The death of John Paul II has elicited an amazing amount of copy on both sides of the Irish Sea and in many other places. Christopher Caldwell in the weekend’s FT had an incisive analysis of his papacy, and what made him distinctive. He describes his reign as that of the first post Constatinian. Which makes him hard to put into any contemporary or classical political boxes:
John Paul II defies classification as a political conservative or liberal. Most Americans and Europeans would put him in the former camp because of his role in publicly encouraging the opponents of communism, beginning with his first papal visit to Poland in 1979. In the early 1980s he warned leftwing clerics in Brazil and Nicaragua to stay out of politics. Many saw a theological conservatism to match the political one. As early as 1984, Giancarlo Zizola, who covers the Vatican for the Il Sole 24 Ore newspaper, wrote: “Most people believe that present papal policy is a regression into dogma in all its archaic authoritarian form.” The Pope extolled freedom of conscience but worried that it could lead to relativism if not reined in, warning in the early 1990s that Europe was drifting into a “new paganism”. A recent Washington Post commentator described his as a “centralising, authoritarian pontificate”.
And yet, the Pope’s politics has looked different when viewed from poor countries. He is the first pontiff to assume his audience is not merely Christendom but humanity. The rapprochement with other faiths that was central to Vatican II was central partly because he, as a young bishop, made it so. One of his abiding preoccupations as Pope was to resolve doctrinal differences that stood in the way of a reconciliation between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. He visited synagogues and mosques. Nor have his non-religious positions been tailored to comfort reactionaries. He opposed the Falklands war, the Gulf war and the Iraq war. No sooner had the Berlin Wall fallen than he began vituperating the “social sins” of capitalism, particularly the worldwide gap between rich and poor, and calling for a reform of the global economy. On a visit to Brazil, he gave his episcopal ring to a penniless slum-dweller.
Judging the Pope on purely ideological grounds is a dead end. An academic philosopher of distinction, he is among the mightiest intellects ever to have served as pope, but simply tallying up his political positions makes him appear either illogical or arbitrary. George Weigel, the papal biographer, holds that the Pope has been a much less political figure than his predecessors and can be understood only theologically. In the first “post-Constantinian” papacy, Mr Weigel has written, John Paul II declined to act like a head of state, choosing instead to appeal to individual consciences through persuasion. The Pope’s theology – according to such exegetes as Mr Weigel and Rocco Buttiglione, the Italian philosopher-politician – is a combination of classic Catholic theology (Thomas Aquinas) and 20th century phenomenology (Husserl, Max Scheler, et al). The Pope espouses what Eamon Duffy, church historian, calls “the supreme value of free and loving moral action, in which each person realises their own individuality”.
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