Rory Leishman
The Interim

In a banner story on the death of Pope John Paul II, Christianity Today noted that while some of the most strident criticism of the Pope’s legacy was coming from liberal Catholics, most evangelical Protestants were “unreserved” in their praise of this Catholic leader “on political, social and even theological matters.”

The Rev. Billy Graham led the way, by declaring: “Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most influential voice for morality and peace in the world during the last 100 years.” In a widely syndicated radio broadcast, Charles Colson, the founder of the Prison Fellowship ministry, was no less effusive, lauding the Pope as “an extraordinary human being.” Colson added: “And I say that as a devout Southern Baptist.”

President George W. Bush, one of the world’s most prominent Protestant laymen, likewise paid handsome tribute to Pope John Paul II. Asked about the assessment of former president Bill Clinton that the Pope was a great man who had left a “mixed legacy,” Bush disagreed, insisting that His Holiness had left a “clear,” “strong” and “excellent” legacy of peace, compassion and moral clarity.

What accounts for such enthusiastic Protestant appreciation for this Catholic leader? Part of the explanation relates to the grace and charm of John Paul II. He invited Graham, Colson and other evangelical leaders to the Vatican. In the encyclical That They May Be One, he acknowledged that Catholics and Protestants can learn much from each other, as they engage in talks to reunify the holy Catholic church.

In recent years, these ecumenical discussions have made considerable progress. Today, most evangelical Protestants feel a far closer moral and spiritual affinity to faithful Catholics like Pope John Paul II than they do to liberal clerics like those who head the dwindling Anglican, Methodist and Presbyterian churches in North America.

Above all, evangelicals have admired John Paul II for his exemplary leadership in the struggle to uphold the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. In a radio address to the American people following the Pope’s funeral, Bush recalled how “John Paul preached that even the least among us bears the image of our Creator, so we must work for a society where the most vulnerable among us have the greatest claim on our protection. And by his own courageous example in the face of illness and suffering, he showed us the path to a culture of life, where the dignity of every human person is respected and human life at all its stages is revered and treasured.”

George and Laura Bush are members of the United Methodist Church. In an official doctrinal statement, this denomination states: “Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.” Yet, this church does approve all but late-term abortions, subject only to the qualification: “We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection.”

George and Laura Bush have repudiated this teaching of their own church. Like Graham, Colson and millions of other Protestants, they subscribe to the truth as authoritatively stated by John Paul II in The Gospel of Life: “I declare that direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the church.”

Until recently, there was no division among Christian denominations on this most vital moral issue. Like all the major Protestant reformers, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was pro-life. Jean Calvin taught: “The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being and it is a most monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy.”

The Protestant founders agreed that unqualified opposition to direct abortion is not only biblically sound, but also eminently reasonable. Yet, over the past 40 years, the principal Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches have all, to a greater or lesser degree, sanctioned the deliberate killing of babies in the womb.

Within these churches, thousands of parishioners dissent from this apostate teaching. Like George and Laura Bush, they repudiate the irrational excuses for abortion endorsed by liberal clerics. And they also deplore the twisted compassion of euthanasia zealots who not only sanction abortion, but also advocate the deliberate killing of the aged, the sick and the mentally handicapped.

Millions of Canadians were appalled by the cruel, judicially sanctioned killing of Terri Schiavo through starvation and dehydration. While liberal clerics did little or nothing to protest this outrage, faithful Catholics and Protestants were profoundly grateful that John Paul II repeatedly spoke out in defence of this handicapped woman’s inalienable right to life.

Colson emphasized that John Paul II “did not just settle for words” in upholding the sanctity of human life, but also “bore witness to the Gospel of Life in his own body” through the patient endurance of suffering during the last weeks and months of his life, when he could no longer speak. “In his death as in life,” said Colson, “John Paul has gotten our attention and passed on to us – to all Christians – a charge to keep: to defend the culture of life against the counterfeit and seductively dangerous ideas now so fashionable in modern life.”

Will this message catch hold? Will there be a renaissance of the culture of life? There is reason for hope, especially given the extraordinary grip that Pope John Paul II had upon the imaginations of young people.

President Bush observed: “As the Pope grew physically weaker, his spiritual bond with young people grew stronger. They flocked to him in his final moments, gathering outside his window to pray and sing hymns and light candles. With them, we honour this son of Poland who became the bishop of Rome, and a hero for the ages.”