John Paul II's Legacy


Not since Leo XII died in 1903 has the Roman Catholic Church witnessed a longer pontificate. Seldom has history witnessed a period of such profound change as in the 20 years since Karol Cardinal Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. The communist governments of eastern Europe are no longer, the cold war has ended and a world order has been established in which one super-power predominates. Mikhail Gorbachev, himself credited by many for the ending of the old order, wrote upon the termination of his office as President of the USSR that the end of communism in the eastern bloc would have been impossible without the efforts of this Pope. These efforts began in his native Poland and ended on the streets of Moscow in August 1991. It is for these feats, along with his strong opposition to the new materialism which replaced the old order, that secular historians are likely to remember his papacy.

Religious historians will have a more complicated legacy to evaluate. In judging those 20 years they will record that in a long and controversial pontificate, John Paul II was a witness to major divisions inside his own church. The first schism in over 100 years took place when the ultra-conservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre ordained four bishops without Vatican permission on June 30th, 1988. Many liberal members of the Catholic laity, at odds with the Pope's views on sexuality, his authoritarian approach to church government and his apparent inability or unwillingness to understand the concerns of women, distanced themselves from Rome in a less formal manner. The gradual weakening of the independent power of national bishops' conferences and the appointment, in the main, of bishops whose main attribute was their doctrinal orthodoxy have been causes of friction in clerical circles in many countries, most particularly in the United States.

On a global basis John Paul II has presided over a devastating collapse in numbers of those going forward for the priesthood, especially in countries such as Ireland where the tradition of missionary service had been strong. At the same time he has been uncompromising in his opposition to the ordination of women priests. He has won international respect, however, for his personal commitment to piety and devoutness. A punishing schedule of international travel, to 117 countries, has brought the papacy closer to ordinary people. Of the world's major states only Russia, and this due to friction between the churches of Rome and Moscow rather than for political reasons, remains unvisited.

His long-standing commitment to human rights, his work towards reconciliation with other religions, particularly Judaism, and his remarkable flow of encyclicals have made an extraordinary impact. In this latter context his most recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio, has been perhaps his most ambitious. In it he attempts to reconcile faith and reason while strongly attacking western philosophy as being so modest in its aspirations that it has created a culture of despair.