When George Weigel was writing the definitive (thus far) biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, he posted a note on his computer that said simply: “It’s the theology, stupid.” It was easy to get caught up in John Paul’s celebrity status, his globe-trotting and the history-changing role he played in geopolitical affairs. Indeed, this is what the supposedly adulatory coverage of the pope’s passing on April 2 focused on: the well-travelled pope who was adored by hundreds of millions and who helped bring down the Soviet Union and its empire.
The commentary following John Paul’s passing highlighted those aspects of his life and “balanced” it with coverage of how “his” conservative (or traditional) views on the matters of abortion, homosexuality, birth control, women’s ordination and married priests had caused friction within the Catholic church. What none of these commentators seemed to understand was that John Paul was not merely expressing a personal opinion, but rather, he was proclaiming the teaching of the Catholic church and defending the faith passed on through the generations by Jesus Christ through Peter and his successors, with the help of the Holy Spirit.
That is, at the very least, what the Catholic church teaches and even if journalists and other critics don’t believe it, they should acknowledge that is what Catholics are supposed to believe and certainly, what John Paul II believed.
Because they did not acknowledge that fact, John Paul’s critics also failed to understand a seeming paradox: how could the man who so virulently opposed and helped bring communist totalitarianism crashing down, brook no dissent within the Catholic church on matters of morality and the priesthood? There are a myriad of reasons for this seeming contradiction, but the most important and simple one is that the dichotomy is false. John Paul opposed the communist regime for the same reason he opposed the culture of death and all its attendant evils: abortion, euthanasia, contraception, cloning, embryonic research, sex outside marriage, homosexuality. He opposed them because they failed to recognize the dignity of man.
John Paul II’s Christian humanism – freedom that recognizes moral truth – is both a criticism of every excess of the 20th century (communism, Nazism, consumerism, the culture of death, abject poverty, war and torture) and a path to righteous living. It is so because it is a gospel of life. What is lost when one focuses on the celebrity, the huge crowds he garnered around the world and the enormous influence in world affairs, is the fact that Pope John Paul II was a priest leading his flock.
John Paul outlined, for society in general and Catholics in particular, a path to a free, prosperous and virtuous society. To do that required that he (and us) evangelize the culture, change hearts and minds and respect the dignity of every human being. Every evil (from abortion to war to extreme poverty), as John Paul wrote when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, results from the failure to recognize the “fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” The corrective, cardinal Wojtyla found, was in rediscovering the “inviolable mystery of the person.” That is, a radical recapturing of authentic, Christian humanism. It was at the centre of every letter, homily, address and pronouncement he made on moral, social and cultural issues.
John Paul recognized the supremacy of culture, because he knew that politics depended upon what kind of society that politics took place in (the culture) and that society is shaped by its religious practices and outlooks or lack thereof. Therefore, John Paul sought to evangelize, and especially evangelize the gospel of life.
While he did so in numerous ways, including various writings and speeches, the most important one was his 1995 encyclical letter, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). He wrote Evangelium Vitae, he said, because, “The Gospel of Life is at the heart of Jesus’s message,” which must be “preached … as ‘good news’ to the people of every age and culture.” At the end of the bloodiest century of human history, that news was desperately needed.
Upon Evangelium Vitae’s publication, Joe Thompson wrote in Catholic Insight that it dealt with “life at all its stages, with all the assaults on it, with all the motives for them and with the answer to them.” These assaults are what John Paul called the culture of death. As Thompson explained, “The answer to it is a culture of life. The latter is to be found in the Gospel. Hence, the Gospel of Life.”
Man has value, John Paul wrote in Evangelium Vitae, because he shares his life with God, so that “even in its temporal phase,” life has “greatness and inestimable value” that is wrong to take away. Every person has the right to have his “sacred value of life” affirmed “to the highest degree.” That means abortion is always wrong, as is euthanasia and contraception that kills new life. The taking of innocent life, furthermore, is a heresy, “a revolt against God” through the “deadly combat of man against man.” (Contraception is always wrong, even when it is not abortifacient, because it allows couples to deny the gift of life that is sacred.)
John Paul II noted the culture of death – which Catholic Insight magazine editor Fr. Alphonse deValk describes as “a culture which leads to the eclipse of God and the death of democracy ”- is founded on sin (“structures of sin”) and is, therefore, a grave and immediate matter for the Catholic church and the larger culture. Importantly, John Paul II was reiterating the church’s teaching that politicians and voters cannot support laws that are immoral – especially those that result in the death of innocent human beings, such as abortion, euthanasia and scientific research or medical treatment that depends upon the death of human life at any stage.
Again, the focus on culture of life issues was not a matter of John Paul imposing his own moral view on the Catholic church or on any particular nation. What was personal was the degree to which he went to highlight them, to challenge the world, especially the West, to overcome the culture of death and celebrate the dignity of human life from the moment of creation until natural death. Under John Paul II, the Holy See defended pro-life positions at the United Nations in opposing pro-cloning measures and attempts to declare abortion a universal human right. Across the globe, bishops were directed to call pro-abortion, anti-family politicians to account. Over the past two years, John Paul II repeatedly urged nations to resist same-sex “marriage” and destructive embryonic stem cell research.
John Paul II’s relentless opposition to abortion and all aspects of the culture of death, including assaults on the family, were a reaffirmation of the church’s teaching. They were not new teaching. Never has the Catholic church supported homosexual acts and never has it countenanced the killing of innocents. There was a deposit of faith to defend and defend John Paul II defended it.
It was not the substance, but the tone and frequency, that set John Paul II apart from other religious leaders and other popes. As Father David O’Connell, president of Catholic University in Washington, told the Voice of America, the Pope left a pro-life legacy in which he reasserted the moral values the Catholic church holds dear. O’Connell said John Paul’s “talking about abortion reflects his consistent belief and conviction, and the consistent belief of the Catholic church, in the sacredness of human life and every human life, from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.” President George W. Bush, a Methodist, said the pontiff “reminded us of our obligation to build a culture of life, in which the strong protect the weak.” As Bush recognized, in defending human life, John Paul II was a “faithful servant of God.” John Paul II focused on defending human life, because during his pontificate, human life needed defending.
Fr. Frank Pavone, of Priests for Life, said, “His (John Paul’s) teachings will guide and nourish the church for centuries … In particular, his teachings on the sanctity of life, especially the unborn, will continue to stir our consciences to build a culture of life.” One hopes so, but this will only be true if we understand that John Paul II was more than a historical figure who shaped world events. He was not a politician, but someone much larger, important and influential: he was a priest.
During his first visit to Washington, he exhorted American parents to give their children more brothers and sisters, instead of more toys. This was, at once, parenting advice, sociological comment and much more.
But it is only truly and fully comprehensible when one recognizes that the comment was based deeply in the theology, stupid.