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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

John Paul II’s Enduring Legacy

He was the closest thing the church has had to an American pope.

Statue,Of,Saint,Pope,John,Paul,Ii,In,Catholic,Church
(Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock)

There were plenty of tears shed on April 8, 2005, the day Pope St. John Paul II was laid to rest. Though I was only seven, I vividly remember my mother crying as we watched the funeral. We weren’t Catholic, but my mother said the man who had occupied the chair of Saint Peter since she was a girl “was a good and holy man.”

Eighteen years later to the day, I joined the Catholic Church. Though I became a Catholic during the Francis pontificate, it is clear to me that the church in America today is still largely defined by John Paul II. He was the closest the church has had to an American pope. As author George Weigel tells me, “He always used to say, ‘God bless America.’”

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In 1979, powerful scenes of the pope’s trip to Poland moved American Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Ronald Reagan was among those who watched. According to advisor Richard Allen, the president had a tear in his eye as he watched coverage of the pope’s pilgrimage home, a tear “of pride, of admiration, perhaps of astonishment at what he was witnessing.” It created a “deep and steadfast conviction that this pope would help change the world.”

The two pillars of the pope’s image in the United States were moral clarity about communism and proclaiming a culture of life.  “It was spiritual, cultural,” says Paul Kengor, author of A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. “From there, inevitably, it entered the realm of the political, as virtually everything in society ultimately does.” 

“JPII was, for me, a teacher,” says Russel Hittinger, professor emeritus of religion at the University of Tulsa. “What struck me and my young colleagues in Catholic academia about JPII was that he began talking about and how to interpret Vatican II.”

Confusion percolated throughout the church in the wake of Vatican II. While the council’s aim was to better situate the church to address the challenges of the modern world, the council coincided with the bedlam that was the Sixties. Some in the church sought to claim the council and its products as evidence of the church’s approval for relativism.

Professor Chad Pecknold tells TAC that the hijackers were particularly focused on issues of sexual morality. “You can and should defend Vatican II, but, on the surface, it’s not wrong to look at Vatican II and say some of the things in it seem like they’re relativizing doctrine.” Pope Paul VI, who presided over Vatican II’s completion, was mostly silent on the council’s implementation after the release of Humanae vitae in 1968. 

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When John Paul II became pope, Pecknold explains, he sought to shut the door on those who saw “openings in the council documents for relativizing trends.” Defeating these trends became a central theme of John Paul II’s pontificate, the high-water mark of that effort coming in 1993 with the release of Veritatis splendor, a reasoned explanation for the existence of objective religious and philosophical truths.

Those in Hittinger’s generation, confirmed in a pre-conciliar church but living as young adults in a post-conciliar church, “began to understand the division” by the time John Paul II became pope, Hittinger says. At the time, Hittinger was teaching at Fordham University. “The faculty, particularly the faculty older than me, was really split on everything. I really took great comfort in Wojtyla. I needed to figure out what was true and false, and I began reading everything that he published.”

“Whether we’re talking about the confusion within the church following the Second Vatican Council or the challenges facing the wider world in the late 20th century, John Paul II was convinced that the solution to both was to be found in Jesus Christ, who fully reveals the true horizon of human dignity and freedom,” says Stephen White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “This theme, which he helped articulate at the Second Vatican Council, carries through all of his writings and teachings.”

As White points out, John Paul II did not back away from these teachings with the fall of the Berlin Wall. “It was vital to understanding the political contexts of his pontificate, but, at the same time, transcended them, which is why his legacy has endured,” he says.

One event in particular that solidified the notion that the fight for human freedom continued despite the victory over Communism was World Youth Day in 1993. That August, hundreds of thousands of young Catholics from around the world descended on Denver, in what some bishops in the U.S. and abroad thought would be a surefire flop. It was not. World Youth Day in Denver resulted in “the inspiration of huge numbers of people who felt proud and energized to be Catholics,” Weigel says. It helped “bishops understand that it’s possible to really be apostolic in this day and age.”

The pope’s vision was paired with structural reforms, particularly in the seminary. “Seminarians started praying again, started actually wearing clerics again,” Hittinger says. “There were efforts to make sure that they had proper clerical behavior, sexual and otherwise. They were being formed not to behave as though they are lay people with the ability to say Mass.”

“John Paul II inspired a generation of young priests by his example. In him, they saw an example of sacrifice, courage, and holiness which was worthy of imitation, despite the costs. He lived as if the stakes of a priestly vocation were high, and many responded,” says White. “There is hardly an American priest under the age of 50 who wouldn’t name John Paul II as a major influence in his vocation.”

But it wasn’t all roses.

“You had good protocols put in place by JPII and by Benedict XVI that cleaned up the seminaries,” Pecknold explains, but some attempted to resist. “We’re talking about a huge institution,” Pecknold continues. “Putting new protocols in place didn’t mean everything was immediately going to shake out.”

There are also criticisms, particularly in America, surrounding John Paul II’s appointments of bishops and cardinals, such as Bernard Cardinal Law, the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and Roger Cardinal Mahony.

Addressing the criticisms of John Paul II’s appointments more generally and not the aforementioned extreme cases, Pecknold says John Paul II seemed to “underestimate the continuing power of the very thing they were resisting—the relativizing force” and ended up “[making] many bishops who were part of the relativizing trend.”

“John Paul II made thousands of episcopal appointments. Some of those men proved saintly and wise, others brought scandal and shame to the church,” White says. “What he didn’t do was to try and appoint only men in his own image. It’s a tricky game to judge any pope by his ecclesial appointments.”

In the waning years of his pontificate, John Paul II was tasked with responding to the sexual abuse crisis, which was exposed by the Boston Globe in 2002.

“The best independent data show that abuse by Catholic clergy in the US peaked around 1970 and declined precipitously beginning around 1980. Today it is, thankfully, very rare,” White explains. “While abuse declined dramatically under John Paul II, the reckoning of abuse didn’t really come until his pontificate was almost over.”

“The reforms enacted in the U.S. in 2002, with Rome’s approval—e.g. zero tolerance for abusers of minors, and mandatory reporting of allegations to civil authorities—might seem today like the bare minimum. But those policies were, at the time, astonishingly strict, even by secular standards,” he says. “Two decades later, such policies are still the exception, rather than the norm, in most of the Catholic world. So the paradox of the church’s legacy on abuse under John Paul II is that the response when it came was too little, too late, and at the same time groundbreaking and way ahead of its time.”

The challenges that emerged at the end of John Paul II’s pontificate—declining mass attendance and vocations, for example—are a testament to the fact that John Paul II was the glue that held the church together, especially in America. As John Paul II’s pontificate moves further into the rearview mirror, the tensions he managed to ease through his charisma and his teachings continue to reemerge.

“The problems of mid to late 20th century Catholicism are still here,” Hittinger says. John Paul II was not “some fairy godmother that came in and cleaned everything out. There’s still problems of liberty and authority. There’s still problems of orthodoxy and misconduct. It’s not all cleaned away.”

Still, John Paul II “put into motion certain trajectories that will pay dividends for a century,” Pecknold says. A generation of American priests are truthfully devoted to upholding Catholic social teaching and shepherding the church as John Paul II did. They, too, can be a source of moral clarity in a time of moral confusion. Holding fast to John Paul II’s legacy does not offer a way out, but a way through.