Commentaries on the life and death of the late Pope, John Paul II, have tended to emphasize a few basic ideas. Almost everybody has agreed about John Paul’s profound world historical importance. His role in the defeat of the Soviet Union and its empire and his broadening of the Roman Catholic Church’s appeal through his travels, charismatic personality, international youth events, openness to other Churches and faiths, and his very long pontificate are all undeniable. Most people have agreed about John Paul’s personal sanctity. His very disciplined life, his forgiveness of his would-be assassin, and his patience under the suffering of long and painful illnesses all were manifest. Finally, most people agree that John Paul stabilized the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church after a period of apparently open-ended change under John XXIII and Paul VI. Some are glad about this and some are not. Nevertheless, it is clear that John Paul, by appointing almost all the current bishops, by disciplining some of the most radical of theologians, and by issuing a stream of encyclicals and a new catechism and code of canon law, restored clarity to the authoritative teaching of the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church.
I agree with all of these assessments. I think that John Paul II was personally saintly, was an immense influence for good on the world stage, and was a brilliant teacher of the Faith. So far I agree with the opinion of loyal Roman Catholics and many others. A balanced assessment of John Paul’s pontificate, however, also must consider the role he had as a governor of the institutional Church. As a world figure and as a teacher of the Faith John Paul seems to have been a God-sent force for good. But his record as administrator and governor of the Church seems much more mixed.
The theological Left presents John Paul, and his principal assistant, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI), as fierce inquisitors and heavy-handed authoritarians. That is nonsense. A few dozen theologians were disciplined, and most of them only after very careful investigation with plenty of opportunity for clarification and retraction. The discipline involved generally was extremely mild. Hans Küng is the best known theologian who came under discipline. When I was at Duke the Protestant faculty members often referred to Küng as a liberal Protestant. When I was at Duquesne the Roman Catholic Holy Ghost Fathers noted that Küng was a thorough-going showboat – he came in for breakfast the night after giving a public lecture wearing his bathrobe and asking to see the newspapers in order to read about himself. Küng, far from being strung up by his thumbs, is still a Roman Catholic priest and still is teaching at Tübingen University where he has his own institute. Küng is simply not allowed to claim to be a Catholic theologian. Surely the Pope is entitled to decide who is an authentic teacher of the Faith of the Church over which he presides. If Küng wants to pick and choose, he is free to join another Church without a pope.
Far from reinstituting the Inquisition, John Paul allowed dissent to continue so long as it was moderately discreet. Far from returning the Roman Catholic Church to the sclerotic scholasticism and institutional authoritarianism of the pre-Vatican II days, John Paul allowed his own directives to be flouted. For instance, it has been four or five years since the Vatican instructed the English-speaking Roman Catholic churches to return to more traditional language in the public liturgy (‘On the Use of the Vernacular Languages in the Publication of the Books of the Roman Liturgy’). These instructions are still ‘under study’, have not been implemented, and in some places have not even prevented the quiet toleration of ‘gender neutral’ texts in the Mass and other rites. Far from being a heavy-handed authoritarian, John Paul was extraordinarily gentle and patient in many, many cases.
Such gentleness and patience were part of the late Pope’s personal sanctity. An outsider might wonder, however, if they were not excessive in many cases. Some Roman Catholic observers have gone so far as to suggest that John Paul will in the end be canonized as a saint, judged as a brilliant teacher and defender of the Faith of the Church, but found wanting as an administrator, governor, and sovereign Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. All observers now are wondering if Benedict XVI will govern with a firmer hand or whether he will continue the gentle style of his predecessor.