Remembering John Paul II

by Michael Sean Winters

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I was just enough of a stiff-necked Catholic in my teenage years to insist that I not go to school during the second conclave of 1978. I sat glued to the television waiting with the rest of the world for white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. And, when it came, and a son of Poland was announced to the world as the new pope, I was ecstatic. I ran to our Church and rang the bells. The next morning, our local paper had a front page picture of then-Cardinal Wojtyla with my Uncle Albert when they met two years prior while my uncle was in Krakow on a Fulbright. Anyone with an ounce of Polish blood, and half of my blood was Polish, was filled with pride.

Unlike John XXIII, I remember the papacy of John Paul II. All of it. The good and the bad, and there was a lot of both. I do not doubt that he was a saint – there was a human density to this man and to his thought, evident when we watched him at prayer, sculpted in his early years by all the evil he encountered, matured under the lash of communism in Poland, yet through it all, a certain buoyancy that could only come from an intense spiritual life. But, assessing his pontificate is an entirely different matter.

The first thing to note, and it has been little noted in all the commentary this past week, is that there is great continuity between Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis (and you could throw Pope Benedict into the mix as well). But, there is little continuity between Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II as Pope John Paul II was interpreted for us Americans by his acolytes George Weigel, the late Richard John Neuhaus, and the whole crew over at EWTN. The critique of modern capitalism that we associate with Pope Francis was stated clearly and repeatedly by Pope John Paul II, but his interpreters in the US tended to downplay his exhortations on that score and focus, instead, on those actions – cracking down on some liberation theologians, for example - with which they were in agreement.

William Buckley, bless his heart, was more forthright. When Pope John Paul II published his second of three social encyclicals, Sollicitudo rei socialis, in 1987, Buckley had this to say:

This Tweedledum-Tweedledee view of the crystallized division between the visions of Marx, Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, and Pol Pot over against those of Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Churchill makes Christian blood boil with the kind of indignation that fueled the spirit of the Christian martyrs who have died by the millions since 1917 imploring God to relieve mankind of the curse of what at the hands of the Pope in this encyclical becomes merely one of 'two systems' grown 'suspicious and fearful' of the other's domination. Obviously, in the 102 pages one can find the ritual Christian affirmations. But they are swamped by a theological version of the kind of historical revisionism generally associated with modern nihilists. One prays that the Holy Father will move quickly to correct an encyclical heart-tearingly misbegotten.

This analysis has the value of candor. Of course, what it lacks is the value of understanding. Pope John Paul II’s criticisms of modern capitalism, like his criticisms of certain varieties of liberation theology, were rooted not in any economic analysis but in Catholic theological anthropology, in our Catholic understanding of what the dignity of man requires. To the degree that both modern capitalism and some strands in liberation theology began with a faulty understanding of the human person, they were poisoned springs. No economist can wash that off by citing the example of Singapore’s per capita GDP as evidence that capitalism is liberating. (I would add that considering Singapore as “typical” in any regard is bad economics too, but that is a different story.)

The Catholic Left soon realized that the novelty of a non-Italian pope did not translate into any adoption of a new, more progressive agenda, quite the contrary. And, for most of his reign, the Catholic Left preferred not to pay attention. This is a shame not least because it allowed the conservative acolytes to interpret this complex man to the rest of the culture. So, John Paul’s sophisticated critique of Western, consumerist lifestyles, and his call to conversion in this regard, were not engaged – and Lord knows, Weigel wasn’t going to engage that and Neuhaus expressly said to ignore those calls. When Pope John Paul II unambiguously defended the rights of workers to unionize, we on the Catholic Left should have shouted this from the rooftops instead of letting the Catholic neo-cons convince the world that John Paul’s commitment to organized labor must be understood in the uniquely Polish context, that unions there were good but it was perfectly fine for a Catholic stateside to turn a blind eye, or collaborate, in the destruction of unions here in the U.S. Finally, I think we on the Catholic Left failed to appreciate just how re-vitalizing John Paul’s trips around the world were. He went to countries that no one cared about, unless they had the misfortune to become a Cold War battleground. He made people feel loved. He told them God loved them. In this sense, he did what we on the Left claim we want the Church to do, bring good news to the poor. He deserves great credit for that.

Pope John Paul II’s role in the collapse of communism has been wildly overtstated. It is true, that his first trip to Poland as pope, in 1979, was a seminal moment in Polish society and culture. I remember the Mass at Victory Square in Warsaw when the crowd interrupted his sermon for fourteen minutes of sustained singing and applause. You could feel through the airwaves that this vast crowd had realized in that moment that they were free in a way they had not felt before, and that this pope had facilitated that moment and that feeling. The authorities felt it too and moved to squelch that feeling. But, the die was cast. Communism was a tissue of lies before John Paul II was elected, a system of cronyism and inefficiency, rotten to the core, waiting for someone to kick the last leg out from under it. John Paul II provided the kick. I am glad he did and he should be honored for doing it. But, fundamentally, the system collapsed of its own accord.

My biggest complaint about John Paul II’s pontificate is that he was often a terrible judge of character. He surrounded himself with men, some of whom were corrupt in every sense of the word, who treated people unjustly and in small-minded ways. His episcopal appointments in the U.S. were sometimes brilliant but more often not. Placing Cardinals Bernard Law and John O’Connor on the Congregation for Bishops resulted in twenty years of mediocre appointments or worse here in the U.S. with some, only some, happy exceptions. As John Paul’s illness left him incapacitated, just as the sex abuse crisis blew up in ways it could no longer be ignored, his poor choice in co-workers prevented the kind of vigorous response that was needed. When the history of the Church’s sex abuse crisis is written, it will be Benedict XVI who will more and more be seen as the hero. Of course, the mention of Benedict requires that I acknowledge not all John Paul’s appointments were corrupt: Whatever one thinks of Cardinal Ratzinger’s tenure at the CDF, he was not corrupted by money or power or intrigue.

The mention of John Paul’s illness gets to the heart of the conundrum of canonizing popes. This man whose vibrancy and athleticism which such a part of our enthusiasm for him in 1978, this man allowed the world to see him decline in the flesh. He showed all the world that illness did not diminish dignity, and it was a lesson the world still needs to learn. But, the decision was a disaster for the Church. Just when the Church needed to confront the sex abuse crisis head-on, Cardinal Sodano and Abp Dziwisz were in charge and they certainly were not going to let anyone, including Cardinal Ratzinger, go after Fr. Maciel.

It would be hard to imagine two men, and two popes, more different than John XXIII and John Paul II. One has a hard time imagining John Paul allowing the Second Vatican Council the freedom that John XXIII did when, at its first day, the Council Fathers declined to endorse the readymade list of nominees for conciliar committees the curia had prepared. Nor can one imagine John Paul II overturning the rules so that the vote against the schema on “Two Sources,” which narrowly failed to garner the two-thirds needed, would be honored as it was by John XXIII, who told the Council to reject the schema, start over, and handed the re-write to a joint-committee, balanced by leading conservatives and progressives. John XXIII did that. John Paul II probably never would have allowed the rejected schema to be proposed in the first place – he was a first class intellect – but, unlike John XXIII, John Paul II liked being in control and he was not so interested in balance.

Still, John Paul II was no U.S.-style neo-con. And, for that matter, John XXIII was no unreconstructed 60s liberal. John Paul II came to the Chair of Peter when the Church’s centrifugal energies had been in the ascendant, and he re-introduced some centripetal counter-weights. John XXIII came to the Chair of Peter when the Church desperately needed some centrifugal energy. Both men, I do not doubt, acted out of what they believed the Church needed and in fidelity to Jesus Christ. And, that should be enough to get one into heaven which is what canonizations are all about.








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