Comment Comment and Features

Forgetting the unforgettable pope

A woman stands in front of a poster of St John Paul II in Kraków (AP)

Here, in St John Paul’s city, it is impossible to forget him. The proudest boast of Poland’s millennial history, his presence will be at the centre of next summer’s World Youth Day, when his most audacious pastoral innovation comes to the home of Divine Mercy.

His successor, Benedict XVI, likewise finds it impossible to forget him. “In this way my bond with Poland, with Kraków, with the home of our great St John Paul II, has become even deeper,” Benedict said last Saturday, when receiving honorary doctorates from the Pontifical John Paul II University (formerly the Pontifical Academy of Theology) and the Kraków Academy of Music at Castel Gandolfo. “Without him my spiritual and theological journey would not be imaginable,” he added.

Is it possible to forget John Paul? Of course not. Yet there appear to be signs that some in Rome would like to imagine a future where John Paul is left in the past.

The first such sign was his canonisation in 2014, which was marked in Rome with little of the intensity of his beatification three years earlier. Held together with the accelerated canonisation of John XXIII, it was all rather flat. A small but telling sign was that no public mention at the canonisation was made of Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz – the man who spent 40 years at John Paul’s side as his faithful secretary – even though it was his 75th birthday.

A second sign that John Paul is being left behind was the publication of Laudato Si’ on June 18. While the document is littered with references to all sorts of social teaching documents, including John Paul’s encyclicals, it notably ignores the specific sections of Centesimus Annus (1991) on the moral status of the free market. John Paul gave there a nuanced and careful answer (#42) about the strengths and dangers of market economies, praising both their creative productivity and warning against allowing a market economy to be absolutised into a market society.

The arguments that Pope Francis advanced in Laudato Si’ do not contradict what John Paul taught, but it would require further work to show how they fully engage it. That the drafters of Laudato Si’ thought that insufficiently important indicates forgetfulness, wilful or otherwise.

A third sign was the publication of the Instrumentum Laboris – or working document – for the forthcoming synod the following week. John Paul reaffirmed with great clarity in Familiaris Consortio (1981), the fruit of the 1980 synod on the family, the inadmissibility of the divorced and civilly remarried to the sacraments. On that subject, the Instrumentum Laboris recommends proceeding “without prejudice to recommendations made in Familiaris Consortio” (#121) – a rather odd approach to John Paul’s authoritative teaching. Indeed, the preparatory document labours mightily to obscure what John Paul taught clearly, and to open questions that he had resolved. Moreover, there is no attention in the Instrumentum Laboris given to John Paul’s “theology of the body”, which is his most important pastoral response to questions of love and marriage.

On the divorced and remarried front, John Paul did not answer only in Familiaris Consortio. When the proposal was officially made in a pastoral letter in July 1993 by German bishops Oskar Saier, Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann there were two responses.

The encyclical Veritatis Splendor, published in August 1993, concludes with a recognition that for some it seems that “Christian morality is in itself too demanding, difficult to understand and almost impossible to practise” (#119).

Could he have had Kasper et al in mind? Perhaps.

Veritatis Splendor responds clearly: “This is untrue, since Christian morality consists, in the simplicity of the Gospel, in following Jesus Christ, in abandoning oneself to him, in letting oneself be transformed by his grace and renewed by his mercy, gifts which come to us in the living communion of his Church” (#119).

Mercy does not permit pastors to avoid the “Church’s burden in recalling always and to everyone the demands of morality. Nor does she permit sinful man to be deceived by those who claim to love him by justifying his sin, for she knows that the sacrifice of Christ … would thus be emptied of its power” (#120).

It’s quite possible that those concluding paragraphs were drafted in order to respond immediately to the German bishops. In order that no doubt be left, though, the next year a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, approved by John Paul, formally rejected the Kasper proposal. Twenty years later it is back.

Around the world young people will be studying John Paul’s life and teaching in preparation for Kraków 2016. Is it possible that as they are learning, some in Rome are trying to forget?

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/7/15).

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