Pope John Paul II

Radical Traditionalist

A few years ago I listened to a commentary that clearly described the course taken by the Roman Catholic Church over the last five decades:  When we watch the axis of the changes brought by modernity, we can see that John XXIII opened the doors during Vatican II to revive the church; Paul VI suffered the consequences of this opening; and John Paul II has tried, in the past 25 years, to undertake a restoration. One way of looking at the Wojtyla papacy is through its contradictions and paradoxes.

His being the first non-Italian pope in 450 years and, moreover, coming from Poland, which in 1978 was a communist country dominated by the Soviet Union, was a heritage that marked his decisions. In 25 years, the world has changed radically in geopolitical terms, and some of those changes have been attributed to John Paul II.

The circumstances of his origin had a significant impact on his manner of governing the church. Because he came from a country in which the church was persecuted by communism, he rejected liberation theology; his rejection as a student by the Gregorian University may have influenced his interventionist attitudes and decision to put the Jesuits under his authority.

The more than 100 trips he has made across the world and his visits to at least 130 countries, his active role in international life and politics, and, at the same time, his messages, speeches, and doctrine have been structured around a conservative interpretation of  Vatican II, which some call a restoration.

Articles in the mass media have named the pope as one of the great figures of the 20th century, and they attribute such events as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of communism to him. The pope’s modern diplomacy is recognized and approved the world over, but at the same time his internal management has been seen as very traditional.
All of these views need to be carefully re-evaluated. Perhaps, had John Paul II been pope in 1950, the system of socialist countries would not have fallen as it did in 1989, but this
is conjecture.

During these 25 years, the Catholic Church has undergone important changes. Religious life has been restructured:  The traditional religious orders, the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans, have been removed from the heart of the decision-making process, and their place has been taken by new orders and movements, with Opus Dei, the Legion of Christ, and other conservative religious organizations taking a leading role.

With this there has been a shift toward conservative positions and a diminution of the role of progressive theologians. Many important positions, however, continue to be in those progressive hands, because centuries of experience cannot be replaced overnight. John Paul II has managed to give the church a leadership role and presence that it did not have before. This is due to a number of factors that have transformed it—above all, the massive crowds that have come out to see the pope during his travels, and the large emotional and religious communities that have formed around the papal personality.

Doctrinal tradition has been the dominant thread in his messages, as a defensive wall against such facets of modernity as pluralism, multiculturalism, and laicism. During the displacement of the progressives within the church, some very important theologians have been reined in by the Vatican. Today we no longer have the tribunals of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, but some people say the contemporary body—The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which Cardinal Ratzinger is considered to be the top religious
policeman—is comparable.

By use of this body, the major progressive theologians, such as Jacques Dupuis, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, and Bernhard Haring, have been pushed aside, along with many others in Latin America, such as Ernesto Cardenal and Leonardo Boff. One of the theologians in this group (Hans Küng) wrote a devastating critique of John Paul II’s papacy, which he referred to as burdened with “fatal contradictions.”

For example, Küng states that the same man who defends human rights around the world denies them to people in the church, such as theologians and, above all, women. The pope claims to be an admirer of Mary yet denies women ordination as priests; he is a man who preaches against poverty and misery yet is incapable of changing his stance on birth control, despite even the serious AIDS situation in Africa, which makes him partly responsible for the problem; he is an absolute adherent to a male, celibate clergy yet does nothing about the loss of priests and the serious pedophile scandals within the clergy; he wants a dialogue with other religions yet, at the same time, disqualifies them as less-valid faiths.

In sum, we have a great contrast: a pope who has used modern means to express himself, who has traveled the world over like no other pope before him, who has placed the church in a new international position and transformed the religious landscape in a radical fashion, but one who, at the same time, has erected a wall of traditionalism against the challenges and problems of modernity, preached doctrines that urgently need revision, and governed the church by medieval means—a pope who has surrounded himself with individuals, orders, and movements at the conservative end of the spectrum.

This restoration is leaking on every front. Perhaps the pendulum of history will soon swing back to enable the church to find a way to deal with the problems of the 21st century—not from the prison of tradition but instead by interacting with the demands and necessities of a world that no longer fits the medieval mold in which the church has been kept these past
25 years.