John Paul II
THROUGH HIS charismatic presence and frequent travels, Pope John Paul II took the message of a Catholicism reinvigorated by the Second Vatican Council to all parts of the world. He attracted criticism, however, on issues involving women, sexuality, and centralized control that arose in the church after the council ended in 1965.
John Paul, who died last night at age 84, was Bishop Karol Wojtyla when Vatican II opened in 1962. He helped fashion policies in favor of religious pluralism and against the excesses of communism and capitalism. Having lived under Nazi and communist rule in Poland, he knew persecution and totalitarianism firsthand.
He was appointed Archbishop of Krakow during the council and was elected pope in 1978. Within nine months he returned home to remind his countrymen that Catholicism offered greater consolation than the ideology under which they were living. Historians will long argue whether he was essential to the fall of the Soviet bloc, but he unquestionably emboldened Poles to doubt the permanence of their oppression. The Solidarity movement was born 14 months after his visit.
In keeping with the modernizing spirit of Vatican II, he made extensive use of another midcentury innovation: the jetliner. Traveling to 129 countries in 26 years, he became the personification of Catholicism and a continual reminder of an authoritative point of view between fading communism and the triumphant free market. His support gave impetus for the 2000 campaign to provide debt relief for poor countries.
Also in keeping with Vatican II, he reached out to people of other faiths, especially Judaism. He struggled to maintain a Christian presence in the Mideast and to cultivate a dialogue with Islam. He made the Catholic Church a force for ecumenism.
While hewing to the decisions of Vatican II, John Paul was uncomfortable with the decentralization fostered by the council. He discouraged decision-making by national conferences of bishops, notably by insisting on changes in a US bishops' paper on the status of women. Rather than accept these, the US bishops rejected the document in 1992.
Although John Paul named women to advisory committees, they never gained significant power. His attitude toward them remained rooted in the past. His approach to sexuality changed little from his days as a bishop, when he rejected birth control within marriage except for periodic abstinence.
Unlike his predecessors, most of whom stayed close to the Vatican, Pope John Paul II bestrode the world, with a message of Christian optimism tempered by traditional rigor. His successor will face a formidable challenge to blend John Paul's masterful presence with more flexible policies.