If ever there was a pope of global stature it was St. John Paul II. He took the message of the Gospel to every corner of the earth, travelling to over one hundred countries during his twenty-six year pontificate, combining modern means of communication with a strong personal charisma. When he visited America, he had a memorable impact, inspiring Catholics who became “the John Paul II generation.”
This was no small accomplishment. When John Paul II was elected pontiff in late 1978, the American Catholic Church was reeling. Confusion surrounding Vatican II had led to a culture of dissent, symbolized by the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae.
The vibrant American Church became fractious: Many priests and religious abandoned their spiritual callings for the world; some theologians dispensed with their obligations to work with the Magisterium; evangelization suffered; loyalty to Church teaching was rejected in favor of a misguided notion of “conscience;” and dogma and truth were repudiated. American Catholic education and catechesis were in disarray. The faithful were shaken.
Amidst this maelstrom rose John Paul II. He immediately reoriented the Church toward Christ with his first encyclical Redemptor Hominis; re-sacralized the priesthood and religious life; celebrated the Christian family in Familaris Consortio; clarified the purpose of Vatican II, published a universal catechism of the Church’s rule of faith; and showed how contemporary insights could enhance, rather than undermine, Catholic teaching as seen in his Theology of the Body.
His support for the unborn resonated with Americans fighting the consequences of Roe v. Wade: The right to life movement received a new language and dimension when he first spoke about a “Culture of Life” in 1993significantly, during a visit to Americaand two years later, described his full vision in his great encyclical, Evangelum Vitae.
Employing biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments, John Paul described the Christian conception of man, and spoke about the inviolability of human life, from conception to death. He unequivocally condemned abortion and euthanasia, provided guidance on bioethics, and moved the Church away from capital punishment. His comprehensive pro-life perspective stirred every segment of the American Church, and the stark contrast he drew between the Culture of Life and a Culture of Death framed the great moral issues facing America in a way that still defines them today.
In international politics, too, Americans found in John Paul II an ally, especially in his resistance to the evil of communism. The pope’s denunciation of Marxist uses of liberation theology was another healthy corrective to a movement raising alarm throughout the Americas.
But as much as John Paul appreciated the United States, he kept his independence and issued a series of declarations about social justice and peace that challenged many Americansboth on the domestic front and in foreign affairs. Precisely because John Paul was a good friend of the United States and cared so much for its people, he became one of its wisest instructors and constructive critics. Americans, in return, offered valuable council to Rome on the Church’s initial reaction to the terrible abuse crisis.
Perhaps the most unexpected legacy John Paul left the United States is the impact he had upon non-Catholics and their relations with American Catholics. From the beginning of his pontificate, he reached out to religious believers outside the Church; and as he grew closer to them throughout the world, it had a parallel effect of forging new alliances in America, particularly between Evangelicals and Catholics, and Jews and Catholics, who have worked together to protect the family, uphold Judeo-Christian morality and combat prejudice.
The relationship between American Catholics and Rome changed considerably during John Paul’s pontificate. While tensions remained, an increased respect for papal authority had returned, particularly among the young. Although the American Catholic community has been confronted with yet more difficultiesranging from the redefinition of marriage to assaults on religious libertyone of the reasons for hope, moving forward, is that John Paul II left behind a rich spiritual and intellectual infrastructure for Americans to draw upon, to deal with these ongoing challenges. If his teachings are heeded, John Paul’s sainthood will not only be a blessing for the Church, but a renewed American republic as well.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.