When in Rome: John Paul II’s legacy at the Vatican
In his 26 years as pope, John Paul II gave new shape to the papacy.
Habemus papam. We have a pope. The election of Pope Benedict XVI marks the conclusion of one of the most significant transitional moments in Roman Catholicism, rivaled only, perhaps, by the convocation of an ecumenical council.
Speculation about the identity of the new pope has given way to questions regarding his agenda for the church. The identity of the new pope suggests a papacy that will continue the overall thrust of his predecessor. Still, there are many possible new directions in which Benedict could lead our church.
But another important question is worth considering: Will this pope follow his predecessor in reshaping the institution of the papacy itself?
In 26 years Pope John Paul II transformed the institution of the papacy in many ways. It is worth considering which aspects of that re-made papacy are likely to continue with the new pope and which will not.
Of popes and politics
Surely part of the enduring legacy of Pope John Paul II will be the dramatic role he played on the world stage. Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that Pope John Paul II contributed significantly to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Vatican commentator John Thavis has described the pope as the “spiritual godfather of communism’s demise.”
The first Polish pope in history was never reluctant to thrust himself in the midst of world events, whether it was lecturing dictators or taking unpopular stands against both Iraq wars. Will this papal activism be an enduring feature in the exercise of the papacy?
It was a role particularly suited to a Polish pope who had experienced the horrors of World War II and suffered directly under a communist regime, a fact that might suggest John Paul’s global activism was unique to him and may not be continued by future popes. Pope Benedict XVI, for example, is a much more reserved and even shy public figure, not likely to be comfortable as a regular “player” on the world stage.
Still, the time when popes were considered exclusively religious leaders providing only for the spiritual needs of their flock is gone. The papacy has become a powerful voice in the world with unique moral credibility. Future popes are going to be unlikely to yield that influence entirely.
It is possible, for example, that Pope Benedict will feel compelled in the months and years ahead to take a public role in responding to the threat of modern terrorism, particularly because of its complex link to religion. Terrorism has been for decades a tragic reality for many in the world, but the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001 gave global terrorism a much higher profile. Unfortunately this new profile took place during the waning years of John Paul II’s pontificate, when his declining health made it difficult for him to offer the robust response that was typical of his earlier leadership. His successor may well feel the need to speak out strongly on this issue.
The power of symbols
When Catholics think of papal authority, they are likely to think of the formal authority that Catholic doctrine and canon law grant to the bishop of Rome. They might have in mind the exercise of papal infallibility, the pope’s authority to canonize saints, and other canonical prerogatives, such as the authority to appoint bishops. In the last pontificate, however, we witnessed an exercise of a different kind of papal authority.
Perhaps more than any other in history, the pontificate of John Paul II will be etched in memory as a string of compelling media images. One of the most enduring will be the image of the pope kissing the ground upon his first visit to a country. Many will recall photos of the pope praying with his would-be assassin, or another of the pope praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
John Paul II also made unprecedented use of modern transportation, traveling throughout the world, publicly affirming the unique gifts of the church in each country, challenging it to further fidelity to the gospel where necessary and, where Christians suffered from injustice, bringing that injustice to world attention. He often visited with local leaders and representatives of other churches and religious traditions as well.
The many instances in which John Paul asked forgiveness for past wrongs done in the name of the church were also filled with symbolic import and were unique to his papacy. Luigi Accattoli, in his book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness (Alba House), listed more than 90 instances when the pope asked forgiveness for sins committed by Christians past and present.
None of these papal actions were exercises of formal papal authority except in the sense that the pope was acting as head of the church. They were, instead, effective exercises of a moral authority made in symbolic gesture. The effectiveness of such gestures has been magnified dramatically in this age of modern media, giving them more potential for communicating basic gospel imperatives than any carefully worded encyclical, whose readership may number in the mere thousands.
Do these symbolic papal actions offer possibilities for the future of the papacy? Yes and no. To be sure, this kind of ministry would have been impossible a mere century ago, but its success depends not only on modern transportation and global communication technologies but also on the character of the pope. John Paul II was, after all, an actor earlier in his life, and his intuitive sense of the dramatic gesture is not something that can be formalized. There is not much evidence, for example, that Pope Benedict shares this dramatic intuition.
Although future popes will certainly recognize the value of getting out of the Vatican to visit their people, it is not at all clear that they will feel compelled to keep up the dizzying travel itinerary of the last pope. Pope Benedict almost certainly will not, nor is it clear that future popes would have the ability to make effective use of such symbolic actions.
Exercising papal primacy
The pope is the universal pastor of the church and, as such, possesses ordinary, immediate, and universal jurisdiction over the whole church; in other words the pope can directly intervene in a diocese if he thinks it necessary. But how is this authority to be exercised?
What is often called papal primacy has changed significantly over the centuries. In the first four centuries of Christianity the authority of the bishop of Rome functioned more as a court of final appeal. By the Middle Ages a number of factors contributed to the strengthening of papal authority, with the pope being modeled in many ways after the emperor. By the 19th century the papacy resembled an absolute monarchy.
But even when Vatican I solemnly defined papal primacy, it emphasized that such papal authority was to be exercised “in service of the unity of faith and communion.”
The modern papacy can exercise papal primacy or governance in two basic ways. The first might be called “confirmatory” papal authority, insofar as the pope “confirms” his brothers—the bishops—in their ministry as pastors of local churches. The pope can support the ministry of the bishops through the convocation of episcopal synods, papal visitations, and ad limina visits, in which each bishop visits Rome every five years to report on the affairs of his diocese.
The various congregations, councils, and tribunals in the Roman curia can also support the bishops by providing church resources that assist local bishops in dealing with pressing pastoral questions. Usually this confirmatory authority does not involve any direct intervention by the pope or his curia in the affairs of local churches.
But papal primacy can also take the form of a more direct intervention in the affairs of local churches. This exercise of papal authority occurs when the bishop of Rome, either directly or through curial offices, intervenes in church affairs at the diocesan level or at the national or regional level (through bishops’ conferences), because the local structures of leadership have been deemed incapable of addressing a pressing pastoral or doctrinal matter or out of a concern for the unity of faith and communion.
What is the proper balance between these two forms of papal governance? One view would suggest that popes should normally exercise a confirmatory ministry in which they focus on supporting the bishops in their ministry. In this view more direct intervention ought to be the exception rather than the rule.
This often appeals to the principle in Catholic social teaching called subsidiarity, which holds that the authority with direct responsibility for a local community must have primary responsibility for decisions made regarding that community. Only when pressing issues appear insoluble at the local level or threaten the faith and unity of the universal church should one expect the intervention of higher authority.
Many commentators on the Second Vatican Council believe the council was trying to apply this principle by affirming the authority of local bishops and granting deliberative authority to regional episcopal conferences concerning certain liturgical matters, for example.
During the last pontificate, however, many leaders in the Vatican and the pope himself took a dim view of this principle. They did not believe that subsidiarity had a theological foundation and consequently there was a certain re-centralization of authority in the Vatican and away from the bishops’ conferences and local churches. Many in the Vatican felt that a strong and more centralized exercise of papal authority over the local churches was necessary to keep the church united in an increasingly fragmented world.
One of the most important questions regarding the future of the papacy concerns which view of the exercise of papal authority is most appropriate for the church today. Will Pope Benedict and future popes follow the example of John Paul II and stress internal church unity, consolidating authority in the Roman curia? Or will they see the principle of subsidiarity as more necessary than ever? At first glance, it would seem likely that Pope Benedict would opt for a strongly centralized church authority stressing church unity. After all, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which for more than two decades was led by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was not reluctant to intervene in local church affairs.
We would be wise, however, not to read too much from this. Even as prefect of the CDF, Ratzinger admitted, in principle, the possibility of a certain de-centralization of church authority. He has also called for a reduction of church bureaucracy that could conceivably allow for more church initiative at the local level.
Moreover, we must remember that it was Ratzinger who first articulated the principle, later employed by Pope John Paul II, that “in regard to papal primacy, Rome must demand from the Orthodox churches nothing more than what was established and practiced during the first millennium.” This was a clear overture to the Orthodox. It is a principle that held out the possibility of a much more modest exercise of papal primacy and an openness to the principle of synodality (a principle that assumes that vital church decisions are to be made within designated bodies or gatherings of bishops) so dear to the Orthodox tradition.
Pope John Paul II added ecumenical leadership to the already demanding papal job description. His many travels brought him into frequent contact with leaders of other Christian churches, and he often welcomed them at the Vatican. His repeated overtures to Eastern Orthodoxy in particular bore only limited fruit, but they reflected his conviction that the papacy must be proactive in the cause of ecumenism.
At the same time, John Paul was well aware that in the minds of many Christians, the papacy was an obstacle to rather than an instrument for Christian unity. In an address he once gave to then-Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Dimitrios, he frankly admitted that the papacy, which was supposed to be a ministry in service of Christian unity, “sometimes manifested itself in a very different light.”
And in his remarkable 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint John Paul offered an unprecedented invitation to other Christian leaders to enter into dialogue with him regarding how the papacy, within the limits of received doctrine, might be refashioned to become a ministry of unity for all Christian churches.
Pope John Paul II took his role as an agent for constructive interreligious dialogue equally seriously. He was the first pope to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the first to visit the chief rabbi at the synagogue in Rome, and the first to visit a Muslim mosque. He conducted interreligious prayers for peace in Assisi in 1986, 1993, and 2002. At the same time his profound respect for other religious traditions did not dampen his zeal for the church’s evangelizing mission in the world.
Will this new feature of the Petrine ministry continue? It is impossible to know for sure, but it seems unlikely that future popes would turn their backs on this new development.
Although many commentators have given Pope John Paul II high marks for his many overtures to Christian leaders and those of other world religions, many also note that, particularly in Christian ecumenism, Vatican leadership showed little willingness to compromise regarding the substance of ecumenical dialogue, the Joint Statement on Justification signed with the Lutheran World Federation being the notable exception. The hard-won accomplishments of various ecumenical dialogues often were met with Vatican criticism for not having articulated doctrinal and theological consensus in accord with traditional Catholic formulations.
It remains to be seen whether the future ecumenical ministry of the papacy will focus on bold public gestures or whether it will also include movements toward new, genuinely ecumenical reformulations of Catholic belief.
Under the pontificate of Pope Benedict, there is good reason to think the church’s commitment to ecumenism will not abate. Still, although he is an accomplished theologian, Pope Benedict is also a cautious one, consequently he may not be inclined to allow bold reformulations of the received Catholic faith of the kind that might be necessary to rekindle ecumenical dialogue.
Moreover, as prefect for the CDF, Pope Benedict was uneasy with the Assisi meetings and often voiced the concern that interreligious dialogue could too easily slip into a relativism that rendered the Christian faith little more than one choice among many equally valid paths to God and salvation. In the pontificate of Pope Benedict, future interreligious initiatives are likely to be engaged with a wary eye toward the danger of acceding to what he recently called “the dictatorship of relativism.”
Safeguarding the faith
One of the important ministries of the bishop of Rome is to preach the gospel and preserve the integrity of the Catholic faith. But the last century and a half in particular has seen the transformation of this role. Early popes only rarely weighed in on theological and doctrinal matters, but by the time of the pontificate of John Paul II the pope had become, in effect, the chief theologian of the church.
For example, when Catholics today consider the role of the pope as teacher, they think of popes writing papal encyclicals. Yet the papal encyclical itself is a modern development, first employed in the 18th century by Pope Benedict XIV. It was not until the late 19th century, in the pontificate of Leo XIII, that this modern development in the exercise of the pope’s teaching office took fuller shape. Pope Leo began to write longer encyclicals than those of his predecessors, offering extended theological treatments on important topics.
This development reached its height with John Paul II. If one compares the written output of John Paul II to that of his predecessors in terms of total pages of text (rather than total number of encyclicals), no pope has written more in the genre of the encyclical than he did.
This raises yet another question about the future of the papacy. John Paul II possessed an extraordinary intellect and a zealous conviction about the need to preserve the integrity of the faith in the face of dangerous contemporary intellectual currents. Will future popes feel compelled to continue the tradition of offering extended theological treatises in their magisterial documents? Is this the best way to exercise the pope’s teaching authority?
Some would say yes, arguing that contemporary tendencies toward relativism and challenges to the very notion of objective truth demand a papacy capable of offering authoritative responses to these intellectual currents.
If Pope John Paul II was a creative if somewhat idiosyncratic philosopher, Pope Benedict XVI is a trained and accomplished theologian. He has an extensive publishing record as a scholar and curial official. Consequently there is very little reason to believe that he will not continue in the tradition of Pope John Paul II as an active teacher of the church. We can probably expect our new pope to continue the modern trend toward producing lengthy intellectual treatises on vital church topics.
But will this emphasis on producing a large body of papal documents become a permanent feature of the papacy of the 21st century? Many observers believe that the emergence of a healthy pluralism in contemporary theology—a pluralism encouraged by Vatican II—is curtailed when popes offer extended philosophical or theological treatises that give the impression that their intellectual perspective (as distinct from their doctrinal teaching) is the only one permitted.
It is conceivable that future conclaves may decide that the church needs not a prolific pope but a pastoral one. Such a pope might be willing to limit his teaching authority to that traditionally attributed to the successor of Peter, namely, the modest but forceful preservation of the apostolic faith. A pastoral pope such as this would not leave behind the intellectual legacy of a John Paul II but might decide to leave the work of theological exploration to the theological community.
To a certain extent, every pope refashions the papacy—within the limits of received doctrine—in his own image. Few, however, have left such a substantial mark as Pope John Paul II. His was arguably the most influential pontificate of the 20th century. But the papacy is a dynamic and changing institution in the church. We will have to wait and see how Pope Benedict XVI and his successors will choose to fashion a new papacy for the 21st century.
This article appeared in the June 2005 issue of U.S. Catholic magazine (Vol. 70, No. 6, pages 10-15).
Image: Grant Whitty on Unsplash