Christianity Today executive editor Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, says Pope John Paul II authored theological masterpieces that will be studied for centuries, and fostered a climate that led to historic Catholic-evangelical dialogue. George spoke with CT assistant editor Collin Hansen.
Help us gauge the historical significance of Pope John Paul II.
There are only two possible competitors to John Paul II being the most significant pope since the Reformation: Pius IX in the 19th century, who was also one of the youngest popes ever and reigned for a long, long time. Vatican I and the doctrine of papal infallibility happened under him, along with the loss of the papal states.
The other competitor would be John XXIII, and that's just because of Vatican II. But his pontificate was so brief, it was almost like a flare against the darkness. So I think John Paul II, on balance, given everything, would rise above even them.
How did John Paul II change Catholicism in relation to evangelical Protestantism?
He was eagerly interested in reaching out to everybody. I think his greatest interest, ecumenically, was not with Protestants or evangelicals, it was with the Eastern Orthodox churches. He talked about the church being able to breathe with its two lungs, of which he meant East and West. He saw the Protestant movement and evangelicalism as an offshoot of one of the lungs, and therefore not urgent on the agenda.
But having said that, I think he came to see, particularly in the last probably 10 to 15 years of his pontificate, the enormous importance of evangelicalism as a world Christian force. You know the often quoted statement by Wolfhart Pannenberg that the three great ascendant forces in world Christianity in the 21st century will be Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestant evangelicalism.
And the pope, because he was the most-traveled pope in history with more than 200 countries visited, was able to see some of this up close and personal. He particularly saw it in places like Africa and Latin America, where evangelicalism, often in a Pentecostal form, was growing, vibrant, and sometimes clashing with Roman Catholics.
Also, it was John Paul II, of course, who invented the phrase "culture of life." And as evangelicals became more engaged with the public square on issues of life and deaththe pro-life abortion issue, but also euthanasia and many related concernsthe pope provided a moral impetus that we didn't have internally within our community.
The one exception to that is Francis Schaeffer. Actually it was the pope and Francis Schaeffer who got evangelicals on board the pro-life concern. I mean I'm a Southern Baptist, and after Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the SBC passed a resolution supporting the pro-abortion point of view.
On what grounds?
Well the grounds of freedom, of religion and not wanting the government to mingle in personal affairssome of the same arguments you hear today. But this was the Southern Baptist Convention.
Francis Schaeffer, as a great evangelical leader, challenged evangelicals to get involved and to see the issues. The pope gave a moral rationale for that and gave a leadership role to that concern that galvanized Catholics and evangelicals together on issues of life in this culture.
And what was his rationale?
It's most clearly expressed in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life, in which he essentially argues for the integrity of every individual person made in the image of God, and that the gospel, if we're going to be faithful to that gospel and faithful to biblical anthropology, requires us to be engaged as advocates for the sanctity of human life wherever we encounter it. That's a very brief summary of about a 70-page document.
We Protestants might disagree with some aspects of that rationale, but the bottom line is one of standing together.
Our Evangelicals and Catholics Together meetings are returning to this theme. We began in 1994 by acknowledging we are co-belligerents with Catholics on these moral issues, and then some people would say got sidetracked. I think it was an important trajectory when we began to look at the theological issues.
Now we're coming back during the next round of discussions, which begin on April 21 in New York, on the cost of discipleship. Of course this is a Bonhoeffer theme, but we're using Evangelium Vitae as our basic text. You can say many, many things about Pope John Paul II, his world historical significance, his role in the downfall of communism, and on and on and on. That's why I say he's the greatest pope since the Reformation, maybe since Innocent III.
One thing that is often overlooked in the media and the public discussions is the fact that he was an intellectual leader, and he provided a kind of theological intellectual ballast for the Christian faith quite apart from the internal Roman Catholic issues. On these moral, social, humanitarian concerns it has to be said, he did not always please the Religious Right. For example, capital punishment, the war in Iraq, he came down you might say on the liberal side of those issues. But I think in his own mind it was a similar rationale that motivated him.
Continuing on that intellectual theme, how about his breaching faith/science issues?
For the next hundred years, scholars, theologians, and students will be pouring over the papal encyclicals that have come out of the Vatican. Three stand out. I've already mentioned Evangelium Vitae. The second would be Ut Unum Sint: That They May Be One, which was his call to ecumenism. And the third is Fides et Ratio: Faith and Reason. And in that encyclical he discussed the importance of connecting Christian faith with rational discourse. Not rationalism, but a discourse that takes seriously what we evangelicals were taught to call propositional truthreason as a discourse of the mind that is enlightened by faith and guided by the Holy Spirit but is not despairing of meaning and of purpose in human language. That's the breeding ground of science. And so in that sense I think yes, John Paul II has given new Christian underpinning to legitimate scientific inquirywithout, again, falling into the fallacy of scientism, which is making science the prism through which we see everything else.
You see this in a couple of things: one, his revitalization of Galileo. He led the church to say, We were wrong back then to condemn Galileo. And we need to take another look at that and see it in a broader, deeper context.
And the other thing is this whole question of evolution. This is a little more controversial, in that I think the pope said, "We need to look at this whole question of evolution." He didn't validate Darwin. But he did recognize what I think a lot of scientists recognize: that there is evolution at some level. And he opened the door to look at that through the lenses of faith.
What are some of the things that make Protestants less comfortable or more distant from the Catholics?
One reason why he's been somewhat controversial within sectors of Catholicism, particularly in the American church and western European church and much less so around the rest of the world, is that he has put a check on some of the forces of liberalization and progressivism. Obviously on the question of women he's been very clear that women should not be priests, and he has argued for a version of what we call complementarianism. In fact, it's one of the most articulate versions of this viewpoint, from which I think evangelical complementarians probably need to take a good look and learn some things, because he emphasizes the dignity of women. Another one of his encyclicals is on the dignity of women.
Another area of controversy has been his, you might say, clamping down on theological dissidents within Catholicism. The pope has said, Thus far and no further. Cardinal Ratzinger is a person of enormous influence within the Vatican. And he's done what he's done with the full blessing and support and urging really of the pope.
Now when I look at that, as a non-Catholic, on balance I want to say, God bless him, that's a good thing. It's good for Catholics to be real true Catholics and be true to their faith. The last thing we evangelical Protestants need is for the Catholic Church to become a weakened version of Protestant liberalism. And I think that's the trajectory of some of these progressives.
But you asked about what else we can't cheer. I would say again as an evangelical Protestant, while I greatly appreciate the pope's ecumenical initiatives, particularly Ut Unum Sint, which is just a masterful document, and the spirit with which he has reached out to evangelicals and others, there are still some irreducible differences that have not been bridged. There's a kind of ecclesiology that we can't accept and a kind of sacramentalism that most evangelicals can't accept. And the pope has been very strong in reaffirming these, I would say, that are still obstacles to Christian unity. I don't see a way forward around these issues.
I assume the office of the papacy itself is one of those issues.
Absolutely it is. And of course in Ut Unum Sint, for the first time in papal history, the pope has said to the Christian world, Please tell me how I can reform the papal office, how we can change the papacy to make it more conducive to Christian unity. It's never been acknowledged before that the papacy is an obstacle to Christian unity.
Now the pope probably wouldn't like the answer that some of my fellow Southern Baptists would give, which would be for the pope to resign the papacy and join the First Baptist Church of Rome. That would help a lot. I don't think the pope is ready to accept that.
How else has he influenced evangelicals without us even knowing it?
Billy Graham made the comment that the pope was the most significant Christian leader in the last hundred years. I think he's absolutely right. And what the pope has been able to do is offer a visible, articulate, winsome, attractive, embracing face to world Christianity. The only other person I think that you would say is anywhere close to the pope in influence would be Billy Graham. And many of the same things that we would say of the pope you'd say of Billy Graham. From an evangelical base he's tried to reach out and be embracing and yet be faithful to the gospel. And you put those two together, Billy Graham and the pope, you have there the winsome, visible face of world Christianity in the last half century.
I hear far fewer sermons these days than I did when I was a kid about how the church of Rome is the harlot of Babylon and the pope is the current version of the Antichrist. You can still go to churches where you hear that sermon on Sunday, but it's far less prominent in the evangelical subculture than it was 30 or 40 years ago. I think that's partly due to Pope John Paul II.
This is the first pope that most evangelicals have actually known who he was. Almost anybody in the world who is semi-intelligent now knows the face of John Paul II, and they know he's the pope. If you had asked people in 1965, Who is the pope, they wouldn't know and probably wouldn't care. John Paul II has become a world figure and certainly within the Christian world in a way that evangelicals know him, appreciate his stand on many, many issues, resonate with his piety and spirituality, and know he's a man of prayer and deep faitheven though we can't follow him all the way into his Marian devotion. There's still a resonance there that connects to evangelicals in a way that no other pope has.
We've seen the tremendous influence God has had through one man in John Paul II as pope. What should we evangelicals pray for as we watch the selection process?
I do think it's appropriate that we pray for the Roman Catholic Church and for this decision, because it has momentous implications for the whole world Christian movement.
I would hope for the new pope to be in many ways like John Paul II. I don't mean in personality, of course, but in terms of his deep core values, that he would honor the historic Christian faith and defend that faith against forces that would undermine it and sidetrack it both within Catholicism and beyond.
We could pray that the next pope would continue the mission of John Paul II in reaching out to other Christians and particularly to evangelicals in realizing some of the things we do share in common and building on them.
Are there any candidates in particular?
Far be it for me to name the next pope! I'm not sure I want to endorse the Roman Catholic view that it's the Holy Spirit who does all of this choosing. I've been around too many pastor selection committees in Baptist churches to know the Holy Spirit gets blamed for a lot of things that he's probably not guilty of.
But in any event, a few months ago in New York I met one of the people who is being at least mentioned as a possible successorCardinal Arinze from Nigeria. I was enormously impressed with him. He's a very devout man, a magnanimous personality. Of course he's an African, which would give a radically different image to the church. I think it would be a wonderful, providential happening if the first Polish pope would be followed by the first African pope. I think that's a long shot, actually, but in God's providence that might happen.
He would, in many ways, represent the future of the church, which is no longer Italian and European, but is a world community. But there are others as well. I think Cardinal Shonborn in Austria would be a very wonderful leader of the church.
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