John Paul II: the first nine years

Is the pope reaffirming the monarchal concept of his authority?

Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology and former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

On October 16, 1987, John Paul II began his tenth year as pope. Since his election to the papacy some nine years ago, he has maintained a breathtaking schedule. Even though he has set for himself a pace he might find difficult to maintain, so far there is not the slightest sign that it will slacken, even for a man in his late 60s.

He is, at the same time, one of the most magnetic personalities on the international stage—a charismatic man with a rare gift for word and drama, reaching people of all creeds.

John Paul II's unusual energy and aura complement his forceful and assured style of leadership. Indeed, he shows few of the doubts that some associate with his predecessor, Pope Paul VI. John Paul II unambiguously states that he knows what the Roman Catholic Church is and what she has to offer the world. The certainties that he proclaims are not limited to the certainties of faith. They are also certainties about human values and the human person, derived from a particular understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ and of the mission of the Roman Catholic Church. He has immense personal appeal and a rare impact on Christian thinking, often beyond the limits of the Roman Catholic confession.

Yet he knows that his impact would be seriously diminished if he headed a divided and pluralistic Roman Catholic Church. Hence, from the very beginning of his pontificate, John Paul has brought about an unmistakable tightening of discipline, along with a strengthening of the Roman Catholic identity.

What is Catholic identity?

There is indeed fuzziness in some circles about what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. Restoring Catholic identity, therefore, means in part identifying Catholic doctrine and what it means to be a truly committed Roman Catholic. But the real problem has not been not knowing what Roman Catholic doctrine is, but getting modern Catholics to accept it.

Catholic identity can also be defined in terms of the way the tension that exists among Roman Catholics in general and that which exists between Rome and the Catholic family in some parts of the world is addressed.

John Paul II deals with these tensions by calling priests, theologians, and laypeople to obey the bishops. In his typical populist fashion, he stresses the dangers that could arise from disagreements, calling on the "silent Catholic majority" for support.

In return loyal Catholic- laypeople, priests, and theologians have continually spoken to the pope about their love for the church, their desire to serve, their loyalty to Rome, their struggles, and their frustrations. They cite the problems American Catholics have with certain teachings, such as contraception, divorce, and priestly celibacy, which have led to massive dissent. The pope listened but did not change his mind.

In encounters with those who disagree with him John Paul II does not appear to seek the truth contained in an opposite view. He seems to be stimulated by opposition and to regard it as a validation of his own calling. The pope strikes one as an either/or thinker. When his interlocutors suggest "pluralism," he answers "truth." In his view, pluralism is another word for indifferentism, and in contra diction with the Catholic identity he champions.

From this perspective, one can under stand why dissent from the magisterium is "a grave error." In a closed meeting on September 16, 1987, with the U.S. bishops, John Paul told them: "It is some times claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a 'good Catholic' and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the United States and else where." During the course of this four-hour-long "dialogue," which took place at a Los Angeles seminary, the pope directed the bishops to stamp out dissent. "Dissent from Church doctrine remains what it is, dissent; as such it may not be proposed or received on equal footing with the Church's authentic teaching."

Statements of this type and there are many more make clear the pope's unequivocal understanding of the task laid on the papacy and his personal approach to that task: resolute, total, and bold. He is obviously giving a new lease of life to the monarchical conception of the pa pacy set forth by the First Vatican Council. But, some ask, hasn't he heard of collegiality, the doctrine advanced by Vatican Council II, which says that the Roman Catholic Church is governed by pope and bishops acting together as a team?

Tensions in Catholicism

The First and Second Vatican Councils have left an unresolved tension at the heart of Roman Catholicism. The first emphasized more sharply than ever be fore the significance of papal primacy and infallibility in the life of the Roman Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council developed the theology of episcopacy and collegiality. In theory the two directions are not necessarily contradictory. But it is not yet clear how they do harmonize.

Roman Catholic bishops around the world would like to see a deliberate and gradual evolution of the theology of the papacy toward a conciliar mode rather than a monarchical mode. Unfortunately, however, much of John Paul's under standing of the papacy in recent years appears to contradict such a development. While he is ebulliently engaged in reaffirming the monarchical conception of the Roman pontiffs authority, it is far from clear that the bishops feel confident that their authority has been upheld. On the contrary, the actions he has taken in some countries like Austria and The Netherlands point the other way.

John Paul II strikes me as committed to the reforms Vatican II instituted, including masses said in vernacular languages and the need for ecumenical advance. But he does not seem inclined to move one inch beyond them. It is well known that he wants nuns in distinctive garb and priests in collars. This puts him in direct conflict with large numbers of priests and nuns, mostly in Western Eu rope and the United States, who object to priestly celibacy, want the Roman Catholic Church to open up to women priests, and insist on the broadest possible freedom of opinion for theologians. And there are millions of rank and file Catholics who continue to express their anguish over the hard line the pope has taken on divorce and birth control. John Paul II seems to fear that in opening her arms to the world in Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church went too far and let the world in. His is a papacy of restoration.

A paradoxical pope

Those who might be inclined to describe him as a paradoxical pope, if not an inconsistent leader, find it inexplicable that while in Poland he was a tenacious adversary of an overbearing state, in Rome he is an indefatigable enforcer of orthodoxy. John Paul's advocates reply that the bishop of Rome is merely fulfilling his task. He stirs up so much uneasiness, they explain, because he makes vivid a timeless and unpleasant truth that any community, be it religious or secular, must have a core of settled convictions, and if that community is deter mined to endure and fulfill its mission, it must charge some authority with the task of nurturing, defending, and proclaiming these convictions.

The decades immediately following World War II were characterized by relentless materialism, consumerism, and the pursuit of gratifications long deferred. Today there is a quickening sense that humankind is made for something finer, something more meaningful, and needs stability in fundamental beliefs. Moral confidence and steadfastness will be increasingly needed and decreasingly found. As millions lift up their voices and cry out for leadership, John Paul II be comes more fascinating. He is showing the Roman Catholic Church to the world as no pope has ever done before. He has put before the world, without concessions, an absolute moral and spiritual demand based on an absolute faith, and people are answering. Millions give ear; young people listen. There is today no other moral teacher like him. They may not follow what he presents, but they realize he offers it to them because he believes in the individual worth of every one of them. Unlike today's preachers of permissiveness, for whom few standards matter, this pope is calling Roman Catholics to repentance and to a heroic Christian life.

No wonder that from this vantage point, with his attention focused on what he describes as a cosmic battle be tween good and evil, he finds it necessary to dismiss as of bordering importance some of the reforms expressed by his faithful. In the most uncompromising terms he continues to preach a message that stresses the need for something that the secular world, Communist or capitalist, cannot give. To the surprise of some, we hear the pope speak in terms of the true followers of Jesus Christ having to pay the price of rejection and ridicule. He explains that, though costly discipleship tends to be unpopular, a faithful church is a suffering church. The phrase "fully Catholic" keeps cropping up as a new catchword increasingly associated with the concept of a church whose purpose is not to set a record in gaining members but to teach the teachings of Christ.

Where did he master such skills? Probably in Poland, where the concept was tested in the crucible of suffering and the struggle against an atheistic ideology. From there it traveled with him on his many journeys. Wherever he goes, he brings the same message. He speaks and acts as a parish priest whose parish is the world and as an evangelist like Billy Graham. Yet, unlike Billy Graham, the mes sage that he preaches is rooted not just in the Bible but also in the Roman Catholic tradition. In this pope we see Roman Catholic teaching in action and infallibility at work.

John Paul IPs appeal to Bible-centered Christians outside of Roman Catholicism cannot be denied. Despite his Mariology, his adamant convictions on priestly celibacy, and the role of women, his clear commitment to the family and to biblical sexual ethics have ingratiated him with numbers of evangelical Protestants, including Seventh-day Adventists.

Traditional Catholic

Yet, when all is said and done, John Paul II remains a traditional Roman Catholic. He continues to stand for all those things that have, through the centuries, divided a biblically rooted Christianity from a Roman Catholicism based on the Scriptures and human traditions.

When he affirms that Mary is the source of our faith and our hope, Bible-centered Christians respond that their faith and hope are in Jesus Christ alone. When he proclaims that we are saved by faith plus works of love, they reply that we are not justified by our good works. When the pope teaches that the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church is where we are to look for answers to questions on life and doctrine, evangelicals answer: "Search the Scriptures, for they are profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." When he exhorts people to rest and worship God on Sunday in honor of our Lord's resurrection, Seventh-day Adventists respond: "Re member the seventh-day Sabbath to keep it holy and thus honor thy Lord." When he tells us that the pope infallibly interprets both Scripture and the apostolic tradition, and that they teach that the virgin Mary was bodily translated to heaven, we marvel and reply that we are unable to find any evidence of such teaching either in the Scriptures or in the genuine tradition of the apostles.

In matters that affect people's destiny and their relationship to God, Rome is still Rome. What the future under John Paul II holds is hard to tell, but it seems highly unlikely that the remaining years of his pontificate will differ notably from the first nine. The pope will probably continue to hold the limelight as he continues to challenge societies on both sides of the iron curtain as well as his church, which he is consciously striving to prepare for the third millennium.

Meanwhile we wait to see if he will be able to bring greater homogeneity among today's 900 million Roman Catholics and if he will find it possible to stem the changes that are fashioning segments of the Roman Catholic Church into a hybrid of Rome and the Protestant Reformation.

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Raoul Dederen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of systematic theology and former dean of the SDA Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

March 1988

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