St John Paul II was a radical, not a reactionary

St John Paul II appears following his election in 1978

How will history judge the pontificate of Karol Wojtyla? Pope John Paul II, for much of his pontificate, was assailed by his enemies as a “restorationist” who sought to reverse the advances of the Second Vatican Council. By the end of his reign, this view had become almost impossible to sustain: it was far more normal to see him as an authentic interpreter of the Council, to perceive, as Cardinal Avery Dulles put it, that more than any other single individual he had “succeeded in comprehensively restating the contours of Catholic faith in the light of Vatican II”. In the secular world, too, he was seen as a towering figure; in the words of the agnostic AN Wilson, he was “unique, infinitely the most striking and interesting figure of our times”.

How will he be seen in the perspective of the Christian centuries? Was this, in fact, something more than an extraordinarily impressive but necessarily mixed record of achievement and failure? Or will his pontificate be seen as something more that that: are we talking about one of those rare beings who possesses those qualities of vision and intensity of focus, as well as of strength and originality, that allow us to say not only that this was an exceptional Pope, but also, quite simply, that here, truly, was Joannes Paulus Magnus , John Paul the Great? The problem has to do with the (undoubtedly accurate) description of him as a “conservative”: what does that mean? According to John Henry Newman, in a remarkably interesting discussion of Pope Gregory the Great, popes are necessarily conservative, in the sense that “they cannot bear anarchy, they think revolution an evil, they pray for the peace of the world”. But, says Newman, “there is a… subtle form of conservatism, by which ecclesiastical persons are more likely to be tempted and overcome… This fault is an over-attachment to the ecclesiastical establishment, as such… to traditional lines of policy, precedent and discipline,

To rules and customs of long standing. But a great Pontiff must be detached from everything save the deposit of faith…” So though they are conservative, Newman says, it is not in any bad sense: for although “the Popes have been old men”, they “have never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy… of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene”. What had become clear, beyond any doubt, by the pontificate’s final phase, is that this Pope’s conservatism was of the kind that Newman is describing here.

AN Wilson’s judgment, that the Pope is, “unique, infinitely the most striking and interesting figure of our times” was made in the immediate aftermath of the Pope’s penitential visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. This visit was a previously unimaginable event which unfolded in a year of such striking initiatives. The Pope’s visible pain and frailty had given rise some months before to speculation that he might even retire: and yet, these were precisely the years in which not only the inner strength but also the true radicalism of this wholly unpredictable figure became most strikingly apparent. It becomes clear that “conservative” is a word we have to be very careful about using to describe this pope, unless we understand it to mean something very close to the reverse of what it is generally assumed to mean. But this should be no surprise to Catholics unless we are to deny the very essence of the Catholic faith itself, a vital part of which precisely is to refuse to allow the deposit of faith

To be compromised by the intellectual fashions of the passing age. It is what we conserve that makes us radical. Thus, writing as an outside observer, the then Anglican Church historian, Edward Norman, characterised the documents of the Second Vatican Council as being essentially conservative, “in the sense that the ‘mystery’of the Church was never submerged beneath accommodations to the values of the secular culture”. The truly great pope is thus one who is able to confront the world without denying it, to confront it by asserting the values of the Gospel and the mystery of the Church, to affirm it by proclaiming and defending the sacredness of every human person. We need to repeat, for these are no empty words, that his denial of the world’s values will never be a withdrawal from the world: the great popes have seen the signs of the times and have read them aright.

The two popes called “the great” – that is, Leo and Gregory – both lived in times of vast geopolitical upheavals in which they themselves were major players, both defending and preserving the Church herself and exercising a direct influence over the historical forces that had been unleashed by the great struggles for power that unfolded around them. Here, surely is a striking parallel with the present Pope. The other striking parallel with both Leo and Gregory has been in John Paul’s ultimately successful reassertion of the authority of the pope to teach and define doctrine. Leo, of course, was the Pope who sent the Council of Chalcedon his famous tome – a statement defining the doctrine of the two natures of Christ –

With the instruction that it was to be accepted by the Council without any inquiry or discussion. And it was Pope Gregory – though he described himself as “servant of the servants of God” – who first used the phrase ex cathedra to indicate that he was speaking with the full weight and authority of the papal office. It takes more than originality to be a great pope: it takes courage, the kind of courage which becomes infectious, so that it infuses the minds and hearts of all the faithful. “Be not afraid,” said John Paul in his inaugural sermon as pope; it was a sermon which powerfully established not only the tone of his pontificate but the breadth of his own mind and the vast scale on which he assessed the possibilities for the Church in the modern world: “Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilisation and development. “Be not afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man’. He alone knows it.” Be not afraid: it became the watchword for his papacy – not because he obsessively repeated it for others to follow, but because he lived it out himself to the very end.

The older and more frail he became, the more his courage shone out, and the nearer his papal service came to being a kind of living martyrdom. By any human measure, John Paul’s qualities have amounted to greatness of the highest order: it is surely very hard to believe that that will not be the verdict of history, too.

This is a specially revised and edited version of the Introduction to John Paul the Great, a joint publication by the Catholic Truth Society and The Catholic Herald

First published in the Catholic Herald on April 8 2005


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