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The accomplishments of Pope John Paul II

Joseph Boyle | April 4, 2005

(AP Photo/Massimo Sambucetti, file)

When 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 Christ.

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 times.

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 understand.

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.

Joseph Boyle is a professor of theology at the University of St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved