We often hear Pope John Paul II called a conservative, theologically and otherwise. Recent biographies by Carl Bernstein and Tad Szulc presented him as an ecclesiastical tyrant, intolerant of dissent. John Paul has been "steadily appointing more and more conservative bishops," historian Charles R. Morris wrote in his 1997 book, American Catholic.

There is a strong case to be made, however, that although John Paul II is certainly theologically conservative, his administration of the church has been lax, and those he has appointed to high positions have sometimes undermined his philosophy. The most visible and thoughtful spokesman for this point of view is James Hitchcock, history professor at St. Louis University and hard-hitting conservative commentator on Catholic issues. Hitchcock can tick off a list of liberal prelates whom John Paul has appointed to important church posts, including Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan, whom Catholic liberals hope will be the next pope, and Karl Lehmann, the head of the German bishops conference, who recently came close to calling for John Paul II's resignation. The late Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and the currently reigning Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, among the most liberal cardinals ever seen in the United States, were John Paul II appointments. Both are known to have been highly tolerant of dissenting priests.

And now, John Paul II has disappointed Catholic conservatives yet one more time in his choice for archbishop of Westminster, which encompasses the city of London and is England's largest Catholic diocese. The pope's new appointee, Bishop Cormac Murphy-O'Connor of Arundel and Brighton, does not have a particularly liberal reputation--but he was not the candidate of choice of England's conservative Catholics, who wanted to see the conservative Archbishop Patrick Kelly of Liverpool appointed to head the London diocese instead. Of course, the leading liberal candidate, Auxiliary Bishop Vincent Nichols, who had served as an assistant to the late archbishop of London, Cardinal Basil Hume, before Hume's death last June, was not selected either. But John Paul II did choose Bishop Nicholls to be archbishop of Birmingham, England's second-largest city--handing a net victory to liberals in recent papal appointments in England.

"He has appointed some conservative prelates and that has attracted attention," Hitchcock says. "But if you watch closely you find that he has tended to appoint middle-of-the-roaders, and sometimes outright liberals."

Perhaps John Paul believes that decades of disorder are preferable to centuries of schism.

In New York, Cardinal John O'Connor has a conservative reputation but has run a loose ship, letting individual pastors in his diocese do things their way with little interference. The finances of the archdiocese are in disarray.

In addition, John Paul II's papal governance is sometimes irresolute. In 1985, the Vatican concluded that the archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, had failed to uphold church teaching in five areas, including ministry to homosexuals. Dignity, an organization that endorses gay sexual expression in violation of church law, held Masses at the Seattle cathedral. Donald Wuerl, who later became bishop of Pittsburgh, was appointed Hunthausen's auxiliary, and a Vatican commission studied the situation. Then, although the Dignity Masses ended, nothing much else changed. When Hunthausen retired in 1991, his successor, Thomas Murphy (who died in 1997) retained most of his policies--without any Vatican objection.

Around the same time, John Paul confronted the increasingly heterodox Jesuit religious order, but then didn't do much. "It was an extraordinary intervention," says Hitchcock. "He got them down on the ground, and then he said, 'Okay, get up, everything's fine.'"

Doctrinally, no one can doubt the pope's unflinching conservatism. He repeatedly emphasizes the Church's opposition to abortion and artificial birth control, and he has said no to women's ordination. He has gone to the Marian shrine at Fatima, Portugal, and plans to return there this year. Why, then, has he not exercised greater church discipline? That is the riddle of John Paul II.

Even the pope's biggest fans acknowledge that there is some truth to this critique. In his otherwise adulatory biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope, George Weigel points out that the Vatican has not yet restored organizational and pastoral discipline to the church after the chaos that followed Vatican II, and "there has been a price to be paid for this." Philosopher Ralph McInerny of the the University of Notre Dame says that "doctrinally [John Paul II] has been marvelous, but administratively things go wrong."

Observers offer a number of theories to explain weak papal governance. Hitchcock leans toward Fear of Schism. Crack down too hard, and bishops will split off with their congregations. The Protestant Reformation is still unhealed, and perhaps John Paul believes that decades of disorder are preferable to centuries of schism.

This position comes with a considerable price. A whole generation of Catholics has grown up poorly instructed, believing that their faith is not so much the embodiment of divine truth as a method of searching for truth: take what you want from the smorgasbord and leave the rest. "We have experienced the mis-education of a generation of priests and the collapse of much of religious life," Hitchcock says.

Another theory: Diplomacy Forever. The Vatican, which practically invented the art of diplomacy, believes that a subtle approach toward wayward prelates will ultimately prevail. A third theory: The Pope Doesn't Hear the Bad News. Wherever John Paul II travels, stadium-size crowds amass to cheer him, perhaps leading him to conclude that the Catholic Church is in a healthy state. He is said to ignore disturbing reports on topics such as clerical pedophilia.

It's hard to know what is really going on in John Paul II's mind. We will have some indication soon of its tenor, however, as he is expected to appoint new archbishops this year for both New York and Washington (both O'Connor, who is 80, and Washington's Cardinal James Hickey are about to retire). But as we know as Catholics, the Holy Spirit ever guides the church, so all we can do is keep a prayerful, hopeful watch.

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