Pope John Paul…the Great?

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On May 1, John Paul II is going to be declared a blessed of the Catholic Church — a declaration that he is one step away from sainthood. However, John Paul II was such a dynamic, charismatic figure that many Catholics can’t leave his legacy at “blessed” or even “saint.” The epithets by which different groups of Catholics remember him can help in evaluating the legacy of this great man.

John Paul the Homophobic, Sexist, Women-Hating, Blah blah blah…

The folks who view John Paul in this light can’t look past the fact that he continued to uphold traditional Catholic doctrine on abortion, contraception, the all-male priesthood, homosexuality, etc. Of course, it was pretty unreasonable to think he would have actually changed any of it; he was the pope, and his job is specifically to preserve the Church’s teachings intact.

John Paul the Great

This wing of the Church views John Paul as one of the greatest popes in the Church’s history. They have been calling him “John Paul the Great” since before his death — a term that has particular significance to Catholics. Only two other popes in history (St. Gregory and St. Leo) have had the title of “Great,” and they believe John Paul belongs in their lofty company.

Why the “Great” title? First and foremost, they rightly point to John Paul’s critical role in overthrowing the Soviets by supporting the Polish Solidarity movement. Many have argued that he and Ronald Reagan were the individuals chiefly responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. This monumental achievement cannot be undersold.

This camp also points to John Paul’s numerous other achievements: his voluminous catalogue of brilliant encyclicals, his ground-breaking Theology of the Body, his defense of the unborn, his promotion of human rights, the orthodoxy of his teaching, his obvious personal holiness, and his numerous international trips. He was clearly one of the most visible, charismatic, prolific, brilliant men ever to hold the See of Peter.

John Paul the Liberal

This is the epithet given by some in the ultra-conservative camp who thought John Paul II continued the process of the Church’s auto-destruction begun, they believe, at Vatican II. They thought that John Paul was himself an outright liberal (at worst) or simply incompetent (at best).

John Paul’s papacy certainly had its problems, chiefly in the area of appointing bishops. The appointment of bishops is perhaps the most important duty a pope has; bishops ordain priests, and the quality of priests largely shapes the experience of Catholic life for the laity. While a few of his appointees were fiercely orthodox defenders of the faith, most of them demonstrated a lukewarm mediocrity, or were outright liberals.

Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles is the best/worst example of John Paul’s bad bishop-selection. For 20 years, Cardinal Mahony allowed, promoted, or personally engaged in open defiance of the Church’s doctrinal, liturgical, and disciplinary norms. Not only did he never receive any public rebuke or disciplinary check from the Vatican, but the pope consistently appointed Mahony’s liberal friends and protégés to episcopal offices throughout the western United States.

In dioceses led by this swarm of ineffectual prelates, vocations to the priesthood and religious life plummeted, attendance at Mass declined, and knowledge of the basic tenets of the faith vanished among the laity. Poll after poll in the United States, Latin America, and Western Europe reflect this trend.

Beyond the bad bishops, John Paul’s over-enthusiasm for ecumenism tended to alienate more conservative Catholics. The ecumenical event held at Assisi in 1986 — where a Buddhist monk replaced a Madonna with a statue of Buddha on an altar in the Basilica of Assisi — was such a scandal to faithful Catholics that it provoked the departure of the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X from the Church’s official structures, along with their thousands of followers. This separation has yet to be healed, despite Benedict’s efforts.

Blessed John Paul II

It seems odd to take a middle ground on such a profound pope. Certainly the criticisms of the traditionalists are valid in many ways, but they cannot be placed solely at John Paul’s feet. He was cursed with bad middle-management, bishops who were stuck in the lame ideologies of the 1960’s. Clearly, he trusted them too much, and they led him into several bad decisions (e.g., the meeting at Assisi) and episcopal appointments.

Furthermore, some historical perspective is needed. The Church was in crisis at the end of Paul VI’s reign in 1978 — respected theologians, priests, and bishops were openly rejecting fundamental tenets of the Church’s teaching, a spirit of disobedience and dissent reigned in the Church, and millions were falling away from the faith. Many feared that if the pope were to discipline the liberal prelates in the Church, he would risk widespread schism. John Paul brought the Church from that low point to a point where someone like Joseph Ratzinger, a strong conservative reformer, could be elected to the papacy. That is no small feat.

Ultimately, however, the declaration that someone is blessed chiefly concerns their personal holiness, not their prudential judgment. Nobody who met him could dispute the fact that Karol Wojtyla was an incredibly holy man who loved God deeply. Ultimately, the heavenly glory of being a blessed — and someday, it is certain, of being a saint — will outstrip any earthly title we can possibly bestow.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society.