formative experience was as an archdiocesan bishop at Vatican II, saw something of the universal nature of the modern Church. It was Karl Rahner, I think, who observed that Vatican II was every bit as radical as the Council of Jerusalem. At Jerusalem, the apostles recognized that the nascent Church had to break out of its Jewish cradle to enter the Greco-Roman world. At Vatican II, their successors recognized that the modern Church had to transcend its European cultural context to enter the whole world. A bishop from “the other Europe” helped make that possible.
John Paul also brought the papacy into contact with the ordinary and good contours of the modern world. One simple sign: early on, people would see pictures of John Paul wearing a watch. Before Wojtyła, Pope Paul VI was called a “pilgrim pope” for taking nine trips during his 15-year pontificate (but touching six continents). John Paul made the image of a pope on an airplane normal. And while John Paul I certainly began the humanization of the papacy as “the smiling Pope,” Luciani’s common touch was perpetuated by a man who consciously took his unprecedented double name.
John Paul Changed World History
What George Weigel rightly calls the “Revolution of 1989” would not have happened without Karol Wojtyła on the Chair of Peter. Vatican diplomacy in the 1960s and 1970s was pursuing an Ostpolitik, ready to concede that the Iron Curtain was here to stay and the Church should, therefore, try to carve out a little corner for itself, hoping the cat leaves the mouse alone. The tremulous, for whom every “boo” from Moscow meant humanity was on the verge of nuclear annihilation and so let’s go into full-scale Chamberlin accommodation mode, probably thought from day one that a Pole in the papacy was simply provocative. But the message of Him whose vicar he was, John Paul’s “Be not afraid” took root among Polish Catholics who, assembling to great their local-son-made-good in 1979, also realized at the same time that a system which had worked to isolate and atomize society kept its grip only by fear: when Poles assembled for that first papal pilgrimage, they also realized that there were lots of others, their friends and neighbors who, like them, believed what they did and not what their rulers did. From that was born Solidarity, and from that was born a “revolution of the spirit” in Polish factories and shipyards without which, less than a decade later, Germans would not have been able to disco atop the Berlin Wall as they took Ronald Reagan’s advice literally to tear it down.
John Paul Brought Theological Clarity
One must not forget the theological confusion that reigned in the post-Vatican II period and, especially, in the last years of Montini’s papacy. Even today, ideas that roil the Church—like Walter Kasper’s Communion for the divorced or intercommunion-as-means-rather-than-end of ecclesiastical unity—are but warmed up leftovers of 1970s ideas retrieved from dormancy. (Kasper’s “Theology of Christian Marriage” goes back to 1977).
John Paul restored a “hermeneutic of continuity” before Ratzinger gave it that name. The Pope knew that, like ecumenical councils before it, Vatican II left lots of things unsettled in its wake, a disruption that the octogenarian Paul VI let drift. John Paul II was genuinely a bishop of Vatican II. At the same time, he was also aware that the Church did not begin in 1962 and that Vatican II had to be read in continuity with what preceded it, not at variance with it. John Paul’s quarter-century pontificate, assisted with Cardinal Ratzinger at the head of the Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith, provided that modicum of doctrinal stability that set the Church on a firmer path.
At the same time, John Paul recognized that theology must develop. His “theology of the body,” for example—a series of papal addresses early in his papacy—represented an attempt to engage and deepen Catholic sexual ethics and theological anthropology in modern language while, at the same time, reinforcing it on a Biblical basis.
The Centrality of Man
To this writer, the most valuable aspect of John Paul II’s pontificate was its effort to reaffirm the dignity and centrality of the human person, to renew Catholic theological anthropology. John Paul grew up amidst radical challenges to human dignity. He was born almost at the same time his native Poland was reborn, out of the ashes of World War I, based on a principle of a right to self-determination that remains under challenge elsewhere in the world today. His young adulthood was lived amidst six years of Nazi terror that almost left him dead; his priesthood, episcopate, and papacy spanned years of Communist terror, to which many also attribute an attempt on his life. In the contemporary world, John Paul also sees the assaults on human dignity wrought by those Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski calls “sleek barbarians,” people in $800 suits with impressive academic credentials who dispassionately traffic in babies’ skulls (“calvaria”) over wine and who insist that “male and female He created them” represents invidious discrimination. In 1976, the future Pope told his predecessor, during a Lenten retreat, that Catholic sexual ethics was the forefront of “a lively battle for the dignity of man,” trying to sustain a Pope whose writing of Humanae vitae was a “sign of contradiction” to the Church and which some tried to claim was a “retreat” from Vatican II.
John Paul tirelessly insisted that humanization and divinization proceed in tandem: man is not “alienated’ by God but, in fact, becomes ever more human the more deeply he hews to God. The absolute image of that truth is, of course, the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ.
In affirming the dignity of man, especially in Catholic sexual ethics, one cannot neglect the admission that John Paul failed to grasp and adequately react against the extent of ecclesiastical rot stemming from homosexual behavior and child predation among the clergy, including bishops. The first aspect of this “massive, massive crisis” exploded in Boston in 2002, in the final years of John Paul’s papacy. Some papal apologists will try to explain that, earlier, John Paul may have been disinclined to believe such accusations because such a modus operandi was practiced by the Communists in Poland to tar clergy, and that, later, an increasingly sickly John Paul lacked the strength to grapple with the full extent of the crisis. I do not intend to stand behind either explanation nor say anything more than to lay out the historical fact: John Paul’s response to that crisis was insufficient and it has hurt the Church.
That said, there is no denying that the modern papacy would not be what it is—and the Catholic Church not in the relatively better shape it was post-Vatican II—without Karol Wojtyła in the papacy. In many ways, although Luciani began the burial of the imperial papacy when he substituted an installation for a coronation, it was John Paul II who successfully moved the papacy from political player to moral force in the modern world. That’s not to deny that the Vatican did – and must – be involved in the political realm. It is, however, to say that John Paul made clear, in response to Stalin’s retort, that he had divisions, and those moral divisions matter. Rest in peace, good and faithful servant. St. John Paul II, pray for us.
By John M.Grondeski
John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.