Pope John Paul II—after one year

The extraordinary events surrounding his election focused the attention of the world on this unusual man. What trends have emerged during his first year in office?

Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of MINISTRY.

Since his election almost a year ago, John Paul II has made a strong public impact. Yet it is only recently that his impact as a leader of the Roman Catholic Church has been felt. His visit to Latin America, his first en cyclical, and his journey to Poland are the most remarkable in a series of initiatives that range from a flexible policy toward Eastern European regimes to at tempts to restore discipline and unity in the Catholic Church. What is the key to his policies? He seems to be applying his Polish experience to the Catholic Church as a whole.

The Polish experience

In Poland, Pope John Paul learned a flexible intransigence in dealing with a hostile regime. In a nation that is more than 90 percent Catholic, with one of the world's largest proportions of practicing Catholics—70 to 80 percent—he had somehow managed to achieve a balance that enabled him to live and speak with out undue compromise, without apparent criticism of earlier religious authority, and yet apparently without antagonizing unnecessarily those who did not share his views. After thirty years of church-state confrontation Marxism seems to have made little headway in Poland. Here each diocese retains its seminary, so full of aspirants to the priesthood that some have to be turned away; here the only Catholic university behind the iron curtain, KUL at Lubin (in which the young professor Wojtyla taught), flourishes by private donations and ecclesiastical subsidy.

Another lesson the then-cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, learned was that there are areas in which the Catholic Church could collaborate with the Communist authorities in building the nation, working for the consolidation of the family and the promotion of the principles of decency and morality. However, this cooperation and flexibility depended on the Catholic Church's discipline and unity.

Pope John Paul has adopted a variety of attitudes toward Eastern Europe regimes according to the circumstances. He has not made the mistake of identifying the state of the Catholic Church in Poland with that of the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe as a whole. In early April he named four bishops in Hungary (which is 80 percent Catholic), a sign that the Vatican Ostpolitik of "normalization" between the Vatican and the countries of the European Communist block continues and is being intensified. But if there is a form of collaboration with the Hungarian and the Yugoslavian regimes, for instance, John Paul' did not hesitate to challenge the Russian Government and the Russian Orthodox Church in a letter he sent to Ukrainian Cardinal Josef Slipyj, asking whether the Ukrainian Church, sup pressed since 1943, would eventually be allowed to function again according to its own rites. The Pope has definitely a card up his sleeve: he could embarrass Russian authorities by making Cardinal Slipyj, who is a resident in the Vatican, Patriarch of the Ukrainian Church, as emigrant Ukrainian groups in the West have often requested.

The new Pope speaks out, but he can also be flexible in his dealings with Communist officials. Reportedly he ad vised the Polish bishops to avoid a clash with Communist authorities by accepting their proposal for the date of the papal trip to Poland. The Pope had wanted to return to his home country in May, at the time of the feast of St. Stanislas, which also happened to be the 900th anniversary of the martyr's death. The Polish authorities, floundering, suggested a later, less-provocative date. Over the advice of the Polish bishops, who seem to have urged him to take a harder stance and refuse to make a visit to Poland at all under the conditions imposed by the Government, the Pope accepted, and in a courteous letter thanked the Polish president, Henryk Jablonski, for his "positive attitude" to the visit. It mattered little when the Pope would go. AH the Government had gained was a few weeks' respite and a reputation for being mean-spirited and narrow-minded. Once in Poland, John Paul's speeches called for greater freedom for the Catholic Church, greater opportunity to educate Polish youth, and greater Catholic participation in determining Poland's future. But these remained far less than a summons to end Communist rule or to break with Moscow.

Insisting on church discipline

The Pope has adopted varying attitudes toward political powers, but in internal church affairs he has insisted on discipline. He has already warned priests and religious that he expects them to be identifiable, to preach the Word of God rather than foment or support revolutionary movements. He has urged all Catholic priests—of whom there are 500,000—to keep their commitment to celibacy, and exhorted them in a letter in a disciplinary vein not to ask to be re moved from their vows "at moments of crisis." Earlier in his pontificate he urged nuns to wear distinctive habits rather than secular dress.

He has stated his support for Vatican Council II decisions, and seems deter mined to make no changes in the present Catholic teaching on Humanae Vitae, confession, absolution, abortion, and the indissolubility of marriage. In a recent document entitled Christian Wisdom he issued new norms for Catholic education, which emphasize that theological research and teaching freedom must be deferred to the Catholic Church's teaching authority. The 87-page document, which applies directly to 125 centers of ecclesiastical studies in 34 countries, does not forbid theologians from presenting new ideas that may vary from the Catholic Church's traditional teaching, but it does state that "hypothetical and personal opinions which come from new research are to be modestly presented as such." This stance was evident in the condemnation last April of French author Father Jacques Pohier by the Vatican Doctrinal Congregation. His When I See God is considered as denying both the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the teaching authority of the Scriptures, while including dangerous and ambiguous statements about papal infallibility.

John Paul II, in his one year of pontificate, has not only tightened church discipline but also attempted to heal his church's divisions. In the Netherlands, for instance, several theological and pastoral issues deeply divide the Dutch hierarchy, where five moderate and liberal bishops are opposed by two conservatives. As a consequence of the renewal brought forth by the second Vatican council, the Dutch bishops differ more particularly on how the Catholic Church should exercise authority. The Pope has conferred with each of them and has declared his intention to arbitrate the dispute later this year. He has also raised hopes that the arch-conservative movement inspired by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre can be reconciled with the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church. Both situations will be watched closely for clues to the emerging style of papal leadership.

A popular pope

The general impression is that the new Pope is open to ideas but firmly traditional in his theology. There is broad agreement that he will probably remain personally in charge of most Vatican affairs. He is a poet and a philosopher, but he has made it clear that he is a working pope, too, a man who literally rolls up his shirt sleeves at his desk. Pope John Paul works sixteen hours a day. Less acquainted with curial procedures, he spends more time at his desk over files than did Pope Paul VI, who was more familiar with the functioning of the Curia, the Catholic Church's central ad ministration. His public audiences are lengthier than those of his predecessors because he spends a long time talking personally with the participants. Crowds at his audiences are greater than ever before; and most unpontifically he moves among them, raising children high in the air, talking with the young, as well as with the elderly, and hearing a rash of ordinary troubles.

His own man

John Paul is a populist pope, one who combines vigor with insouciance, intelligence with playfulness. He is very much his own man, and seems conscious that he has a great opportunity. He is assured and exudes confidence, which makes many Roman Catholics think that religion in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, is important again. Now that the more extreme post-conciliar movements have run out of steam, there is a demand, as he has said, for people who will build up rather than pull down. This is a propitious moment for confident leadership, and the Catholic faithful are responding to it.

It may be that in a large measure the new Pope is popular because of the firm stand he has shown in his addresses and in his first encyclical. A few years ago more liberal Catholics encouraged the myth of a jovial and permissive Pope John XXII to explain his popularity. Such a myth would be difficult to create about the present Pope. Indeed, the popularity of a firm and flexible Pope seems to be saying that the Catholic world as a whole is less concerned about clerical celibacy, ordination of women, or the wording of a birth-control encyclical than it is about a leader capable of fastening the ties of Catholic discipline and doctrine while at the same time showing sensitivity to the demands of a new time.

John Paul II, the Polish Pope, has brought to the papacy a unique experience. At the end of his first year as Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church he emerges as a dramatic and compelling personality. A new papacy is emerging before our eyes, one that will probably have many characteristics of the old, but one that will also present us with several surprises.


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Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor of theology at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and an associate editor of MINISTRY.

September 1979

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