The accomplishments of
Pope John Paul II
Joseph Boyle | April 4,
Photo/Massimo Sambucetti, file)
influential public figures die, we look for reasons to articulate the
respect, affection and even awe we sometimes have for them. This is as true of
religious leaders as it is of other prominent persons.
Maybe more so: in the case of the Pope especially, there is not only
international prominence but, for Catholics, a sense of community connection
that approaches the familial: the Pope is not only the leader of a sprawling
religious community but "papa," and an essential link between the faithful and
Not surprising then that Catholics tend to think that their dying or recently
deceased popes are very great spiritual leaders – "the best pope since St.
Peter," certainly to be called "the Great."
In the case of John Paul II some of these usually overblown sentiments are
certainly in order. For by the proper standards for assessing the success of a
religious leader, John Paul II succeeds magnificently – with few peers in modern
Leaders of Christian communities are charged with the religious
responsibility of bringing their people closer to God, and of making Christian
teaching and life accessible and compelling to their community and to others.
This presupposes deep faith and a personal commitment to holiness, and involves
teaching and good example.
The prospects for success in this role are enhanced if the leader has effective
communications abilities, a sense of the power of modern communications, and an
inviting human personality. The Rev. Billy Graham comes immediately to mind as
one who has accepted these responsibilities of Christian leadership, and has
used his considerable gifts to carry them out in a remarkably admirable way.
John Paul II has communicated the Gospel to Catholics, other Christians, former
Christians and others all around the world – in the millions – in a similarly
effective and compelling manner.
Pope John Paul carried out his role as evangelical preacher as an element of his
vocation to be the leader and chief bishop of the Roman Catholic Church. In that
role he faced squarely, more squarely I think than any single person, the
challenges that modern life have posed for the Christian religion.
He has set the Catholic Church on the road to overcoming these challenges and
has invited the other Christian communities to join in the effort. His
addressing successfully this deep challenge to the effectiveness of Christianity
in our day is the foundation of his claim to the title "the Great."
For many reasons, the Christian religion has been less than fully
successful in communicating the Gospel in the modern world of cities, factories,
mobility and globalization. The Second Vatican Council was the start of the
Catholic Church's facing up to these realities.
More than anyone else, John Paul carried forward this agenda of the Vatican
Council. His concern to overcome the divisions among Christians is a central
premise in this undertaking: the Christian Church can be fully effective in its
mission only if united according to Christ's mind.
Similarly, respect for other religions and reconciliation with them over
injustices old and new are required if the religious dimension of human life,
and the importance of religious liberty and conscience are to be taken seriously
as more than ethnic or tribal loyalties.
These concerns took shape in John Paul II's papacy through a systematic effort
to clarify the teaching and policies of the Council, and to embody them in the
life of the Church. He did this through his extensive official teaching,
especially though the shelf of encyclical letters instructing the Church on all
the major issues of Christian life, and perhaps even most importantly by
organizing two massive projects to consolidate the teaching of the Council – The
Code of Canon Law and The Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The effect of this vast literary output is a new and unmistakable clarity and
accessibility of the Church's understanding of Christian doctrine and life.
This development in clarity concerning Church teaching and Christian life is
very significant, even though it has hardly garnered the agreement of all
Catholics, let alone of other Christians and of other thoughtful people.
Clarity is sometimes compelling, sometimes off-putting, but it does clarify: it
shows what is at stake; it reveals the choices facing individuals and
communities about how they relate to their members, to others and to God.
That clarity does not guarantee, but certainly makes possible, the robust
meeting of minds among Catholics, and among Catholics and other Christians and
non-Christians that was John Paul's hope.
This will remain a central agenda item for the Christian religion for many years
into the future. Consequently, the dissatisfaction of many in the West over John
Paul II's "traditionalism" cannot overshadow the significant contribution the
Pope has made to overcoming the whole set of issues that divide Christians.
Perhaps the chief clarification John Paul developed from the Council concerns
how to draw the line between the values of modern people and the moral and
religious teaching of Christianity.
Of course, John Paul holds that traditional Christian morality is not
invalidated by modern life: that morality is from God, and its principles have
timeless validity. But he also believes that God's will is that humans always
respect the dignity of the human person, a humanistic value everybody can
Living a Christian life is not, therefore, just following rules, or jumping
through hoops set up by God; it is not wishing for pie in the sky when we die.
Rather, living a life in accord with Christian ethics means supporting and
celebrating all that is good, in ways always respectful of human dignity.
Given this outlook, John Paul endorsed and celebrated (and used to great effect)
the wonderful capabilities made possible by modern technology and social
organization – for example, medicine, communications and mobility. Christianity
is not opposed to modernity. Quite the opposite.
From this comes the distinctive moral teaching of John Paul: the
rejection of communism because of its failure to respect individual freedom, and
especially freedom of religion and conscience; an equal concern about the
consumerism of capitalism and about the fiction that democracy can settle moral
issues by majority vote; the affirmation of solidarity with the needy; the
upholding of a view of sexuality that fosters self-giving and prevents mutual
exploitation; the reaffirmation of the respect for human life, especially in its
most vulnerable stages.
A controversial set of moral views? In today's world, no serious and
comprehensive view could escape controversy.
A coherent moral vision? Certainly.
A compelling Christian morality? You bet.