Editorial — Posted By Sean P. Dailey On May 1, 2011
On the occasion of the beatification of Bl. Pope John Paul II, we republish this editorial, adapted from the June, 2005 issue of Gilbert Magazine:
During the course of his long pontificate, Pope John Paul II wrote volumes of apostolic letters, encyclicals, and other documents exhorting the faithful of the Catholic Church on various matters of the Faith: strengthening their prayer life; adhering to Catholic teaching on abortion and artificial contraception; having a proper reverence for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Eucharist; having a proper understanding of Catholic social teaching (Distributism); adherence to Catholic moral teachings; the importance of reason as a complement to Faith; and perhaps most important, reaffirming the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, in an era when most believed it to be an irrelevant relic of the past.
How much of an effect did the encyclicals have? Well, there doesn’t appear to be any revival of of interest in St. Thomas Aquinas. Catholics still are aborting and contracepting at the same rate as the general population. What we read about church-going, pro-abortion Catholic politicians indicates that they still have a rather casual approach to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist. And we have seen nothing to convince us that Catholics are any more knowledgeable about subsidiarity or Distributism than anyone else.
So it might seem reasonable to conclude that John Paul had little influence over his flock, despite his huge popularity.
Of course, the full impact of John Paul’s twenty-six year pontificate can only be judged by history, but already we detect a paradox that G.K. Chesterton would have appreciated: The fact that John Paul’s extensive teachings are largely ignored is not a sign of the papacy’s weakness. Swimming against the tide is a sure sign of vitality.
It brings to mind something Chesterton wrote when discussing his own conversion: “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. We want a religion that is right where we are wrong.” If there is anything that the extensive writings of John Paul demonstrate, it is this: that the papacy is often in the right not only when the world is wrong but even when Catholics are wrong.
The Church’s detractors, Chesterton wrote, “merely take the modern mood and then require any creed to be cut down to fit that mood.” What kind of modern moods? Taking a cue from feminism, the moderns see the male-only priesthood and demand that the Church ordain women, because, they insist, the all-male priesthood is a throwback to a less enlightened age. But they forget (or perhaps don’t know) that the pagan cults the first Christians encountered everywhere they went were dominated by priestesses, and that an all-male priesthood seemed just as odd to the moderns of 2,000 years ago as it does to the moderns of today. Or perhaps the moderns of today aren’t really so modern.
In his apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul made it clear that women could not be ordained as priests because, as he said, the Church has no authority to do so. In other words, he could not change the teaching of the Church. It did not matter what women wanted or what fashion called for. This pope did not give into moods. There were many people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who screamed in outrage when John Paul reaffirmed the ancient teaching of the Church. But he was right when they were wrong.
Similarly, pressure continued to grow during John Paul’s papacy for the Church to relax her teachings on artificial contraception, and even on abortion. Conventional wisdom says that by easing her restrictions, the Church would finally catch up with the modern world. However, contraception and abortion are nothing new, and the moderns once again probably are not aware that the first Christians to reach Rome found a society where abortion, contraception and even infanticide were widely practiced. (We have to ask: what is it about the moderns that makes them modern?)
Against this tide, John Paul published his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which reiterated the ancient, constant teaching of the Church on abortion and contraception: that the taking of an innocent human life in the womb is evil; that separating what God has joined together with regard to the marriage act is detrimental to life and to love. This didn’t sit well with the moderns, but they were wrong when the Pope was right, and one way we know he was right was that he simply repeated a teaching that dates back to the first century, when the moderns then were wrong too.
So it was with John Paul throughout his pontificate. He was that living thing that goes against the stream of dead things. It was true at the outset when he initiated the downfall of Communism merely by telling his fellow Poles they were free regardless of whatever political system they lived under, defying a world that said Communism would not fall save by massive military intervention. And it was true at the end, when in his dying days he gave witness to the dignity of suffering while the judicial and political establishments of the United States conspired to murder Terri Schiavo for no other reason than that she was an inconvenience.
“It is in those cases,” Chesterton writes, “that we get the real grapple of religion; and it is in those cases that we get the peculiar and solitary triumph of the Catholic faith. It is not in merely being right when we are right, as in being cheerful or hopeful or humane. It is in having been right when we were wrong, and in the fact coming back upon us afterwards like a boomerang.”
Requiesce in Pace, John Paul: you were right when we were wrong.
—Sean P. Dailey, for the editorial board of Gilbert Magazine
About Sean P. Dailey
Sean P. Dailey is the editor-in-chief of Gilbert Magazine. Besides G.K. Chesterton, Sean reads J.R.R. Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, J.K. Rowling, Tim Powers, and Michael Flynn. When Sean isn't editing GM or reading, he helps his wife raise their two sons and brews his own beer. He and his family live in Illinois.
Tags: G.K. Chesterton, Papacy, Pope John Paul II, Women's Ordination