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John Paul the Great | William Oddie | A selection John Paul the Great: Maker of the Post-Conciliar Church

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About a decade ago, the late Professor Adrian Hastings -- having the previous year published his controversial though unsurprising book The Theology of a Protestant Catholic -- edited a substantial volume entitled Modern Catholicism, Vatican II and After. It was a collection of essays containing contributions from what the dust jacket described as 'an international team of leading Catholic scholars'; and among these contributions was an assessment of the pontificate thus far of the Pope from Poland, by the distinguished commentator on Vatican affairs, the late Peter Hebblethwaite. It concluded with these words:
One would like to think that John Paul continues to learn from his stay in the West, not to mention his world-wide journeys; and that he might spend as much time trying to understand the rest of us as we have spent trying to understand him. It may be that his providential role is to test the conservative hypothesis to breaking point. At the conclave that elected him, it was possible to argue that the Church needed a strong hand on the tiller. At the next conclave, that argument will not wash: the conservative option will have been tried, and may well be found wanting. In the spiritual life, everyone fails. The seed falls into the ground and dies. But this will be a magnificent heroic failure on a cosmic scale, with that special Polish dash.
A year or two later, in a little restaurant close to St Peter's, the same writer was quoted in the Catholic World Report as saying that 'Nothing he has done will outlast him. Not the Catechism, not Veritatis splendor, not the document on the ordination of women ... The new man will put aside everything John Paul has done and start ... again'.

I remembered these judgements in Westminster Cathedral, as I was listening, early in the new Millennium, to a lecture (sponsored by The Catholic Herald) given by the Pope's biographer, George Weigel. It was entitled 'The achievement of John Paul II'. It was not so much that Weigel's assessment of the Pope was very different, though certainly it was: John Paul's pontificate, he concluded, was 'the most consequential since the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century'.

But it was the people who had come to hear Weigel speak who were as interesting as the lecture itself: apart from anything else, there were so many of them. Originally, the plan had been for the lecture to take place in a hall seating about 200 people. But it was soon clear that this would have to be rethought: the lecture was moved to the nave of the Cathedral, which holds about 1,000: and every seat was taken.

Ten years before, such a response would not have been imaginable: what was the explanation? Why had they all come? They came, perhaps, partly because Weigel was known to have had the Pope's co-operation: the people had come to hear about the Pope's achievement from someone who could be trusted not to diminish it: what the people wanted, so it seemed to me, was an authentic assessment of the man who had become -- if the somewhat Blairite language may be permitted -- the people's Pope. Weigel's judgment on the pontificate's historical importance would have been controversial only a few short years before. Among those gathered in Westminster Cathedral that day, it had become so obvious that its restatement by George Weigel had about it a kind of ritual formality. It may be true that the Church thinks in millennia and not in decades; but a lot can happen in ten years, nevertheless.

We need to return, all the same, to that early judgment of Peter Hebblethwaite's, and particularly to his speculation that it was the Pope's providential role to 'test the Conservative hypothesis to breaking point'. In one sense, we can say simply that this prediction has already been very comprehensively falsified. There is much less chance today of being unthinkingly labelled 'right wing' simply for accepting this Pope's teachings on faith and morals out of conviction rather than reluctant acquiescence. As for John Paul himself, far from being perceived today as a reactionary Pope who has sought to reverse the advances inaugurated by the second Vatican Council (the so-called 'restorationist' analysis or scenario) it is, on the contrary, he who in the end has been perceived as the Council's most definitive interpreter and advocate. In the words of the Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, 'more than any other single individual he has succeeded in comprehensively restating the contours of Catholic faith in the light of Vatican II and in relation to postconciliar developments in the Church and in the world.'

This had, of course, been his intention from the, beginning: after his election, he told the assembled Cardinals that his first task and 'definitive duty' was to complete the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. But that is not, as we all know, how it was seen by some in the early years of the pontificate. The Pope's declaration was duly noted: but it soon began to cause confusion, particularly among many of those deeply devoted to a phenomenon widely known at the time as 'the spirit of Vatican II'. What could not be gainsaid by anyone was the Pope's transparently sincere enthusiasm for the Council he had attended. But it seemed clear, to some at least, that he really did not have the slightest idea what it had all been about. This conclusion was buttressed by an assumption -- often quite openly expressed -- that Vatican II was largely the province of the Western Catholic intelligentsia, whose understanding of the Council was necessarily deeper and more subtle than the understanding of unsophisticated Eastern European prelates like the former Archbishop of Cracow, cut off as he had been for so long from the sophisticated intellectual life enjoyed by theologians and journalists in such great Catholic centres as Tübingen and Oxford. The difficulty for some observers, in Peter Hebblethwaite's words, was that though 'utterly sincere when he declared his commitment to them, [the Pope] nevertheless does not mean by "Council" and "Vatican II" what most people in the West mean.'

But what, we have to ask, did that mean? What it meant, of course, was that this Pope consistently refused to accept the view that Vatican II represented a radical break with Catholic tradition. As he declared in February, 2000, 'If anyone reads the Council presuming that it marked a break with the past, while in reality it placed itself in line with the faith of all time, he definitely has gone astray'. Thus, as Tracey Roland explains (p. 27, at p. 31) 'Throughout the past quarter century a major aspect of his pontificate has ... been the clarification, development and implementation of the decrees of the Council in a manner which perfects rather than destroys elements of pre-Conciliar theology'. It is probably fair to say that by the end of the twentieth century the Pope's view of the Council had become the normal view of ordinary faithful Catholics, the sensus fidelium yet again proving a surer guide than the self-appointed nomenklatura of the alternative or parallel magisterium.

There is a problem, nevertheless. For, though it is a temptation, in one way, simply to say that what we might call the anti-conservative hypothesis about Pope John Paul is not in the latter part of his pontificate looking very persuasive -- in the sense that it is highly unlikely that in Hebblethwaite's words 'the new man will put aside everything John Paul has done and start ... again' -- there is, nevertheless, a sense in which the judgment that the Pope is an essentially conservative figure dogs him yet. It is hard for anyone, even his enemies, to say that he is not a truly remarkable man. That now goes without saying. This is a Pope of real and undeniable stature.

But what else do we need to say? How will we think of him in the decades to come? How will he be seen by the world? These are not unimportant questions: for the higher our view of his legacy, the more sure it is that his legacy will be a determining factor in how the Church continues to face the third Millennium. And the higher the view taken by the world -- even when it understands him only dimly -- the more it will be inclined to take seriously a Church which both produced and has in turn been so massively influenced by such a figure.

I have referred in passing to George Weigel's assessment, that John Paul's pontificate has been the most consequential since the Protestant reformation. In his biography, he based this judgment on what he considered the Pope's eight greatest achievements: by the time he gave his Catholic Herald lecture in Westminster Cathedral, the list had grown to ten: the renovation of the papacy, the full implementation of Vatican II, the collapse of communism, the clarification of the moral challenges facing free society, the insertion of ecumenism into the heart of Catholicism, the new dialogue with Judaism, the redefinition of inter-religious dialogue, a fresh approach to the sexual revolution with his theology of the body, the Catechism and what it represents, and the personal inspiration that has changed countless personal lives.

This is a clear and unambiguous assessment, though I think that Weigel's list of achievements is still incomplete. Most notably, it fails to register the Pope's powerful support for the new ecclesial movements, a support which, as Ian Ker says (p. 49), 'is firmly in the tradition of the popes who, at critical times in the Church's life, have discerned dramatic new ways in which the Spirit has raised up new charismatic movements for the renewal and the propagation of the Christian faith'.

But even if Weigel's assessment had given a full and complete account of the Pope's achievements, it would still be seen by many (especially among secular observers) unduly oversimplified as a representation of the pontificate. For much of the Pope's reign -- certainly for the secular world but also for many Catholics -- he has been a figure of paradox. He has been, so it is said, a social progressive but an ecclesiological reactionary; a pastoral bishop who had been deeply influenced by the second Vatican Council but who then -- or so some critics volubly assert even now -- directed his entire pontificate towards a restoration of the Catholicism of the pre-conciliar period. He was a defender of liberty wherever the rights of men and women were denied by despotic regimes; and yet, his enemies soon began to claim that he himself silenced dissent among bishops and clergy quite as ruthlessly as any secular dictator. It seemed to many that he was wholly out of touch with the secular realities amid which he lived; and yet, almost uniquely among his contemporaries, he had a profound and subtle understanding of the nature of the historical forces that were to sweep away the post-war division of Europe between the capitalist West and the communist East.

Paradoxical or not, the achievement is there; it is solid and it is undeniable. However we resolve (or preferably deny) the supposed paradoxes, the general assessment now tends to be, in A.N. Wilson's words, that he is 'unique, infinitely the most striking and interesting figure of our times'. But is there, in fact, a lot more to say: is John Paul simply a striking and interesting figure, even if he is the most striking and the most interesting of our times? Or are we talking about an historical figure whose actions and whose personal qualities have not only influenced one of the great turning points in human affairs but also inaugurated the regeneration of the Church itself? Is this one of those rare beings who possesses, truly, those qualities of vision and intensity of focus as well as of strength and originality that allow us to say, not only here is John Paul, an exceptional Pope: But also, quite simply, here, truly, is Joannes Paulus Magnus, John Paul the Great?

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles

Saint John Paul II?
On the Papacy, John Paul II, and the Nature of the Church | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Theologians, Authors Reflect on Pope John Paul II | Various Authors
On the Death of Pope John Paul II | Michael O'Brien
Was Pope John Paul II Anti-Woman? | Mary Beth Bonacci
JPII, Why Did We Love You? | Mary Beth Bonacci

Pope John Paul II-related resources from Ignatius Press:

Love and Responsibility | Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Jeweler's Shop | Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
The Legacy of John Paul II: Images and Memories | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
Pope John Paul II: In My Own Words | Pope John Paul II
Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II | George Weigel
Miracles of John Paul II | Pawel Zuchniewicz
Covenant of Love: Pope John Paul II on Sexuality, Marriage, and Family in the Modern World | Fr. Richard Hogan and Fr. John LeVoir
The Funeral Mass of John Paul II (DVD)

William Oddie is editor of The Catholic Herald; his books include What Will Happen to God? and The Roman Option. He was ordained an Anglican clergyman in 1977; in 1991 he was received into the Catholic Church.

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