John Paul II, Keeper of the Faith

Editorial

New York Times

April 3, 2005

The death of Pope John Paul II came at a time when Americans have been engaged in an unusual moment of national reflection about mortality. The long, bitter fight over the unknowing Terri Schiavo was a stark contrast to the passing of this pontiff, whose own mind was keenly aware of the gradual failure of his body. The pope would certainly never have wanted his own end to be a lesson in the transcendent importance of allowing humans to choose their own manner of death. But to some of us, that was the exact message of his dignified departure.

Pope John Paul II was a man who used the tools of modernity to struggle against the modern world. He traveled more than a half-million miles through 129 countries, waving to crowds from his popemobile. He wrote best sellers and took advantage of every means of communication to spread his message: a cry against what he saw as the contemporary world’s decadence, moral degradation and abandonment of human values.

As a Polish cleric in a church that had not had a non-Italian pope since 1523, it’s unlikely that John Paul, born Karol Wojtyla, spent much of his early career imagining himself as the eventual pontiff. But it was fitting that a man who had devoted much of his life to opposing the Communist government in his homeland would be leading the church at the moment when the cold war ended and Communism collapsed. It was his experiences in Poland — including time spent working in a quarry and a chemical factory during the Nazi occupation — that most influenced John Paul’s papacy during its early and most active years, when he made human rights his central issue.

The pope’s concern for human dignity led him to criticize capitalism as strongly as Communism, and he used his pulpit to condemn Western materialism as a “culture of death.” He improved the church’s relations with Jews and Muslims. At the dawn of the third millennium, he delivered a solemn apology for errors of the church, including religious intolerance and injustice toward women and the poor. Under his direction, the church denounced anti-Semitism, although it did not criticize Pope Pius XII for his equivocal response to the Holocaust.

For non-Catholics around the globe, those are the visions of John Paul that may endure longest — the globe-trotting man of God who traversed the world over and over, speaking about the dignity of life in so many languages. For Catholics, he was a more complicated figure, one who resisted all attempts to liberalize the church’s teachings on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, priestly marriage, divorce and the ordination of women. This champion of freedom brooked no dissent, and his travels sought not only to minister to the faithful but also to make the church more disciplined, hierarchical and orthodox. Later, as his health deteriorated, he turned much of the responsibility for church affairs over to subordinates who lacked his authority and moral stature. That problem became painfully obvious during the crisis over sexual-predator priests toward the end of the pope’s tenure.

For all his worldwide evangelism, John Paul left behind a church with a dwindling number of priests and nuns and a shrinking percentage of the world’s population; Islam has overtaken Catholicism as the globe’s most popular religion. The pope always believed that human values, not numbers, were what mattered. His embrace of each person’s innate dignity was his touchstone, allowing him to shape our times even as he railed against them.