c. 2005 Beliefnet
(UNDATED) How is one to reckon a balance sheet of the reign of John Paul II, who died Saturday (April 2)? His outreach to Judaism, his battles with communism, his championing of the poor, his stand against women priests, his promotion of interfaith dialogue, his hard line on Catholic theologians _ any one of his initiatives merits a book-length treatise.
One way is to consider the pope's track record outside the church and then inside as a leader of his own flock. Such an “outside-inside'' prism helps explain why opinions about this pope differ so widely, and may also point toward the great challenge that will be left to his successor.
Viewing his accomplishments outside the walls of Roman Catholicism, we see the young Karol Wojtyla growing up in post-World War I Poland and living through the Nazi horrors of the Second World War that claimed millions of Poles, among them many Jewish friends from childhood, only to face down, as a priest and then a bishop, the Soviet overlords who kept his beloved church, and nation, under their heel.
Then, in a twist so novelistic that it was prefigured only in Morris West's 1963 novel, “Shoes of the Fisherman,'' Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow was elected pope, on Oct. 16, 1978, the first non-Italian in more than 450 years. John Paul II immediately embarked on the first of his more than 100 foreign visits, taking the Roman papacy to places most popes had never heard of, and drawing crowds no apostle could ever imagine.
No trips were more freighted than his visits to his native Poland. On his home turf, and facing down a still-formidable Soviet Union, John Paul attracted millions to his public Masses beyond the grasp of Soviet control. His influence helped lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War that had menaced humanity with nuclear annihilation. In fact, many feel the shocking 1981 attempt on his life was inspired by communist plotters afraid that he would single-handedly tear down the Iron Curtain.
Far from his native Eastern Europe, the poor and the oppressed in Asia, Africa and Latin America also had no greater advocate than John Paul. From the start of his pontificate, he tirelessly crusaded on behalf of social justice and human rights, and by the turn of the millennium his efforts to convince wealthy nations of the industrialized world to forgive some of the debts of poor countries bore real fruit. Indeed, with the collapse of Soviet communism and the triumph of Western-style free market economics, John Paul became as critical of Western “materialism'' as he once was of Marxist-Leninism.
He was also relentless in demanding an end to armed conflict. While those appeals all too often went unheeded, his forcefulness, his willingness to put his personal prestige on the line and his evenhandedness _ his denunciations of the U.S. war in Iraq were exceptionally sharp _ only increased his moral stature. It was no surprise that John Paul was a leading candidate for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize.
Move inside the walls of Roman Catholicism, however, and the judgments on John Paul's reign become far more complex. To be sure, great affection always remained. A CBS News poll at the height of the clergy sexual abuse scandal showed seven in 10 American Catholics viewed John Paul favorably, and just 8 percent viewed him unfavorably.
Yet most Catholics today are also looking for a pope who will be open to change and reform within the church. More than a few have noted the irony that the same pope who stood up for the Solidarity trade union in Poland also denied lay workers in his own employ the right to organize beyond an informal “lay association.''
Some of these Catholics, depending on their point of view, were critical of the pope's record on women's issues or the role of the laity, or his unbending defense of the church's teachings on sexuality, his ban on allowing Communion for remarried Catholics, or his efforts to suppress theological inquiry. Still others want reforms in the priesthood, such as opening holy orders to married men.
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Even priests themselves are ambivalent about John Paul's legacy. An extensive survey of American priests by the Los Angeles Times in 2002 showed that 40 percent of the clergy think John Paul will be remembered above all for his travels, and 30 percent for his role in defeating Soviet communism. Just 15 percent said he would be remembered chiefly for his “moral and spiritual'' leadership.
The discontent can go across the board. While some of John Paul's loyal fan club on the orthodox right have been busy lobbying to have historians recognize him as “John Paul the Great,'' an honorific granted to just three popes in history, other conservatives are furious at what they see as the pope's “selling out'' to the modern world. It is notable that the first schism in the church in a century occurred on this pope's watch, when Latin-rite traditionalists set up a splinter church. The schismatics, and even many conservatives who remain inside the fold, however uneasily, say John Paul did not take the necessary steps to revitalize the church internally.
The raw data illustrate problematic aspects of the pope's tenure as shepherd of his flock.
While the number of Catholics in the world rose from 757 million to 1.06 billion since John Paul was elected in 1978, that 40 percent spike was actually less than the 45 percent increase in the overall global population. Moreover, the ratio of Catholics to priests continues to increase. In 1978, there were 1,797 Catholics for every priest, and 2,619 Catholics per priest in 2001 _ a hefty jump in the workload for priests, and a corresponding decrease in access to the sacraments for the faithful.
The situation is even worse in the United States and Canada, where the number of priests has dropped nearly 20 percent and the number of seminarians _ the future-priest corps _ has declined 40 percent since John Paul was elected.
Of course, the Catholic Church is about much more than numbers and opinion polls, and there are no easy answers to the challenges it faces. They are, in fact, challenges shared by virtually every faith today.
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There has been a particular restiveness in the Catholic Church that belies the widespread, and well-deserved, adulation of John Paul. These have not so much been the usual critiques of the Catholic left, or even the Catholic right, whose fringe members have caused John Paul as many headaches as any liberal reform group.
Rather, there is a desire for change from what Notre Dame scholar Scott Appleby has called “the deep middle'' of Catholicism, the folks who are by no means revolutionaries, but who want to see a different style at the top: a more pastoral leadership, perhaps a more decentralized church, and above all a church that allows more room for discussion, even about hot-button issues that John Paul declared off-limits. This is less an eagerness to engage in edgy doctrinal debates than it is a desire for openness to change, for a listening rather than a preaching papacy.
For these Catholics, the sexual abuse scandal was truly a shocking epiphany, the sudden realization that the leaders of their own church, who could be so outspoken on behalf of the poor and marginalized, could also be so callous when it came to their own children.
The great challenge facing John Paul's successor will be shaping a papacy that is as prophetic within the church as John Paul was outside his own purview. John Paul was without question a historic pope who, as no pontiff before him, stood boldly astride two worlds. The next pope may have to be a man who can build a bridge between them.
(David Gibson is a veteran religion reporter and author of “The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful Are Shaping a New American Catholicism.'')
MO/PH END GIBSON