An Unlikely Pontificate

Published October 15, 1999

[An excerpt from Witness to Hope, used here with permission.]

It must be admitted that there is something surprising about the advent of John Paul II, particularly at the end of the 20th century. This was, after all, the century that was supposed to witness the withering away of religion as a maturing humanity, tutored by science, outgrew its “need” for such psychological props as religious faith.

Yet at the millennium, the most compelling public figure in the world, the man with arguably the most coherent and comprehensive vision of the human possibility in the world ahead, is the man who is best described as the compleat Christian.

Much of late modernity assumes that dependence on God is a mark of human immaturity and an obstacle to human freedom. The life of Karol Wojtyla and his accomplishment as Pope John Paul II suggest a dramatic, alternative possibility: that a man who has been seized and transformed by the “more excellent way” can bend the curve of history so that freedom’s cause is advanced.

That the supreme pontiff is someone aptly described as a Christian radical has also been something of a surprise within the Catholic Church. The surprise is not because the recent history of the papacy has replicated the rascalities and scandals of the Renaissance. Since the 16th-century Counter-Reformation, though, the exercise of the world’s oldest office had been cut to fit a certain template designed primarily by and for the Italians who dominated Vatican life.

Brilliant and dedicated Italians, many of them saints, saved Catholicism in the 16th century: men like Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine and Antonio Ghislieri, whom history remembers as Pope Pius V. Over time, however, this historically and culturally conditioned model for the papacy came to be understood as a reflection of God’s enduring intentions for the Office of Peter in the Church.

And in that model, especially as it evolved after the loss of the Papal States in 1870, the principal jobs of the Roman pontiff were thought to be the effective management of the Roman Curia, the central bureaucratic machinery of the Catholic Church, and the careful management of the church’s relations with sovereign states, in a diplomacy conducted according to the premises of the modern state system.

The theory had it that the pope should manage the church’s permanent bureaucracy, but the bureaucracy often thought it should manage the pope. For more than four centuries, the curial managers of popes believed, not without reason, that “we know how to do this” (as they often put it) and that wise popes would accommodate themselves to the prevailing methodology.

Those who accommodated — and they all did, to one degree or another — were often men of intellectual sophistication and personal sanctity. By agreeing to conduct their office as curial tradition dictated, however, they agreed to a papacy that was more managerial and bureaucratic than evangelical in character.

Karol Wojtyla was an outsider to all this. He had not been acculturated, one might say, to be a pope. But he had been one of the world’s most dynamic, innovative and successful local bishops. And he had been that precisely because he was an evangelist and pastor who was a Christian radical.

As he once put it, if the Holy Spirit had seen fit to call the bishop of Krakow to the office of bishop of Rome and pastor of the universal church, there must have been something in his experience that was useful for others. Thus the church, as well as the world, has had to learn to live with a very different kind of pontificate, the most distinctive characteristics of which are expressions of Karol Wojtyla, the disciple who was a product of the church in the modern world, not of the Roman bureaucracy.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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