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Was Pope John Paul II an Effective Governor?

by Peter Mirus, special to
June 22, 2005

Pope John Paul II has been criticized both before and after his death as being a poor ruler because he was a poor disciplinarian. To say that he was a poor disciplinarian implies at least one of three things. First, the Pope was unaware of the need for discipline, out of touch with reality. Second, the Pope tried to discipline but didn’t have the stomach for it and was therefore ineffective. Third, the Pope was attentive to disciplinary matters but simply wasn’t any good at it.

Any of the above would imply that the Pope’s ability to govern effectively was compromised by his poor disciplinary ability. I subscribe to another theory: that the option of discipline in the typical sense was examined, and generally discarded as being inappropriate for the circumstances of our day.

First of all, Pope John Paul II was an intelligent man who was not out of touch with society and the impact of leaders on those under their guidance. This is exemplified by the teachings in his many social documents and his personal actions in close work with people in all occupations and states of life. One can neither state that the Pope was unaware of the cares and concerns of the Church, nor that he was unaware of the potential methods for dealing with it. He was so far from being a “distant monarch” that to suggest a lack of touch with the realities of the world is an inadequate explanation for his lack of disciplinary action. He knew the importance of effective moral leadership.

Second, Pope John Paul II was not a weak man in any other area of his life. Certainly he was not a man who shied away from physical or intellectual challenges. It is illogical to assume that the Pope’s approach to discipline was any different than his approach to any other aspect of his life and pastoral ministry. To suggest that weakness, fear or distaste prevented him from disciplining ignores his undoubted courage and willingness to sacrifice.

Third, you would be hard pressed to state that the Pope’s disciplinary actions were ineffective when we barely have a public record of public disciplinary actions from this Pope. You cannot argue the ineffectiveness of disciplinary action when a record of disciplinary action (as we understand it) does not exist.

The only remaining option is that the Pope simply chose not to discipline because he believed it would interfere with his desire to teach and sanctify. My belief in the Pope’s competence in all other areas leads me to believe that he was operating in a manner that he thought was best: to govern by teaching and example rather than by use of frequent discipline.

But why would the Pope choose not to discipline? I’m not certain that I possess a clear-cut answer, but here are some points to consider.

First of all, teaching and governing are not two separate functions. Teaching is a necessary part of governing – without it there is confusion on how to follow the law, about where the law came from and whether or not the law has any merit. Our late pope governed on the principle of demonstrating love through teaching. He showed to the world his commitment to the love of both God and man through his words, writings, and actions.

Second, you have to have some expectation of compliance in order to make effective change. If you have little hope that incremental change will be effective, and little or no expectation that sweeping changes will be complied with, the pope as father is faced with two different options. He can either create a schism, rebuilding with a remnant of the Church and thus separating the sheep from the goats while on earth; or he can try to covert and/or shame people into action through loving example. Faced with these options, which would you choose?

Third, there is evidence to show that the Pope’s chosen method of governing was effective. Convincing arguments can be made that the papacy is much stronger, better understood, and more loved (particularly among young people) today than prior to the Pope’s administration. As was pointed out by nearly everyone at the time of the Pope’s death (either in real or superficial tribute), for 25 years he served as an unwavering and consistent beacon of morality in a time of great cultural disturbance.

Moreover, few had any doubt as to what he claimed the Church taught. This is a key point, because those who disagreed with his doctrinal teachings also disagreed with the Pope’s authority to speak in a binding manner to the entire Church. This speaks to the expectation of compliance mentioned above.

Finally, in the Pope’s travels and frequent calls for increased evangelization, we see much similarity in style to St. Paul. Paul, firebrand though he was, did not elicit conversion from wayward churches by disciplining them or browbeating them into submission. He implored them to remember his work to overcome his own weaknesses, that he loved them for the sake of Christ, that he endured many hardships and tortures to bring them the Truth. His message was one of preaching backed up with example and love, not with stern discipline.

Do all of these points mean that I feel Pope John Paul II was a great disciplinarian per se? I do not. I have seen crimes that seem to cry out for justice, and I have not seen my concept of justice measured out. But I also recognize my own lack of judgment. Of course I would have liked to see the hammer dropped more frequently and forcefully. But in this I may be reflecting a selfishness and lack of patience that is not in line with a mind more tuned to the will of Christ.

I believe in the Pope’s sanctity, his eminent capability and strength of resolution. I believe that the Pope allowed his closeness with Christ to color all of his thoughts and actions, not merely the ones that were most suited to him.

Was John Paul perfect? Obviously not, for perfection belongs only to Christ. But, when it comes to judging his competence as a disciplinarian and governor, I give the Pope the benefit of the doubt.



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved