|Electing a pope: Other voices|
Posted April 2, 2005 at 3:18 p.m.Theologians see, experience
downside to John Paul II’s papacy
By Arthur Jones
Most would admit that the credit side of the late pope’s ledger includes his role in ending the Cold War, his broad public utterances of behalf of the poor, his attractive, evangelizing persona, and his cordial personal relationships with those of other denominations and faiths, particularly his cordiality toward the Jewish community, plus his statements on the plight of women beyond the borders of the developed world.
NCR asked a half-dozen American scholars to apply a critical eye to other elements of the papacy. What emerged is a list that includes:
* the pontificate’s suppression of theological
In summary: Pope John Paul II in 1978 “inherited a polarized church. His job was to be a bridge builder. He’s left it far more polarized today.”
That quote is from Ronald Modras, theological studies professor at St. Louis University. He continued, “This was a restoration, a papacy to restore the certitudes that existed prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).” Modras, author of such books as The Catholic Church and Anti-Semitism: Poland, 1933-39 and Ignatian Humanism: a Dynamic Spirituality for the 21st Century, said, the late pope “thought in Polish. I’m Polish-American. At the very, very beginning of his pontificate I was early asked to do a book on him.” Modras knew so much about the social and church culture that had formed Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, he said, “I knew I’d have to be critical.” He turned down the offer.
This was a papacy, said Anthony Kosnik — who knew the pope personally, yet suffered under John Paul II’s Vatican first-hand — in which theologians experienced “very heavy oppression, in areas of sexuality, more so than any other. But also in the political area, liberation theology and medical ethics.”
To liturgist, Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mercy Sr. Catherine Vincie, “The background against which to view this pontificate is the unfolding of the liturgical reform. I think we’ve seen a maturing of the assembly,” she said, “a growing sense of ownership by the assembly of its own liturgy; a growing maturity of lay liturgical ministers in the many liturgical ministries; a growing maturity in the musical art forms, the composition certainly. As I say, I believe it’s been done from the grass-roots level and has followed a very natural course of progression and maturity.
And then what happened, said Vincie, professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at the Aquinas Institute, St. Louis, was “the pontificate began the second course of revisions of the liturgical books. Not completely; one at a time, and we saw a huge increase in the centralization of authority within the Congregation of Worship and the Sacraments.”
Global justice his signature issue
Stepping outside the circle of Catholic concerns to view the pontificate in a larger context, Boston College theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill said, place the late pope “in historical perspective, and in a global perspective, and his signature issue was global justice. [Compared even to his encyclical writing predecessors,] I think that this pope again came out more frequently and more forcefully in criticism of global disparities in wealth and poverty and the accountability of first world impact on the suffering of those in the third world,” she said.
Further, said Cahill, “he made tremendous strides in the direction of, and saw himself as an advocate for women and the equality of women. He was attempting to bring that new recognition of gender equality into line with moral teachings and also teachings about priesthood formulated over centuries. So my own view is that in the future [his] trajectory toward equality in the church will increase. That will bring maybe more radical changes in church roles, roles of women in the church and perhaps toward certain issues of marriage and family [than John Paul] envisioned.”
“Now to someone who like myself is a North American 21st century feminist, it doesn’t go as far as we would go,” she said. “But I think the movement in the last generation toward equality for women in terms of papal teaching has been much greater and much more rapid than it had over the past many centuries. Did he apologize for the way representatives of the church have treated women? Yes. Did he apologize for the institution as a whole? No. Did he fully embody all of Catholic women’s hopes for the future? No. Did he exercise leadership in what can often be a very traditionalist institute? Yes, I think he did.”
Said theologian and author Fr. Charles Curran, “I think what bothered me with his whole approach was that he started out with this idea that basically said the church teaches the truth about humanity. That the church has the truth. John Paul II failed to recognize there can be different levels of truth, there can be different levels of certitude with regard to truth. None of that came through, it was: ‘Truth is the inimitable term and we got it and nobody else has it,’ kind of thing.
“And with that idea, that the church is basically the hierarchical church, and the hierarchical church has the truth, there was never any mention that the church has to learn the truth before it teaches the truth. And it is especially true in moral areas where there’s no doubt that the church, the hierarchical church, has learned the truth from others.
“So,” said Curran, “there was this horrendous triumphalism. Otherwise, as I’ve often said, I agreed with everything [John Paul] said except when he talked about church, women or sex. There’s no doubt he made some interesting statements, like he called Mary Magdalene the ‘apostle to the apostles.’ He was very good at the social thing, we’ve got to say that. He moved further than any other pope has with regard to the role of women in society.”
Modras noted that while the world’s “bishops had been speaking of crises, all kinds of crises in the church, the pope didn’t get blamed for them, though of course he was responsible. He was somehow above it. His image did not suffer from the adverse consequences of his actions — he was the Teflon pope.”
It was significant, Modras said, that John Paul’s motto, Totus Tuus, was not to God, or Christ, or the Holy Spirit, but to Mary. Kosnik agreed, “Yes, Mary above all, and suffering as an indispensable part of the theology of sanctity.”
‘Church will pay heavy price’
Two decades ago Kosnick was made to suffer. His situation was described by writer and educator Bill Jacobs this way in NCR: “The finest example of a Polish-American priest I have ever known was publicly bounced from a Polish seminary by a Polish priest contemporary, almost certainly at the insistence of a Polish archbishop under the direction of a Polish pope. And all because of a dull book on human sexuality.”
In 1977 Kosnik co-wrote the Catholic Theological Society of America study, Human Sexuality. The study raised questions about Catholic teaching on masturbation, premarital sex and homosexuality. Rome took issue with it and Kosnik was eventually forced out of Orchard Lake Seminary in Detroit, where generations of Polish priests had been trained to minister to the Polish community.
So, Kosnik experienced the wrath of John Paul’s Vatican and yet knew the pope personally — he was his houseguest for 10 days when the pope was Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Kraków. The American theologian described the pope’s decision-making process. “The way [Wojtyla] arrived at the truth — he didn’t read a lot, he didn’t seem to have time for it — was to take his ideas into prayer every morning. There’s no question he was a very prayerful man. He spent his first hour as a daily meditation before Mass, and he came out of that convinced that through that kind of process the truth is found. If you’re speaking for God, God is inspiring you, there’s no opposition.”
Kosnik said there was no doubt the pope was a brilliant man, “but I’m convinced that where he had difficulty it was because he’d arrived at the truth and wouldn’t spend any more time considering the question. He was a man of convictions, it was his whole process of coming to them — completely convinced of the positions he took and held. His whole spirituality was that.
“He was always talking about fulfilling Vatican II, interpreting it in the right spirit. So he reframed it in his own style,” said Kosnik. “It was a masterful stroke to be able to make that a great positive and not to see the tremendous consequences of it.”
Kosnik continued, “I think the church is going to pay a heavy price for [its theological] oppression in the future,” and the price will be exacted for two reasons.
The first is that what has been lost “is the creativity of theologians to push the social agenda with a concerted voice and poise,” he said. “The church can no longer speak in the present time in a unified way because we have such a divided church.”
The second is that the pontificate’s oppression “makes the church look a little like the church of the Middle Ages, with the treatment of Galileo, and the Inquisition. I think on the question of stem cell research, for example,” said Kosnik, “when those things begin to pay off, Catholics are going to say, this is what we always believed. But you know, even on questions of population and birth control, they still refuse to acknowledge it. In Poland they’re still writing articles like, ‘How good Catholics come to accept church teachings on birth control.’
“And again, it’s not only moral theology that was severely hampered,” he said. “It’s systematic theology, the whole feminine question of women in the church. People were afraid to write.”
Kosnik, who spent time with the pope in the Vatican, said John Paul many times criticized the U.S. episcopacy because its bishops were not well grounded theologically, not well educated. “He liked to choose people with academic degrees,” Kosnik said, “and he invited me to be part of a theological congress he was holding. It was incredible. Every section of the congress, the various areas of theology, was headed by a bishop. What struck me was that no one dared voice opposition because there was a bishop there. The whole thing was kind of smothered by the control factor.
Attraction to secretive societies
Moving to the laity, Kosnik said the pope was attracted to the secretive societies, such as Opus Dei and the rest, “because of their strong allegiance of support to him. With youth, I sense he supported those areas where youth is attracted to the church — Africa, India, Poland, where they’re still able to fill seminaries — basically because for the young man it’s a move up the social ladder.”
The pope’s great theme, Kosnik said, was “to bring back the Greek church. His inability to move on [his] positions made him lose the big battle.”
As for the church and the poor, said Kosnik, “I think we still speak the message, but nobody listens to it any more because we haven’t followed it up with any concrete actions.
“Our bishops certainly don’t live like the poor,” he said. “They continue to build huge churches. There’s going to be a big battle here in Detroit when they try to implement their proposed reform to redistribute clergy out to the suburbs. We spend hours and hours discussing what we should do. Recognition of optional celibacy and the ordination of women would be a very simple solution to the process. I think that one of these days the dynamite’s going to be lit [in the U.S. church] and something’s going to happen.” He concluded, “I have no faith in the bishops at the present time, or even in the future, I guess. And I’m afraid the prospect of a more open pope does not look good.”
Modras said the late pope did not believe “God had chosen him to change his mind, and therefore he was stubbornly ideological rather than pragmatic. He did not read the signs of the times.” On the Sunday before John Paul issued his first encyclical (Redemptor Hominis, 1979), Modras said, the pope declared, “God has chosen me and my ideas. He’s chosen me for this universal pulpit to proclaim these ideas that I have had for some years.”
Modras said that crises particularly affecting U.S. Catholics, such as their alienation from a church that was finding less and less space for the laity, stemmed from the fact “that a major part of John Paul’s pontificate was about separation. In Polish the word for priest comes from chapel. So the priest belongs in the chapel, he’s the leader in the chapel. The Polish for laity comes from the word for world.
“We in the West,” said Modras, “think we are laity, from the Greek for people of God. John Paul thought the laity were the worldly links. People who belong to the world don’t belong in making the decisions about the church.”
Modras’ view of the pope’s personal interpretation of the council (as in John Paul’s Sources of Renewal: the Implemenation of Vatican II, 1979), was, “all he does is go through, gives what the council said, and then gives a paraphrase. In the introduction he makes the point that people said there were liberals and conservatives, but that it was not true, that we shouldn’t think that way. The pope said the proper hermeneutic of the council was that the council recapitulated all the councils that went before it, and that all the councils before it led up to Vatican II. “That went back to his dissertation,” said Modras, “when he speaks of ‘personalism’ and ‘phenomenology,’ that they provided the language to translate Thomistic philosophy, the only solid philosophy.” Similarly, “he thought he could convince people to accept Humanae Vitae (Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical reinforcing the church’s ban on the use of artificial contraception by married couples) if he used words like ‘personhood’ instead of ‘sins against nature.’ Of course it hasn’t worked. The pope interpreted the council from a narrow perspective — that the clergy are in charge and the laity should keep out.”
Modras said the pope destroyed liberation theology by the types of bishops he appointed. “When Oscar Romero was called on the carpet he was censured by John Paul, he was yelled at, told, ‘Listen to the rich families. What are you doing with all this stuff with the poor?’ In El Salvador today,” said Modras, “you’ve got this division, the Opus Dei archbishop and the church of the wealthy upstairs, incense and vestments, and the poor gathered in the basement around the tomb of Oscar Romero.”
In Poland, said Modras, “the word for diocesan priest is the older word for prince. His mentor, Cardinal Prince Adam Stefan, was a prince-prince. [a prince by birth and a prince of the church]. [Wojtyla] himself became a prince, and as Bishop of Rome, a prince-prince. It’s the remnants of a medieval caste system.” For that reason, said Kosnik, the pope was class-conscious and an elitist. “[Adam Stefan] Sapieha, who really took him under his wing and prepared him for the priesthood, was very much an aristocrat.” Sapieha, the cardinal archbishop of Kraków, ordained the future pope and acted as his mentor.
John Paul, in one of his encyclicals, Modras said, “talked about mercy, but he didn’t show any. I heard that [at sometime in the past few] months he sometimes wondered if he had been too merciful in treating some people or issues. His first moves were against theologians like [Hans] Küng and [Charles] Curran, and [Tissa] Balasuriya. John Paul created a new thing, that Catholic theologians [he censured] could no longer be called Catholic theologians, but they were not suspended as priests. I wonder if that’s where he thought he was too mild and merciful?”
The pope used embarrassment as a tool, Modras continued, “the way the early church put people in the stocks. All these people have been embarrassed, and among the very first people he embarrassed was [U.S. Apostolic Delegate Archbishop] Jean Jadot [who served from 1973-1980], sent out to pasture without being made a cardinal.”
Concluded Modras, “What’s scary is that you’ve got some kids in college now for whom John Paul is the icon. I now have students [who studied at] Protestant schools, who quote the Catholic Catechism alongside fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell.”
Boston College’s Cahill, returning to the theme of John Paul’s action for social justice in the world, said that the media tended to not report the portions of his texts that were more socially challenging. She cited the visit of President George Bush in July 2001. “Bush was contemplating at that point what he should do about a stem-cell policy in the United States. And one of the things that the pope said to Bush was that the value of the embryo has to be respected. However, he made, I think, a nine-paragraph statement to Bush and that came up in Paragraph 7. Five of the other paragraphs in the statement were about justice and health care resources, about the obligation of the United States and other wealthy countries to exercise leadership in using science and technology for the benefit of all, and making sure that the poor had access to the same benefits as the rich. But that mostly didn’t make it into the newspapers. It didn’t seem as controversial.
“On the topic of AIDS,” said Cahill, “I think justice issues are much more prominent than, say, discussion of the morality of using condoms, which is more what people associate with the Catholic church, but it was not more prominent in John Paul’s approach. I think sometimes the degree to which he stood for justice was not fully appreciated, although certainly that doesn't mean that he can't be criticized. Does he go as far as liberation theology? No. However, is he a leader who to a significant degree has advocated for the rights of the poor? I’d say yes.”
From the perspective of the mainstream culture in the United States and particularly from the standpoint of feminist critique, he was not fully responsive to the equality of men and women, she said. “On the whole he represented positive steps forward in comparison with teachings of the past. In fact, a pretty remarkable step forward in some respects. He has praised women’s liberation. He has spoken out very strongly against the exploitation of women in the sex trade or through sexual violence and domestic violence.”
“It’s not as though someone would endorse those things,” she said, “but to realize that it's important to speak out and to prioritize those things as moral issues behind which he is going to put his moral authority as pope — I think that this is the first time a pope has done that. If you realize that only in 1930 a pope was saying that women should be subordinate to their husbands, and should not even have bank accounts of their own, this is a big change.
“While there were other issues of the day John Paul did not pick up on,” she said, he prioritized global women’s needs “more than more conservative elements in the culture have done — the letter to women in advance of the 1995 conference in Beijing, where he most forcefully speaks in favor of the public and social roles of women.
Lauded for his ecumenism
What John Paul brought to the world of ecumenism “was totally outstanding,” said Methodist Geoffrey Wainwright, who for almost 20 years has chaired the International Dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic church. The key document, he said, is Ut Unum Sint, (1995).
In Ut Unum Sint,” said Wainwright, “I was obviously pleased with the recognition given directly and indirectly particularly to the World Council of Churches, and to the international bilateral dialogue. There was a good deal of quotation and allusion there that I felt was very encouraging. In that same document I appreciated very much the way in which he put together sort of the twin foundations of spiritual ecumenism or the ecumenism of prayer, and doctrinal ecumenism and ecumenism of truth. I thought that was good and right and proper.”
Wainwright said the “exciting thing was the proposal for the patient and fraternal dialogue to which John Paul invited leaders of other churches and community and their theologians to [help him] find new ways of exercising Petrinal [papal] ministry. I thought that was very bold. I suppose I have to be disappointed that progress made under that has been slower than we might have hoped.”
Wainwright said that post-Vatican II hopes for intercommunion [expressed by such people as the late Albert Outler, Methodist theologian, historian, an observer at the council and later an NCR board member] were “a naïve expectation. I’m not even too keen on the word intercommunion. There will eventually come full communion. I hesitate at the term intercommunion because it’s sometimes used as though that were a solution, whereas at most it could be, to my mind, a step on the way.”
He said that for John Paul “the world was his parish and all that, and I think he performed in an outstanding way and was informally recognized for such by so many Christians of other traditions.”
Liturgist Vincie charted the papacy against “a liturgical reform that has run a course from a period of less maturity and great enthusiasm to one of organic growth and great maturity. A few things come to mind: the gradual implementation of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. It was uneven, but it has had astounding effects in parishes. That process is still going on,” she said, “and it’s very much a grass-roots process.”
Said Vincie, “Something similar has been underway in terms of the pastoral care of the sick and the development of the ministry of all the baptized in that ministry, and in particular recognizing the public character of that rite.
Asked about the late pontificate’s effect on the U.S. hierarchy and church, Curran said, “Here is where the American bishops have let everybody down, because they are the ones who should speak up. There was the unwillingness to admit that we ultimately have to do something, and they are the ones who need to say, ‘Look, we have a pastoral problem here. We need to do something about the number of priests, and don’t just tell us to pray for vocations.’ [John Paul] totally eviscerated bishops’ conferences and as a result there is no place where the bishops can speak.
“Fifteen years ago,” Curran said, “you never would have had the problem you had in the past presidential election, with some bishops taking positions on the Communion and abortion thing. So again, it just seems to me that [with the pontificate’s] terrible kind of centralization and authoritarianism that the bishops have really lost their role in the church.”
[Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is email@example.com.]
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