A divider, not a uniter

The charismatic Pope John Paul II chose not to engage all Catholics, and so leaves a tragic legacy of missed opportunity that has ultimately damaged the church.

Published April 4, 2005 1:52PM (EDT)

The death of friends, family and larger-than-life public persons is a time of great reflection -- on the past, on our own lives and on the future. I am sure many people have found in the illness, suffering and death of Pope John Paul II a rich opportunity not only for personal moral growth but also for considering the Roman Catholic Church of the future. As we review his life and his ministry, we are strengthened by the paths he took that enhanced human freedom and dignity. At the same time, we are, I am sure, saddened by the paths not taken, the opportunities missed. I want to share with you my own thoughts at this most important moment in the life of the Catholic community, especially the lives of women in the church, who are natural seekers of greater justice and freedom.

On a personal level, I always felt a certain affinity for this Polish man. He looked like most of the people in my family of Polish-American coal miners, and he seemed too often as harsh as they were. Hardened by a difficult work life and much deprivation, they were quicker to say no than to say yes and stubborn to the core. Of course, my reactions to him are largely projections, as I never saw him in person and certainly was not on his A-list, never having had a chance to engage him or be engaged by him.

In the past year or two as I watched the pope age, suffer physical pain and experience emotional frustration, my anger at what I saw as his enormous failure to open his heart to those in the church who saw the commandment of love and the meaning of human dignity differently than he did receded. I was grateful that through his public suffering and vulnerability, I now had something I could hold to as a positive spiritual gift.

I watched him lose his charisma (but not his charism), stumble, fall, nod off while on camera, but also carry on, using his failing body in the same way he used his strong body -- as a way to inspire and teach. I chose to learn from this, to let it inspire me. It has helped me understand my own embodied spirituality and passion for justice, and commit to using every ounce of my being for what I believe in. It has made me reflect on the concept of retirement, which I dearly long for.

John Paul II showed up for work every day until, we are told, the moment of his death. Nothing stopped him from serving God. This message, of course, will be experienced differently by the young Catholics whom he loved so much and by those of us gray-heads who are in the final phases of our service to humankind and cling to what we believed was the enduring contribution of the other charismatic 20th century papacy, that of John the XXIII.

I bristle a bit at the absence of any sense of history in the commentary on John Paul II. He was not the only 20th century pope with vision, charisma, mysticism and love of the poor. The enormous public recognition of those qualities had a lot to do with his longevity and the time in which he served. John XXIII was as inspiring, charming, stubborn, smart and committed as John Paul II. John XXIII opened the church to the 20th century, and John Paul II breezed through the door into the larger world. But John XXIII opened the church to internal democracy and left the church itself a better place; John Paul II, for all the bridges he built to the Jewish community, Islam and the poor, blew up the bridges that spanned the divide between clergy and laity, men and women, right and left, gay and straight. This is a great tragedy. The most important task of the next pope will be to rebuild those bridges.

I have always held the naive belief that John Paul II was really a better man than those whom he favored and lifted up to power in the church -- that as a true mystic and intellectual, if he had only been able to truly engage in dialogue with those in the church, he would not have blown up those bridges. Had he been able to talk quietly and privately with women who chose abortion, couples who desperately needed to use contraception, gay couples who longed for family and faith, women called to the priesthood, married priests who deeply wanted to continue to serve as priests, in the same way he sat face to face with the man who shot him, things might have been different. Why he did not do that we'll never know.

We can only hope that the next pope will engage all Catholics in ways this pope did not. An extraordinary communicator, John Paul II was also a great polarizer. Through the choices he made in dinner companions, papal appointments, religious orders and lay associations, he exacerbated the divide. Women in the North were told that we were exaggerated or extreme feminists and that our desire for autonomy -- bodily, spiritual and intellectual -- was not shared by the good women of the South. First-world Catholic women who believed in radical equality between men and women in the church were demeaned and caricatured by other women whom he appointed to Vatican commissions.

Conservative Catholic intellectuals who had unprecedented access to him and the Curia dined on that access and publicly degraded mainline Christian churches and leaders as irrelevant while lauding conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians as true partners in faith. Bullies who spoke to and of those they disagreed with in the ugliest terms were welcomed in the Vatican. I can only cringe at my memory of Randall Terry -- who stood in front of abortion clinics in the United States screaming at women entering those clinics and justifying the murder of healthcare professionals who serve them -- meeting the pope.

Given his great goodness, his intellectual rigor and his love of all humanity, one can only conclude that the pope did not know what he was doing when he empowered all of the above and more. One can also hope that the next pope will be aware of the unintended and negative consequences of this ugly undercurrent, which has so damaged the church throughout the world, and move to correct it.

In the next phase of the unfolding of God's love, mercy and justice for the Catholic Church and the world, we must continue to work hard to help whomever is pope be an instrument of peace and justice for all -- including those who have been marginalized within the church.

By Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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