A Papacy’s 25 Years of Unfulfilled Potential

Daniel C. Maguire is a professor of moral theology at Marquette University.

When Karol Wojtyla assumed the papacy 25 years ago, my hopes were high. A vibrant, non-Italian pope who still went skiing and who wrote and acted in plays might be independent enough to break the mold and reshape the papacy in humbler and more helpful ways. This hope was shared by people in other religions who saw the advantage of a prominent religious leader who could give voice to the best moral hopes of humankind.

This promise was never fulfilled.

Instead, we saw a pope who squandered his moral authority on issues in which he has no privileged expertise. I did not expect to be writing now that this has been a failed and disappointing papacy.

About 40 years ago, Pope John XXIII threw open the windows of the Catholic Church by convening the liberating Second Vatican Council. But beginning in 1978, John Paul II slammed the door on the council’s progressive changes and locked the Catholic Church out of dealing with the issues of a turbulent new age.

Since then, it has been left to other Christian churches to meet the many modern challenges, including the role of women in organized religion, clerical celibacy, moral questions surrounding reproductive science and contraception and even the mere acceptance of gays.

Celebration of the pope’s silver jubilee this week naturally has focused on John Paul’s accomplishments, but there are numerous areas where this pope can be faulted.


Aside from reversing many of the changes emanating from the Second Vatican Council, he silenced the voices of many Catholic theologians and arrogantly asserted his own unique teaching prerogatives in ways that cut the legs out from any true ecumenism.

Two areas especially signaled his inadequacy as a world moral leader: his demeaning view of half the human race -- women -- and his obsessive concern with what can be called pelvic orthodoxy.

This pope commanded that the ordination of women to the priesthood could not even be discussed in Catholic theology. This reveals a spirited bias without any theological basis. Mainstream Christian theology has long since dismantled the arguments for a male monopoly of ministry.

And make no mistake, the pope’s rush to bring Mother Teresa to sainthood is not driven by feminist zeal. Mother Teresa was a firm defender of male dominance in church and state. Her elevation speaks volumes about a pope who sees her as a saint and thus a model for all women.

The hard-line positions of the pope on sexual and reproductive issues amount to a special scandal that takes on international significance because of the unduly privileged perch the Vatican enjoys at the United Nations.

The Vatican pressed to get a place among the nations of the world when the U.N. was formed, even though it strains credulity to ponder how 110 acres with no women or children could be considered a “nation.”

Yet the Vatican throws its weight around in U.N. proceedings with unseemly muscularity. For instance, the Vatican -- newly allied with conservative Muslim nations -- blocked reference to contraception and family planning at a U.N. conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This alliance also disrupted proceedings at a 1994 U.N. conference in Cairo, where any reasonable discussion of abortion was impeded. As then-Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway said of the Rio conference: “States that do not have any population problem -- in one particular case, even no births at all -- are doing their best, their utmost, to prevent the world from making sensible decisions regarding family planning.”

The Vatican has also forced its opposition to condom use -- even to prevent the spread of AIDS -- onto the U.N. stage and elsewhere. This kind of ignorance is not just unfortunate; it is murderous. And this energetic pope has personally taken this message around the world.

In one 1985 example, he visited the squatter settlements in Guayaquil, Ecuador. There in the guasmo, or “city of the poor,” parents and children live together 15 or more to a room. They needed to hear a message of liberation and hope for justice. Instead, as the BBC’s David Willey wrote, the pope in his homily told families to avoid the dangers of contraception and abortion, as well as of pornography and prostitution. Willey wrote: “The crowds, which had gathered out of curiosity, began to melt away even while he was speaking.”

If Pope John Paul II had used his unique pulpit to blend his voice with the best religious insights from all the world religions, if he accepted women as human peers and was humble about his office, I could join those conservatives who wonder why he has not won a Nobel Peace Prize. It would not be necessary to join in the naive mythology that sees him as almost single-handedly bringing down Soviet communism. Humble service to justice and peace would be all he would need to qualify.

Sadly, the record supports no such award.