Evaluating John Paul II’s Papacy: A Czech View

The time is drawing near (16 October) which will mark precisely the 25th anniversary of the election by the College of Cardinals of Karel Wojtyla to the papacy. Not that we need too much more motivation these days to take a look back at what that papacy has meant to the world; there was the recent awarding of the Noble Peace Prize, which did not go to the Pope but which many felt should have. And there is his ever-worsening health, which made more fervent the urgings of those who felt he deserved the Prize (Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously) and, in any case, prompts looks backward in time as a sort of dress-rehearsal for the obituaries which are supposedly to be published soon.

The Polish on-line press is filled with treatments of the history of this papacy – essays, vast collections of pictures (check out this collection of thirty), even a chance to chat on-line with the Krakow priest Mieczyslaw Malinski, who has known Karol Wojtyla for years (but he probably only “chats” in Polish). But you realize that any Polish assessment of Pope John Paul II is not going to be very unbiased. Me, I prefer a more level-headed treatment, if still from the same general area of the world. What better resource to go to for that than the Czech Republic (one of the most non-religious nations in the world), and especially the maverick commentary weekly Respekt? I refer to their current article, An Old Man Changes Clothes, by Jiri Hanus, who is a historian and editor of the magazine Teologie & spolecnost, or “Theology & Society.”

Even as it seemingly nears its end, so that further surprises or even significant developments are not to be expected, evaluating John Paul II’s papacy is a difficult task, writes Hanus. It has simply been marked by many, many contradictions: for instance, the admiration for democracy – but democracy for other people, as that has been far from the guiding spirit of the Vatican hierarchy John Paul II has built; the great ecumenical opening-up of the Church to peoples all over the world, and the unprecedented reaching-out to other religions – again, something to be welcomed, but inconsistent with the strict, conservative atmosphere continuing to reign within the Catholic Church’s own house.

The contradiction – or at least the distinction – Hanus picks out as marking this papacy most is that between what he calls on the one hand víra a mravy – “belief and morals” – and everything else. When it comes to víra a mravy, this Pope has been strict. As Hanus catalogs it, to be a good Catholic you must 1) Believe in the Trinity, in Mary Mother of God, and in the whole superstructure of the Catholic hierarchy as the expression of God’s will in the world; and 2) To a great degree, as he puts it, you have to shy back from joining the modern world: no premarital sex, no contraceptives in to your family planning, and no tolerance for homosexuals or euthanasia. Besides this, though – besides “belief and morals” – just have fun! The Pope showed the way even as he was Pope (but before his physical deterioration also robbed him of the capability for much fun): he traveled, played sports, studied, and generally showed he was having a great time. Nenudil a nenudil se, Hanus writes: he didn’t bore, and he didn’t get bored.

That’s fine, but even such a figure as this could hardly clamp the world’s development into the Roman Catholic mold. On many things – contraception, divorce, liberation theology in Latin America – even good Catholics simply stopped listening to the Pope. The Church’s failure to keep up with this change gives Hanus’ article its title: it resembled an old man trying to stay “with it” and in style by changing into a Versace suit. Another of the Pope’s contradictions was between his hatred of Communism – and, of course, he played a key role in its disappearance from Poland, and so from Central/Eastern Europe generally – and his unease at capitalism. Along with others more politically-oriented (Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder were associated with this slogan, but also occasionally Bill Clinton), he tried to demonstrate a “third way” between those two economic poles. But the newly-freed electorates of the former Soviet bloc – including even his native Poland – really didn’t listen to him about that either.

“The Pope is no longer a political figure,” Hanus concludes. “He is ‘merely’ a spiritual authority, which desires to retain its influence in society, even though it’s worldly base (once the Papal States) is now the never-to-return past.” Any view that he is more than that is sheer illusion. But this is not necessarily John Paul II’s fault; it is the fault of how the world has moved on during his twenty-five-year reign. Indeed, can we imagine that any other Pope, elected instead back in October, 1978, to succeed the short-lived John Paul I, could have dealt with such contradictions, both internal and external, any better?

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Comments are closed.