Excerpted from The Pontiff in Winter with permission of Doubleday.

Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, has shown himself to be a man of rare depth of soul, an evangelist of tireless energy who traveled to the ends of the earth to spread the Christian Gospel. Priest and prophet, he has acted to conserve the traditions of the Catholic Church while urging transformation in preparation for a millennial springtime of the spirit.

He raised the consciousness of his Polish countrymen, exposing the sterility of Soviet totalitarian rule. He has preached freedom as a characteristic of our humanity. But he warned of the danger in capitalist democracies of liberty that lacked moral culture. He presented to the world an original understanding of Christian humanism and saw marital sex as an icon of the Trinitarian God. He has strived for Christian unity, reaching out to Eastern Orthodoxy and the Churches and communions separated from Rome by the Reformation. All the while he has toiled, despite encroaching illness, pain, and old age, to maintain the unity and continuity of the Catholic Faith. As Shakespeare's Kent says of the passing of King Lear: "The wonder is he hath endured so long / He but usurped his life." His ardent supporters among the faithful seem justified in hailing him Karol the Great.

But there is a parallel rather than an alternative Catholic version, rarely expressed in public in deference to a taboo that forbids criticism of living and even dead popes. A widespread constituency of Catholics, men and women, clergy and bishops throughout the world, is convinced that John Paul has drawn so tightly on the reins of universal authority that he has undermined the discretion, the authority, the integrity, and the strength of the local, diocesan Church. They believe that while appearing triumphant in the world at large, he is leaving his Church in a state of weakness and conflict.

This centralizing papal dynamic over more than a quarter of a century has had profound consequences, of which the complex scenario of sexual abuse by priests is but one example. The systemic corruption of clerical sexual abuse has revealed a dimension of paralysis and vacillation on the part of local bishops and senior clergy who attempted to conceal and deny it. Undermined by years of centralizing papal rule, there was a tendency for local church leaders to look over their shoulders to Rome, where initiative and authority were deemed to reside in all matters. And yet action was not forthcoming from the papal pinnacle. Indifference and complacency were found right up to John Paul himself until world indignation left Rome no choice but to acknowledge the crisis.

His failure to recognize from the outset a complex set of crises within the priesthood, and to handle them appropriately, contrasts starkly with harsh denunciations of those who failed to achieve the high standards of sexual morality he set for Catholic laity. John Paul advocated exclusion of those Catholics who are divorced and remarried without annulment (nearly forty percent of Catholic marriages end in divorce in Western countries), or who live in unmarried partnerships or in homosexual relationships.

His hard line on all forms of contraception in any circumstances has alienated generations of the faithful, many of whom have fallen away. In Africa, while agencies were right to warn against encouraging promiscuity through free distribution of condoms to the young, he has taken an extreme stance. His insistence that condoms should not be used in any circumstances has condemned untold numbers of Catholics at risk for HIV infection to certain death. He has excluded women from any future hope of priestly ministry not only within his own pontificate but by attempting to legislate for his papal successors for all time. He has shut his ears to pleas for married clergy and rejected requests for laicization by priests who have married and started families-refusing them the sacraments.

While making a show of encouraging interfaith dialogue and urging ecumenism, he has characterized other religions (that is, non-Christian religions) as "defective," claiming that many Christian denominations, including the Anglican (Episcopalian) denominations, were not proper churches, their priests and bishops not proper priests and bishops. Despite his deep longing to come to an accord with the Russian Orthodox Church, he has established Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia in defiance of the concerns of the entire Orthodox Church.

His debility in his latter days has exposed the long-term consequences of his autocratic papal rule. He has become a living sermon of patience and fortitude, appealing to the sympathies of the entire world; but the billion-strong Church has been run increasingly by his Polish secretary and a handful of aging reactionary cardinals. We have had a papacy in which a pope utters virtual heresy, bishops and faithful are told they may not discuss women priesthood, a Curial cardinal teaches that condoms kill, prelates guilty of having shielded pedophiles are honored, and a U.S. president has exploited the papacy as an election campaign stop.
To understand John Paul, as he himself has declared often enough, is an exercise in penetrating the inner man. "They try to understand me from the outside," he once said. "But I can only be understood from the inside." Unlike his predecessor John XXIII, who spoke constantly from the heart, John Paul has revealed his personality in theatrical displays that have enraptured and beguiled his huge audiences. Exploiting modern broadcast communications to their fullest extent, his omnipresence and monopoly of the limelight have reduced within his Church all other authority, all other holiness (unless dead), all other comparisons, voices, images, talents, and virtues. The legislator, the single dispenser of blessings, beneficence, and wisdom-there has been no hidden corner of the Church where he was not present, heard, read, and where he was not absolute.

This has been a big papacy, difficult if not impossible to capture in the round. His story has been told already in many different ways. As he prepared to travel to Cuba in February 1998 to meet with Fidel Castro, The Times (London) judged him the most influential political figure in the world during the previous twenty years. And the paper was right, up to a point. His encouragement of the Polish people to reject Soviet communism had reverberations throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. A line of malevolent dictators-Marcos in the Philippines, Baby Doc in Haiti, Pinochet in Chile, Jaruzelski in Poland, Stroessner in Paraguay-fell from power after he had kissed the soil of their countries.

Tributes to John Paul's intellectual status have been no less ardent. He has been feted as the sole philosopher Pope in history. His biographer, George Weigel, argues that John Paul's teachings have raised him to unchallenged status in "the history of modern thought." Mr. Weigel believes that John Paul II, among many outstanding achievements, returned "the great humanistic project to its true trajectory, which aimed, he argued, straight into the Holy Trinity Itself." John Paul, by this verdict, has set the world on its true course for this new millennium.

As John Paul's papacy lengthened and the obituarists repeatedly updated their eulogies, a variety of adulatory perspectives on his life and times have emerged, enhancing the cult of his personality: John Paul the athlete, poet, playwright, pastor, theologian, prophet, politician, confessor, contemplative, preacher, ecumenist, counselor, sage, reconciler, moralist, living saint.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus