Where is Pope John Paul II taking the Roman Catholic Church?

On October 16, John Paul II will celebrate his seventh anniversary as Pope and spiritual head of 750 million Roman Catholics spread around the world. At the time of his election, he was 58 years old. Now he is a strong and vigorous 65; and if he lives as long as most of his last nine predecessors, he will remain Pope well past the year 2000.

This son of a Polish army captain and a German-speaking Lithuanian schoolteacher has proved to be the most popular pope of this century. Already his firm hand has reversed the direction in which the Roman church was headed when he came to power. In the two decades that may well remain to him, what new directions may we expect of this powerful leader who is determined not to let things drift?

One thing we may say for sure: he will not restore the Roman church to its narrow isolation and rigid conservatism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Vatican II settled that. And Pope John Paul II not only helped formulate that new face of Catholicism, but time and again since becoming Pope, he has reaffirmed his commitment to its basic principles.

Has this Pope, then, joined the new wave of radical Catholicism set to modernize the Roman church and bring it into line with the twentieth century? By no means! Anyone who knew him as bishop of Kraków or as Polish Cardinal Wojtyla knows better. Like Churchill, who opined that he was not about to preside over the dismemberment of the British empire, John Paul II is determined not to sit idly by and watch the disintegration of the Catholic church. And this is just what he thinks would be the end of the road if the Catholic revisionists had their way.

With a faith forged in the hot battle against communism that fought the Polish church at every turn, he came to believe that only a confident church, tightly organized, rigorously disciplined, and united in the essential doctrines and traditional piety, can survive.

His goal, therefore, is to forge a united church, renewed spiritually, updated just enough to survive in a world of twentieth-century science, psychology, sociology, and biblical criticism, yet basically traditional in its adherence to Roman Catholic theology and morals. To John Paul II, that is the only church that can stand up to a militant atheistic communism or to an equally materialistic and hedonistic Western society.

On a far deeper level, moreover, that is the kind of church God has called the successor of Saint Peter to build. Consequently, the Pope sees himself as a man under orders. It is a matter of duty and obedience, and John Paul II is nothing if not a man of deep convictions and a sharp sense of duty.

Article continues below

Laying It On The Line

It is no accident that one of the new Pope’s first moves was to revive the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith—formerly known as the Inquisition. Immediately charges were pressed against a French Dominican and then against the outstanding theologian of the Dutch church, Father Edward Schillebeeckx. Hans Küng was quickly stripped of his post as teacher of Catholic theology at the University of Tübingen. A number of lesser voices under deep suspicion for departures from orthodoxy were likewise called to account. Theologians, John Paul II declared, were not to go tooting off on their own to explore new ideas, but were to confine their efforts to the explication of the doctrine and morals set forth by the magisterium of the Catholic church—the teaching authority of the church’s hierarchy. He soon called the Dutch bishops to Rome, and among other things forbade them to engage in common communion with Protestants. He gave strong support to Opus Dei—an organization that seeks to preserve the most conservative aspects of traditional Roman Catholicism. Ecumenical dialogue, he declared, is not to be entered into with any “thought that the church renounces certain truth raised to the status of dogmas by the Magisterium or the infallibility of that papal Magisterium.”

While encouraging dialogue as a sacred duty of the church, he explained that “the church, in fact, uses the method of dialogue in order the better to lead people … to conversion.… We must relinquish our own subjective views and seek the truth where it is to be found, namely in the Divine Word itself, and in the authentic interpretation of that Word provided by the Magisterium of the church” (Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance). On October 16, 1979, he reissued Paul VI’s Credimus, which had incorporated the Nicene Creed with some additions such as papal infallibility and a rigorous slate of Mariology. All this he enjoined upon the church, urging it “to stay closer to a content that must remain intact.” In his messages, Pope John Paul II has again and again reiterated his strong theological commitment to transubstantiation, the adoration of the Sacrament, the ministerial priesthood, the supreme jurisdiction of the pope, propitiatory value of the Eucharist, and masses for the dead—and he has included them in lists of dogmas that “cannot be altered.” In ethics he has everywhere stressed his opposition to sexual relations outside marriage, homosexual practice, divorce on any grounds, and abortion from the moment of conception on.

Article continues below

Regarding Ecumenism

It is not surprising, therefore, that many Protestant leaders, especially many Anglicans, have expressed dismay at what they deem an insurmountable setback to ecumenical progress. They feel that they have been demoted from “separated brethren” to “kissing cousins,” and their dream of a worldwide united church fades farther into the distance.

Given his strong conservative leanings, it is not surprising that Pope John Paul II himself has shifted his ecumenical interests primarily to the Eastern Orthodox churches. However, union at a certain level within the World Council of Churches is possible. In that body no denomination needs to give up its distinctives. Nor would the Roman Catholic Church need to approve the doctrine of the more liberal denominations, but only accept those denominations as brethren in the faith.

John Paul II’s vigorous conservatism in theology and ethics has slowed down the ecumenical movement. But it is not at all inconceivable that the Roman church might yet join forces with the World Council by the year 2000. In this way John Paul could carry the witness of his church to the major Christian bodies and dialogue in good faith (albeit Roman style).

Toward Evangelicalism

How does all this affect evangelicals? It will strengthen the impetus to conservatism in the World Council of Churches, even if Rome does not join it, for the ecumenical movement knows that extreme liberal theology and ethics will only deter such union.

John Paul II’s personal appeal to evangelicals cannot be denied. Despite his Mariology, his adamant opposition to contraception, to all divorce on any grounds, his emphasis on priestly celibacy, his teaching on the role of women (which sometimes comes across as though the only legitimate place of women is in the home), and his strong clericalism, their enthusiasm has not been dimmed. Their appreciation is based on his strong support of certain fundamental doctrines of biblical faith; his willingness to discipline the most blatant opponents of evangelical faith; his biblical emphasis in which his messages are invariably sprinkled with scriptural teaching; his strong commitment to the family, to a biblical sexual ethics, and to prolife positions; his insistence upon justice and true freedom of religion everywhere; and his bold stand for the priority of the Christian message over political involvement. All these endear him to the hearts of evangelicals.

Article continues below

Yet evangelicals cannot blind themselves to other facets of this attractive Pope. He is, when all is said and done, a traditional Roman Catholic in doctrine and ethics. Like his predecessors—only with more enthusiasm and greater skills of communication—he stands for all those things that have, since the days of Luther and before, divided a biblically rooted evangelicalism from a Roman Catholicism based partly on biblical revelation and partly on human tradition. Grace alone, Christ alone, faith alone, Scripture alone—these great truths lie at the heart of evangelicalism and cannot be gotten around.

When John Paul II says, “It would therefore be foolish, as well as presumptuous, … to claim to receive forgiveness while doing without the sacrament of penance” (Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance), the evangelical remembers: “Whosoever believeth in him.” When the Pope says; “Mary is the source of our faith and our hope” (Homily at Mass at Cap de la Madeleine Shrine), the evangelical responds: “My faith and my hope are in Christ.” And when he declares that the magisterium of the Roman church is where we are to look for answers to all our questions about doctrine and life, the evangelical responds: “Search the Scripture,” for it is “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.”

When he tells us that the Roman bishops are infallible in their interpretation of Scripture and that we are justified by faith plus works of love, the evangelical replies that the bishops cannot be infallible for that is precisely what Scripture teaches is false. We are not justified by our good works. When he tells us that the pope infallibly interprets both Scripture and the apostles, and that they teach that the Virgin Mary was bodily translated to heaven, we marvel and reply that we can see all too clearly that Scripture and the genuine tradition of the apostles teach no such thing.

True, Rome has changed, and Pope John Paul II has moved many things in it toward the good. But on many other vital matters that affect the souls of men and their relationship to God, Rome is still Rome, and Pope John Paul II is simply its most effective voice.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.