The extraordinary paradox of the long pontificate of Karol Wojtyla was that, as a human being, he was loved, admired, respected, and even venerated by billions of Christians and non-Christians, but, as pope, he may have left the Roman Catholic Church in a parlous state and much division and disarray.
I remember meeting him early in 1979, a few months after his election, and what stuck in my memory was his comment that "Our church needs discipline to survive" when I asked why one of his priorities had been the insistence that nuns always wear religious garb and that priests should abandon the then developing custom of appearing in public in civilian clothes, including slacks and sport shirts. Such relaxation of discipline was unacceptable.
As years come and went, I began to understand that John Paul II's early emphasis on sartorial aspects of the clergy symbolized his fundamental approach to reshaping the church he had inherited from popes John XXIII and Paul VI along rigorously traditional and conservative lines. On another occasion, he had been heard to remark that he preferred a "smaller, disciplined church" to a larger, unruly institution that spoke in a multitude of voices. In the end, the issue was control, total control, over the church, according to this theological, moral, ethical, philosophical, and philosophical guidelines (he had once been a professor of ethics).
Nothing, of course, lives in a vacuum. John Paul II's role model was Gregory the Great, a most powerful presence in church history, in the sixth century, A.D. But the Polish pope also held unbounded devotion to Pius IX, in the nineteenth century, who was the longest-ruling pope ever. It was under Pius IX that Vatican Council I approved in 1870 the doctrine of papal infallibility, a concept John Paul II cherished and invoked on a few occasions.
It was a given in the Vatican under John Paul II that the principal test of Catholicism was absolute obedience to the pope: his definition of church unity. His guiding principle was what he called New Evangelization, an epochal effort to implant and expand the presence and influence of the Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
To an outside observer, even a close one, John Paul II was a fascinating study in contrasts, hard to comprehend unless papal infallibility was accepted unquestioningly. It was a fundamental contrast between his unforgiving conservatism in church affairs and his modernity and outspoken courage in causes of social justice, the rejection of rampant capitalism (as part of social justice), full backing for the defense of human rights, and vigorous support for diplomatic peace-making--from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Cuba.
As a Jewish scholar once remarked, John Paul II, who described the Jews as "our older brothers, was "the best pope the Jews ever had."
And, of course, there was his riveting personality, his magnetic appeal to the masses, and the contact he hungrily maintained with them through global jet voyages-more than 100 countries in 20 years--through television that he quickly learned to dominate, and through constant public appearances. His personal appeal was irresistible, and even those who opposed him the most intellectually were carried away by the emotion of his presence. He certainly did not live in an ivory tower.
Why, then, was John Paul II so convinced that the church could survive in the 21st century only as an institution inside an impregnable bastion of repressive conservatism, behind closed ranks of intellectually retrograde think-alike cardinals and bishops? Why did this eminently intelligent and erudite man believe that this was the church's salvation rather than the road to eventual disaster about which so many Catholic thinkers have warned?
The only plausible answer is that it was a matter of faith, because John Paul II's devotion to it was so overwhelming, leading him to severe, uncompromising, often cruel positions--brooking no dissent, no matter how subtle. Naturally, John Paul II was the child of his era and environment. He was a mystic, and the product of the culture and history of his native Poland that rejected compromises over basic values.
From the outset of his reign in 1978, John Paul II had emerged, rather surprisingly, as a dogmatic and superb politician that he was; he wasted no time establishing his personal power over the church. John Paul II knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and how to go about it.
Whereas Vatican Council II (between 1963 and 1965), in which Karol Wojtyla had participated as a young activist bishop, had established "collegiality" among bishops as the foundation of the new post-war church--consulting together, seeking decisions together--John Paul II almost instantly discarded collegiality in favor of his undisputed one-man rule. This cost him the support of the liberal wing of the church, notably in Western Europe and Latin America.
John Paul II who, as cardinal, played a key role in dissuading Paul VI from the acceptance by the church of artificial birth-control devices, made it a central tenet of his policies, battling it with homilies and speeches, interventions at international population conferences, and with swift punishment of bishops and priests who favored some aspects of artificial birth control. In the light of the enormous demographic pressures and simultaneous poverty in the Third World (1.2-billon people live on less than a dollar a day), John Paul II began loosing the support of more priests and bishops as well as congregations.
Worse, from the standpoint of New Evangelization, Catholics in Latin America began to defect in unprecedented numbers from the church to the more open-minded Protestant and Pentecostal denominations. Sadly, the pope, who had only a sketchy knowledge of Latin American culture and history, let his hard-line Latin American advisers persuade him that the Theology of Liberation, a liberal movement within the church, was camouflage for Marxism and must be swept away. It was, but it cost the pope crucial Catholic intellectuals--and great numbers of the faithful.
John Paul II punished Catholic intellectuals everywhere banning them from teaching at Catholic universities if their views dissented from his. As a virtual expression of papal infallibility, he forbade any discussions within the church on the subject of ordaining women as priests, a growing movement in the United States and elsewhere. This was where the pope lost tens of thousands of nuns and women in general who simply stepped aside to await a new pope. When the Anglican Church voted in the early 1990s to ordain women, John Paul II broke off Christian unity negotiations with the Anglicans. Ending priestly celibacy was not even a blip on his Vatican radar screen.
Where, then, does John Paul II leave the church after the longest pontificate of the century? The short answer is that he leaves it on a slippery slope. While the actual number of Catholics has grown (to over one billion), it was principally due to demographic accretion and not New Evangelization conversions. More seriously, the number of vocations and therefore priests has dropped alarmingly. The United States Catholic Conference's data show that while there were 420,000 priests worldwide in 1975, the total had dropped to 400,000 in 1997.
It is idle to predict the future under the next pope. Though over 90 percent of the cardinals electing the pontiff were named by John Paul II, they are immovably conservative, as are bishops appointed by him, it does not follow that the new pope will blindly imitate his predecessor.
The cry of "The King is Dead, Long Live the King" serves to remind that the past will not necessarily be repeated. Different men have different ideas once they reach power. The new man in the Vatican will have a hard row to hoe in the church that John Paul II had striven so much to unite, in his way, but wound up dividing.