Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, was born in 1920, at the very time his country, Poland, was recovering its independence after more than a century of partition among its neighboring empires. He grew up in a Poland caught between the two greatest criminal regimes in history — Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union — and experienced occupation by both.
On the one hand, as a Pole—and he was always a Pole — Karol Wojtyla was painfully aware of the attractions as well as the dangers of freedom. After all, Poles lost their independence, and indeed statehood, at the end of the eighteenth century largely because they had collectively confused freedom with anarchy. That, as his critics never tired of pointing out, may explain his strict disciplinarian streak and centralizing policies as Pope. On the other hand, when he was elevated to the Holy See in 1978, John Paul II inherited a profoundly confused Church in the aftermath of the Vatican II Council of a decade before. Indeed, while upsetting conservatives with some of its decisions (for example, renunciation of the traditional Latin Mass), Vatican II inspired some “progressive” (including Marxist) elements in the Church to what came to be known as “liberation theology.” (The term was first used in 1973 by the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez.) Especially in Latin America and within religious orders such as the Jesuits and Maryknollers, “class struggle,” even violent if need be, replaced traditional Catholic values.
After living under and struggling against communism for more than two decades, John Paul II knew Marxism and its pernicious and criminal nature, as well as the threat it posed to the Church —lessons he also learned from his impressive intellectual and religious mentor, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who was himself persecuted by the Soviet puppets in Warsaw. Hence, fighting communism in Europe, especially in his native country, and Marxist penetration of the Church in Latin America, were the major themes of his first years as Pope.
Much has been written about the key role John Paul II had in bringing about the collapse of the Soviet empire. Poland was the key Soviet satellite in Europe—the largest and most strategically located. After the Pope told millions of Poles in 1979 “do not fear,” they took him at his word. It was the beginning of the end of the Kremlin’s rule. Solidarity was born soon thereafter and the rest is history. What is much less often mentioned is that, at the same time, the Pope also took drastic steps to repair the ideological decay of the Church in Latin America.
John Paul II paid more visits to Mexico (five) than to any other country save Poland. He also took administrative decisions and symbolic positions toward stamping out the Marxian politicization there of the clergy and Catholic doctrine. He suspended and then replaced the weak and ailing General of the Jesuits with theologically sound appointees, banned clergy participation in politics, and, during his 1983 trip to Central America, he publicly discredited the Marxist Sandinista priests of Nicaragua. He continued that policy to the end of his days, with the result that, today, liberation theology has lost favor throughout Latin America. This may have come too late and the damage to the Church too great to be undone: the area where the Church lost credibility, prestige, and membership at the expense of fast-growing Evangelical groups overlaps almost exactly with those of past influence of “liberation theology” (Guatemala, Brazil, Peru). But the Pope at least stanched the hemorrhage.
Of his three most important cardinal appointments in the region, two—Miguel Obando y Bravo (elevated in 1985) of Nicaragua and Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Cuba (elevated in 1994)—were significant politically and the other, Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne of Peru (elevated in 2001) theologically. Cardinal Obando was the most prominent and effective critic of the Sandinista regime. He could not be silenced or deported as the regime did with other outspoken priests, and his appointment was clearly intended to allow him to play a role similar to that of Cardinal Wyszynski in communist Poland, as the bearer of truth against an atheist and anti-democratic regime. Cardinal Ortega’s appointment and role in Castro’s Cuba was also intended to strengthen the position of the Church, in which it succeeded, in that the Church is now by far the most independent institution on the island—a position that was strengthened by the Pope’s 1998 visit to Cuba. In Peru, on the other hand, where liberation theology was strongly implanted, Pope John Paul II’s Vatican took the radical step of appointing, for the first time ever, a member of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei organization as Primate. Cardinal Cipriani is a consistent critic of those human rights organizations whose leftist bias is obvious and far from democratic, and he still faces opposition from some progressive members of the clergy. But his very appointment was as clear a signal as possible of the Pope’s understanding of liberation theology’s nature and the spiritual and political challenge it posed.
The pope is the successor of Peter, and as protector of the Catholic doctrine, Pope John Paul II’s political astuteness did not limit itself to fighting totalitarianism and Marxism. Especially when it came to such issues as women in the clergy or homosexuality, that made him unpopular with some in the West, especially among “progressive” Catholics seeking to interpret their faith in the same way as many of their mainline Protestant brethren. Roman Catholicism, beset by these and other issues, is now in decline in the United States and moribund in Western Europe, while growing in Africa and Asia. These contrasts were understood and reacted to by Pope John Paul II’s Vatican. A simple look at the membership of the College of Cardinals today demonstrates the Pope’s understanding of these new realities.
John Paul II, himself the first non-Italian pope since the Dutch Adrian VI (1522-23), clearly decided that the strength of the Church in a certain region should be reflected in its leadership and, in this sense, he made it representative, if not democratic. Of the 117 cardinals allowed to vote for his successor (i.e. those under the age 80), of whom 114 were appointed by John Paul II, only 58 are from Europe, including 20 from Italy. During the previous two millennia, Europeans were an overwhelming majority and Italians the dominant group, when not in majority by themselves. Today, there are cardinals from Benin and Indonesia, Angola and India, Cameroon, Honduras, Ghana, Japan, Madagascar, Mauritius, Samoa, and Syria. None of that is surprising, considering that this Pope also traveled to over one hundred countries, giving the Vatican not just credibility but a highly charismatic physical presence. Furthermore, some of the third-world cardinals, such as Francis Arinze of Nigeria and, before him, Bernardin Gantin of Benin, have attained high positions in the Vatican hierarchy.
The Pope is not just the spiritual and administrative leader of the Catholic Church. He is also a head of state, and in this quality John Paul was equally innovative. He and President Reagan established diplomatic relations between the United States and the Holy See, and the close cooperation between the Vatican and Washington during the crucial events in Poland in the early 1980s is well known. John Paul also made the decisive step of not only visiting Israel but also of recognizing it and establishing diplomatic relations. Ultimately, John Paul II influenced world events more than any of his predecessors, and that, more than anything else, will remain his most important legacy outside the Roman Catholic Church.
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