On the Legacy of St. John Paul the Great

The feast of St. John Paul II was celebrated on October 22, the 39th anniversary of Karol Wojtyła’s formal installation as the Bishop of Rome. This occasion is an ideal time to reflect on St. John Paul the Great’s contribution to the Church and the world.

Papal biographer George Weigel continues writing about the late Pope’s legacy, about the reception and incorporation of John Paul’s teaching by the Church. That theme is prominent in his writings, especially Witness to Hope and The End and the Beginning. It’s probably the reason he was tapped to be the papal biographer: as he notes in his latest book, Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II, the pope himself insisted “I can only be understood from inside.” “How to probe into that rich interior life, and then relate it to his teaching and his action in the Church and world was the challenge in preparing his biography,” says Weigel.

The Person and the Act—one of Karol Wojtyła’s most important books—poses the conundrum of everyman: action tells us a lot about whom someone is. John Paul’s papacy was rich in action: prayer, sanctifying, teaching, governing, doing.

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The question is: the legacy.

Weigel’s books about John Paul are very Catholic because they assume what we call “the communion of saints.” Weigel hardly thinks that the John Paul phase of his life ended April 2, 2005. In the ensuing decade and more, he has repeatedly returned to the question: what are we doing today to apply the rich heritage bequeathed to us by St. John Paul the Great?

On this anniversary feast, I want to ask the same thing, especially in three areas:

Marital and Family Ethics
As Weigel tells us in Lessons in Hope, John Paul was particularly pleased with his 1981 exhortation, Familiaris consortio, and his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae. “The linchpin of the whole structure, though, was the Theology of the Body, and the Pope was happy to hear that it had made an impression on young people who didn’t expect to be impressed by a papal reflection on sex and love.”

I think we still do not appreciate the revolutionary thing that happened in the general audiences from 1981-85 when, for four years, the pope developed a comprehensive, Scripturally-based, spiritual and pastoral theology of sex and marriage that affirmed the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church in this area. Public appreciation for his teaching is made harder because in many quarters, the idea that “male and female he created them” is seen at best as a quaint but outdated sentimentality, at worst a vicious discrimination to be wholly stamped out.

I came first to appreciate the sexual ethics of Karol Wojtyła because, in its essence, what he was saying in very sophisticated and philosophical language about love and moral action was the same thing I learned at the knee of my Polish-American mother. I say that because we are at a historical juncture when the things most people learned at their mother’s knee—like “male and female he created them”—is under extreme assault by a combination of relativization and marginalization.

Pope Francis has repeatedly attacked what he calls the “ideology of gender,” but at a time when the world needs the Church’s clear, loud, and unequivocal defense of our Genesis heritage—that “male and female he created them”—that witness is distracted by the sideshow of recycling Walter Kasper’s 1977 ideas about Communion for the divorced and “remarried.” The ongoing debate over Amoris laetitia and the pope’s refusal to answer the dubia issued in response to it compromises the clarity of the Church’s witness and saps its vitality in addressing the real pastoral and anthropological question under assault today.

The Theology of the Body is perhaps even more important today than when Wojtyła began expatiating on Genesis in the fall of 1981. We should particularly focus on making it known to young people, because the pastoral problem of “Nones”—those who call themselves religiously unaffiliated (although usually claiming to be “spiritual”)—is a kind of libertarian sexual ethic that, in practice, rejects the normativity of “male and female he created them.”

Social Ethics
On questions of social ethics, St. John Paul managed to gore sacred oxen on both the Right and Left. What both forget is that human society must be built on participation and solidarity, the absence of which are the cause of many of the socio-economic problems that roil American and Western politics.

In Laborem exercens, John Paul applied the same principle he did in sexual ethics: the primacy of the person. Just as the person is not just for sexual pleasure, neither is he just for money. The primacy of labor over capital means that a human economy is one in which people trump profits.

At the same time, in Centesimus annus, John Paul made clear that an economy that serves people must take account of profit, economic reality, property rights, and creativity. The pope steers a third way, not in the sense of devising a new economic system but of asking existing systems to measure themselves against (a) persons and (b) reality. Against the Scylla of unrestrained profit, the pope is clear that communities, professions, and jobs cannot just be discarded as drags on the bottom line. Against the Charybdis of some quasi-Catholic “socialism” that ignores the track record modern capitalism has acquired in lifting large numbers of people out of poverty, the pope insists that Catholicism wants to expand the economic pie, not just redistribute it.

Today’s Catholicism seems unsure in how to hold those two elements together. On the one hand, there is a proclivity—especially 50 years after Populorum progressio and with an Argentine Jesuit pope whose order has made “the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement”—to return to notions of economic redistribution, with some underlying assumption that the poor are poor because the rich are rich. On the other hand, there remains a core of thinkers who consider any social intervention in the marketplace to everything from naïve sentimentality to creeping socialism. Want your town to have jobs, even if it is in upper New York State? Clearly you are a lazy loafer who does not recognize it’s you who should get up and move, to follow the industry that left your town in the dust. As long as these two extremes remain disconnected from the value of the person, our politics will be polarized by Rust Belt resentment/working class malaise and the siren call of “remedies” that involve socialism, be it Green Mountain, Perónist, or other varieties.

Wojtyła’s defense of participation in the economic sphere brings us back to the anthropological question: if man becomes who he is through action, then what he does in the workplace does not accomplish things outside him but, above all, shapes what is in him. One does not check one’s personal value, much less one’s conscience, upon punching the timecard.

Pastoral Theology
John Paul never thought that pastoral theology was something essentially different from theology. Pastoral care was, first of all, rooted in truth—the truth of man and the truth of love. There was nothing “pastoral” about diluting the truth of the human person and of love; what Weigel disparagingly yet rightly calls “Catholic Lite” is not good pastoral care.

This theological unity drove his episcopal ministry, both in Kraków and Rome. In his 1972 study on the implementation of Vatican II, Sources of Renewal, Wojtyła insisted the Second Vatican Council was both a pastoral and a doctrinal council because its teaching addressed “what does it mean to be a believer, a Catholic, and a member of the Church” in the contemporary world. As Weigel notes, John Paul did want a public Church, not one that depended on state privilege but one that unapologetically was part of the public square. If lay people were to be the leaven of the earth, they needed priests to be priests: 24/7, genuinely involved with their people, not on bankers’ hours, with federal holidays off.

We have recently a resurgence of a flawed theology, somewhat in vogue in the immediate years after Vatican II, that put “theology” here and its “pastoral application” there. It saw priests as “pastors,” i.e., good-natured Bing Crosbys who, could croon “they don’t know much theology, don’t do that philosophy, don’t know much about a metaphysics book, don’t know much about the Latin I took” and therefore, with a wink and a nod, waive the implications for Catholic living of Catholic doctrine. John Paul was not that kind of pastor and not that kind of a priest, and his example of a teaching priest, up to the moment he died, led to something most people who would not have expected when he was elected in 1978: that young people would assemble, 26 years later, in St. Peter’s Square to cry for a dead pope. Some would have called John Paul “heroic.” He would have described himself simply as a “priest.”

The legacy of John Paul remains a rich source of potential renewal for the Church, a Church that can be forever young in the Spirit. Are we wise enough to plumb its depths?

(Photo credit: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano)


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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