We'll be hearing and seeing many tributes to the late Pope John Paul II. Of the articles I've seen the last couple of days, I would find it hard to improve on the evaluation given by Josh Marshall, a Jewish journalist, at his blog on 04/01/05.
Marshall seems to view John Paul II's legacy in the same general way that I do. His most lasting constructive contribution is likely to be his serious efforts to promote Jewish-Christian dialogue. And by dialogue, he didn't mean a missionary effort to convert Jews to Christianity. Nor did he mean the fundamentally anti-Semitic "pro-Israel" stance that Christian Right groups in America promote, in which the Jews are expected to be cannon-fodder in a gruesome end-times slaughter to pave the way for the Second Coming of Christ.
Instead, he promoted a dialogue based on an attempt to establish mutual respect and understanding among Christians of Judaism as a religion in its own terms, in which believers can have a valid relationship to God - in which they can have "salvation," in Christian theological terms - without being Christians or accepting Jesus as God, the Son of God, Savior, the Messiah or any of the special terms by which Christians recognize him. This is often a surprise for even Catholics to hear. But it has been the Church's official position for the last four decades.
Since traditional Christian attitudes and practices toward Jews - in both the Catholic and Protestant branches of the faith - have borne an enormous amount of poisonous fruit, this really is a substantial legacy of the late pontiff. There is certainly much to be done in carrying on this legacy, and I certainly hope the popes that follow will do so. But James Carroll, who is very aware of the limits of what John Paul II has done in this area, is also justified when he writes in Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (2001):
As a Catholic, it is a matter of urgent importance to me that my Church is attempting, however fitfully, to face this history [of hostility toward Jews] and imagine a different kind of future. We know that the Catholic Church has solemnly repudiated the ancient charge that Jews are guilty of the violent murder of God [in thecrucifixion of Jesus]. We know that Pope John Paul II has done more to heal the breach between Christians and Jews than any previous pope. We know that the Church, in all its educational efforts and liturgical practices, is painfully extracting vestiges of explicit antisemitism.
... John Paul II warned Catholics not to cross the threshold of the new millennium without having fully reckoned with our particular failure in relation to Jews. "How can we not lament the lack of discernment," he asked in 1994, "which at time became even acquiescence?" John Paul II, perhaps more eloquently than any non-Jew, pointed to the Holocaust as a challenge to the Christian conscience. (my emphasis)
The last point is important. Karl Barth was the first major Christian theologian to point to the Holocaust as a specific moral and theological challenge for Christians. And the Church under John Paul II carried forward the commitment of Vatican II to engage these issues conscientiously.
And as Marshall observes, "I think of his ecumenical dialogue with Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy or his preaching at a Lutheran Church in 1983 --- an almost inconceivable event for someone steeped in the history of Early Modern Europe and the Reformation." Among other things, John Paul II also reaffirmed unambiguously the concept that salvation comes by faith alone, not by "works," which was the central theological point over which the Protestants split from the Church. Salvation by faith along was the Protestant position.
I also agree with Marshall's general judgment about what he calls the Pope's "ambivalent political legacy in the Third World." It's also an ambivalent theological legacy. On the one hand, the Vatican under John Paul II was generally hostile to the trend known as "liberation theology," represented by people like Leonardo Boff (Jesus Christ, Liberator), Gustavo Gutiérrez (A Theology of Liberation) and Jon Sobrino (Christology at the Crossroads). The liberation theologians argue for a strong emphasis by the church on freeing the poor of the world from the restrictions imposed on them: spiritual, social, intellectual and material. This has been one of the most vital Christian theological currents in recent decades, and its impact is likely to be enduring.
On the other hand, John Paul II also made concern for the poor and the underdeveloped world a prominent and constant theme in his teaching. That is also likely to be an enduring legacy of his.
And he will be much praised in the obituary articles for his role in encouraging the pro-democracy movement in Poland and other countries of eastern Europe. He certainly deserves credit in those areas where his influence was important. But it should also be realistically evaluated. In East Germany, for example, churches were an important center of dissidence and pro-democracy activism. But practicing Christians in eastern Germany were mostly Protestants, not Catholics.
In other Church policies, John Paul II ranged from conservative to reactionary. The Vatican has joined in recent years in international forums with the Bush administration and Muslim countries in voting against measures to protect women's rights and promote responsible birth control and safe-sex practices. Within the Church, he has been doggedly conservative on the role of women in the priesthood and on celibacy for priests. He has defended and strengthened authoritarian practices in the Church. In all these ways, his papacy was a retreat from the hopeful directions set by the Second Vatical Council under Pope John XXIII.
Apart from the particular issues raised by liberation theology, one of the more negative legacies of this Pope are the various actions he took unjustly against several important theologians: Hans Küng who has been quoted far more here at Old Hickory's Weblog than John Paul II and had his status as a Catholic theologian revoked for criticizing the exceptionally dubious doctrine of papal infallibility (which, I should add, is not nearly as sweeping as many non-Catholics imagine it to be); Edward Schillebeeckx, put under heavy pressure for his innovative ideas on Christology; and the American theologian Charles Curran, removed from a Catholic teaching post for emphasizing more liberal and humane aspects of Catholic theology.
It's also worth noting that in the United States, this Pope tended to be seen as a much more liberal figure than he was in Europe. His stances on ecumenical relations with other religions, his advocacy for the poor and his opposition to war were more prominent in his image here. His conservative positions on issues of sexuality and Church governance were far more prominent in Europe. Marshall mentions his support of the ultraconservative Opus Dei order, which flourished in Franco's Fascist Spain and is much better known in Europe than here. In his appointments within the Church, he strengthened the conservatives and reactionaries a great deal.
This authoritarian tendency also served the Church poorly in dealing with scandals over child abuse by priests, in America and elsewhere. The authoritarian inclination to secrecy and organizational defensiveness prevented the Church from dealing with these issues in a public and fully responsible way, which includes a willingness to work with secular authorities in handling violations of the law. Instead, the Church tried too often to handle the problem as strictly an internal matter - and even then not always adequately, as we know.
Among his personnel selections are many of the current cardinals who will sit as the College of Cardinals to select his successor. This would seem to increase the likelihood of the choice of a new Pope who will follow very similar paths. However, history may suggest more possibilities. Richard McBrien wrote in Lives of the Popes (1997):
What, then, of the papacy's future? The recent period of recentralization of papal authority and of the restoration of various pre-Vatican II styles of governance in the Catholic Church will in all likelihood have ended with the pontificate of John Paul II. The history of papal elections, especially (but not exclusively) during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, makes clear that popes are usually not succeeded by carbon copies of themselves, no matter how long they may have been in office and no matter how many cardinals they may have appointed. The succession of Pius IX by Leo XIII in 1878, and of Leo XIII by Pius X in 1903 are two dramatic cases in point. Pius IX was the longest reigning pope in history (nearly thirty-two years), and Leo XIII had the second longest pontificate (over twenty-five years). Both were succeeded by popes markedly different from themselves—personally, theologically, and pastorally. And so it has been the case throughout most of papal history. (my emphasis)