It is with a heavy heart that I write these reflections on the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II. You will hear, over the coming days and weeks, an endless number of commentators analyze his monumental contribution to human dignity and betterment.
One can only affirm this. John Paul’s ministry was ecumenical in the best sense of the word: He reached out to people of all faiths and they, in turn, perceived in him a boundless compassion and love.
There are a variety of ways in which the legacy left by the pope to the Church and the world is being articulated. In some versions, there is a downright inaccurate view of the pope’s social teaching.
For some, it is simply impossible to conceive of John Paul II favoring free markets and limited government as the normative way to help the poor rise from their poverty, while at the same time understanding that he decried a culture of materialism and consumerism. In their minds, to side with the poor means simply to advocate some form of socialistic economic planning.
Likewise, it has almost become a predictable fashion of the “Vatican expert” to observe that, yes, while the person of John Paul II was charismatic, and in many respects innovative and exciting, his legacy contains an essential contradiction. With an approving smile, they point out that he was “progressive” in his understanding of “social justice.” But the smiles turn into frowns when they observe that the pope was “regressive and conservative” in his moral theology.
Having studied the writings of John Paul II over the years, and having met the man and worked with his associates, I can tell you that such approaches fail to grasp the richness of the pope’s mind and the orthodox faith which inspired his actions and teaching.
The greatest mistake in analyzing this pontificate is made in assuming that simply because its teachings are counter-cultural (which indeed they were and are) that they must be “antiquated” or some such thing. One left-wing nun bemoaned the fact that John Paul's view of morality was derived from somewhere in the 13th century. Actually, it is much older that. It goes back to the 1st century and, indeed, farther back than that – to Sinai.
Something can be out of sync with the contemporary culture because it is outdated; but it can also seem out of sync because it is prescient. Besides, since when does modernity become the standard of truth?
One of the most important lessons that John Paul has left us is a renewed understanding that things are not worthless simply because they are old (whether people or values). He showed us why we do not hold to things simply because they are old, but because they are true.
One of the marks of John Paul's greatness was his rejection of ideological categories and limitations and his ability to hold complex thoughts together as a result. For him, there was no contradiction between celebrating the vocation of business leaders, as he does so innovatively in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, while upholding and defending the rights and dignity of simple peasants. In his view, both positions flowed, not from some poll he took, but from the intrinsic dignity and eternal destiny of the human person: a being at once unique, unrepeatable and immortal.
To John Paul it made no difference if the human life in need of protection and affirmation was in the womb or a hospital ward, in a bean field or in a board room.
This is not a contradiction. This is coherence a coherence that has been fractured largely as the result of the continued fascination with an outmoded understanding of class conflict which still grips the hearts of too many of our elites. In opposition to this, John Paul called for and believed in an essential harmony in the universe, which has its origin in the One Creator God.
It is one of the greatest honors of my life to have met and served this man who was at the same time larger-than-life, and yet intimately personal.
All of us will be able to bless the fact and tell the next generation that we were honored to walk the earth at the same time as he.
Fr. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.
(This article is a product of the Acton Institute www.acton.org, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 and is reprinted with permission.)