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The Mobile Pope

From the October 9, 1995 issue: John Paul in America.

Oct 9, 1995, Vol. 1, No. 04 • By GEORGE WEIGEL
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ON OCTOBER 5, a 75-year-old Pole dressed in the manner of a 16th-century Dominican friar will walk with some difficulty to the great marble rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly, there to address the world, or a goodly part of it. Behind this elderly cleric will be arrayed senior U.N. officials, including Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In the world according to CNN, the Pole in the white soutane, second son of a retired Hapsburg army offcer, will seem a man out of step with the times, while Boutros-Ghali and his colleagues, nattily attired and beaming, will look the very flower of late 20th-century modernity.

The truth of things is rather different. For in one of the great ironies of our day, the septuagenarian Pole, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, will walk onto that stage representing one of the world's most powerful, dynamic, and effective institutions, while the secretary-general and his confreres will represent some- thing that seems hackneyed, ineffective, bureaucratically stifling, and intellectually moribund--precisely the adjectives that modernity's founding fathers once applied to the Roman Catholic Church.

Indeed, when the pope addresses the General Assembly, much more will be going on than a grand symbolic refutation of the claim that modernization inevitably means radical secularization. For under John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has become far more than an embodiment of stubborn religiosity on the edge of the third millennium.

In public terms--and in sharp contrast to the sorry record of the U.N.--the Catholic Church has become the world's foremost institutional defender of basic human rights. U.N. peacekeeping flounders around the world; Vatican peacemaking has been effective from the Beagle Channel to Mozambique.

John Paul II is now widely recognized as the single most influential figure in the nonviolent collapse of European communism; the pope has also been an important influence on the democratization movement that has changed the political landscape of Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of East Asia.

Moreover, this recent past is but prologue to a future of considerable possibility. Over one billion human beings of virtually every race and ethnicity are Roman Catholics. The social doctrine of their church is, arguably, the most sophisticated body of moral reasoning about the democratic prospect on offer in the world today. How that teaching shapes those billion lives will have an enormous impact on the social and political contours of the 21 st century.

The pope's U.N. address and subsequent visits to New York, Yonkers, Newark, and Baltimore, coming hard on the heels of a grinding 10-day pilgrimage to Africa, should also put full stop to the rumors of John Paul's imminent demise, which have been assiduously circulated by Roman journalists and various ecclesiastical hangers-on for the past 18 months. Yet in that same period John Paul has published an international bestseller (Crossing the Threshold of Hope), dramatically altered the course of the September 1994 World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, addressed the largest crowd in human history (at Manila, in January 1995), seen his encyclical on abortion and euthanasia featured on the cover of Newsweek, called the Church to prepare for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 by publicly repenting its sins and errors, and boldly proposed that Orthodox and Protestant Christians help him think through the kind of papacy that makes sense in the third millennium of Christian history. Not a bad year and a half, that. But the tremendous pace of John Paul's recent pastoral and intellectual activity does not explain why the London Independent, no papal apologist, described John Paul early this year as "the only truly global leader left." Why is it that, when he mounts the General Assembly rostrum, this man, far from being a romantic anachronism, will seem to be on the cutting edge of history?

At one level, the answer has to do with the dramatic changes that John Paul II has wrought in the modern exercise of an ancient office. The centralization of authority in the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century created a largely executive papacy, with the pope functioning as something like the CEO of RC, Inc. In varying degrees, mid-20th-century popes chafed under this model of leadership; but with John Paul II, a decisive transformation of the world's oldest institution has taken place.