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Home > Special Topics > Europe Report Last Updated: 15:17 03/09/2007
Europe Report #135: April 8, 2005

The Global legacy of Pope John Paul II

Kevin Cooney (Associate Professor of Political Science, Union University) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

The death of Pope John Paul II has been felt worldwide, even in countries like Japan where the Catholic Church does not have an especially strong presence. The high profile pontiff, who visited over 120 countries during his papacy, led the 1.5-billion-member Catholic Church for 26 years. In the process, he became a prominent international figure well known to the Japanese public.

Sean Curtin: What would you say was Pope John Paul II's greatest impact on world affairs?

Kevin Cooney: There are three men who together can legitimately claim to have brought about the end of the Cold War. Of these three, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, and Pope John Paul II, only former Soviet Premier Gorbachev remains. Former President Reagan passed away last year and now we are saying farewell to Pope John Paul II who, in my opinion, had the greatest influence on the world we live in. Pope John Paul's legacy stretches from his fight against communism to his struggle against fascism to his unwavering commitment to human rights and the sanctity of all life. One can see the breath of his influence and respect the man garnered by the list of world leaders paying tribute to him this week in Rome. He stood up to communism and used the power of the papacy to break down tyranny. I believe he learned from Pius XII's failure to use the papacy to stand up to the tyranny of fascism in Europe during World War II.

Sean Curtin: My first memory of Pope John Paul II was the televised pictures of white smoke rising over the Vatican in 1978 announcing that a new pope had been chosen. What are your earliest personal memories of the pope?

Kevin Cooney: My memories of Pope John Paul II stem from my junior high days in Catholic school when he was elected. His election took a day longer than that of his predecessor in that the College of Cardinals spent the first day of their conclave in fasting and prayer before voting. This next conclave would do well to do the same. While the pope is the leader of the world's 1.5 billion Catholics his influence is greater than any other religious leader, touching the lives of even those who do not share his Christian faith. At the time, the choice of a Polish pope was a daring one that defied conventional wisdom. We all wondered what kind of pope he would be and whether it was the right choice. It proved also to be the right one for humanity and he is already being referred to as a great pope. When the pope spoke, political leaders around the world listened. They did not always follow his lead, but paid heed to his words. From American presidents to dictators in Cuba they listened.

Sean Curtin: I once saw Pope John Paul II close up when he visited London in 1982. He was in his prime and full of dynamism. Did you ever meet him?

Kevin Cooney: I never had the chance to meet the pope in person and I only saw him once in real life. It was the summer of 1985 in Venice, Italy, when he road past me in his famous "popemobile." I was in a crowd of waving admirers and tourists when it seemed that he looked strait at me, smiled and waved. I imagine that many in the crowd felt the same as I did, but he was the kind of man who always made a personal connection and impression.

Sean Curtin: Some Catholics challenged the Pope's views on issues such as contraception, abortion, women priests, homosexuality and divorce, believing that the modern world demands new doctrines. The Pope did not change his views on these issues. How would you describe the life and influence of Pope John Paul II?

Kevin Cooney: If I were to sum up the life of Pope John Paul II in one word it would be "consistency." The Pope was consistent in every area of his life. From his respect of all life (he opposed both abortion and the death penalty), to his opposition to war, to his steadfast support of human rights, John Paul II was consistent intellectually, morally, and in terms of his Christian faith. He was a strong voice for the poor and the down trodden while opposing what he believed were the misguided efforts of Marxism and Liberation Theology. He saw these as only furthering the misery of those in need. He stood for universal principles of human rights in a world that was saying everything is relative. It is in this area of universal principles or absolutes that I believe that he was able to garner his greatest respect and controversy. Pope John Paul believed that there were such things as right and wrong and good and evil and that they could be seen as universal constants not relative to time, place, and culture. He challenged the philosophy that if it "feels good" you can do it as a philosophy of self centeredness inconsistent with the gospel and teachings of Christ. In sum, he challenged people of all faiths, not just Catholics and Christians, to leave the world a legacy of service and faith. He certainly did this in his own life.

As to the question of the need for "new doctrines" that have been expressed by some, the pope did take a strong and unyielding stance on church doctrine and he was right to do so. Many of those who opposed Pope John Paul's teaching on these issues fail to understand or accept the belief in the divine origin and nature of the Catholic Church's teachings. This means that church doctrines are based on the revealed Word of God in the scriptures and are thus timeless and not subject to the fads of modern life. If any doctrine is thought to be in error, it must be shown to be in error through scripture, and not the demands of secular society. The pope was standing up for this principle and thus the doctrines based on his and the Catholic Church's interpretation of scripture.

Sean Curtin: Some American Catholics have said they felt Pope John Paul II over centralized the Catholic Church and this caused particular problems for the American Catholic Church. What is your view on this issue?

Kevin Cooney: Pope John Paul II reign's was one of the longest reigns ever. All but three of the voting members of the College of Cardinals were appointed by him. He was responsible for almost all of the senior appointments of the current leadership of the Catholic Church. The American Catholic Church has always been a source of trouble for the Vatican dating back to the founding of America in 1776. Back then it was American democracy that gave to the people the right to anoint their leaders with legitimacy through the ballot box and took away the Church's right to give this anointing. Over time Rome came to see that democracy was a good thing and endorsed it as consistent with the teachings of scripture. Now some within the American Catholic Church want more independence from Rome and the Pope was trying to keep the Church together as a unified entity. He was in many ways trying to avoid what happened to the World Communion of Anglicans when the American Episcopal Church sanctioned the elevation of a homosexual bishop. The American Episcopal Church's ties to the World Communion were cut in the end over the controversy this caused. The Catholic Church with 1.5 billion members is trying to keep a larger and even more diverse church unified. Centralization in the mind of the pope was the best way to do this.

Sean Curtin: Here in London, I have spoken to many grieving Catholics from the Polish, Irish, and Italian communities and every single one passionately believes that Pope John Paul II was a great man. However, some have expressed the view that his frailty during the final years has raised questions about whether in the modern medical age the papacy should be for life. It appears that the pope himself also considered resigning in 2000. Others say that this tradition should continue. Do you have a view on this issue?

Kevin Cooney: A lifetime appointment gives any person in authority political independence. They never suffer from "lame duck" status or have to run for reelection. Modern medicine can extend and better our lives, but it can also prolong our lives unnecessarily. I believe that Pope John Paul II struck an appropriate balance. He considered resignation, but choose to carry on and was able to make a contribution right up to his death. If the papacy were to be a fixed term then I believe the office would be politicized within the Catholic Church and this would weaken the global leadership of future popes. However, I do believe that popes should be able to step aside for health or personal reasons if and when they need to.

Sean Curtin: Pope John Paul II was the first pope of the media age, his reach and influence was far greater than any of his predecessors. Who will be the heirs of his influence and beliefs?

Kevin Cooney: His heirs are two fold. First, there are political leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President George W. Bush who share his vision that there are absolutes in this world and that we must stand up to evil and work to promote a culture of life and respect for life. This is not to say that the pope agreed with all the decisions that they have made or that they followed everything he said (he strongly opposed the war in Iraq like he opposed all war and told them so), but that he influenced them to stand up for what they believed is right and good no matter what others said.

His second set of heirs are spiritual heirs who follow his example of living their lives as Christ like as possible. Pope John Paul chose not to take advantage of his influence over people to enhance himself or the Catholic Church, but rather he chose to use his position to influence people for good. This is his legacy: he made the world a better place.

Japanese Cardinals

The new pope will be chosen by a conclave of cardinals under the age of 80. Two of the cardinals are Japanese, 76-year-old Cardinal Peter Seiichi Shirayanagi and 75-year-old Cardinal Stephen Fumio Hamao. In line with Roman Catholic tradition, the conclave will be held behinds the closed doors of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. It begins on 18 April and will continue until a candidate gets two-thirds of the vote.

Brief Overview of Pope John Paul II's Life

1920 - Born Karol Wojtyla near Krakow, Poland
1964 - Archbishop of Krakow
1978 - Elected first non-Italian Pope for 450 years
1981 - Assassination attempt
2002 - Final visit to Poland
2005 - Dies in his private apartment at the Vatican at 21:37 local time on 2 April

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