Pope John Paul II has died. I’m not Catholic (nor am I one of the many “former/recovering” Catholics), and I don’t have particularly strong feelings about this particular pope. But seeing the crowd gathered in St Peters Square has caused me to develop some thoughts on the history of the church and John Paul’s place in it.
So how do I evaluate the reign of the former Karol Jozef Wojtyla? I would give him about a “C.”
He was less reactionary than most who have held the See of Peter in modern times, but less progressive than either his immediate predecessor — who died way too soon to leave much of a legacy, or Pope John XXIII — who left one for the ages.
John Paul II spoke for economic justice and the needs of the poor (not always with the full authority of the Papacy). He was a courageous champion of freedom for those suffering under Soviet tyranny in Eastern Europe (probably because he had lived it); He opposed the death penalty and the War in Iraq. And he made a good faith effort (pun intended) to advance the church’s painful reconcilation with its anti-Semitic past.
On the other hand, John Paul II was a cipher on most of what we here in the States would call the “social issues.” His refusal to budge on Human Vitae was particularly discouraging, as was his equally?stubbon position on clerical celibacy. And of his attitude towards the gay and lesbian members of his human flock, there’s little to say and less that’s good.
I don’t know to what extent those positions were motivated by a political fear of schism and to what extent they were deeply held beliefs, but their long-run effects will be to add to the net stock of human misery, both for the world as a whole and for the church.
As “billmon” wrote at the Whiskey Bar Blog, “The Catholic Church is more than just a political institution, and a pope can’t be evaluated in political terms alone — left on economic issues, right on abortion, as if he were a candidate in a U.S. Senate race. A pope’s moral impact on the world, like the impact of the church itself, has a lot of moving parts, including the complexity of the religious experience, the material or psychological benefits each believer derives from that experience, and — last but hardly least — the impact of religious doctrines or practices on nonbelievers.”
On balance I think Christianity has been a net positive for the world, despite its frequent fits of ignorance and intolerance. For John Paul, though, I have to close the book at something near even — more because of the opportunity costs of the things he failed to do as pope, rather than for losses suffered because of the things he did do.
The pope is a big guy and the Catholic Church is a big organization, and it’s been in business a long time. In fact, unless I’ve overlooked something in the historical catalog, the church can rightly claim to be the planet’s oldest surviving.
Two thousand years is a remarkable run for an entity run by creatures who, even under the best conditions, typically live only about 1/30th that long. Catholic or Protestant, one can’t sit through a Catholic Mass and not be moved by the power of the ceremony. There’s a grandeur and richness to Catholicism…a way of reaching from the vertical to the horizontal.
Something about the institution has allowed it to defy (so far at least) the slow decay of history, even as proud dynasties and powerful empires have gone down like flies around it. Looking back at the endless schisms and political scheming, the corruption of the the priests and the sheer bigoted ignorance of its various inquisitions, it’s a miracle the church managed to survive the Reformation, much less regain a measure of its moral standing.
You have to have a certain respect for an organization that has managed to retain the loyalty and deep affection of millions of human beings for almost two millennia, despite its own enormous flaws.
As the Catholic Church moves through the ancient rituals of succession, I’ll be watching closely — to see whether the College of Cardinals can transcend their own limitations and produce a pope like John XXIII, or whether the reactionaries will, as usual, have the upper hand (as the case in the Episcopal Church of late) and the kind of papacy that goes with it.
The answer may not determine the fate of the church — for a 2,000-year-old institution, what’s another CEO, more or less? But it will go a long way towards telling me whether I should, on balance, regard that ancient institution as an ally or an enemy of the moral values in which I believe.