George Weigel. St. John Paul II and the Renovation of Catholicism

Commemoration of the Thirtieth Anniversary of the Pastoral Visit of Pope John Paul II to Lithuania
9 December 2023

by George Weigel

Thank you for inviting me to join you in marking the thirtieth anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s pastoral pilgrimage to what was then a newly self-liberated Lithuania. I would like to celebrate that anniversary by providing a summary overview of John Paul II’s pontificate. The pace of life in the 21st century is such that many of our contemporaries have forgotten how extraordinary John Paul’s pontificate was, or have never learned very much about his accomplishments. Let us see if we can remedy those gaps in knowledge and understanding today.

The Catholic Situation in 1978

To grasp the epic achievement of Pope Saint John Paul II during a historic pontificate spanning more than a quarter of a century, it is necessary to take a step back and recall the state of the Catholic Church in 1978.

The Second Vatican Council remained “undigested.” Two competing interpretations of the Council divided the Church: one interpretation (what Joseph Ratzinger would later call the “hermeneutic of discontinuity”) “read” the Council as an invitation to re-invent the Church both doctrinally and pastorally; the other interpretation (Ratzinger’s “hermeneutic of reform in continuity with tradition”) struggled to find effective pastoral expression. This fundamental disagreement over the purposes of Vatican II had created a theological and disciplinary civil war that led to a breakdown of ecclesial communion. The most extreme example of this was the widespread dissent from authoritative teaching, and the open defiance of ecclesiastical authority, that followed the publication of Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae.

The reception of the Council was made even more difficult by two cultural tidal waves: the sexual revolution that was made possible in part by the contraceptive pill, and the assault on all established authority that western Europeans remember simply as “1968.” In the wake of these vast cultural and social upheavals, it seemed that the Church had little or nothing to say to the breakdown of the family; to the new feminism; to the assault on civil order and on democracy by the radicalized Left; or to the rapid acceleration of secularization in historically Christian lands.

Meanwhile, the Vatican’s Ostpolitik had failed to relieve the intense political  pressures on the Church behind the Iron Curtain; in some instances, the Ostpolitik had made matters worse by demoralizing Catholic clergy and laity who wished to stand firm for religious freedom and other basic civil liberties. Concurrently, the Holy See itself was deeply penetrated by Warsaw Pact secret intelligence services, thus further complicating efforts at reaching what the architect of the Ostpolitik, Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, described as a modus non moriendi for the Church in central and eastern Europe.

The immediate post-Vatican II years also witnessed the largest number of  defections from the priesthood since the 16th-century Reformations; the rapid secularization of the self-understanding and lifestyle of many institutes of consecrated life; the theological and political  radicalization of the Society of Jesus and other Catholic elites; and the intensification of clerical sexual abuse (a phenomenon undocumented at the time, but made unmistakably clear by statistical studies conducted since 2002).

All this had led to many forms of ecclesiastical demoralization. Large sectors of the world Church suffered from a lack of evangelical energy. Catholicism seemed to have little or no capacity to shape world affairs at a fragile moment in human history.

A Church Transformed

Over 9,665 days, from October 16, 1978, through April 2, 2005, John Paul II addressed, and in many cases reversed, this post-conciliar drift into ecclesiastical incoherence and Catholic irrelevance on the world stage.

The reversal began on October 22, 1978, at the Mass publicly inaugurating the pontificate. The meaning of that day and its clarion call to faith and Christian witness – “Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” – was best captured by the French journalist André Frossard, who wrote, “This is not a pope from Poland. This is a pope from Galilee.”

Over the next twenty-six and a half years, this “pope from Galilee,” this 21st century apostle who embraced the Petrine mission to “strengthen your brethren” given by the Lord in Luke 22.32 and urged over a billion Catholics to become missionary disciples, ushered in the Church of the third millennium: the Church of what he called the “New Evangelization,” in which the ecclesiastical institutions defended and preserved by the Counter-Reformation Church would be transformed into platforms for mission. In doing so, John Paul II completed a development in Catholic self-understanding that had begun when Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) called the Church to engage the modern world in order to convert the modern world.

The Magna Carta of this “New Evangelization” was the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio [The Mission of the Redeemer], in which John Paul II reminded us that the Church does not have a mission, as if “mission” were one among many things the Church does. No, the Church is a mission; every baptized person, is a missionary; and everywhere is “mission territory.”

This “grand strategy” of the New Evangelization informed virtually every theological and pastoral initiative of the pontificate.

John Paul II understood that the horrors of the 20th century – two world wars, three totalitarian systems, oceans of blood, mountains of corpses, the Holocaust, the GULAG camps, the Ukrainian Holodomor, and the greatest persecution of the Church in history – had deeply wounded the moral and spiritual fabric of humanity, which remained torn and bleeding. In lifting up the Divine Mercy, John Paul offered the world both the remedy for its pain and the path into a nobler future.

John Paul II understood that the sexual revolution had led, not to greater human happiness, but to greater suffering, because the sexual revolution was and is a direct assault on the biblical understanding of the human person. His “Theology of the Body” was an imaginative and effective response to that challenge. And where the Theology of the Body has worked its way into the pastoral texture of Catholic life around the world, it has transformed catechetics, marriage preparation, and the Church’s ministry to those who experience same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria.

The establishment of the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family at the Pontifical Lateran University – and its affiliated centers on other continents – was another initiative aimed at renovating the Church’s capacity to respond to the tremendous cultural transformations underway in the world and their effects on the most basic human relationships. Those institutes, and the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor [The Splendor of Truth], have led over the past four decades to a renaissance of Catholic moral theology that is animating the pastoral practice of the living parts of the Church throughout the world.

At the time of John Paul’s election in 1978, many churchmen thought that the young adults of late modernity were incapable of hearing the Gospel call to conversion. John Paul II disagree. And in the face of considerable skepticism, he launched the World Youth Days that have become a major event in global Catholic life and the inspiration of many new and vibrant pastoral initiatives.

John Paul II was a great reformer of the Catholic priesthood. The heroic model of priestly ministry he himself lived, which was inspired by the examples of the Cracovian archbishop of noble Lithuanian heritage who ordained him , Adam Stefan Sapieha, and the Franciscan martyr of Auschwitz, Maximilian Kolbe, in turn inspired two generations of priests throughout the world Church – and, as one American cardinal put it, made John Paul II the greatest “vocation director” in history. The 1992 apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis [I Will Give You Shepherds] offered the world Church a blueprint for seminary reform; where its teaching has been taken seriously and implemented vigorously, seminaries are flourishing. The reforms in canonical procedures for dealing with sexually abusive priests that John Paul II established remain an essential part of the ongoing reform of the priesthood.

Consecrated religious life offered the world an alternative to materialistic and hedonistic notions of human happiness and flourishing. The 1996 apostolic exhortation Vita Consecrata accelerated the authentic reform of institutes of consecrated life mandated by Vatican II; those institutes that have followed its teaching continue to grow and their example makes another important contribution to the New Evangelization.

In its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council taught that sanctity is not a matter for the Church sanctuary alone; rather, every baptized person is called to the vocation of holiness, which includes the sanctification of the world. John Paul’s 1987 apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici [Christ’s Lay Faithful], continues to provide the blueprint for flourishing lay apostolates that work today to implement the Pope’s call in Redemptoris Missio for lay Catholics to be the primary agents of evangelization in the worlds of politics, economics, and culture.

And then there is the Church in Africa. John Paul II paid close attention to African Catholicism, nurtured it during ten extensive pastoral visits to that continent, and brought African churchmen into senior positions in the Church’s central administration. That Africa is now the greatest area of growth for the Church in the world is due in no small part to John Paul II.

The Great Jubilee of 2000 should also be understood in terms of John Paul’s renovation of the Church. This is particularly true of John Paul II’s March 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In spending a week walking where Jesus and the first Christian disciples had walked, John Paul was reminding the Church that Christianity is neither a fairy tale nor a pious myth. Rather, Christianity began when real men and women – who lived in real places you can see and touch today – were so transformed by their encounter with the one they first knew as the itinerant Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth, and who, after what they first imagined to be utter disaster, they had met anew as the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, that they and their successors went out and converted (over the next two and a half centuries) what historians now reckon to be between one-third and one-half of the Mediterranean world.

And in reminding the Church of this throughout the Great Jubilee, but above all in his walk where the Lord Jesus had walked, John Paul II was, in one sense, completing his authoritative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council: the Council that John XXIII had summoned in order to recenter the Church on Christ. In the two decades following the Council, the Church had often become inwardly focused.          The transformation of the Church that John Paul II worked so hard to accomplish through the various initiatives noted here had at its heart a turn from ecclesiocentrism to Christocentrism: a recentering of the Church’s life and mission on the proclamation that Jesus Christ is the Light of the Nations.

Bending the Course of History in a More Humane Direction

If October 22, 1978, marked the beginning of John Paul II’s Christocentric renovation of the Catholic Church, the days and weeks that followed say the emergence of the Catholic Church on the world stage as a major actor in the drama of modern history and the protagonist of human freedom, especially religious freedom.

The prompt dispatch of Wojtyła’s cardinal’s zucchetto to the Ostrabrama Shrine here in Vilnius symbolized John Paul’s determination to be a voice for those whose voices totalitarian power tried to extinguish. That gesture of personal solidarity was reciprocated, less than a month after Wojtyła’s election, by the founding of the Lithuanian Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights. That this initiative was perceived as a mortal threat by the Soviet authorities was made clear by the sentencing of key leaders of the Committee to the GULAG camps.

Then there were the Nine Days of John Paul II’s first pilgrimage to Poland, from June 2 – 10, 1979.

My 1992 book, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, was the first in English – and perhaps in other languages, too – to argue that the Pope and the Church were pivotal figures in what we have come to know as the Revolution of 1989, the crack-up of European communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The analysis in the book was met with some skepticism at the time. But within a decade and a half of its publication, America’s premier historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University, would write that the beginning of the end of European communism came when John Paul II stepped off his plane at Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979. That John Paul II was a pivotal figure in the drama of the Revolution of 1989 – and perhaps the pivotal figure – is, happily, now widely acknowledged.

What is perhaps not so well understood, however, is how John Paul did what he did, and what it means for our understanding of the dynamics of history.

During the Nine Days of June 1979, the Pope helped ignite a revolution of conscience that made possible the nonviolent political revolution that followed. And he ignited that revolution of conscience by giving back to the people of Poland the truth about themselves, their history, and above all their culture – just as the Committee for the Defense of Believers’ Rights and the Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania did in this country. Own that culture, he said – own the truth about yourselves as a people formed by a distinctive history in which your Christian faith played a significant role – and you will eventually find tools of cultural and spiritual resistance that the blunt material force of communism cannot match.

By planting what Father Józef Tischner would later call a “forest of aroused consciences,” John Paul II made possible a distinctive kind of social and political transformation that not only lifted the yoke of communist rule from Poland, Lithuania, and the other captive nations of the old Warsaw Pact; he also falsified the Jacobin view of history (history is the contest for power, understood as my capacity to impose my will on you) and the Marxist view of history (history is the by-product of impersonal economic forces). The Jacobin view of history married to the Marxist view of history had produced Leninist totalitarianism. That plague was defeated by John Paul II’s culture-driven view of history: that culture is the driver of history over the long haul, and that at the heart of culture is “cult” – what we believe and what we worship.

Centesimus Annus, John Paul II’s most developed social encyclical, was issued in 1991. It applied this “culture-first” view of history to the prospects for the free society in the post-Cold War world, teaching that the institutions and mechanisms of political and economic freedom would only function properly if they were supported by a vibrant public moral culture, rooted in the truth about the human person and capable of fostering the virtue of solidarity: the sense of fellow-feeling, mutual responsibility, and common moral obligation within society that animated the Revolution of 1989 and Lithuania’s self-liberation.

Thus the “world” impact of John Paul II should be understood as a heroic effort to develop a nobler humanism for the 21st century and third millennium.

Karol Wojtyła had long been concerned about the condition of the great project of Western humanism, as a result of his philosophical studies (which had shown him that the humanistic project was collapsing into forms of secularized and self-referential solipsism) and his pastoral experience (which had shown him how that self-absorption was having damaging effects on individual lives, intimate human relationships, and society itself).

Thus in his submission to the Vatican commission preparing the agenda for the Second Vatican Council, young Bishop Wojtyła suggested that the Council address this crisis of humanism by focusing on Christ as he who reveals both the truth about God and the truth about our humanity: which the Council did, particularly in paragraphs 22 and 24 of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Similarly, in his major philosophical work, Person and Act, Wojtyła sought to break the humanistic project out of the prison of self-absorption by demonstrating that there are objective moral truths built into us, truths that reveal themselves through careful analysis and that, lived, make for individual human flourishing and social solidarity.

This enduring concern for the Western humanistic project came to the papacy with Wojtyła and was on full display during the pontificate of John Paul II.

In the 1998 encyclical on faith and reason, Fides et Ratio, John Paul demonstrated the mutual interdependence of these two attributes of the fully human person, teaching that faith kept reason open to broader horizons of experience and ultimately knowledge, while reason helped purify faith of superstition. Or as he put it in the encyclical, faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit rises to a contemplation of the truth – and it is only in the truth that we are truly free.

A revitalized and ennobled humanism also required a new dialogue between religion and science: another aspect of John Paul’s determination to heal the breach between faith and reason. The Pope’s re-examination of the Galileo affair was one example of his efforts to move religion and science beyond old antipathies; so was his ongoing personal dialogue with scientists, with whom he gathered at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo on numerous occasions.

John Paul II’s historic efforts to open a new level of dialogue between Christians and Jews also reflected this determination to build a nobler humanism: the world needed the witness of the two peoples of the Bible to the truths about the inalienable dignity of the human person revealed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. That witness could only be a common witness if those two peoples demonstrated the possibility of a genuine interreligious dialogue that transcended the pain of history.

And in both these sets of initiatives, John Paul II sought to demonstrate the true meaning of “tolerance:” which does not mean ignoring differences, but rather engaging differences within a bond of civility based on a mutual respect for the “other” as a fellow-seeker of the truth.

When he was writing Person and Act, Karol Wojtyla described that project to the French theologian Henri de Lubac as a response to the “pulverization” of the human person in the late modern world. His efforts to build up a global culture of life, and his resistance to the encroachments of what he would call a “culture of death” that found expression in abortion and euthanasia, were just as much his responses to this “pulverization” as was his challenge to communism. The 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life] might therefore be understood as a different form of “social encyclical,” complementing the analysis of the free society in Centesimus Annus by teaching that democracies that defined objective moral wrongs as “rights” risked an incoherence that would ultimately undermine democratic self-governance. Thus the global pro-life movement, as he understood it, was both a social movement in defense of the weakest and most vulnerable of human creatures and an essential renovator of the moral and cultural foundations of democracy. Pro-life advocacy on behalf of the unborn, the severely handicapped, and the gravely ill was a matter of “solidarity extended” – and a further plank in the platform of a renewed and ennobled humanism.

Making Hard Decisions

I was a formal witness in the beatification/canonization cause of John Paul II, and I do not think I violate the “Pontifical Secret” I swore to respect by noting that, like other witnesses, I was asked to assess John Paul’s life through the prism of the virtues: the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and moderation.

This posed an interesting question: What does it mean to live the virtue of prudence heroically (for the heroic practice of the virtues is one measure of sanctity as the Church understands it)? As I thought about this, is seemed to me that the heroic practice of prudence cannot mean that a pope’s every decision was correct. That is impossible. Popes make mistakes, even saintly popes. Therefore, I came to the view that for a pope to practice the virtue of prudence heroically means that he made his decisions after suitable reflection, seeking the counsel of others, but above all “without fear or favor” – decisions were made without fear of what they might mean by way of criticism (or worse); decisions were made on the merits of the case, not to please someone or for any other ulterior reason.

That, as I understand it, was how John Paul II confronted the hardest challenges facing the Church in his day, and how he made his decisions about meeting those challenges.

It has often been said that John Paul II was not an adept administrator. This is not-quite-right. It is true that he was not a micro-manager, as his predecessor, Paul VI, had been. But if the mark of a good administrator is to set large goals and patiently work to achieve them, then the record of accomplishment I have just outlined suggests that John Paul II was a very good administrator of the Church’s affairs.

He did not force decisions before the time was ripe. He was patient over the short haul while keeping his focus on long-term goals. He trusted his own judgment, but he was open to the input of others. He was self-aware enough to know that there were men and women who knew more about some matters than he did, and he drew on their counsel. He did not conduct the papacy as the Catholic equivalent of czarist autocracy. He knew that he was the servant of Catholic tradition, not its master.

As for those who “read” his pontificate through the lens of what we now know about such men as Marcial Maciel and Theodore McCarrick, let this be said: Maciel and McCarrick were psychopaths; psychopaths deceive people, even saints. To suggest that John Paul II knew of the grave sins and crimes of these men and ignored them is nothing short of calumny. It is also inconceivable to anyone who knew Karol Wojtyła that he would ever countenance the sexual abuse of anyone, and especially young people. When John Paul II said to the American episcopate, during the American abuse crisis of 2002, “There is no place in the priesthood and in religious life for those who would harm the young,” he was expressing a conviction he had lived throughout his life, and as both archbishop of Kraków and Bishop of Rome.

There is no such creature as a “perfect pope.” Perfection is not the standard by which we measure papal greatness: fidelity to Christ and tireless witness to Christ’s truth is the standard. And because of he met that standard, many of us speak, with good reason and confidence, about “Pope Saint John Paul the Great.”

GEORGE WEIGEL is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. In 2014 he was awarded the Lithuanian Diplomacy Star in recognition of his work on behalf of human rights in Lithuania and his support of Lithuanian prisoners of conscience.