Pope John Paul II's mixed legacy

Catholic scholar Mary Segers discusses Pope John Paul II's important role in Eastern Europe, failure to acknowledge women's independence, and belief that real Christianity thrived only in poor countries.

Published April 3, 2005 1:44AM (EST)

Mary Segers is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and an expert on the Catholic Church. She writes regularly about the role of the church in American politics and is the author of "The Catholic Church and Abortion Politics: A View From the States."

Speaking from her New Jersey office, Segers offered a lively and well-rounded analysis of Pope John Paul II's accomplishments. She noted his limited view of women's role in society and how the Vatican failed to react to the sex scandals that roiled the American Catholic Church toward the end of his tenure.

Pope John Paul II struggled to unify an increasingly fractious church, Segers said. His social conservatism seemed to contradict his successes in bringing Jews and Christians together and helping to end communism in Eastern Europe. His reign was controversial and his legacy has left the church with some important choices to make.

Pope John Paul II attracted crowds and attention like a rock star as he traveled around the world. Why was he so popular?

He's a very theatrical guy. As a young man, he was an actor and wrote plays. He was always a talented young man. As a student at Jagiellonian University, and at the Catholic University in Lublin, he was very active in the theater.

The Polish Fulbright director in Poland met him when he was a newly ordained priest. He said he knew the minute he met him that the guy was going to be pope. He's bright, articulate and speaks 11 languages fluently. He has enormous knowledge of philosophy. He clearly was an outstanding individual and people recognized that and made him pope. Then he had the whole world as his stage.

He has always had a theatrical presence and that's reflected in all the traveling he's done. I read one report that estimated that he's gone to the moon and back three and a quarter times in terms of the miles traveled.

What are the enduring elements of his legacy?

He was a Polish nationalist to the hilt and an anticommunist, as most Poles are. He didn't have any legions but he did have political power. The Poles set the pace and he was an important figure in starting the accordion-like collapse of the communist governments of Eastern Europe. He got the World Bank to give them money and was a channel for money from American labor unions to the Polish labor movement. He strongly supported the Solidarity movement.

He was also not afraid to criticize President Bush and Prime Minister Blair in the run-up to the Iraq war and he has remained critical of that war. In his writings, he's emphasized social justice, especially in the Third World. He urged the World Bank and the more affluent nations to forgive developing nations' debts.

What is the pope's greatest achievement?

The move that he made toward reconciliation between Christians and Jews was a major step. This is the first pope to have visited Israel and the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Back in Poland, he sent pastoral letters saying, "The Jews are our brothers." Poles found that hard to deal with. They were happy to listen to him when he said the communists were bad but they were not always open to that message.

He also visited Auschwitz in 1979 to call the world's attention to what had happened there and to remind Poles that this had also happened on Polish soil. In the 1990s, there were efforts by a group of Carmelite nuns to build a convent at Auschwitz and the pope used his influence behind the scenes to tell them to move it elsewhere.

What were his notable failures?

The Vatican was very slow to catch on to the sex abuse scandal here in the American church. They were slow to realize how important it was. The American Catholic Church is the largest single denomination in the United States. But the pope tended to dismiss Western Europeans, Americans and Canadians as being kind of affluent churches who have lost their way. He promoted the idea that the true rigor and purity of Christianity are to be found in the Southern hemisphere -- Latin America, Asia and Africa. Even in the case of his beloved Poland, he was particularly distressed that the Poles seemed to be becoming materialistic, just like those West Europeans in France.

Was the Vatican's handling of the sex scandal a personal failure of the pope's?

Not necessarily. I think his attention during 2002, the year when the scandal was in all the newspapers, was partly occupied by the buildup to the war in Iraq. The slowness of the Vatican to respond was not just the pope but the structure itself -- the bureaucracy was sort of befuddled by it. We now know it's a worldwide problem -- there have been cases of this all over, in Austria, Poland, Germany and Ireland.

I think he was trying to contain the reforms that were made during the more liberal Second Vatican Council. The entire Catholic Church has been struggling for the past 50 years to implement the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, but also, on the part of conservatives, to go back to pre-Vatican II days. In that struggle, I think the pope put his weight on the side on conservatism. People were saying there could be married priests, there could be women priests, celibacy is not good anymore. He was reluctant to face those challenges and he marginalized people in the church who called for those reforms. I think he thought that liberal reformist tendencies were going too far, that there would be a great deal of decentralization, and even anarchy in the church. He appointed leaders of the various church bureaucracies who would implement and reinforce that with their own rulings.

This is a big institution. There are 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide. Despite the fact that this leader in Rome has been the focus of media attention for the past several months, the church goes right on. There are only about 1,000 bureaucrats in Rome. It would be hard for anyone to have complete control over such a far-flung worldwide organization, but I think he tried.

The other issue is that he has centralized a great deal of authority in the Vatican. When the Cardinals come together to choose another pope, they may choose somebody who will give bishops and cardinals across the world a little more slack. I think there will be a move for greater decentralization and even local appointment of bishops.

How has the pope dealt with women's demands for reform?

He issued a lot of documents decreeing that the church was not going to ordain women. That, he said, was part of God's plan. But the pope is very devoted to the blessed Virgin. The Virgin Mary Czestochowa of Poland is a kind of national icon. That kind of Marian piety tends to exalt Mary as Virgin Mother and puts women on a pedestal as wives and mothers. That tradition is very deep in Polish Catholicism and in this pope's spirituality. His view is that men and women are complementary rather than equal -- the role of women is to be a wife and mother, to be the nurturer. It's been hard for the pope to deal with European feminists who have wanted to legalize abortion throughout the European Union. This is beyond his ken.

The Vatican has tried to offer a notion of "Christian feminism." For a while they were dismissive of feminism as a movement. But then they began to talk about Christian feminism, meaning that all other feminists were somehow beyond the pale.

What's Christian feminism?

The idea of women in their traditional roles -- no abortions would be allowed -- and women as nurturers and givers. It was also about women taking a leadership role but in a traditional way where anatomy is destiny. Any efforts on the part of women to control their reproductive lives were limited.

Was the pope responsible for the rift between the Vatican and American Catholics?

It's not clear there is a rift. There's a rift within the Catholic Church in the United States, even though there are conservative Catholics who fall all over every word the pope utters. Any new pope has to be concerned about the disunity of the church within the United States or the church anywhere. At the same time, you can't dismiss Catholics in the U.S. The American Catholic Church provides a lot of money to the Vatican.

Who are the front-runners for succeeding the pope?

The Archbishop of Milan is being mentioned. There's an Archbishop in Guatemala. Cardinal Francis Arinze from Nigeria is mentioned. There's Cardinal Hummes in Brazil. These people are going to have different priorities; their life experiences are different.

How is the next pope chosen?

The so-called conclave meets 15 to 20 days after the pope's death, and 119 cardinals under the age of 80 are locked up in the Sistine Chapel and sworn to secrecy. They have three possibilities. They can choose a pope by vocal proclamation, set up a committee of nine to 15 guys who will choose a pope, or have secret balloting that they all scrutinize. They have two of those ballots a day. The vote has to be two-thirds plus one. When a candidate gets that, white smoke will come out of the chimney.

What does the Catholic Church most need now?

A period of quiet and tranquility. They probably need another John XXIII, who lasted five years between 1958 and 1963. He was elected after a 20-year reign by Pius XXII because they thought of him as a transitional pope who would keep things in order before any kind of new, innovative person became pope. Of course, he turned out to be extraordinarily innovative. But they may look for an older man who is a transitional pope who will give this institution time to regroup. There will be a search for continuity. This is a major figure who has made all sorts of innovations. He's left a major legacy and there's a lot of mopping up afterward when such a person goes through our lives. Whoever is elected pope will have some very big shoes to fill.

By Julia Scott

San Francisco-based freelance journalist Julia Scott writes about water and energy issues for various publications. She also covers the environment for Bay Area News Group, a chain of newspapers in Northern California.

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