John Paul II, born Karol Joseph Wojtyla, was an authentic, formidable, brilliant man who lived in direct and energetic engagement with the world’s people. To him, this seems to have been the essence of his calling as leader of the “universal church.” The Holy Father of the Catholics was not embarrassed to present himself as the brother of every human being, without regard to religious persuasion or ethnic origin. So as he is laid to rest, many outside the church feel impelled to try to assess him with the rigor, candor and compassion that shaped his charismatic persona.
But it is wiser not to pretend to comprehend him too quickly. Although deeply involved in the political struggles of his time, he wasn’t a politician who could be easily categorized in simple monochromatic terms. Behind the images of the warm pastor and the global celebrity were the intellectual and the mystic. In struggling to both adapt and defend an ancient faith, he was complicated and sometimes contradictory.
John Paul II did not belong exclusively to “right” or “left,” regardless of the rhetorical tributes accorded him in the pages of the New York Post and other doctrinal journals. Such self-serving ideological diatribes shouldn’t affect his legacy and only tend to dishonor those who make them. Within his prolific writings and his stewardship of the church can be found the traces of both conservative and progressive influences, as might be expected from a European who spent his early life in struggle against Nazism and then Communism.
That duality was evident in his willingness to confront the decadent Soviet empire that had so long oppressed his homeland-by encouraging a worker uprising that signaled the beginning of the end of Communist oppression. As a lifelong advocate of labor rights, he didn’t fit so perfectly with the right-wingers who sought to appropriate his courage for their own ends-and whose hostility to labor was so antithetical to his philosophy.
Unlike his brave confrontation with Communism, however, John Paul II soon found that he lacked the means to effect real change in the capitalist juggernaut. His sermons on the dignity of work and the imperative to care for the poor went largely ignored by corporate and national leaders. As he observed growing inequality, he came to feel that “the exploitation produced by inhuman capitalism is a real evil,” and even suggested that he saw a “kernel of truth in Marxism.”
Indeed, following the first decade of his long Papacy, the most troubling problems faced by John Paul II were caused not by crumbling Communist regimes but by the triumphant, globalizing, omnipotent market, uprooting old cultures, implanting materialism and promoting secularism. In both its progressive and conservative manifestations, his reign can be seen as a response to those forces.
The Pope’s determination to enforce outdated restrictions on sexuality and his protests against unrestrained capitalism arose from the same impulse-as did his autocratic approach to new reformist and radical ideas within the church itself.
His administration of the church empowered the most reactionary bishops and lay orders, notably including the wealthy, secretive and authoritarian Opus Dei. A sincere apostle of freedom, human rights and democracy, he nevertheless came perilously close to imitating his old Communist enemies in promoting a group that bans books and exercises daily control over its members. Yet he and his allies were unable to suppress the increasing restlessness among Western Catholics over prohibitions against women’s ordination, priestly marriage, birth control within marriage and tolerance of homosexuality.
He assiduously sought to enfold these encyclicals within a consistent “gospel of life” that rejected war and capital punishment as well as stem-cell research and euthanasia. But the more rigid aspects of his philosophy were hard to justify as millions turned away from the church-and millions more suffered for want of contraceptives and condoms.
The complications of John Paul II went beyond his conflicts with modernity. While he rebuked Catholic theologians who had dared to question Papal infallibility and other aspects of traditional law, he acknowledged the actual fallibility of his predecessors with two remarkable acts: his apology for the past sins of the church against “our elder brothers in faith,” the Jews, and his broader apology for the church’s errors during the millennium celebration.
In that open spirit and in defiance of old prejudices, he enunciated his most profound message, venturing from church to synagogue to mosque, meeting and praying with the prelates and priests of other denominations and even other religions. Unafraid to embrace the possibility of truth and grace in diverse faiths, he inspired multitudes in his campaigning for human solidarity. Immune to cynicism, this great and good man served us all as the tireless apostle of peace and reconciliation-which is why so many people who disagreed with John Paul II will continue to read him, admire him and honor his memory.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.