The Pope's Critics

When Karol Wojtyla became Pope in 1978, he was a young and fit 58, ruddy-faced, shaped by the outdoors, vibrant with energy. He took the names of the two Popes of Vatican II, John XXIII and Paul VI, to signify his intention of putting Vatican II into practice as thoroughly round the world as he had already done in Krakow.

One thing was unusual: This new Pope saw the whole Church spread around the planet as one People of God, and his own task as Pope as that of becoming a "universal Pastor." Wherever he went, he surrounded himself with bishops from all over, to show that the papacy is a brotherly teaching office, not a kingly one. Catholic "progressives" in North America, however, will never forgive him. I have met two priests who say with some intensity that they pray every day for his speedy passage to God. Former priest James Carroll calls for the Pope's resignation, and preposterously describes the Pope's policies as "anti-reform--closed, secretive, dishonest, totalitarian."

"Progressives" such as Carroll have developed their own legend about Vatican II. They imagine that Vatican II repealed the strong papacy of Vatican I and even the Council of Trent, and gave the Church over in a revolutionary way to "the people of God." Power to the people!

Last weekend in Boston, for instance, a new organization called Voice of the Faithful compared its own uprising to the U.S. War of Independence in 1776. They predicted a new democratic church, run from the bottom up. Some 66 theologians calling themselves Catholic sent them a letter of theological support.

This new group is trying to decide whether the new church it is founding will be Anglican (that is, Catholic, but without a Pope, sailing with the winds of the times) or Congregationalist (that is, parish-centred and parish-led, with as little to do with bishops and Pope as can be worked out). The one thing clear is that this new group does not want to be Catholic, as Catholic has been understood by, say, the Councils of Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. And as Paul VI, and John XXIII and on back, understood it.

The "progressives" will not forgive John Paul II because what they call sexual liberation the Pope, in a quite well-founded, traditional way, regards as the tyranny of the libido, a form of slavery. Whereas they want eagerly to accept the norms of secular society on divorce, homosexual acts, premarital sex, and other pelvic desires, the Pope stands with "the democracy of the dead," the voice of the faithful of the past, so many martyrs, so many lovers of chastity. The Pope's unflinching stand is an outrage to those who regard "Vatican II" as their own playpen, within which to do what they feel like doing. In their minds, "Vatican II" overturned everything unpleasant and challenging in the teaching of the Church. It left them feeling liberated. At this late date, they don't want to re-examine their own legend.

Among the most powerful and deeply resented of the Pope's initiatives is the new, phenomenological foundation he has given "the theology of the body." "Progressives" avoid arguments at that depth. But it is exactly the unity which the Pope sees between soul and body, the unity arising from our persons being thoroughly embodied, and our bodies being thoroughly pervaded by our personhood, that makes the Pope's vision seem so "together." He looks at young people whole. He calls them to their wholeness.

That is what young people are responding to.

Richard McBrien, the theologian at the University of Notre Dame who has not had three kind words for Karol Wojtyla in 24 years, says that the Pope is now too weak, too ill, to be the kind of "draw" that he used to be.

There was never a day on which Richard McBrien could "draw" one hundred thousand young people (much less, think of that as a "low turnout.") I have never had such a day myself.

For Pope John Paul II, anything less than a crowd of four or five million, such as he has had several times since 1978, seems like an intimate gathering.

No man in history has been physically seen by so many people in the flesh at any one time. Altogether, cumulatively, certainly no one comes even close. Those who see him in Toronto will be joining the largest cumulative crowd ever to see one man in history. It is as if he has wanted to bless physically every man and woman on the planet. Even his critics. Even his enemies.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Michael Novak, a philosopher, theologian, and author, is the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. His latest book is No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers (Doubleday, 2008).
  • Phone: 2028625838

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