Gerard Noel assesses John Paul II's papacy over the past 15 years. Has the militant, colourful Pope proved himself a listener as well as a leader?
THE 3 OCTOBER PASTORAL letter of the English bishops was at great pains to stress that homosexuality and contraception received only "one or two passing references" in Pope John Paul's latest, and now famous encyclical, lieritatis Splendor.
Two inferences flow from this circumstance, each, in a different way, throwing much light on a colourful pontificate which began 15 years ago today.
Considering the technically heterodox opinions of so many modern Catholics about homosexuality, and, even more so, about contraception, it was no doubt very prudent of the Pope to gloss them over (if we are to believe the bishops) in his encyclical. But, then, he is a very prudent man in ways, as argued below, not always fully realised.
More interestingly, perhaps, the studied underplaying of papal concern with these two particular, and very controversial, matters, is highly characteristic of official as opposed to popular reactions to his pastoral image as a whole.
He is, in other words, adored by most of the Catholic public. Official attitudes, on the other hand, are more cautious and are conditioned by apprehension as to the "small print" of papal pronouncements.
How then, can one do justice in a short article, to such a larger-than-life papacy? Perhaps this is the key: as a highly successful populist
Pope, it is far more impor tant to John
personally to be loved by the masses than to be liked by the intellectuals. For it is thus, he feels, that he can exert maximum influence on the modern world.
He may well be right. But a vital question remains to be answered: how sensitive has this Pope been to the people and events wherein the great John XXIII recognised "the signs of the times"? In the course (Obis massive travels, for exam
important to John Paul to be loved by the masses than to be liked by the intellectuals'
ple, has he been a good listener?
I asked this very question, in a different form, nearly 15 years ago when completing a book called The Anatomy of the Catholic Church. The book, about to be reissued in a new form, was not meant to be a definitive assessment of the Church in 1979. Rather, it was it an interim report on the post-concilmore jar Church which was conditional on what the attitude thereto would be of the new Pope. The final paragraph pointed out that the recently elected John Paul II would be meeting more people, all over the world, than any Pope before him. To this thought was added the crucial question: "But will he listen?"
The same question must now be asked, but in the past tense: has he listened? Most would say "no," but of these, many would add "quite right too!" The Pope, they argue, must lead, not follow. It is
precisely in this area that his prudence, as mentioned above, comes in.
Beset on all sides by thorny problems and cruel dilemmas, he has decided boldly to take centre stage and address himself to the basics of right and wrong.
By stressing the broad issues, he has managed, quite separately, to "privatise" many theological misgivings and let them be handled, as far as possible, by curial officials.
Fr Bernard Haring, for example, the most respected Catholic moral theologian of
modern times, wrote to the Pope in 1988 asking him to
consider carefully the impact on the hard-pressed faithful of the continuance of his absolute ban on contraception.
"The Pope's teaching office," he wrote, "should not become a battle cry of the Church's intransigent hussars, and as a result for many others an incomprehensible myth." The Pope's reaction was characteristic. He did not reply.
John Paul, however, cannot be accused of hiding his views on what he considers the big issues.
His uninhibited and momentous "reply" to a world engaged in trying to "get his measure" came in 1982. In that year he took a step unprecedented in papal history by granting the unique status of "personal prelature" to the organisation known as Opus Dei.
This was the most important action of his reign. For he thereby set up a virtual private army to do for him what the Jesuits were called upon to do for the Popes of the Counter-Reformation: to fight back, tooth and nail, against modern errors and heresies.
This will be the final test of the Pope's prudence but it is a long-term affair. It is far too early at this stage to venture any firm, let alone final, judgement.