The Liberal Pope

Pope John XXIII
Pope John XXIII; drawing by David Levine

In 1870, the First Vatican Council publicly proclaimed as dogma something in which many, though not all, Catholics had long believed: that the pope was infallible in matters of faith and morals.

In the early 1960s, the Second Vatican Council summoned by Pope John XXIII sought to remove the emphasis from the personal authority of the pope and to put more emphasis on the collegiate authority of bishops and in general to begin the process of liberalization and modernization—aggiornamento—of the Catholic Church. Karol Wojtyla, as auxiliary archbishop and then archbishop of Kraków played an important part in the Second Vatican Council whose general impetus he then seemed to favor. Addressing the Council in October 1963, for example, he had this to say:

It’s not the role of the Church to flourish its authority in the face of unbelievers. We and all our fellowmen are engaged in a search. Let us avoid all moralizing and all suggestion that the Church has a monopoly of Truth. One of the major defects of this draft is that in it the Church appears to be an authoritarian institution.

In the aftermath of the Council, however, he helped John XXIII’s conservative successor Paul VI in his cautious reassertion of papal authority. And from the time he became pope in 1978, Wojtyla, as John Paul II, has firmly put the clock back.

I propose to examine Wojtyla’s emergence as a powerful figure in the Church and the principal features of his pontificate. At the Second Vatican Council, which Wojtyla attended, participants in the Council were impressed by his liberal language and by his apparent accord with the general trend of the Council. He was “the liberal Pole.”

At the Second Vatican Council there was a Church commission—set up by Pope John XXIII and expanded by Pope Paul VI—to look into contraception. The fifth session of the commission, in April 1966, produced a majority report which did not uphold the Church’s traditional absolute ban on contraception, and a minority report which did. The commission’s report fell to be reviewed, in June 1966, by the sixteen cardinals and bishops who were members of the commission. A majority approved the removal of the absolute ban on contraception.

How did Archbishop Wojtyla vote on this momentous occasion? He didn’t vote at all. He just wasn’t there. Why? If he had attended, he would have had to vote with the minority, led by Cardinal Ottaviani, widely regarded as the leader of the party of reaction within the Church. Wojtyla would have forfeited his reputation as “the liberal Pole.” In 1968 the conservative Pope Paul VI issued the famous—or notorious—encyclical Humanae Vitae, reaffirming the traditional absolute ban on contraception and setting aside the majority report of the commission, and the majority vote of the commission’s bishops and cardinals.

The synod of the following year was expected to provide confrontation…

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