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John Paul the Great

30 November, 1999

William Oddie edits a collection of essays by distinguished Catholic writers, each assessing some aspect of Karol Wojtyla’s extraordinary achievement as Pope John Paul II.

186 pp, Columba Press, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie.


List of contributors
1. John Paul the great (William Oddie)
2. Reclaiming the tradition: John Paul II as the authentic interpreter of Vatican II (Tracey Rowland)
3. The radicalism of the papacy: John Paul II and the new ecclesial movements (Ian Ker)
4. Totus tuus: the Mariology of John Paul II (Brendan Leahy)
5. Recognising the rose: John Paul II and the causes of the saints (John Saward)
6. Sincere gift: the new feminism of John Paul II (Léonie Caldecott)
7. Facing the sexual revolution: John Paul II’s language of the body (Agneta Sutton)
8. The social teaching of John Paul II and its implications for Catholic education for life (Rodger Charles SJ)
9. Pastor and doctor: the encyclicals of John Paul II (Aidan Nichols OP)


John Paul the Great is a collection of essays by distinguished Catholic writers, each assessing, 25 years after he became Pope, some aspect of Karol Wojtyla’s extraordinary achievement. The book establishes clearly that this has been not merely an exceptional pontificate, but one of a handful of epoch-making pontificates in Christian history. Further, that Pope John Paul II is not only an historical figure whose actions and personal qualities have effected one of the great turning points in human affairs, but who is also one of those rare beings who possesses the vision and intensity of focus that allow us to say no only that this is and exceptional pope, but something much more: that here, truly, is Joannes Paulus Magnus, John Paul the Great.

Far from being a reactionary, this has been a pope of startling originality and intellectual range, who has led and inaugurated change as well as defending the tradition of the Church. Newman wrote of Gregory the Great that he was on of those popes who have ‘never been slow to venture out upon a new line, when it was necessary, and who, independent of times and places, have never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy.’ This could have been written of John Paul II.

CHAPTER 1: John Paul the Great
About a decade ago, the late Professor Adrian Hastings – having the previous year published his controversial though unsurprising book The Theology of a Protestant Catholic – edited a substantial volume entitled Modern Catholicism, Vatican II and After. It was a collection of essays containing contributions from what the dust jacket described as ‘an international team of leading Catholic scholars’; and among these contributions was an assessment of the pontificate thus far of the Pope from Poland, by the distinguished commentator on Vatican affairs, the late Peter Hebblethwaite. It concluded with these words:

One would like to think that John Paul continues to learn from his stay in the West, not to mention his world-wide journeys; and that he might spend as much time trying to understand the rest of us as we have spent trying to understand him. It may be that his providential role is to test the conservative hypothesis to breaking point. At the conclave that elected him, it was possible to argue that the Church needed a strong hand on the tiller. At the next conclave, that argument will not wash: the conservative option will have been tried, and may well be found wanting. In the spiritual life, everyone fails. The seed falls into the ground and dies. But this will be a magnificent heroic failure on a cosmic scale, with that special Polish dash.

A year or two later, in a little restaurant close to St Peter’s, the same writer was quoted in the Catholic World Report as saying that ‘Nothing he has done will outlast him. Not the Catechism, not Veritatis splendor, not the document on the ordination of women…The new man will put aside everything John Paul has done and start … again’.

I remembered these judgements in Westminster Cathedral, as I was listening, early in the new Millennium, to a lecture (sponsored by The Catholic Herald) given by the Pope’s biographer, George Weigel. It was entitled ‘The achievement of John Paul II’. It was not so much that Weigel’s assessment of the Pope was very different, though certainly it was: John Paul’s pontificate, he concluded, was ‘the most consequential since the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century’.

But it was the people who had come to hear Weigel speak who were as interesting as the lecture itself: apart from anything else, there were so many of them. Originally, the plan had been for the lecture to take place in a hall seating about 200 people. But it was soon clear that this would have to be rethought: the lecture was moved to the nave of the Cathedral, which holds about 1,000: and every seat was taken.

Ten years before, such a response would not have been imaginable: what was the explanation? Why had they all come? They came, perhaps, partly because Weigel was known to have had the Pope’s co-operation: the people had come to hear about the Pope’s achievement from someone who could be trusted not to diminish it: what the people wanted, so it seemed to me, was an authentic assessment of the man who had become – if the somewhat Blairite language may be permitted – the people’s Pope. Weigel’s judgment on the pontificate’s historical importance would have been controversial only a few short years before. Among those gathered in Westminster Cathedral that day, it had become so obvious that its restatement by George Weigel had about it a kind of ritual formality. It may be true that the Church thinks in millennia and not in decades; but a lot can happen in ten years, nevertheless.

We need to return, all the same, to that early judgment of Peter Hebblethwaite’s, and particularly to his speculation that it was the Pope’s providential role to ‘test the Conservative hypothesis to breaking point’. In one sense, we can say simply that this prediction has already been very comprehensively falsified. There is much less chance today of being unthinkingly labelled ‘right wing’ simply for accepting this Pope’s teachings on faith and morals out of conviction rather than reluctant acquiescence. As for John Paul himself, far from being perceived today as a reactionary Pope who has sought to reverse the advances inaugurated by the second Vatican Council (the so-called ‘restorationist’ analysis or scenario) it is, on the contrary, he who in the end has been perceived as the Council’s most definitive interpreter and advocate. In the words of the Jesuit theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, ‘more than any other single individual he has succeeded in comprehensively restating the contours of Catholic faith in the light of Vatican II and in relation to postconciliar developments in the Church and in the world.’

This had, of course, been his intention from the, beginning: after his election, he told the assembled Cardinals that his first task and ‘definitive duty’ was to complete the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. But that is not, as we all know, how it was seen by some in the early years of the pontificate. The Pope’s declaration was duly noted: but it soon began to cause confusion, particularly among many of those deeply devoted to a phenomenon widely known at the time as ‘the spirit of Vatican II’. What could not be gainsaid by anyone was the Pope’s transparently sincere enthusiasm for the Council he had attended. But it seemed clear, to some at least, that he really did not have the slightest idea what it had all been about. This conclusion was buttressed by an assumption – often quite openly expressed – that Vatican II was largely the province of the Western Catholic intelligentsia, whose understanding of the Council was necessarily deeper and more subtle than the understanding of unsophisticated Eastern European prelates like the former Archbishop of Cracow, cut off as he had been for so long from the sophisticated intellectual life enjoyed by theologians and journalists in such great Catholic centres as Tübingen and Oxford. The difficulty for some observers, in Peter Hebblethwaite’s words, was that though ‘utterly sincere when he declared his commitment to them, [the Pope] nevertheless does not mean by “Council” and “Vatican II” what most people in the West mean.’

But what, we have to ask, did that mean? What it meant, of course, was that this Pope consistently refused to accept the view that Vatican II represented a radical break with Catholic tradition. As he declared in February, 2000, ‘If anyone reads the Council presuming that it marked a break with the past, while in reality it placed itself in line with the faith of all time, he definitely has gone astray’. Thus, as Tracey Roland explains (p. 27, at p. 31) ‘Throughout the past quarter century a major aspect of his pontificate has … been the clarification, development and implementation of the decrees of the Council in a manner which perfects rather than destroys elements of pre-Conciliar theology’. It is probably fair to say that by the end of the twentieth century the Pope’s view of the Council had become the normal view of ordinary faithful Catholics, the sensus fidelium yet again proving a surer guide than the self-appointed nomenklatura of the alternative or parallel magisterium.

There is a problem, nevertheless. For, though it is a temptation, in one way, simply to say that what we might call the anti-conservative hypothesis about Pope John Paul is not in the latter part of his pontificate looking very persuasive – in the sense that it is highly unlikely that in Hebblethwaite’s words ‘the new man will put aside everything John Paul has done and start … again’ – there is, nevertheless, a sense in which the judgment that the Pope is an essentially conservative figure dogs him yet. It is hard for anyone, even his enemies, to say that he is not a truly remarkable man. That now goes without saying. This is a Pope of real and undeniable stature.

But what else do we need to say? How will we think of him in the decades to come? How will he be seen by the world? These are not unimportant questions: for the higher our view of his legacy, the more sure it is that his legacy will be a determining factor in how the Church continues to face the third Millennium. And the higher the view taken by the world – even when it understands him only dimly – the more it will be inclined to take seriously a Church which both produced and has in turn been so massively influenced by such a figure.

I have referred in passing to George Weigel’s assessment, that John Paul’s pontificate has been the most consequential since the Protestant reformation. In his biography, he based this judgment on what he considered the Pope’s eight greatest achievements: by the time he gave his Catholic Herald lecture in Westminster Cathedral, the list had grown to ten: the renovation of the papacy, the full implementation of Vatican II, the collapse of communism, the clarification of the moral challenges facing free society, the insertion of ecumenism into the heart of Catholicism, the new dialogue with Judaism, the redefinition of inter-religious dialogue, a fresh approach to the sexual revolution with his theology of the body, the Catechism and what it represents, and the personal inspiration that has changed countless personal lives.

This is a clear and unambiguous assessment, though I think that Weigel’s list of achievements is still incomplete. Most notably, it fails to register the Pope’s powerful support for the new ecclesial movements, a support which, as Ian Ker says (p. 49), ‘is firmly in the tradition of the popes who, at critical times in the Church’s life, have discerned dramatic new ways in which the Spirit has raised up new charismatic movements for the renewal and the propagation of the Christian faith’.

But even if Weigel’s assessment had given a full and complete account of the Pope’s achievements, it would still be seen by many (especially among secular observers) unduly oversimplified as a representation of the pontificate. For much of the Pope’s reign – certainly for the secular world but also for many Catholics – he has been a figure of paradox. He has been, so it is said, a social progressive but an ecclesiological reactionary; a pastoral bishop who had been deeply influenced by the second Vatican Council but who then – or so some critics volubly assert even now – directed his entire pontificate towards a restoration of the Catholicism of the pre-conciliar period. He was a defender of liberty wherever the rights of men and women were denied by despotic regimes; and yet, his enemies soon began to claim that he himself silenced dissent among bishops and clergy quite as ruthlessly as any secular dictator. It seemed to many that he was wholly out of touch with the secular realities amid which he lived; and yet, almost uniquely among his contemporaries, he had a profound and subtle understanding of the nature of the historical forces that were to sweep away the post-war division of Europe between the capitalist West and the communist East.

Paradoxical or not, the achievement is there; it is solid and it is undeniable. However we resolve (or preferably deny) the supposed paradoxes, the general assessment now tends to be, in A.N. Wilson’s words, that he is ‘unique, infinitely the most striking and interesting figure of our times’. But is there, in fact, a lot more to say: is John Paul simply a striking and interesting figure, even if he is the most striking and the most interesting of our times? Or are we talking about an historical figure whose actions and whose personal qualities have not only influenced one of the great turning points in human affairs but also inaugurated the regeneration of the Church itself? Is this one of those rare beings who possesses, truly, those qualities of vision and intensity of focus as well as of strength and originality that allow us to say, not only here is John Paul, an exceptional Pope: But also, quite simply, here, truly, is Joannes Paulus Magnus, John Paul the Great?


The problem has to do with that word ‘conservative’: we no longer, it seems, know what to do with it. A conservative is now seen as someone whose mind is focused simply on preserving what he has received: his gaze is averted firmly from any notion that what he has received might contain implications for the future which permit, or even demand, that there might have to be substantial change. And that, indeed, was the assumption of many who supposed themselves to be radicals, about the Pope’s view of the Council. To quote Peter Hebblethwaite again, according to the Pope’s understanding, ‘the purpose of the Council was essentially defensive. It was a matter of warding off errors, of preserving the deposit of faith’. The trouble with such an assessment today – and had Peter Hebblethwaite lived, he might well have come to see the point (he soon amended his dismissive view of Veritatis splendor) – the trouble is that this really does not sound very much like the Pope we actually have: ‘defensive’ is not a word which readily springs to mind.

But certainly we can accept that he is a conservative: the real question is what we mean when we say that. According to John Henry Newman, in a remarkably interesting discussion of Pope Gregory the Great, popes are necessarily conservative, in the sense that ‘they cannot bear anarchy, they think revolution an evil, they pray for the peace of the world’. But, continues Newman, ‘a Conservative, in the political sense of the word, signifies something else, which the Pope never is, and cannot be. It means a man who is at the top of the tree, and knows it, and means never to come down, whatever it may cost him to keep his place there… It means a man who defends religion, not for religion’s sake, but for the sake of its accidents and externals; and in this sense Conservative a Pope never can be…’

But, says Newman, ‘there is a more subtle form of Conservatism, by which ecclesiastical persons are more likely to be tempted and overcome … This fault is an over attachment to the ecclesiastical establishment, as such … to traditional lines of policy, precedent and discipline, – to rules and customs of long standing. But a great Pontiff must be detached from everything save the deposit of faith … He may use, he may uphold, he may and will be very slow to part with, a hundred things which have grown up, or taken shelter, or are stored, under the shadow of the Church; but, at bottom, and after all he will be simply detached.’ So though they are conservative, Newman says, it is not in any bad sense: for although ‘the Popes have been old men’, they ‘have never been slow to venture out upon a new line, when it was necessary. And, thus independent of times and places, the Popes have never found any difficulty, when the proper moment came, of following out a new and daring line of policy … of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene’.

What has surely become clear beyond any doubt is that this Pope’s conservatism is of the kind that Newman is describing here; that is the conservatism of which an essential element is the detachment typical of what Newman calls the Great pontiff – and he was speaking particularly of Gregory the Great – from everything save the deposit of faith.

It is surely the Pope’s ability ‘when the proper moment came, [to follow] out a new and daring line of policy’ that has more and more formed the public perception of this Pope, a growing understanding that he is not – or at any rate not outside the pages of The Guardian newspaper – to be dismissed by evoking the reactionary caricature much more common in his earlier years. A.N. Wilson’s assessment that the Pope is, ‘unique, infinitely the most striking and interesting figure of our times’ was made in the immediate aftermath of his penitential visit to Yad Vashem, Israel’s holocaust memorial, a previously unimaginable event which unfolded in a year of such striking initiatives. The Pope’s visible pain and frailty had given rise some months before to speculation that he might even retire: and yet, these have been precisely the years in which not only the inner strength but also the true radicalism of this wholly unpredictable figure have become most strikingly apparent.

Indeed, it becomes clear that ‘conservative’ is a word we have to be very careful in using to describe this Pope, unless we understand it to mean something very close to the reverse of what it is generally assumed to mean. But this should be no surprise to Catholics unless we are to deny the very essence of the Catholic faith itself, a vital part of which precisely is to refuse to allow the deposit of faith to be compromised by the intellectual fashions of the passing age. It is what we conserve that makes us radical.

Thus, for example, the 1984 apostolic exhortation Redemptionis donum to men and women in religious orders, urges them to wear their habits, not for tradition’s sake or because the dress matters in itself: what matters as Richard John Neuhaus put it in The Catholic Moment ‘is that the world be confronted by their consecrated lives, by the contrast between their radical devotion and the ways of the world: not to condemn the world but to call “the people of the world” to their own potential for devotion.’

The Catholic is thus essentially a sign of contradiction to the secular culture (not just this secular culture, but all secular cultures) and when he is not confronting it – when, indeed, he is affirming it on its own terms – it is he who is the reactionary because he has fatally undermined the Christian religion’s essentially radical base. He has become a collaborator with a Babylonian captivity of the mind, in which the siren call to be attractive to the world by adopting its most apparently enlightened values has triumphed.

There has to be about being a Catholic – as there has to be, indeed, in any attempt at moral or intellectual integrity – a certain element of bloody-mindedness, an element of obdurate refusal to conform. That is what we need to understand by the word ‘conservative’, used theologically. Thus, writing as an outside observer, the Anglican Church historian, Edward Norman, characterised the documents of the Second Vatican Council as being essentially conservative, ‘in the sense that the “mystery” of the Church was never submerged beneath accommodations to the values of the secular culture’.

The truly great Pope is thus one who is able to confront the world without denying it, to confront it by asserting the values of the gospel and the mystery of the Church, to affirm it by proclaiming and defending the sacredness of every human person. We need to repeat, for these are no empty words, that his denial of the world’s values will never be a withdrawal from the world: the great popes have seen the signs of the times and have read them aright.

The two popes called ‘the great’ – that is, Leo and Gregory – both lived in times of vast geo-political upheavals in which they themselves were major players, both defending and preserving the Church herself and exercising a direct influence over the historical forces that had been unleashed by the great struggles for power that unfolded around them. Here, surely, may be discerned a clear parallel with the present Pope. An episode in the life of Leo the Great is particularly striking. In the year 452 when Northern Italy was under attack by Attila the Hun, Leo faced him near Mantua and persuaded him to withdraw his army. This episode is commemorated by a slightly absurd bas-relief in St Peter’s basilica, which shows Leo in full papal rig, including the triple-crown, with Attila recoiling in fear and amazement. There are differing versions of what actually happened (financial and other inducements may have played their part); but on any account, it was a triumph for Leo’s powers of persuasion and for his grasp of geopolitical realities. ‘I can conquer men’, Attila is recorded as saying: ‘but not the Lion’ (Leo).

These events surely recall irresistibly an episode in the pontificate of Pope John Paul. By the beginning of December, 1980, in response to the Polish Solidarity movement’s extraordinary success, the Soviets had made a definite decision to invade Poland and moved several divisions of the Red Army up to the Polish border. Their plans were precise. After a massive two day military operation, the Solidarity leadership would be liquidated by summary courts-martial and firing squads. There would then be installed a regime of the most brutal repression. On December 16, the Pope wrote a letter to the Soviet Leader, Leonid Brezhnev. It is written in the stilted language of diplomacy: but its message is firm. It conveys clearly without actually threatening it, that this invasion would be different, that the Poles would resist. We cannot say with certainty that this letter was what persuaded the Soviets to draw back (though the Red Army was indeed withdrawn a few days later) and to adopt an entirely different strategy for Poland: but we can certainly say that the Polish problem had become intractable mainly because of the Pope’s influence, that the Russians had come to understand this, and that without him, Soviet policy would have been vastly different. There could now be no more invasions.

Gregory the Great, too, was faced with a period of political instability. He took over the governance of the city of Rome, feeding a starving people; and he saw to the city’s defence, raising troops and resisting a number of incursions from the North. Undoubtedly all this was part of a process leading to the growth of the secular political powers of the papacy, now, in the immortal words of 1066 and all that, universally held to be ‘a bad thing’.

And here, in a vital sense we can say that this Pope’s geopolitical involvements show him to have exceeded in the worldly sense and transcended in the spiritual sense both of these two great predecessors. The collapse of the Eastern bloc is one of the great historical convulsions: this Pope not merely expected it and prayed for it, he played by general consent a large part in bringing it about. But we have to say more than that. We need to say that this vast political result was brought about, not by a reversion into the papacy’s history of political-intrigue and direct involvement in the deployment of worldly power, but by asserting the superior strength of the power of the spirit. The political levers of power were never directly an object of his concern: and yet those in the Solidarity movement who did confront the Polish secular state were motivated by a Catholic humanism in which the dignity of beings made in the image of God was central, and which had been powerfully revitalised by John Paul’s charismatic evangelical presence.

As the Pope insisted in his first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, ‘The Church must in no way be confused with the political community, nor bound to any political system. She is at once a sign and a safeguard of the transcendence of the human person.’ The Church is, as it were, a carrier of transcendence; and so too can be a human culture that has been impregnated by the values of the gospel. Where a Christian culture is subordinated to a political culture which is radically hostile to it, then the revitalisation of that culture’s deepest roots can only lead to political destabilisation and collapse, as it did in Poland. But that is not to interfere in politics; it is to do something much more radical than that: it is to assert the primacy of culture. ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ Stalin once famously sneered: this Pope demonstrated that in the end ‘divisions’ are not really what counts, even in the exercise of earthly power.

The other striking parallel with both Leo and Gregory has been in John Paul’s ultimately successful reassertion of the authority of the pope to teach and define doctrine. Here, we have a slight difference of approach to register: at first, we might be tempted to think that John Paul is more like Leo than Gregory. Leo, of course, was the Pope who sent the Council of Chalcedon his famous tome – a statement defining the doctrine of the two natures of Christ – with the instruction that it was to be accepted by the Council without any inquiry or discussion. Roma locuta est; causa finita est is not one of Leo’s sayings; but there can be little doubt that he did more than any other pope to establish what has been a central part of the papacy’s functions ever since, the duty to defend the stable and objective character of Catholic teaching.

This has not always been the way in which these two popes have been assessed. As Ian Ker put it in a review for The Catholic Herald of the Short History of the Catholic Church, by that great scourge of magisterial authority, Hans Küng: ‘in Küng’s view Leo was the pope with whom the rot set in’. Gregory, however, was a very different kind of pope, according to Küng: so different indeed was he in the Küngian scenario, that he should be taken as a model of how the papacy ought to have developed. ‘Whereas Leo the Great advocated a proud and dominating understanding of primacy,’ wrote Küng, ‘Gregory the Great advocated a humble and collegial one. Had the papacy of the subsequent period orientated itself more on Gregory than on Leo in its understanding of office the ecclesia catholica of the middle ages could have developed along the lines of the earliest Church… with a democratic collegial constitution and with a Roman primacy of service.’

But this is surely utterly fantastical. Certainly, it is true that Gregory described himself truthfully as ‘servant of the servants of God’; and certainly, he tended not to assert his own views about the primacy over all other bishops of the bishop of Rome. ‘When he reproved a fellow bishop’ says Professor Mayr Harting, ‘he preferred to play down the papal position and rather emphasise the bond of brotherly love between them’, something, we might note in passing, the present Pope has been very inclined to do with his Orthodox brethren. But there is no evidence that Gregory had anything remotely approaching modern Küngian notions of ‘democratic collegiality’. It was, after all, Gregory who first used the phrase ex cathedra to indicate that he was speaking with the full weight and authority of the papal office.

And for a pope to use his authority for the defence of doctrine is in any case not to be proud and arrogant; it is the very essence of his servitude to the servants of God. Indeed, it can hardly be exercised at all without the most extreme humility: for in defining or articulating Catholic teaching he must himself be no more than a channel or conduit for the mind of the Church herself.


There may have been popes whose lives were not ones of sacrificial service to the people of God: but Leo was not one, and Gregory was not one and John Paul is not one. The older John Paul becomes, the more clear it is that here is a man who lives wholly for God and for the people of God. The older he becomes, too, the more startlingly original he grows, the more he bears out that judgment of Newman’s: that although ‘the [great] Popes have been old men’, they ‘have … never found any difficulty … [in] following out a new and daring line of policy … of leaving the old world to shift for itself and to disappear from the scene’.

It takes more than originality to be a great pope: it takes courage, the kind of courage which becomes infectious, so that it infuses the minds and hearts of the faithful. ‘Be not afraid’, said John Paul in his inaugural sermon as pope; it was a sermon which powerfully established not only the tone of his pontificate but the breadth of his own mind and the vast scale on which he assessed the possibilities for the Church in the modern world:

‘Be not afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help the Pope and all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ’s power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind.

Be not afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilisation and development.

Be not afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man’. He alone knows it.’

Be not afraid – it has been the watchword for his papacy: not because he has obsessively repeated it for others to follow, but because he has lived it out himself. He is in constant pain; his hands shake with Parkinson’s disease; and still he does not spare himself. The older and more frail he becomes, the more his courage shines out, and the nearer his papal service comes to being a kind of living martyrdom. The word ‘indomitable’ springs to mind; and for an Englishman of my generation that will tend to be followed by the word ‘Churchillian’: for surely, in the spiritual warfare of our age, this is has been one of the great heroes of the faith, not merely a great warrior himself, but an inspirer in others of the virtues of courage and persistence to the end. In due course, it will be for the Church to declare if this has been the life of one of her saints: but certainly, by any human measure current among his own contemporaries, his qualities have amounted to greatness of the highest order.

It is surely hard to believe that that will not be the verdict of history, too.

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