One can proclaim his greatness and influence, praise his determination in the face of death, and celebrate his long reign--and still raise questions about his legacy. The Catholic Church today is polarized by deep disagreements between progressives and those who would restore the status quo ante the Vatican Council, between laity and lower clergy on the one hand and the Roman Curia on the other, between those who favor the decentralization suggested by the council's theory of "collegiality" and those who favor ever tighter control from Rome. The next pope, who may well be chosen because he is seen as a "healer," will have a very difficult time and will risk being torn apart by the centripetal energies in the church.
After the appealing Pope John and the hesitant Pope Paul, John Paul II inherited a church in deep confusion. The moderate reforms of the council had made change possible in the church and destabilized the structures of 19th-century Catholicism which contended that the church did not change, would not change, could not change. The resulting chaos led many of the laity and the lower clergy to expect more change, and then enact change on their own initiative, especially in sexual matters.
It was already too late in the day to implement such a strategy. Unquestioning obedience no longer was an automatic response and had not been since 1968. The laity and the lower clergy had already decided that in the area of human sexuality, the church no longer had the right to order them. In retrospect, a sensitive strategy of patience, openness, and consultation might have been much more effective. However, the pope--by personality and life history--seems to have been incapable of governing that way. Gradually, the hopes created by the council turned sour. Alienation between the Vatican and much of the membership of the church has increased, made worse each time a seemingly arbitrary edict appeared from the Vatican.
The extremely conservative bishops he appointed, usually on curial recommendation, to further his restorationist agenda, further offended many of the laity and the lower clergy. He rarely engaged in serious consultation with the bishops of the world and listened only to the laity that he knew agreed with him. This, one had to assume, was the way he thought the papacy ought to govern the church.
The Catholic Church, so attractive during the time of Pope John, lost much of its respect and esteem--especially because it was perceived, perhaps unfairly, to be hostile to both women and homosexuals.
To make matters worse, the sexual abuse crisis--which the Vatican still would like to pretend is an American problem--has spread throughout Europe and has traumatized the credibility of the church leadership. The Pope's reaction to it seemed to many to be less vigorous than would be appropriate. Sex was the touchstone of his restoration of order to the church, but not, it might have been fairly said, the sexual behavior of priests.
No one in his right mind would question the personal virtue, the good intentions, the sincerity of the late pontiff. Yet clearly, he failed to restore the discipline of the church's traditional sexual ethic. The lower clergy and the laity are even less likely today, despite all his efforts, to accept that discipline than when he came to office.
The most important decision the next pope must make is whether it is time for a change in the papacy's style of governance.