During the Christmas season of 1999, while living in Russia, I read George Weigel’s extraordinary biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope. It was not the first time I had reflected upon John Paul II, but it was the first time I understood the magnitude of his life. Over the course of many winter nights (and many mugs of Russian tea), I encountered John Paul not only as one of the most consequential popes in church history, but also as one of the most consequential world leaders—a man who, in Weigel’s words, “sums up the trials and triumphs of the human spirit in the decades after World War II.”
He was born Karol Wojtyła near Krakow, Poland, on May 18, 1920. He attended Jagiellonian University, where his humanistic studies were disrupted by the Nazi invasion. He endured much over the next few years, as did all the Polish people, caught as they were between Hitler and Stalin, both of whom sought to eradicate the Polish middle class. Wojtyła was fortunate to survive.
Midway through World War II, he decided to study for the priesthood, and began taking courses in the underground seminary at the archbishop’s palace in Krakow. He managed to avoid arrest and was ordained a priest in November 1946. From these humble beginnings, John Paul went on to become the most significant pope in many centuries and a world-transformative leader to boot.
I am not a Catholic. I am a Baptist. Some, therefore, might find my affinity for John Paul II a bit out of place. But while we Baptists have convictions that run contrary to certain aspects of Catholic doctrine, I cannot help but recognize in John Paul II a forward-looking public theologian with a message relevant to our twenty-first-century situation—especially his emphasis on human dignity, his resistance to false ideologies and authoritarian regimes, and his constructive theology of the body.
John Paul’s greatest cause was the defense of human dignity. He reminded us that God created every human life in his image, imbued with incalculable dignity. He fiercely opposed the culture of death and degradation that would scale this dignity based on usefulness, nationality, race, or religion. And he repeatedly rebuked the practice of abortion, the shedding of the blood of unborn humans.
In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul lamented, “The Gospel of life, proclaimed in the beginning when man was created in the image of God for a destiny of full and perfect life (cf. Gen 2:7; Wis 9:2-3), is contradicted by the painful experience of death which enters the world and casts its shadow of meaninglessness over man's entire existence.” Death entered in a violent way, as Cain laid violent hands on Abel, spilling his blood and betokening the fate of humanity as a whole (Gen. 4:8). Like a cancer, Cain’s act has been reproduced in history, dynamically and relentlessly, darkening the world in which we live.
John Paul II also noted that death exits the world violently: The end of Cain’s history is Christ crucified, the Son of God slain not only by us but for us. He lives. He beckons, calling us to experience true life and real dignity under his benevolent reign. With the gate of hope thus thrown open, and with humanity invited to experience true life in him, the Lord Christ calls his people to convey his love to the world by cultivating a community of life and dignity even in the midst of a Western culture of death and indignity.
Weigel is clear that John Paul II was a priest, not a political actor. And yet, he resisted false political ideologies and authoritarian regimes with prophetic insight and courage. His papal appearances in Poland catalyzed the implosion of the U.S.S.R. Opposing the Leninist regime’s atheism, deterministic view of history, and degraded anthropology, John Paul upheld historic Christian teaching that “men and women [are] not the victims of impersonal historic or economic forces, but the artisans of society, economy, and politics.” The grassroots solidarity movement in Poland was fed by John Paul. This movement posed a grave challenge to the communist party, which could not effectively respond.
Weigel rightly portrays John Paul as the quintessential pastor, whose ministry was enhanced by his philosophical depth, his prophetic insight, and his compelling persona rather than a fascination with political activism. John Paul’s aim was not merely to dismantle the U.S.S.R. but, more significantly, to give the world a hope that transcends and outlasts political regimes.
Weigel suggests that John Paul’s most significant contribution is his theology of the body. In Familiaris Consortio (1981) John Paul explored Scripture’s high doctrine of marriage, in which “the marriage of baptized persons thus becomes a real symbol of that new and eternal covenant sanctioned in the blood of Christ.” But his approach extended beyond marriage to the body itself: In Man and Woman He Created Them, John Paul offered an innovative and constructive treatment of our embodied nature as male and female, our relationships with one another, our sexuality, and even our bodily relationship with God.
Here John Paul stands in stark contrast to twenty-first-century secular society, which views humans as animals, sees marriage as a mere contract, and praises sex as something merely physical. John Paul insisted that human relationships were at once physical and spiritual, bodily and transcendent. We humans are not, as some have said, souls who happen to have bodies. We are embodied souls, and our bodies reveal something about our very selves. The implications for marriage and sex are profound; the implications for all of life much more so.
Weigel writes that John Paul was a leader “who, contrary to all expectations, captured the world’s imagination and held it for more than a quarter century.” We should let our imagination linger there a quarter century longer. As long as our neighbors continue to value life based on usefulness, elevate politics to near-transcendent status, or view the human body as a mere machine, John Paul II will have a fitting word for our times.
Bruce Riley Ashford is provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.