The pope in perspective

Until recently, the widespread image of Pope John Paul II in America, among non-Catholics especially, was of an unflinching religious conservative who was out of touch with his more-liberal flock on such issues as abortion, contraception, priestly celibacy and opening the priesthood to women. And his commitment to a traditionally hierarchical, undemocratic church structure had been seen as contributing to the sexual abuse scandal that plagued his last years as pope.

The blanket media coverage of all things papal surrounding his death this week has reminded us, however, that this pope’s contribution was far too great to be judged in only those terms. John Paul stood passionately on the side of life and freedom, and if he insisted on some traditional values that may be outmoded in modern technological societies and a hierarchy that is slow to respond to change, he also had remarkable and lasting achievements in other areas.

This is the pope, after all, whose belief in freedom inspired the people of Eastern Europe, and especially his native Poland, to undertake the peaceful revolution that threw off the shackles of communism. And he was the pope who tirelessly traveled the world speaking out on behalf of the poor and workers and decrying exploitation by the rich, preaching that a life devoted to materialistic accumulation and the pursuit of pleasure was a spiritually impoverished life.

He also apologized for the church’s historic errors, including its failure to speak out against the Holocaust and its mistreatment of Jews as the supposed “murderers of Christ,” something no previous pope had done. And he spoke out against the culture of violence, opposing the war in Iraq—a call U.S. bishops, to their shame, failed to heed—and calling for international disarmament. And, just as significant, he was the first pope to take a definitive stand against the death penalty, ending 1,600 years of church support.

Controversy inevitably comes with greatness, and John Paul II was no exception. But he surely will go down in history as a man of great integrity and passion whose vision inspired Catholics, and many others, the world over.