For all its diversity of accomplishment and complexity of thought, the pontificate of Pope John Paul II was a series of variations on one great theme: Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.
That, he believed, was the truth of the human condition; that, he insisted, was the Catholic Church’s answer to the crisis of the modern world, which he had long believed to be a crisis in the very idea of the human person. That is the conviction that underwrote the 10 great accomplishments of this pontificate: accomplishments that, we can be reasonably sure, will survive him for decades, perhaps even centuries, to come.
John Paul II radically recast the papacy for the 21st century and the third millennium by returning the papacy to its evangelical roots.
The world and the Church no longer think of the pope as the chief executive officer of the Roman Catholic Church; the world and the Church experience the pope as a pastor, an evangelist, a witness to human dignity and decency. It is often said that John Paul broke the modern papal mould he inherited, which is true enough.
Yet he broke that mould, not simply by being the first Slavic pope in history and the first non-Italian pope in centuries, but by living the kind of papal primacy envisioned in the New Testament, where Peter is the Church’s first evangelist, the Church’s first witness to the truths revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
John Paul II’s successor may travel less; he may address fewer great questions with penetrating teaching documents; he may tackle questions of administrative procedure in the Roman Curia that John Paul left untouched.
But it is very difficult to imagine a 21st-century pontificate that deliberately abandons the evangelical-pastoral model of papacy that John Paul II created. By retrieving and renewing the evangelical primacy of Peter’s office in the first-century Church, John Paul created a new set of expectations, in the Church and in the world, of what popes do and of what popes are for. Those who choose his successor will be well aware of that.
This dramatic renovation of the world’s oldest institutional office was not accomplished by personal fiat or by reason of John Paul’s singular personality, but by a Pope who was self-consciously the heir of the Second Vatican Council.
Thus his second enduring accomplishment: John Paul II secured the legacy of Vatican II in its fullness as an epic spiritual event, the Council at which the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, came to grips with modernity through a theologically enriched sense of its unique mission in and for the world.
Two conciliar texts were cited most frequently in John Paul’s teaching: sections 22 and 24 of the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. John Paul’s debt to Vatican II, his determination that the Council be understood in religious rather than political or ideological terms, and his understanding of the Council’s proposal to the world are synoptically captured here.
In the Pastoral Constitution’s section 22, the Council Fathers taught that Jesus Christ reveals both the face of God and the true meaning of human existence; in section 24, the Council taught that the meaning of human life was to be found in self-giving, not self-assertion.
There is, the Council suggested, a “law of the gift,” or law of self-giving, written on the human heart, and that law reflects the self-giving love that constitutes the interior life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
To live this “law of the gift,” John Paul proposed, is to enter into the communion with God for which humanity was created from the beginning. Here, the Pope told the modern world, is a destiny greater than you can imagine. And it is yours because you are greater than you think you are.
In John Paul II’s understanding of the Council, everything else Vatican II did — its renovation of Catholic worship, its dialogue with science and democracy, its defence of religious freedom as the first of human rights — was a further explication of these two great themes: Christ, the redeemer of the world, reveals the astonishing truth about the human condition and our final destiny; self-giving love is the path along which human freedom finds its fulfillment in human flourishing.
In more than 25 years of a pontificate inspired by the conviction that God intended the Council to prepare the entire Church for a 21st-century springtime of evangelization, Karol Wojtyla worked to secure the legacy of Vatican II as the Council of freedom, in the conviction that freedom, the great aspiration of the modern world, must always be freedom for goodness and freedom for nobility, not freedom understood by means of Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way.” One great service the Church can do the modern world, John Paul believed, is to remind it that freedom is ordered to truth and finds its fulfillment in goodness. That was what Christ meant when he said that knowing the truth would set human beings free (see John 8.32). That is what the Church should propose to the 21st century and the third millennium as the means to realize what the Pope described at the UN in 1995 as the “great human quest for freedom.”
That conviction inspired John Paul II’s public accomplishments. His crucial role in the collapse of European communism, his third enduring achievement, cannot be understood as the accomplishment of a deft statesman. It was, in fact, the achievement of a courageous pastor, determined to speak truth to power and convinced that the word of truth, spoken clearly and forcefully enough, is a most effective tool against tyranny. By inspiring the revolution of conscience that made possible the non-violent Revolution of 1989 against Marxism-Leninism, John Paul helped restore the political freedom of his Slavic brethren behind the Iron Curtain. At the same time, he challenged a lot of conventional wisdom about how history works. History, he helped demonstrate, is driven by culture, and at the heart of culture is cult, or religion. By inspiring hundreds of thousands of ordinary men and women to stand firm against communist tyranny, the pontificate of John Paul II demonstrated in action that Christian conviction can be the agent of human liberation, and that “history” is not just the exhaust fumes produced by politics or economics. Culture comes first, because culture is the most profoundly human expression of humanity’s engagement with the world.
This “priority of culture” was a lesson the Pope applied to the quest for freedom in East Asia and Latin America, to considerable effect. It was also the challenge he posed to democracies old and new in the wake of the communist crack-up, a challenge that marks his fourth enduring accomplishment. If culture really is the engine of history, then free economies and democratic political communities must be built on the foundation of a vibrant public moral culture, capable of disciplining and directing the tremendous human energies set loose by freedom. In challenging the idea of freedom-as-wilfulness and in proposing freedom-for-excellence in such encyclicals as Centesimus Annus [The Hundredth Year, 1991], Veritatis Splendor [The Splendor of Truth, 1993], and Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life, 1995], John Paul scouted the terrain of public life in the 21st century, in which science and technology will make certain that questions of what constitutes human life and membership in the human community shape the world’s social and political agenda. Democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves, he insisted; it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make freedom work. As the dangers of the brave new wo
rld — and the dangers of international terrorism — darkened the horizon of the new century, the Pope’s clear understanding that we are most certainly not at “the end of history” was vindicated time and again.
The Christian humanism of Vatican II also inspired three other enduring accomplishments of the pontificate: John Paul’s unprecedented and historic initiatives in search of Christian unity, his quest for a new relationship between the Catholic Church and living Judaism, and his dialogue with other world religions.
With the pontificate of John Paul II, the Catholic Church entered the ecumenical movement for the duration, and in doing so reshaped the quest for Christian unity.
While some veterans of the 20th century ecumenical movement, notably the World Council of Churches, were abandoning the search for a Christian unity rooted in a common faith, the Pope urged that the only unity worth pursuing was unity in the truth Christ had left his Church as his greatest gift to those who followed him. Concurrently, John Paul gave ecumenism a new public thrust, suggesting that Christianity’s defence of the unity of the human race was threatened by the Church’s failure to live fully the unity that was Christ’s gift to his people. Following Vatican II, John Paul argued that the “communion” of the Church had never been completely broken and that all Christians were in a true but imperfect communion with each other and with the Catholic Church, whether they acknowledged that or in fact rejected it. The ecumenical task, he proposed, was to express this abiding unity and communion in a fuller way. How to do that, he suggested, required Protestant and Orthodox Christians to think with their Catholic brothers and sisters about what it means for the papacy to be a ministry in service to the Church’s unity. It was a bold offer in a pontificate full of bold proposals; it may be hoped that the offer will be taken up more seriously in the years and decades ahead.
John Paul II received numerous accolades for his dramatic initiatives in Catholic-Jewish relations, but perhaps without their true importance being recognized. In the 21st century, Catholics and Jews stand on the edge of a new religious conversation, of a range and depth unimaginable in more than 1,900 years. That conversation is important for Jews and Christians; it’s also important for the future of freedom. If freedom’s future depends on a recognition of the dignity of the human person created by God, then the witnesses to that truth — the communities that call Abraham their father in faith and that take the Ten Commandments as their fundamental moral code — must deepen their mutual understanding of what it means to be an elect people, called to live as a light to the nations. If, sometime during the third millennium, faithful Jews and Christians begin to talk with each other again about election, covenant and their common messianic hope, it will be recognized that the seeds of that reconvened conversation were planted by John Paul II, in response to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
The 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace at Assisi, in which the Pope gathered religious leaders from all over the world to “be together to pray,” was the most visible expression of John Paul’s conviction that all truth is related to the one Truth, who is God. That conviction also undergirded his initiatives with Islam, his dialogue with such religious leaders as the Dalai Lama, and his approach to other great world religions. To many secular minds, respect for others’ religious convictions without compromising one’s own convictions seems impossible; it must be a zero-sum game, in which the intensity of conviction on one side entails a weakening of conviction on the other. Yet unless that possibility of dialogue-without-abandonment can be created, the world of the 21st century, which is being shaped (and sometimes misshaped) by resurgent religious forces, is destined for even more serious conflict. Previews of that conflict were evident throughout the pontificate of John Paul II, in the Balkans, Sudan, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia, and in the events that followed 9/11. By insisting that interreligious dialogue begin with the question, “Tell me the truth that guides your life,” and by teaching that religious freedom is the source and safeguard of all human rights, John Paul exemplified an alternative to sectarian violence and state-enforced secularism in situations where the deepest convictions of human beings are in conflict, not conversation. In doing so, he not only saved interreligious dialogue from the quicksand of political correctness; he offered a model of dialogue in which tolerance means differences engaged with civility, not differences ignored as if difference made no difference.
In a long view of contemporary cultural history, the sexual revolution will be recognized as another attempt to redefine the human condition in the name of a defective concept of freedom: the freedom to pursue the pleasure principle so long as “no one else” gets hurt. Much of liberal Protestantism has simply surrendered to the sexual revolution. John Paul II took a dramatically different tack in his “theology of the body,” which he laid out in 129 general audience addresses between 1979 and 1984.
The “theology of the body” drew on the Pope’s philosophical as well as theological acumen –which perhaps explains why it attracted the attention of many non-Catholics and non-believers.
The philosophical core of the Pope’s proposal is (to return to a previous theme) the claim that a “law of the gift” is built into the very structure of our lives, and because of that, self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human flourishing. If one accepts this — and the Pope argued that anyone willing to work their way through a serious argument could get the point — the challenge of the sexual revolution comes into clearer human focus. Sex, as often experienced in today’s sexual free-fire zone, is instinctive and impersonal. But that kind of sex, the Pope suggested, does not rise above the level of animal sexuality, which is also instinctive and impersonal. Sex that expresses self-giving love, rather than sex that uses the other for temporary gratification, is the only sex worthy of human beings. Chastity is thus what the Pope called “the integrity of love”: the virtue that makes it possible for me to love another as a person. We are made free, he argued, so that we can make a free gift of ourselves to others; we are free so that we can love freely, and thus love truly. Genuine freedom — the freedom that disposes of itself in self-giving — is the context of a genuinely humanistic sexual ethic.
John Paul, theologian and interpreter of the Bible, also insisted that our embodiedness as male and female is not an accident of evolutionary biology; nor are maleness and femaleness “cultural constructs,” as postmodern feminists and other deconstructionists insist. Rather, that natural embodiedness as male and female, and the mutuality built into it, express some of the world’s deepest truths and teach us something about the world’s Creator. John Paul even went so far as to propose that sexual love within the bond of marital fidelity is an icon of the interior life of God the Holy Trinity, a community of mutual self-donation and mutual receptivity.
It will be well into this 21st century before the Catholic Church and the wider culture begin to assimilate the contents of John Paul II’s “theology of the body.” But as the Pope leaves the stage of history, it is worth remembering that the Bishop of Rome, often assumed to be the custodian of a tradition that deprecates human sexuality, articulated a deeply humanistic response to the sexual revolution that says to the readers of Playboy and Cosmopolitan alike, “Human sexuality is far greater than you imagine.”
The Pope’s ninth historic accomplishment was emblematically captured in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. An iron law seems built into Christianity’s encounter with modernity: Christian communities that maintain clear doctrinal and moral boundaries prosper; Christian communities whose doctrinal and moral boundaries become porous wither. The Catechism testifies to the fact that, after 2,000 turbulent years, the Catholic Church is able to give a comprehensive, coherent account of what the apostle called, in 1 Peter, the “hope that is within” us. In doing that, the Catechism challenged the postmodern claims that knowledge is incoherent and that, while there may be your truth and my truth, there is no such thing as the truth. Without boastfulness, indeed in humility, the Catechism, like John Paul II’s pontificate, confesses the coherence of Christian faith as an explanation of how things are, how things came to be, and how the world’s story will be completed — even as it proposes that human beings can hear a saving word of grace from God, no matter what their historical or cultural “location.” Those convictions bode well for the revitalization of the Church as an evangelical movement in the 21st century.
Finally, John Paul II’s accomplishment must be measured in its impact on hundreds of millions of human lives, considered one by one. For more than a quarter-century, the Pope inspired men and women, young and old alike, to live out the consequences of the challenge he preached at his papal installation: “Be not afraid!” At the end of the eighth decade of a century of fear, some were surely inclined, on Oct. 22, 1978, to dismiss that as fragile romanticism. They were mistaken. That summons to live without fear, to live beyond fear, so transparently evident in the life of Karol Wojtyla, changed innumerable individual lives. By doing so, John Paul changed the course of history.
In his last, physically difficult years, the Pope continued to embody Christian fearlessness. By walking the way of the cross publicly, to the end, he bore witness with his life to the convictions that had given his life its dramatic impact and texture. By making his own life into a self-sacrificial prayer for the Church and the world, he vividly illustrated a truth he had long taught: There are no disposable human beings. Everyone counts, because everyone is a someone for whom the Son of God entered the world, suffered and died.
So at the end, as at the beginning, we meet Karol Wojtyla, Christian disciple — Christian radical, if you will. That always was the only way to understand him.
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.