When John Paul II died on Saturday, a light went out in the world. In his 26 years in the Vatican, the third-longest tenure of any pope in 2,000 years, he proved himself to be a figure of extraordinary courage, charisma and humanity. His death after a long, brave and public battle with Parkinson's disease and other ailments is being mourned by millions. But did he make a difference? And where does the Roman Catholic Church go after him?
John Paul made it plain from the day he became pope on Oct. 16, 1978, that he intended to be more than a mere ceremonial figure, the remote and regal leader of a declining institution. "I think that God raised me to be pope to do something for the world," he said. His mission, as he saw it, was nothing less than to lead a moral counterrevolution. In a secularizing, materialistic world that was forgetting God, the job of the pope was to shore up the old verities of faith and morality. After the modernizing changes of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, and the social and political upheavals in the world around, Catholics were unsure about where their Church really stood. John Paul made that crystal clear. He brought order to the Church and coherence to its teaching.
To many, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, those teachings were often harsh and archaic. This was the Pope who denounced all forms of artificial contraception as "a serious sin that offends God," who saw in abortion the seeds of "a new holocaust," who called homosexuality "an intrinsic moral evil." This was also the Pope who said an unequivocal no to the marriage of priests, and who said that no woman would ever be ordained.
But this was also the Pope who preached against the Persian Gulf war of 1991 and the Iraq war of 2003, who denounced the arms trade and condemned the death penalty, who deplored the "idolatry of the market" and questioned the predatory nature of global capitalism, who spoke out again and again for human rights and helped undermine dictators from Chile to Haiti to the Philippines. Most unforgettably, this was the Polish Pope whose travels to his imprisoned native land helped bring down Soviet-backed communism there and contributed to the collapse of Communist control throughout Europe.
So the Pope made a profound difference, within his own dominion of Catholicism and in the world beyond. He was the most energetic evangelist in the history of the Catholic Church, travelling to about 130 countries, including three memorable visits to Canada, on his mission of faith. But he also reached out to other denominations and religions. He was the first pontiff to visit a synagogue and the first to enter a mosque. In one of the most moving moments of his papacy, he went to Jerusalem's Wailing Wall to express repentance for the persecution of the Jews, inserting a note in the crevice of its ancient stones.
Those who denounced the Pope as an unvarnished reactionary forget that he did more than any other pontiff to make amends for past misdeeds. He apologized on behalf of the Church for aiding the slave trade, persecuting Galileo and killing Czech Protestants in the 15th century. It was his attempt to draw a line between the old, oppressive Church of the past and the modern, diverse Church of today.
But can a church that calls all homosexuals sinners really claim to be modern? Can a church that closes the priesthood to half of humanity by denying ordination to women really be called diverse or inclusive? Can a church that tells African Christians not to use condoms, condemning untold numbers of them to death from AIDS, really claim to have made its peace with modern science? Can a church that claims it is wrong even for married couples to use any kind of birth control beyond the rhythm method hope to retain the adherence of people who simply want to control how many children they have?
These are not simple questions. Other denominations and creeds have struggled with them for years. It is too easy for critics to say that the Catholic Church must simply accept the way of the world and toss out all its old teachings to accommodate a more liberal era. If the "one, true Church" sways with the times, Catholic leaders will ask, what sets it apart from others? Once one demand for reform is accepted, how does the Church stand in the way of all the others that are sure to follow? If all the popes up to and including John Paul were wrong about ordaining women, who is to say they were right about opposing abortion? Tough questions, but not excuses for perpetual stasis. Every institution must learn how to change without losing its reason for being. Successful institutions evolve, with their essence intact.
John Paul was right to restore the Church's moral compass. He was right to fight for human dignity. He was right to underline the sanctity of life. He lit a moral beacon in a changing world. But his successor must find a way to adapt to that world, or the Church that John Paul strove so hard to raise up will slide into irrelevance.