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Flashbacks: "The Paradoxical Pope" (April 2, 2005)
Three Atlantic articles offer insight into the life and career of Pope John Paul II.
Flashbacks: "A Time to
Change" (May 8, 2002)
Atlantic articles from the past forty years have considered
the troubles and the institutional weaknesses plaguing the Catholic Church.
The Atlantic Monthly | May 1980
t was just before seven in the evening, October 16, 1978. Floodlights bathed the center balcony in front of St. Peter's Basilica. Cardinal Pericle Felici stepped out to greet the Roman crowd that had filled the piazza. "Habemus Papam..." The crowd cheered wildly. "Carolum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalem. " Silence from the piazza. "Wojtyla!" Felici pressed on. An almost audible interrogation from the Romans below. Who is he? A Pole? The cheers of moments before replaced now by palpable disappointment. There were even a few scattered boos in the darkening evening. A large, athletic- looking man with a strong Slavic face appeared on the balcony. The impact of his presence was immediate and electric. He spoke to the people in their own tongue.
The Paradoxical Pope
by Kati Marton
"I was afraid of this nomination," he told them, "but I did it in the spirit of obedience to our Lord and in total confidence in his Mother, the most holy Madonna. Even if I cannot explain myself well in your
Italian language, if I make a mistake, you will correct me." Applause and wild cheering again from the crowd. Pope John Paul II, history's first Polish pope and the first non-Italian to sit on the throne of St. Peter since 1522, conquered Rome that evening. It was a flawless beginning. It would not be long before newspaper headlines around the world pronounced John Paul the Pontiff with the whole world in his hands.
As the character and personality of the fifty-eight-year-old Pope unfolded, it seemed to even the most cynical observer that he could do no wrong. With each day it appeared that the College of Cardinals' choice had indeed been "divinely inspired." Catholics and non-Catholics alike were touched by his personality. After years of self-doubt and sluggishness in the Roman Catholic Church, this was a man who filled thousands with hope and the prospect of change.
A year and a half has passed since he appeared on that balcony before the Roman crowd. He continues to spellbind audiences and charm street-sweepers and statesmen alike. But serious questions are now being raised in many quarters about the direction in which the former archbishop of Kraków is leading the ancient Church. A new conservatism appears to be emerging from the Vatican. There is a growing feeling that the Pope's personal warmth belies his rigid doctrine, that there is in fact a deep contradiction between John Paul II's pronouncements on human rights and his treatment of bothersome theologians. Many fear that his doctrinaire Catholicism, however suited to the garrison Church of his native Poland, may not meet the need for change and growth among his far-flung flock.
It is too early to pronounce John Paul II yet another archconservative Pope. But it is not too early for concern from clergy and laymen, from believers and nonbelievers, all of whose expectations of a revival in the Church had been unexpectedly raised by the man from Kraków. In the span of a year and a half, however, John Paul has censured an American Jesuit, William Callahan, for challenging him "on issues about which he has clearly declared himself," namely the ordination of women into the priesthood, a step the Pope firmly opposes. He has banned one of Western Europe's most prominent liberal theologians, Hans Küng, from teaching under the Church's auspices his hotly debated view of Catholicism. John Paul has also called to Rome for examination the Reverend Edward Schillebeeckx, a Belgian whose equally liberal theology has for years raised questions, but whose seriousness and scholarship have been admired even by his critics in the Church. On the other hand, the Pope has reached some sort of an accommodation with the conservative French archbishop Marcel Lefèbvre, who, as a result, continues to ordain priests and deacons in Switzerland, in defiance of an earlier Vatican ban. These are not isolated incidents but an emerging pattern, and they have raised alarms among progressive Catholics. None of these cases is new to the Church. Professor Küng especially has been a Vatican gadfly for two decades. But this Pope has chosen to discipline Küng and the other liberals; this Pope has quietly allowed the archconservative Lefèbvre to go his own way.
f the world at large is surprised that the sunny warmth the new Pope projects may not be matched by his theology, the cardinals who elected him should not be. They were familiar with the man they chose to lead them in their second conclave that early fall of 1978.
The Pope who emerged from the Polish crucible is not afraid of controversy, criticism, or standing alone in the face of adversity. The year Karol Wojtyla began exercising his pastoral ministry, 1948, was perhaps the darkest in East Europe's gloomy postwar history. Stalinist terror was at its peak, and the Church was considered the natural enemy of the newly created communist state. And yet that Church remained the sole repository of Polish nationalism, the lone bastion of opposition to Marxism-Leninism. First as Parish priest, then as bishop, and finally as cardinal, Wojtyla learned the subtle art of dealing with the authorities while shepherding his flock through a hostile landscape. His was an austere church, with little room for debate, discussion, or argument. Unity was the key to its survival. The Polish Catholic Church presented a solid block to the outside world. And ultimately it prevailed. The Polish Communist party has by now stopped fighting the role of the Church and refers to the Pope as "an eminent Polish patriot." And though the Church still has no legal position in Poland, over 90 percent of the population, including many members of the Communist party, openly practice Roman Catholicism today.
The role of the priest in Poland is almost without limits. He is teacher, counselor, psychiatrist, and guardian of the Polish culture and history. The Polish Church has been less touched by the fresh breezes of reform than perhaps any other in Europe. It clings fervently to tradition in both theology and pastoral practices. It is revolutionary by sheer virtue of its continued survival. But it is a church that has not had to face the troubling challenges of Western Catholics. Questions of birth control, abortion, divorce, the ordination of women, wayward theologians, empty churches, deserted seminaries, or priests straining to get married are all strange concepts for the Polish clergy. Vatican observers consider it an obedient church. Polish bishops tend to hammer out any differences in private, then unite under the primate. This is not ecclesiastical democracy but a kind of a top-down discipline that remains their formula for survival.
Though shaped by this somber background, Karol Wojtyla has always been a colorful, complex, and, some would say, contradictory figure. From his earliest days as priest he showed a depth of knowledge, a range of interests in the world, that went far beyond the gray little agricultural town of Wadowice where he was born, beyond even the great university town of Kraków where he received most of his education. Wojtyla, his friends from the old days will tell you, was a great companion, an athlete, and played a fair guitar; he was an actor who loved Shakespeare, a man fascinated by languages, an intellectual and at the same time a humanist.
To his primate, Cardinal Wyszynski, Wojtyla is "a man for whom prayer is a full-hearted manifestation of an almost childlike purity of faith." Though as priest he was less known for his piety, which to him was a highly personal matter, than for his wit and his deft handling of Church-State relations, he was also known as firm and uncompromising in his demands on his fellow priests. "A very devout man, very open," Belgian Archbishop Ignio Cardinale remarked, long before Wojtyla was elevated to the throne of St. Peter, "but very firm in his doctrine."
Few candidates for the papacy have passed through a harsher proving ground than Karol Wojtyla. The cardinals who elected him believed he would speak to all the people of the world, not only in their own tongues, but with the firm voice of experience, as a former laborer, a man who once smuggled Jews to safety, and who himself lived in the shadow of Auschwitz. The conclave turned to Poland, one place that has kept the faith against all odds. The cardinals remembered Wojtyla from the Second Vatican Council, when he had said to them, "The Church should so speak that the world may see that it is not only teaching but also seeking a just solution to human problems." They were impressed by his combination of humanity and tough-mindedness, his ability to get things done.
ew would dispute the urgent need for vitality in the Roman Catholic Church. For thousands of Catholics around the world, the Vatican became irrelevant in the last years of Paul VI. The Church seemed to have lost its nerve and, some felt, reneged on the promise of Vatican II. Perhaps the lowest ebb was in 1968, the year of Humanae Vitae. The long delayed encyclical on birth control badly eroded papal support. Church attendance, especially in the United States, has dropped radically since that encyclical. Polls show that 80 percent of American Catholics reject the Church's birth-control ban. Vatican experts claim that Paul VI's views on birth control had been shaped at least in part by a book that appeared in 1960 entitled Love and Responsibility. The book's author was the then little known bishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyla.
It was to this man that the cardinals turned in 1978 to breathe new life into the Church and to bring thousands of Catholics back to the fold. He has without a doubt returned the Vatican to the center of the international stage. While the world was still marveling at this multifaceted Pontiff, inside the Vatican there were already faint stirrings of discontent. "I think it is difficult to have any input with him," says one well-placed Vatican source. "He knows the answers already. He questions only how he should put them across." Another complaint, voiced in the most gentle and respectful tones, is that this mass communicator, this natural-born leader who steps onto a balcony and immediately sizes up the mood of the thousands below, is not very good in a one-on-one situation. "Unless he knows you very well, he's quite ill at ease, not very communicative when he's alone with you," remarks another Vatican insider who prefers not to be identified. "He is so active. He sees everybody and his brother. But he makes no distinction between the type of people he sees and the time he gives them. A bishop can come here from halfway around the world, wait for days to see the Pope, and go home without ever seeing him." Documents go unsigned, business goes unattended.
One such piece of business is the laicization of priests. On his desk in the Vatican are thousands of requests from Catholic priests for John Paul II to absolve them from their vows. Paul VI honored 97 percent of such requests. Thus far this Pope has not honored a single one. The word from the Vatican is that laicization is "just not done" under this Pontiff. He has, furthermore, appointed the curial archconservative Cardinal Silvio Oddi to head the Congregation for the Clergy, which oversees such matters. During his visit to Philadelphia last year, the Pope addressed priests from all over the country and made plain his views on the irrevocability of their calling. "The priesthood is forever," he told the gathered clergymen. "Tu es sacerdos in aeternum
we do not return the gift once given. It cannot be that God who gave the impulse to say 'Yes' now wishes to say 'No.'" For thousands of priests, many of them married and with families, who are awaiting the Vatican's decision on their laicization, these were hard words to hear. It is an example of the harsh standards this Pope is setting for churchmen. Observers say he is quite different with laymen. "He couldn't be kinder, more compassionate, with lay people," says a Roman priest. "With clergy, it's a different story." He has been especially tough with the Jesuits. Last September the Pope upbraided members of the Society of Jesus for "regrettable deficiencies" in their behavior and urged them to return to the "austerity of religious life without yielding to secularizing tendencies."
The Pope's way of disciplining the Dutch Church chilled liberal theologians around the world. The Dutch Roman Catholics have for years shaped and molded their church to fill their own special needs. Rather than looking to Rome for all their signals, they set up pastoral councils where lay people could vote on matters of morals and discipline. At one such council, for example, the congregation decided to make priestly celibacy an optional matter. Homosexual marriages were in some cases approved. Distinctions between priests and lay people became blurred and mass became an open and often spontaneous gathering of the faithful. The Dutch have carried the ecumenism spurred by Vatican II perhaps further than anyone else. Catholics and Protestants often took communion together in Holland. The Church has become a special, highly personal, peculiarly Dutch institution.
Until now the Vatican has pretty much allowed this creative process to flower in the liberal Dutch climate. For the new Pope it was all a bit too much. He called a synod of Dutch bishops to the Vatican. For fifteen days the Pope sat in silence, "taking copious notes," while the seven Dutch bishops debated the direction their freewheeling church had taken. In the end Cardinal Oddi pointed a finger at each of the bishops and asked, "Do you support celibacy for priests?" The consensus, not surprising under such circumstances, was unanimously pro-celibacy. Then John Paul spoke to the Dutch. He told them that while there was room for a certain amount of diversity in expressing the faith and doctrine, the Dutch Church had to be careful not to create confusion among its followers. The Church's "magisterium," the supreme power of the Vatican to teach and lay down doctrine, had to be upheld. "Intercommunion with our separated brothers is not the response to the appeal of Christ for perfect unity," the Pope reminded them. From now on Holland must refrain from "ecumenical excesses." Laymen and women would perform priestly functions only in emergencies. Mixed marriages between Catholics and Protestants would be stringently controlled. The Dutch bishops were also persuaded to remove married priests from seminary faculties. Under Paul VI, married priests already employed as theologians could stay on in their jobs, but new ones could not be hired.
The Dutch bishops described the outcome of the synod as a victory for traditional doctrine. Bishop Johannes Moller of Groningen understated what lay ahead for his freedom-loving flock: "There will be problems in Holland, where a majority of both priests and laymen are against these rules." Groningen is a long way from Rome, and it remains to be seen if the Dutch clergy will be able to enforce these stern measures outside the walls of the Vatican, or to what extent the bishops will even try to reverse a situation that has already taken deep root in their land.
any people feel that John Paul II is attempting to lead the Roman Catholic Church the way he led the Archdiocese of Kraków. He seems disturbed by any signs of "confusion," any tampering with the purity of doctrine as spelled out in traditional Catholic dogma. For liberal Catholics, particularly those in their thirties and forties, this is a disappointing trait in a man from whom they expected breadth and vision.
One young Chicago priest worries that John Paul will use his undeniable charm and charisma as tools with which to forge a hard-line church. Perhaps, the priest notes, the Holy Father is not as sensitive as he is charming and his policies may well inhibit needed growth in the clergy. In Chicago, for example, the Archdiocese normally ordains thirty-five to forty priests each year. This spring only twenty-one priests are taking their vows, and Chicago is not unique.
Priests such as the Reverend James Roache of Chicago will not easily abandon their original enthusiasm for the new Pope. "He has imbued the Church with such splendor in such a short time," Roache says. "Yes, there is concern that he may not continue the reforms started by Vatican II. But he's still feeling his way. It's much too early to judge his pontificate." Roache says a number of his youthful parishioners are looking for a clear, decisive leader. There is a swing toward traditional values among the young today, he says, and the Pope is fulfilling their need for some sort of an authority figure.
Sister Ann Carr, a midwestern nun, admits she's disappointed in the new Pope. When she met him during his trip to Chicago last year, she was swept up by the warmth and charisma of the man. Soon after, she was disturbed by his strong views regarding the ordination of women to the priesthood, a cause she supports. "In matters of internal search, he does not seem very sensitive to the difficulty some people experience," she says. "He's just not open to new currents." Sister Ann Carr notes a shrinking arena for free debate and discussion in today's Church.
The Pope she describes does not seem to have much in common with the man who sat with his face buried in his hands and wept openly while applause filled the Sistine Chapel. Nor does "insensitive" describe the Pope who faced 2,000 representatives from 152 countries at the United Nations, where he assailed the suppression of human, civil, and religious rights and the frightful disparities between the rich few and the destitute many. Does "conservative" describe a Pope who has made himself available to a wider range of people and ideas than perhaps any of his predecessors? This is the Pope, after all, who has turned the traditional protocol-strapped Wednesday audiences into freewheeling jamborees with crowds filling the huge arena of St. Peter's Square while he circles in a white, jeeplike contraption dispensing blessings; the same Pope we have become accustomed to seeing plunging into crowds like a jovial politician, tossing babies into the air wherever he goes; the Pope who prefers the double-armed bear hug to ring-kissing. Has the process of "mythologization" that overtakes other men suddenly elevated to high office taken hold of this man? Is Karol Wojtyla all of a piece, or a figure of contradictions who will, as his harshest critics charge, use his magnetic smile to mask a fundamental intolerance for discussion and debate?
Some Vatican sources claim it was the Pope's toughmindedness, his innate conservatism, that made him a promising candidate to his early supporters for the papacy. These same sources say Karol Wojtyla appealed especially to the West German cardinals, who are known for their highly traditional views of the Church. A number of North American cardinals, notably John Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia, of Polish ancestry himself, are known to have pushed the Wojtyla candidacy for the same reason. They were looking, so these reports have it, for an uncompromising Pope who would eliminate the "errors" and the confusion that have beset the Church since Vatican II.
he Pope's handling of the Hans Küng case has prompted the most vigorous examination of the man who is running the Vatican. Küng is one of the world's best-known, some say most notorious, theologians. The fifty-one-year-old Swiss-born Roman Catholic has been teaching theology at West Germany's Tübingen University for two decades. For most of that period he has engaged the Vatican in a tug-of-war. Küng has turned out a number of highly controversial and popular books on his version of Catholic dogma. With each book, the Vatican's interest in him has grown. In 1971 Professor Küng was called to the Vatican to answer questions about his writing. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican body known in a previous incarnation as the Inquisition, and later as the Holy Office) was disturbed by Küng's views on the papacy. Küng said he would go to Rome, but only if he could see the Vatican's dossier on him and choose his own defense counsel. The Congregation, not accustomed to having conditions placed on its proceedings, declined Küng's. Küng continued to write, to teach, and to lecture on campuses from Boston to Peking. His books continued to make best-seller lists with some regularity. Cardinal Luciani, the man who was to become the September Pope, John Paul I, once said, "When a theologian comes out in paperback, there's bound to be trouble." Küng seems to be proof of that.
Last fall, on the anniversary of the present Pope's coronation, Küng wrote an article entitled "Pope John Paul II: His First Year." It was intended not for the Catholic Messenger or l'Osservatore Romano, but for the New York Times, Le Monde, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine. But that was only part of the problem. In his article, obviously aimed at a global and nonsectarian public, Küng stated that the Pope "is not sufficiently familiar with recent developments in theology," and had become a defender of ancient bastions. Even more personally, Küng wrote, "'Many Catholics and non-Catholics seriously doubt whether this Pope from a country with a totalitarian regime, with a closed, authoritarian church, will in all instances be a guarantor of freedom and openness in our church." This article, as well as statements in his book The Church-Maintained in Truth (just published in America), brought the Vatican's ire down on him.
Eight weeks later the Vatican declared Hans Küng unfit to teach Catholic theology. Had Küng obeyed the ban, which until now he has defied, it would have meant the end of a quarter of a century as one of the Church's most provocative reformists. But Küng is not so easily silenced. His own use of the media is nearly as adept as the Pope's. His more orthodox peers call Küng a showman, and worse, a huckster. The Vatican has another problem in banning this irksome critic: under German law Küng is a civil servant with tenure. He cannot be fired, only moved to another state university.
But Küng is fighting even that. He claims that he is the Church's loyal opposition and that his warnings about the Pope and the direction he is leading the Church are constructive. John Cardinal Krol says Küng is guilty of false advertising. "He's a Protestant who's calling himself a Catholic. Simple as that." Key points of Küng's theology, says Krol, are not Catholic. These contested points of doctrine involve the virginity of Mary (which Küng views as more symbolic than real), the story of the empty tomb following Christ's resurrection (which Küng likewise says should not be literally interpreted), and the question of Jesus Christ's divinity. On this sensitive issue Küng says one must be careful to avoid "identifying Jesus tout court with God." The divinity of Jesus, to Küng, simply means that "the real man, Jesus of Nazareth, is, for believers, a real revelation of the one true God and, in this sense, God's word, his Son."
Küng claims he has no doubts about his Catholicism. But he never fails to make a distinction between Catholicism and what he calls the Roman bureaucracy. He says his chief concern is "to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ intelligible to contemporary people." Though Küng refused to face the Congregation without a defense lawyer, he did ask for a papal audience. This the Pope did not grant him. "Imagine the effrontery of the man," Cardinal Krol commented on Küng's request; "he certainly has a high opinion of himself." It is true that few would fault Küng with a lack of self-confidence. On the other hand, few would agree that a Pope who has time to make as many public gestures as this one would not have time to see one of his church's most controversial critics. Even Cardinal Krol admits the Küng case may cost the Church liberal followers. But he denies that the Pope acted where his predecessors feared to tread. "Küng's case just
came to a head," Krol says. "Besides, Pope John Paul is the first professional philosopher and theologian to be Pope in hundreds of years. Having this command, it did not take him long to see what was at issue in this case."
What angers the Philadelphia cardinal is Küng's implication that the distance from Kraków to Rome is too wide for the Pope to bridge. "That's a not too subtle way of saying he's just a dumb Pole," Krol says. The Pope has traveled far more widely, has been exposed to far more currents in theology, than even Küng, according to Cardinal Krol. "When they cannot discredit a man on argument and reason, they bring up his personality, his background, and his ethnicity."
üng's "contempt for the magisterium of the Church" and his questioning of the Pope's infallibility brought about his ban, according to Cardinal Joseph Höffner of Cologne. The doctrine of papal infallibility is, by the 2,000-year-old Church's standards, a new one. It was promulgated in 1870 during the First Vatican Council. Pope Pius IX pressed for it as a sort of bulwark against the tide of swiftly advancing liberalism, socialism, and faith in progress and scientific advances—all that the Church saw as a threat to religious authority. So Vatican I, unlike Vatican II, was born of fear, not hope. The introduction to the document on papal infallibility spells that out. "With daily increasing hatred, on all sides, the gates of Hell are rising to overturn the Church
Hardly the generous celebration of modern man with which John XXIII convened his Vatican II.
Vatican II essentially ignored the doctrine that the Pope is incapable of falling into error and stressed the spirit of collegiality. Pope John once said, "I am not infallible. I am infallible only when I speak ex cathedra. But I shall never speak ex cathedra." And he never did. Paul VI once said that the primacy of the Pope was probably the biggest stumbling block to ecumenism. In general, many clerics are embarrassed by a doctrine that seems as out of step with the times as this one. But it is still on the Vatican books.
If this doctrine is enforced, Küng says, Roman Catholicism will cease to have much meaning for contemporary men and women. Rather than the Pope's infallibility, Küng prefers to think of the Church's indestructibility in its truth. That truth was laid down in the Gospel, not because the Church's leaders made no mistakes, but "despite all the errors of professors of theology, bishops, and possibly even Popes." Jesus himself, says Küng, would not have understood the doctrine of infallibility.
One does not need grounding in advanced theology to reach the conclusion that the Roman Catholic Church has historically been composed of human beings who have not always resisted error. Was it an infallible Pope who issued a ban on lending money at interest, at the dawning of the modem age? And what of the Pope who managed to convince Galileo that it was in his best interest to continue, in public at least, to uphold the geocentric model of the universe? Last fall, the current Pope admitted that mistakes had been made in the case of Galileo. Like the Communist party, the Roman Church maintains the right to rehabilitate wrongly condemned victims.
The Pope is certainly not breaking new ground in reviving the doctrine of papal infallibility and insisting on the magisterium of the Church. What is startling to many people is that this Pope, whose combination of dynamism and hard experience seemed to make him a man for our times, insists on upholding basically antiquated traditions.
No doubt Küng's attitude toward the Vatican has been high-handed. When he compares himself to Sakharov, l'Osservatore Romano to Pravda (and thus, presumably, the Pope to Brezhnev), he is not doing much to temper the debate. Küng could probably have gone to Rome at some point in all the years he has been tweaking the Vatican's nose. His comment when word reached him of the Roman ban—"I am deeply ashamed of my church"—was by most standards patronizing. Küng just can't seem to resist goading the Roman establishment. Then, too, he has never gotten along with the German cardinals. They reportedly urged the Pope to silence Küng. The point is that the Pope could have resisted such pressures to clamp down on a man who, even his enemies admit, is more than ordinarily gifted.
Hans Küng is not a particularly revolutionary thinker. Other scholars have been re-evaluating the papacy for years and have drawn conclusions far more radical than Küng's. They have done it much more quietly, and they have gotten away with it. The Second Vatican Council did open up an ecumenical dialogue between Protestants and Catholics, and in the years since both sides have shown a willingness to compromise. Protestants have in many instances seemed ready to accept the papacy's key role in uniting Christians under one leader. They have even admitted Rome's historic claim as the seat of Christianity. As part of this growing dialogue, Protestant theologians have tried to agree on the kind of papacy they could accept as their own. For their part, many Catholics have listened to Protestants and pondered whether such a papacy would fit their needs.
Küng claims that the present style of highly centralized papal leadership is not essential to his church, and that he is therefore well within the bounds of Catholic dogma when he attacks that style. In his latest letter to his favorite publications, the New York Times and the London Times, Küng maintains, "I have acknowledged and defended the pastoral primacy of the Bishop of Rome linked to Peter
as an element in Catholic tradition that is supported by the Gospel. But Roman legalism, centralism, and triumphalism in teaching morality and Church discipline
are supported neither by the ancient Catholic tradition
nor still less, by the Gospel itself. They were disavowed by the Second Vatican Council."
One of Küng's chief weapons in his showdown with the Vatican has been the example of Pope John XXIII. It is true that Pope John was convinced that "a holy liberty" was the prerogative of all men. And as Pope he did nothing to force opponents to see things his way. "What would you expect them to do," he remarked during Vatican II on the difficulty of getting 3,000 bishops to agree, "behave like a group of monks reciting the divine office in choir?" John XXIII was an optimist who insisted that the present age was one of the most hopeful periods in modern history, precisely because it challenged the Church to show itself truly to be the Kingdom of God by reaching all mankind. His pontificate was proof that though the papacy in its present form may be monarchical, it need not be totalitarian.
onservative clergymen say the Pope's firm stand in the Küng case comes as a relief. There has been a great deal of confusion, they say, especially among laity not used to seeing such theological debates aired in public. Reaction among liberal theologians is one of mounting concern bordering on alarm for academic freedom. Leonard Swidler, professor of theology at Temple University in Philadelphia, has helped to organize the Association for Human Rights in the Catholic Church, in reaction to the current conservative thrust in Rome. Swidler minces no words on what all this means. "The Pope may think he's protecting the heritage of the Church from the outside. But what he's really doing is centralizing all power. And that's just not what Jesus is about." Swidler worries that John Paul II is giving voice to the most reactionary groups in the Vatican: people such as Cardinal Franjo Seper, who presides over the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and his second- in-command Archbishop Jerome Hamer. Both these curial traditionalists have been Vatican fixtures for years. But Swidler says they now appear to have gotten approval to go witch-hunting. "This kind of a siege mentality may have worked in a church like Poland's," Swidler says, "but it just doesn't wash with a pluralistic, universal church." He warns that if the reactionary elements in Rome get too aggressive, a rupture could result. "The advances made by liberals since Vatican II are too strong to reverse now."
Like most liberal theologians, Swidler sees no danger to the Church from Küng's views. "Discussions about papal infallibility and the divinity of Jesus have been going on for years." The point, says Swidler, is not whether one agrees with what Professor Küng is saying, but that, like Voltaire, liberal theologians would defend unto death his right to say it. "Is this due process? Do you condemn a man without hearing him out? Can Rome afford to act this way if it sets itself up as the champion of human rights?" Swidler asks.
Ten years ago, when still archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyla wrote, "The one who voices his opposition to the general or particular rules and regulations of the community, does not thereby reject his membership
there can be no doubt that this kind of opposition is essentially constructive." Yet as Pope, he has rejected Küng's membership as a Church theologian for opposition that many view as "essentially constructive."
hile Hans Küng has become a widely discussed figure, there is another lesser-known theologian whose confrontation with Rome is in some ways even more noteworthy. He is the sixty-six-year-old Belgian-born Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx, the perfect antithesis of the flamboyant Küng. Low-key, nervous, scholarly, Schillebeeckx speaks only to his peers and makes no attempt to reach the readers of popular publications. He is universally respected as a serious thinker and theologian at one of Europe's most prestigious centers of Catholic learning, the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. He, too, was summoned to Rome to face the questions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Despite having suffered a heart attack shortly before, Schillebeeckx went to Rome.
He had only one word to describe the procedure he was subjected to: "dangerous." Schillebeeckx is reluctant to elaborate, reluctant to provoke the Vatican. Yet he holds the same liberal view of Catholic dogma as his controversial colleague in West Germany. The Vatican commission questioned him for three days on his book Jesus, An Experiment in Christology. Like Küng, Schillebeeckx says doctrine must always be interpreted and actualized. It cannot be a frozen body. His interrogators wondered about the absence of references to Christ's divinity and the virginity of Mary in his work. "I don't speak in my book about the Virgin Birth," Schillebeeckx says, "but I still make clear my belief that Jesus is the Son of God." Like Küng he views Christ as both true God and true man. He feels there's no real difference between his views and those of orthodox Catholics. "It is just a question of a difference in interpretation."
Schillebeeckx fears a new conservatism in the Church. "The Pope is trying to create a solid block out of the Church. And that's just not possible." The Belgian sees irony in the man who for thirty years waged a battle against a monolithic state now attempting to impose his own monolith. Yet he, like so many others, was encouraged by the elevation of Karol Wojtyla to the papacy. And now? Schillebeeckx laughs nervously instead of answering. He insists, "I am not a threat to the community of God and the faithful. I am only a threat to the system. To the Vatican structure. To them I am a threat." Unlike Küng, Schillebeeckx has the support of his bishops and especially of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, the widely admired primate of Holland. So Schillebeeckx may come out of all this with his Church certification intact. Still, he has already been interrogated. He has had to stand in the dock without a defense counsel. He has had to defend views he has held for most of his sixty-six years.
n his acceptance message upon his election as Supreme Pontiff, John Paul II said, "First of all we wish to point out the unceasing importance of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. We accept the definite duty of assiduously bringing it into effect." Is it possible that in so short a time this superbly intelligent and sensitive leader has lost sight of the spirit of Vatican II? That he is no longer wedded to John XXIII's aggiornamento, bringing the ancient Church into the modern era? Has this Pope misjudged the strong secular tendencies of the time? Why, instead of trying to use the sharp and probing minds of Catholicism's most energetic critics to the Church's best advantage, has he thrown up barricades against them?
It is early in his pontificate to make broad judgments about John Paul II. There is still room for optimism about a man so richly endowed. Next fall he will gather together bishops from around the world in another synod. Though the theme will be "the family in today's world," it will offer an opportunity for the Pope to hear from his clergy on all subjects. If he listens, things may yet change in the Vatican. The time now seems past when Rome can treat its bishops, priests, and the faithful as so many appendages. The year 1980 seems an odd choice to be the year for an imperial papacy.
And if the Pope turns a deaf ear to the pleas for change in the Church, will it really matter? Wars will not be fought; the Vatican still has no divisions of its own. People will not go hungry as a result of an anachronistic church. Still, an opportunity will have been missed. Church history is packed with examples of popes who spent too much time worrying about the nuances of dogma, nitpicking over theology, and centralizing power in their own hands. Those were inevitably periods that lost the Church intellectuals who were dismayed by such trends.
This Pope has the opportunity to retrieve the disillusioned members of the Church. More, he has the chance to bring those outside the Church, whose lives are singularly empty today, into the faith. As a man and as a servant of God, he need not cloak himself in a doctrine of infallibility. John Paul II has the proven ability to fill the most skeptical with hope. He should not need the short-lived victories of past popes who temporarily quashed dissent.
In 1633, the Inquisition succeeded in making Galileo recant his theory that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe. As a result, Galileo was forced to renounce another son of Poland, the astronomer Copernicus, who first established that the earth was moving around the sun. As a humbled Galileo was leaving the chamber of the Inquisition, he was heard to say, sotto voce, "Eppur si muove!" It still moves.
Copyright © 2002 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1980; The Paradoxical Pope; Volume 245, No. 5; page 41.