Krista's Journal: Final Thoughts on the Legacy of John Paul II

April 2, 2005

Much has been said about John Paul II. In the program we created late last week, we made a decision to name some critical themes in the late pontiff's religious legacy. We've heard both applause and criticism for raising those issues, and I value both.

The man born Karol Wojtyla was admired and beloved even by those who disagreed with him. The whole pattern of his life and thought resists the American impulse to classify leaders as "conservative" or "liberal" in order to endorse or condemn. Pope John Paul II was at once orthodox and revolutionary, authoritarian and radical. He was a gracious, if controversial, bearer of all the complexity of our time, from Nazism and Communism to the new political realities and moral quandaries of the 21st century. He was formed in a pre-Vatican II church to lead in a post-Vatican II world.

The Church, any church, but especially the ancient institution of Rome, will never evolve as rapidly as culture. Culture, on the other hand, cannot stop bounding into new territory and new dilemmas. Still, John Paul II was ahead of the popular curve as an early champion of environmentalism and the wisdom of limiting consumer society. Not all papal teachings are taken with equal seriousness, even by Roman Catholics. But questions which the Vatican has kept alive — about when life begins and ends, and how that should shape public policy — are re-born everyday in American life. As the pontiff who brought the Vatican to the world, as Sylvia Poggioli says, John Paul II demonstrated that the papacy — the original global institution — matters in modern life, whether we are Catholic or not.

I'll end with John Paul II's own words. He wrote an extraordinary number of learned and creative papal encyclicals, or official letters laying out church teachings, as well as other kinds of exhortations, homilies, and messages. In this passage read in our program, from the 2001 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II addressed one of the primary concerns of his papacy, the values of capitalist and consumer society:

It is not wrong to want to live better. What is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards having rather than being, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more, but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself. It is therefore necessary to create lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others, for the sake of common growth, are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings, and investments.

Voices on the Radio

is senior European correspondent for National Public Radio's foreign desk.

is Professor of Theology at John Carroll University and author.

is Gilbert L. Stark Professor of Christian Ethics at Yale University Divinity School.