Many of his admirers say that he will be remembered as John Paul the Great, and hope that he will be canonized. The case for his greatness begins with his witness against the totalitarianisms that disfigured his country and the last century. Karol Wojtyla saw that Communism, like Nazism, was both evil and doomed to fail. Its error was not fundamentally economic but anthropological. Its view of human beings was false. The individual person was more than “an element, a molecule within the social organism,” and had a longing for truth, for transcendent meaning, that tyranny could not erase.
What followed was the priority of culture over economics and politics. Pope John Paul II fought the Soviets by helping people reclaim their dignity. To escape from evil regimes, central Europeans first had to escape from those regimes’ lies. Those regimes claimed to be all-powerful and to be the final arbiters of truth. Exposing those pretensions was a precondition for their demise. The Church’s power was no longer the power of a state; it was the power of persuasion.
There is a tendency, in some quarters, to separate this papacy into halves: a first half in which the Pope stood for freedom against tyranny, and a second in which he tried to impose his “authoritarian” views on the Free World. But no such separation is possible: The Pope consistently fought for the dignity of the human person against the many threats to it–even threats that falsely bore the name of freedom.
That fight led the Pope into a deeper and deeper engagement with liberal modernity. Many Catholics had worried that democracy carried within it the seeds of moral relativism. This Pope saw that democracy had a solid foundation in the dignity of man, and that relativism undermined this foundation. Under him, the Church became ever more firmly committed to democracy as a political ideal–and Catholic countries led the democratic wave that spread around the world. The Church increased its appreciation of the contribution that free markets could make to human dignity. Its commitment to human rights, and especially religious liberty, also grew, and the Pope invited believers in other faiths to an ecumenism based on a shared search for the truth rather than the blurring of differences. He both reached out in friendship to the Jewish people and acknowledged the shameful past mistreatment of Jews by Christians.
“He fought for the dignity
of the human person against
the many threats to it–even
threats that falsely bore
the name of freedom.”
This most philosophical of popes even ventured to vindicate reason itself against the claims of postmodernists. The world had lost its faith in reason, he argued, because reason had been arbitrarily truncated. A reason that was not allowed to direct itself toward the highest things–to inquire about the good for man, for example–would turn on itself and come to doubt its ability to reach the truth. Voltaire would be astonished to see a Catholic Church become a steadfast defender of reason and democracy.
This Pope’s mission was neither to embrace nor to reject modernity, but to rescue it. His primary responsibility was not to manage the Church as an organization. It was to lead the Church as a spiritual force. Billions of people witnessed his witness.
He was not perfect, nor did he claim to be. While he inspired many impressive and faithful young men and women to join the priesthood and religious orders, some of his appointments were disappointing. He did not appear to appreciate the extent and gravity of the sex-abuse scandals. Perhaps he was unable to fathom that a priest, let alone many priests, would act so abominably. Here the Pope, so often criticized for alleged heavy-handedness, failed in not playing to type. The Church’s doctrine on war and peace did not develop as far, or as well, as its doctrine in other areas, and its diplomacy suffered as a result. It teaches that war, to be just, must be a “last resort.” But surely the practical import of that teaching must change in a world where weapons of mass destruction are proliferating.
It was not doctrine, however, that made the world love Pope John Paul II. It was, above all, the personal holiness and sanctity that fairly radiated from him. Perhaps the reason he stepped up the pace of canonizations was to renew the universal call to sainthood–to show us that saints are always among us. His example helped to teach the lesson. We knew that he loved us, and we knew that he loved us because he knew that the Lord loved us.
His final word, reportedly, was “Amen.” George Weigel, the author of the best biography of the Pope, often notes that John Paul II regarded Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life. His own life shows that a life can be not only a question, but a prayer.–The Editors
NOTE: This editorial appears in the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.