Tuesday, 5 February 2008

John Paul II: pope idol?

Some bloggers have lamented the fact that the late Pope John Paul II acted too much like a narcissistic pop star, and seemed to revel in gaining fame and popularity and playing to the media. This is to some extent a valid point and does have some justification. However I do feel that I could give a brief explanation why, and to do so we must see his pontificate in its historical context and its consequent implications on the present one of Benedict XVI.

John Paul II was elected in 1978 in the crisis of the aftermath of the second Vatican council. The rebellion over Humanae Vitae had seriously damaged the credibility of the church's teaching and magisterium, and dissent and compromise seemed to have all but gained the upper hand. The prestige of the papacy was at an all time low: the weak and vacilating leadership of an ailing Paul VI had been followed by an elderly John Paul I, who lasted only a month in office. Rome was completely powerless to do anything about bishop's conferences who were acting independently of the Holy See.

In these circumstances with the church and college of cardinals bitterly divided, in no way could anyone of the likes of Pius XII be elected to the papacy. So as always happens in such circumstances, a compromise candidate was chosen, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła of Cracow. He was a man for young people and culturally progressive, yet he was orthodox on doctrine: so he was acceptable to both sides.

In a church completely without direction and with dissent and doctrinal confusion everywhere, it was absolutely imperative to re-establish the prestige and credibility of the papacy and it's teaching office. With the church held to ransom by the media, John Paul knew that he could not reject the media, but had to use it and in many respects act like a pop idol. It was tasteless and banal, but we must bear in mind that God uses what is crooked to write straight.

Indeed the nineteen eighties was a particular time of pop idols and mass media generated personality cults. The films of that era such as Amadeus and Chariots of Fire focus on the genius and the superman. By profession Karol Wojtyła had been an actor, and he played on this fashion very well, and for good reason. He may have created a personality cult of himself, but it was not for his own glory.

John Paul used the cult following that he gained from the media and from his publicity stunts as a means to affirm the particular church's teachings of which he was a key architect - on the dignity of human life. He is well known as the author of Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae, but what is not so well known was that as Archbishop Karol Wojtyła he was the key figure in persuading Paul VI to hold fast and issue Humanae Vitae.

It should also be remembered that it was John Paul's particular charisma and leadership that brought about the eventual downfall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. No other man could have done it - he himself was a Pole and knew Communism inside out, and it was his leadership that was integral of the unravelling of the Eastern bloc.

He may not have been a very good administrator - he tended to delegate as much as possible - and he probably failed to fully appreciate the importance of liturgy to the church’s life. But we must realise that it was largely him who made Joseph Ratzinger such a key figure in the church, and laid the way for him as his successor.

When John Paul II died, as anyone who remembers his funeral and the last conclave will remember, the great following he had among the faithful was effortlessly translated over to Benedict XVI, destroying the whole media propaganda assault against Ratzinger in one stroke. Despite the fact our present Holy Father has downplayed the cult following he achieved from his predecessor, it is stronger than ever.

Whether we like John Paul II or not, one thing is clear. His legacy on the church will be long lasting and irreversible, and the present pontificate could not be possible without him. Benedict would never be able to exercise his authority as he has done without that legacy. The reign of John Paul the Great was clearly part of the great plan for the church by divine providence, of which future generations of the faithful will be eternally grateful.


Matt Doyle said...

An impressive resume of the last pontificate, seeing as I was out of the picture and little idea of what was going on at the time. He was also responsible for the Catechism of course, which crushed the prevailing 'spirit of vatican II' by reasserting unpopular doctrines like purgatory and reproductive ethics.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful influence and man of great holiness. I feel soory for people who can't see that. I bore & raised 10 children under his pontificate & daily we were given inspiration & help for holy marriages & Priesthood. May the cause for his beatification proceed.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this; a good summation, with wise juxtapositions.

Anonymous said...

A great article.

I think you hit the nail on the head on how things "transfered" over to the present Holy Father upon his election.

John Paul II refocussed the media spotlight on the Papacy. In the "MTV era". I think we will come to discover the continuing impact of this as time goes on.

Ottaviani said...

Whether or not JP II revelled in his cult following, it still cannot excuse the abuses the went under his leadership too. People are all too ready to shout "Santo Subito" and "JP the Great" without realising that there are only three Popes that have the title "Great" in the papal history - and it isn't because they had fancy liturgies, kissed the grounds of countries they toured or went against the grain. The Pope's job isn't to be culturally progressive and be hip and modern, but to preach the truth undiluted. This JP did in issues of celibacy, women ordination and defending the life of the unborn. But he failed disastrously in ecumenism. Anyone can look at the furore of the Good Friday prayer just of recent and see that the Jewish lobbies are in essence complaining, that Pope Benedict is not like JP II, who would immediately cave into their demands.

Incidentally, I would also beg to differ that the chaos of the 70s and early 80s was also largely due to the failure of Paul VI's pontificate to suppress dissent and heresy (which was not helped by the confusion of Vatican II itself). It was largely due to his indecisiveness that liberals started to ignore the papacy and promote their new religion.

Oliver Hayes said...

Dear Ottaviani,

I shall no longer post any more of your comments until you tell us who you are, what you do, what is your real name and what blogs you may have. You have upset some blogging friends of mine and I have not heard good reports of you. It is most ungentlemanly to criticise others on blogosphere under the cloak of anonymity.

I ask that you read what I said properly. I said that Paul VI’s leadership was weak and vacillating, not that the chaos of the 70s and early 80s was due to the failure of his pontificate to suppress dissent and heresy (which in many respects he was unwittingly responsible for starting). You also say he failed disastrously in ecumenism. But you should bear in mind that the most relevant church’s magisterial document on the relation of our faith to other religions, Dominus Jesus, was created with John Paul’s direct and personal involvement and authority.

Anonymous said...


I do not know who Ottaviani is either, but they leave some erm... "interesting" comments on my blog...

Anonymous said...

I don't quite see how the Humanae Vitae rebellion damaged the Church's authority. The sheer scale of the rebellion itself, I would have thought, implies that the Church's authority had already been seriously damaged long before.

On Card Wojtyla's role in Humanae Vitae I'd recommend George Weigel's account. His account is eye-opening, but sits well with JPII's almost total silence on contraception throughout his time in office.

John Paul I was hardly an "unprestigious" pontiff. He was immediately well-liked by virtually everyone, and many (albeit trads and "liberals" at the same time) had high expectations of him.

Karol Wojtyla was not a compromise candidate. The men who elected him knew exactly what they wanted from him and got exactly that. And of course he ditched unpopular Cathlic moral teachings, such as on the death penalty and the Just War, as and when he (and his sponsors) saw fit.

The present Pope doesn't behave liek a pop-star all the time. In fact he acts like a charming, gentlemanly old university don, and I would suggest he has already made a deeper impression on the Church in three years than JPII made in decades.

It is of course well known that Ratzinger was not JPII's chosen successor. The Ratzinger conspiracy only kicked into gear a few months before JPII actually died. As for the "transfer" of popular following, I heard that even a year after the new Pope's election most of the souvenirs in the gift-shops of Rome were still displaying the JPII brand.

For me the saddest and most instructive thing about the JPII's legacy is actually the behaviour of the "pilgrims" who come to visit his tomb on a daily basis. They don't kneel down at his tomb, they just mill around and take photos. They don't pray to him, they don't even pray for him. It's just a little bit of St Peter's that will be forever Graceland.