TOPICS > Nation

Considering the Papacy of John Paul II

April 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For … perspective on this pope and his probable legacy, we turn to Michael Novak, a theologian and author who’s written extensively on the Church and the Vatican. He’s a scholar of religion and public policy at the American Enterprise Institute; and Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College. He’s also director of the college’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry.

Well, gentlemen, as we sit here now, Pope John Paul has served as pope longer than all but at most two of his predecessors. Michael Novak, what will be his lasting influence?

MICHAEL NOVAK: It’s hard to say that in a single phrase or sentence. But let me propose a couple of things. First of all, the marvelous gift of ending the separation between Eastern and Western Europe and helping to bring about the fall of really what was, when he began the papacy, arguably the most powerful military empire in the world — on the ascendancy while America seemed to be on the decline.

And that’s an enormous gift. For that, repelling the barbarians Leo and Gregory centuries ago, 13 centuries ago, were named Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. But he also began to recover the authentic meaning of Vatican II. After Vatican II, which was a great council in the 1960s — we have roughly one council every 100 years — my wife and I were just married when the council began, and we decided it’d be the greatest place on earth to go for our honeymoon, and we did.

But they don’t happen that often and it launched the feeling that everything’s up for grabs, the playground. He said being Catholic is much more serious than that, and let’s review what the reasons are. And he recovered –

MARGARET WARNER: You’re talking about what some of the Church felt was religious conservatism about social values?

MICHAEL NOVAK: Yeah. Because I think some in the Church thought everything is up, new and free – and the playground effect, I call it. And he had shed too much blood and saw too much blood shed for the faith to treat it so cavalierly. And so he had a much more serious idea about what we needed to do. Now, we could break that down into little steps because there are so many things he did.

MARGARET WARNER: And maybe we will in a minute but Professor Groome, let me first get your overall reaction to what his lasting influence will be.

THOMAS GROOME: Yes. And if I could bring it back into perhaps his own Catholic Christian community, I would think of it to be a bit of a sleeper in his legacy but it’s one that I think twenty, thirty years from now we will look back upon as tremendously significant.

And that was his call to a new evangelization. And by this new evangelization he wanted to put the emphasis on taking old, tired, cultural faith, especially the old faiths of Europe, shall we say, and making them come alive again with vibrancy, with joy, with enthusiasm, but also emphasizing that Christian evangelization puts profound social responsibilities upon Catholic Christians and all Christians, indeed, to live their faith in the midst of the world and that evangelization includes being deeply committed to the works of peace and justice, to human rights, to the dignity of the human person, so this is the kind of evangelization that vibrant Christians are to bring to the world. And he was a great herald of that. He epitomized it himself and he certainly called his fellow Catholics to such evangelization.

MARGARET WARNER: And by evangelization, do you mean trying to convert people or simply to live the life or reflect the values and –

THOMAS GROOME: If I was to summarize the distinction between the old evangelization and what we might call the new evangelization, not that it’s either/or, but its points of emphasis, I think the old evangelization was about bringing them in — in other words, bringing into the world anybody who — or bringing into the Church rather anybody who wasn’t already a Christian; whereas the new evangelization, as he articulated repeatedly, the emphasis is not so much on bringing people into the Church but bringing Christians out of the Church into the world.

And Evangeli Nancy Andy put it, bringing their faith into every level and strata of society, into every nook and cranny of life, into the marketplace, and living it with enthusiasm and with faithfulness, and especially with commitment to the social, political responsibilities that our faith places upon us. So, this kind of a faith alive in the world is how I understand what he meant by this new evangelization.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Michael Novak, if you talk about really his message, his moral teachings, what were the most powerful of those and will they have a lasting influence?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I think that what Tom Groome just said is very, very good. He started out right away “Do not be afraid.” And that was a persistent message of his pontificate: Don’t be afraid of anything. We’ve seen so much suffering and evil in the 20th century and we got through it. We can go on. God is with us. God will help us. Trust Him.

He gave great hope to the people of Eastern Europe and elsewhere, and then he turned to Africa and Asia and gave this message on the value of every single person, every single man and woman. And from that flows their rights. And then he said “Democracy is the best protection of those rights.” It’s not just a word “rights;” you have to have the institutions with it. And then to make that work you have to have the economy, and he turned his mind to that and how you reduce poverty. So he really did have a transformative vision.

MARGARET WARNER: But it all sprang from his sense of the dignity of every human life.

MICHAEL NOVAK: Exactly. If you wanted one word for it, it would be person. And he had a philosophy, early 20th century. So he was a professional philosopher. So he would have made a mark that way if he hadn’t been pope. And one of the great themes of that is the person, not just the individual. But you can have an individual cat or dog but a person as a decision maker, one who can change his own future or her own future and create a new destiny.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Groome, did he leave the Church itself as an institution; do you think stronger and permanently reshaped in his vision or his model?

THOMAS GROOME: I mean he has made a lasting mark on the world stage and certainly on the Catholic community. Has he left it better than he found it? I mean an extraordinary increase of the Catholic faithful, of the Catholic community, especially in the southern hemisphere. But I think we would be whitewashing to say that he hasn’t left, that he was an uncontroversial figure.

In fact, there’s some fairly divisive issues that he has left unaddressed. That’s to be expected. Nobody could do everything and certainly in the latter years of his pontificate there were many pressing flashpoint issues that he seemed to side step and leave for his successor. So his successor will have lots of work to do. And yet he leaves a rich legacy.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about that little more. There’s a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, called The Age. And they wrote I think for the paper tomorrow that they thought of him as the pope who won the world, but lost the West. Is there something to that; that in his adherence to traditional Catholic doctrine he began losing progressives in Europe, in the United States, in perhaps Australia as well?

THOMAS GROOME: I don’t think it’s just progressives that he lost. I think there are many middle of the road well-meaning Catholic Christians who were disappointed especially in the latter years of his pontificate with what at least would appear to look like a pulling back from the spirit of the council. I agree with Michael up to a point that, indeed, he did take away the kind of fun and games, the kind of new kid with a toy type of mood that was in the Church in the immediate aftermath of the council, as if everything was up for grabs.

But there are serious aspects of the council that it would seem as if this man did not embrace and implement; for example, the call to collegiality. Now, in his rhetoric, in his writings, he’s very strong on the need for collegiality and the fact that the local bishop, indeed, has a good measure of autonomy and the bishops should act as a college together, rather than simply as his representatives in the local area.

But, yet, one would have to agree that over the last, over the latter years of his pontificate, there’s been a massive recentralizing, that this Church is more Roman than it ever was before he arrived and certainly that was not the intent of the council. So that I think there is an unfinished agenda of Vatican II, which is to be expected. It’s only 40 years old and as Michael says, we only have one every hundred years so we’ve about another sixty to implement it.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get back to Michael before we run out of time. Michael Novak, do you think that he did split off or weaken the Church in his message. Did he weaken the Church in the western Catholic community, or not?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I don’t think so. I think the residue of World War II and a kind of residual cynicism and so forth in Europe, I don’t think it’s weakening to the United States. When you say “the West,” the United States and some other places; it’s very vital in the West, but Europe, I do think. But there I think there was an underlying cynicism and he shook the tree like March winds and it blew down a lot of branches.

But there’s green underneath it. I mean, if you meet some of the young clergy and young students, they are John Paul II Catholics and they are very intellectual and very clear in thinking through what they are. It’s going to be quite wonderful, I think.

MARGARET WARNER: Before we go, I also wanted to touch on one thing which Betty Ann’s piece did but he really also broke the mold as pope, did he not in terms of being a world figure, being media savvy, his activism, his travels. Did he permanently reshape the papacy in that way?

MICHAEL NOVAK: I think he had — he made every future pope more aware of being a pastor to the whole Church, showing a sense of collegiality that way that was never there. The Church really is the whole world now, with him kissing the earth everywhere. On the other hand, gosh, it takes a lot of personality to be the kind of actor and comedian; he was very funny.

MARGARET WARNER: As we saw on the clip.

MICHAEL NOVAK: And he had just so many talents that poor men who follow him, how can they match it? You know, they won’t be able to. They’ll do some things better, maybe they’ll take better care of puttying the windows and making the machinery go better and reforming institutional structures but they won’t be able to do everything.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor Groome, let me ask you about one other thing. There’s been quite a bit of commentary in the last couple years that the way he persevered despite his physical frailties and remained in the public eye was in itself – he meant it as a message about the dignity of human life in each person. Do you agree with that?

THOMAS GROOME: I think so. It was an extraordinary witness and it comes out of his old Catholic spirituality that human suffering can be united with the suffering of Jesus Christ and then it’s not useless or meaningless; in fact, it can turned toward good new life.

Just as Good Friday leads to Easter Sunday, human sufferings united with the sufferings of those of the crucified one becomes a source of new life. So he was living that spirituality with great integrity and inspiration right to the very end.


MICHAEL NOVAK: We talk about a civilization and love and we’re seeing it at the end. So many people around the world are – that whole electronic band that Dostoyevsky imagined of love around the world — that every contribution, every moment of love, every act of kindness feeds that and is like a reservoir for somebody in need to draw upon. That’s the mystery that Tom is talking about and he’s lived that out and brought us together.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Novak, Professor Thomas Groome, thank you both.