John Paul II Championed Traditional Values

FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, a densely written treatise on love and marriage by a young Polish bishop was enough to raise eyebrows in the hierarchy of the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 11, 2005

FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, a densely written treatise on love and marriage by a young Polish bishop was enough to raise eyebrows in the hierarchy of the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 11, 2005

John Paul II Championed Traditional Values

FORTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, a densely written treatise on love and marriage by a young Polish bishop was enough to raise eyebrows in the hierarchy of the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH. The then little-known Karol Wojtyla's argument that sex was a divine gift meant for mutual pleasure, not just procreation, was a leap in theology for an institution that had long tended to divide earthly life between duties and "shall-nots." Preaching the rewards that come with the responsibilities seemed daring, even dangerous to some. But the Church elders needn't have worried about this cleric. Whatever revolutionary ambitions the man who would become Pope John Paul II harboured, remaking the Holy See to suit modern tastes and morals was not among them.

It is perhaps understandable that a man whose life was shaped by his opposition to the Nazi and Communist takeovers of his beloved Poland was not afraid to swim against prevailing social tides. Throughout his 26-year papacy, John Paul never wavered on questions of public, or private, morality, even as governments, and many Catholics, rejected traditional teachings in favour of personal choice. He spoke out against abortion, contraception, the ordination of women, euthanasia, homosexuality and divorce with the same passionate absolutism he expressed for human rights, democracy and peace.

It was a deeply conservative vision that made him a hero to some, a villain to others. "He stopped the drift in the Church toward the notion that we have to listen to the modern world," Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic, archbishop of Toronto, says approvingly. "If the Church were simply to proclaim current orthodoxy, why should the Church exist?" Joanna Manning, a former nun and author of Is the Pope Catholic?, a critical look at John Paul's legacy, says his hardline stances polarized and divided both the clergy and laity. "It's difficult to see the graciousness of Jesus Christ in the severity and judgmentalism of this Pope."

When the College of Cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel in October 1978, following the untimely death of the first John Paul (the Venetian cardinal's papacy lasted just 33 days), many of its members had strong ideas about the type of man the Church needed at its helm. Old-world conservatives wanted someone who would return Catholics to tried moral teachings handed down for centuries. Cardinals from the developing world wanted a fighter who would challenge and lead their growing flock of converts. Everyone desired a vibrant and energetic personality who could "sell" the Church in the television age. First they looked to the Italian candidates. Unable to reach a consensus after two days of deliberation and seven ballots, they struck a surprising compromise - the archbishop of Cracow.

Karol Wojtyla had first shown up on the radar during the Vatican II deliberations of the early 1960s, making impassioned interventions on issues of religious freedom, and the need to combat the "despair" of humanism with a muscular Christian faith. In 1968, he helped shape and defend Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's controversial encyclical condemning abortion and banning the use of contraceptives. "Broad sectors of public opinion justify certain crimes against life in the name of the rights of individual freedom, and on this basis they claim not only exemption from punishment but even authorization by the State," John Paul wrote in "The Gospel of Life," his 1995 meditation on the modern world and what he termed its "culture of death." "It is possible," he wrote, "to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak."

From his earliest days as pope, John Paul II set the tone: traditional values were not open to debate. Under him, the Vatican began to crack down on liberal clerics and theologians. Some, like Hans Küng, a German critic of Church policies, were banned from "official" teaching at Catholic universities. Others, like Rev. Tissa Balasuriya, a Sri Lankan accused of challenging beliefs in original sin and the Immaculate Conception, were excommunicated.

On his high-profile foreign trips, the Pope reinforced the message: speaking out against the use of condoms and other forms of birth control in AIDS-ravaged Africa, warning the U.S. about the dangers of materialism and militarism, chiding his own countrymen for drifting away from the Church after the fall of Communism. He battled the UN over its conferences on women's rights and population control, stressing that salvation lay in the Bible's teachings, not science.

He faced a continuing exodus of priests and nuns - by various estimates, anywhere from a quarter to half of the world's parishes are now without priests. But he refused to compromise on issues of celibacy, marriage or the ordination of women, saying that even his power had limits. "I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women," John Paul wrote in a 1994 apostolic letter, "and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful." In his waning years, these policies came under renewed fire as pedophilia scandals further diminished the priesthood, especially in Canada and the U.S. When the Church finally took steps to publicly address the issue of long-hidden sexual abuse, many critics cried "too little, too late."

James Carroll, a former priest and now a successful Boston-based author and columnist, calls John Paul II "the last of the 19th-century popes." By insisting and enforcing the absolute authority of the Vatican on matters of faith, he halted the modernizing revolutions that are tearing apart other denominations - but at a cost. While the worldwide number of Catholics has increased, church attendance in the developed world has plummeted. In Canada, where almost half the population identify their faith as Catholic, only one-third of adherents attend church regularly. In the U.S., a public opinion poll in May 2002 found 55 per cent of Catholics saying the Church is out of touch with the needs of Catholics today. "He has demonstrated the futility of the impulse to squelch dissent," says Carroll. "The voices of Catholics are many and insist on being heard."

But true to his principles, and supported by the vast majority of his cardinals, John Paul remained unbending until the end. Even in his final years, plagued by ill health, he continued to fight to have the Church's moral perspective heard. As courts in Ontario and British Columbia legalized gay marriage in the spring of 2003, the Pope sent a letter to the faithful, drawing the battle lines. "Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil." John Paul urged the laity to "exercise the right to conscientious objection" and reminded Catholic politicians, Jean CHRÉTIEN and Paul MARTIN among them, of their "moral duty" to oppose any changes to the definition of marriage.

Liberal Catholics looking for a less combative successor may be disappointed, however. In one of his final acts as pontiff, John Paul appointed 31 new members to the College of Cardinals in October 2003, including Marc Ouellet, the archbishop of Quebec. Almost all the new appointees share John Paul's doctrinaire outlook, giving the caucus that will choose this next pope - and perhaps others in the future - an overwhelmingly conservative character for decades to come.

In the end, deciding John Paul's place in the history of his Church and the larger world may be a more complex issue than any one part of his legacy. Even many of those who disagreed with his moral doctrine see him as a revolutionary leader. Carroll, who wrote Constantine's Sword, a best-selling history of the Church's relationship with Jews, says John Paul's many attempts to right past wrongs speak to his deep faith and courage. "He struck this note of integrity that's very rare in this world," he says. "And his personal suffering over his final years was a powerful example for much of the laity." Michael Higgins, a Catholic scholar and president of St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ont., says that, by the very nature of their office, popes are conservative. But tally up John Paul's achievements and the praise will outweigh the criticism, he says. "His commitment to the suffering and persecuted, his writings on the dignity of work, the fact he was instrumental in the demise of many tyrannies," Higgins lists. "There are so many aspects of his ministry that we have lived with the past 26 years and just taken for granted."

Maclean's April 11, 2005