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Interviews: "The Loyal Catholic" (July 24, 2002)
Garry Wills, the author of Why I Am a Catholic, talks about faith, scandal, and the importance of constructive criticism.
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.
Politics & Prose: "A Culture of Credulity" (May 8, 2002)
By investing the Church and its priests with absolute authority, lay Catholics have unwittingly helped create a historic moral scandal. By Jack Beatty
The Paradoxical Pope
October 16, 2003
his week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II's installation as Pope—an occasion being marked by celebrations in Vatican City, Poland, and elsewhere. Though John Paul has been a controversial figure throughout his tenure—taking strong stands on divisive issues (inspiring some to hail him as a bulwark against degeneracy and others to repudiate him as a reactionary)—he is indisputably a force to be reckoned with; a powerful leader who has had a decisive impact on both Catholicism and on the world. Two Atlantic articles about John Paul, one written early in his career, the other some years later, offer insight into the man, his leadership style, and his far-reaching influence.
In "The Paradoxical Pope" (May 1980), Kati Marton assessed the then-new Church leader, and noted a worrisome contradiction in his character. She described his first triumphant appearance before throngs of people at the Vatican:
It was just before seven in the evening, October 16, 1978. Floodlights bathed the center balcony in front of St. Peter's Basilica
. 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
It soon became clear, however, that despite his personal warmth and charisma, when it came to Church dogma he was stern and intractably conservative—reviving the doctrine of papal infallibility, and censuring Church officials he perceived to be excessively liberal. Marton wondered whether perhaps his rigidity could be partly attributed to his years in Poland, where the Church had had to cling fiercely to traditionalism in order to hold its own against communism.
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.
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. Polish bishops tend to hammer out any differences in private, then unite under the primate. This is not ecclesiastical democracy but a kind of top-down discipline that remains their formula for survival.
Despite her reservations about such doctrinaire tendencies, Marton remained hopeful that "things may yet change in the Vatican." Time, she speculated, might open John Paul's mind: "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."
Fourteen years later, in "What Would the World Be Like Without Him?" (July 1994), the journalist Robin Wright accompanied Pope John Paul on a visit to the former Soviet Union, and reported both on the trip itself and on the larger question of John Paul's role in the post-Cold War world. Physically, Wright noted, John Paul had become far less robust than he had once been.
Now seventy-four, the Pope has visibly aged since I first traveled with him, early in his papacy. The firm skin around his chiseled Slavic face has softened, and the gray hair has turned white. His stoop is more pronounced, and the talk around the Vatican is that life would probably be easier for him—and his staff—if he tried glasses and a hearing aid. Members of his inner circle used to boast that the Pope got up at 5:00 A.M., said first mass at seven, hosted guests at all three meals, read the last briefing paper from his Secretary of State late into the night and on weekends walked, skied, hiked, or swam. Now the same hours and habits worry them.
Then, as now, however, he showed little inclination to succumb to his physical limitations, and Wright saw in his indomitable nature much to admire. Regardless of his contentious stances on such issues as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, and divorce, she argued, the fact that he had succeeded in fashioning himself, against formidable odds, into a powerful opponent of communism and a defender of the downtrodden everywhere was to be commended.
What fascinated me was
the way that this obscure Pole, elected on the eighth ballot to head the world's smallest state, has gone on, with a mixture of cunning and daring, to become a global leader—and not just among the Catholic faithful. Although John Paul II vehemently eschews political involvement, his reign—already almost twice as long as the papal average of eight years—is likely to be remembered most for the way he has helped reshape the world.
Wright recounted an exchange she had had with a Lithuanian man whose Catholic faith had buoyed him in his resistance against communism during the Cold War. Is there really any place for religion in the modern world? she asked.
"Spiritual values are basic to the restoration of democracy," [he] protested. "The more important side of spiritual values or morality, of behavior, and of the attitudes of one human person to another, to society, to work, to responsibility—all of this must be restored now in post-communist countries."
"So this Pope could still have an impact?"
"What," he responded, "would the world be like without him?"
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Sage Stossel is an editor of The Atlantic Online. She draws the weekly cartoon feature, "Sage, Ink."
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