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 between pope and bishops, but didn’t. Cardinal Wojtyla seems to have played a leading part among those, in the synod of 1969, who successfully counseled against rocking the boat, and who chose instead to spread oil on troubled waters. It was Wojtyla who delivered at the Vatican the synod’s final declaration on October 27, 1969: “There is nothing more important,” Wojtyla declared, “than the testimony of union and the spreading of peace. This union in the Church which is desired so ardently by the Christian people depends very largely on the collaboration between the Supreme Pontiff and the Bishop’s conference.”

In the context, “collaboration” is an exquisite euphemism, characteristic of the style which Wojtyla, as Pope John Paul II, was to make familiar. Language that suggested a sustained momentum of Vatican II was used with connotations designed to restore the authoritarian principle.

Wojtyla was then, and Pope John Paul II still is, a man of profound convictions and of high personal courage, proved in the frightful conditions of wartime Poland. But he is also a man of great astuteness, even deviousness, in tactical matters. And the tactical skills served then, and still serve, to conceal the full depths of his traditional Tridentine Catholicity and of an authoritarianism gentle and unasssuming in style, but implacable in substance.

At the conclave to elect a successsor to Pope John Paul I, in October 1978, the Italian cardinals were bitterly divided among themselves. Once serious consideration had to be given to non-Italians, the choice soon fell on Cardinal Wojtyla, “the liberal Pole.” Nobody thought he was very liberal; in the expression “liberal Pole” the noun qualifies the adjective. What Wojtyla seems to have been expected to do was work in the spirit of Vatican II, and maintain some of its momentum without going too far. No well-informed cardinal would have expected Wojtyla personally to favor the reversal or dilution of Humanae Vitae, but he was expected to be a staunch upholder of the Vatican II principle of collegiality or consensus and therefore not to let his personal views close the door to reinterpretation of Humanae Vitae or anything else.


“Collegiality” was what Wojtyla at this time was perceived as essentially standing for; possibly through a misunderstanding of his role in the synod of 1969. Yet John Paul II’s first statement as pope seemed to confirm the trust which moderate liberals had placed in him. In his discourse of the morning after his election he used the word “collegiality” five times, and seemed to commit himself strongly to Vatican II. He said:

We consider our primary duty to be that of promoting, with prudent but encouraging action, the most exact fulfillment of the norms of the [Second Vatican] Council. Above all, we favor the development of conciliar attitudes. First we must be in harmony with the Council. One must put into effect what was in its documents; and what was implicit should be made explicit in the light of the experiments that followed, and in the light of new, emerging circumstances.

A sensitive nose might perhaps have picked up, from the last phrase, a whiff of the impending counterrevolution. But the blessed word “collegiality” seems to have reassured the liberally minded at this stage. It was, after all, going to be the synod of bishops which would make “explicit” those things which were said to be “implicit” in the documents of Vatican II.

Only it wasn’t going to be the synod of bishops. It was going to be the new pope. Henceforth the language of Vatican II would mean whatever John Paul II said it meant, which would be the reverse of what liberally minded Catholics had understood it to mean.

Let us look at some examples of this. Consider “collegiality” (or consensus), “dialogue,” and “ecumenism”—key concepts of Vatican II—in their new Wojtyla Humpty Dumpty meanings.

“Collegiality,” or consensus, first. One of the major documents—indeed the major document—of the Wojtyla pontificate is Familiaris Consortio 1981, dealing with the Christian family in the modern world. This is the document which (among other things) reaffirmed Humanae Vitae and the traditional absolute ban on contraception. According to a statement made by the Pope in August of last year, the words of this document “reflect the consensus of the 1980 World Synod of Bishops in the Modern World.”And they certainly do reflect that consensus—as defined and interpreted by the Pope, and by the Pope alone.

The synod in question lasted a month. Many bishops called for a new look at the traditional teaching. The Pope listened and took notes. He then reaffirmed the traditional teaching. That was the consensus, and the new meaning of consensus is sufficiently apparent from the title of the document which is supposed to reflect consensus. The full title, in the official English version, runs: “Apostolic Exhortation. Familiaris Consortio of his Holiness Pope John Paul II. To the Episcopate to the Clergy and to the Faithful Regarding the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.” In short, consensus, as defined and interpreted by the Pope, is an attribute of those pontifical utterances which are delivered at the end of meetings of bishops.

Then take “dialogue.” It would not be right—not quite right—to say that dialogue now means monologue. The Pope is generally quite prepared to listen, or at any rate to allow himself to be addressed. But what is said to him, if it differs from his own inner convictions, seems incapable of impinging. In extreme cases, where the words addressed to him are extremely distasteful, it seems that the Pope can become physically deaf.

There was a poignant case of such a dialogue during the Pope’s visit to America. At a service in Washington, Sister Mary Teresa Kane made a speech of welcome to the Pope, on behalf of 700 nuns. She urged the Pope

to listen with compassion and to hear the call of women who comprise half of mankind. As women, we have heard the powerful messages of our Church addressing the need of dignity and reverence of all persons. As women, we have pondered upon those words. Our contemplation leads us to state that the Church in its call for reverence and dignity must respond by providing the possibility of women as persons being included in all ministeries in our Church.

The Pope then addressed the nuns. He made no reference to Sister Mary Teresa’s appeal. “It was said afterward,” according to his biographer, “that he had not been able to hear what she said.” The Pope reminded the nuns, many of whom were wearing suits, of the desirability of wearing “a simple and suitable religious garb.”


The Pope has conducted dialogues on similar lines in other places—in Bavaria, for example, and most recently with the recalcitrant Catholics of Holland.

The fate of “ecumenism” has been much the same as that of dialogue, and consistently so. John Paul II is in favor of ecumenism, as strictly defined by himself. For him, ecumenism is a form of Catholic missionary work. In the encyclical Redemptor Hominis, in the first year of his pontificate, John Paul II said: “We approach them”—in the context, non-Catholics—“with esteem, respect and discernment that since the time of the Apostles has marked the missionary attitude, the attitude of the missionary.”

Much more recently—in January of the present year—the Pope spelled out what Christian unity means—“as it is told to us through the great ecclesial Tradition, as it is professed in the one faith, in the celebration of the same sacraments, in the communion of all bishops constituted to shepherd the People of God—and united among themselves around the Successor of Peter.” And all this—the present successor of Peter happily went on—“with respect for the values and the riches of each particular tradition and each culture, according to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the decree on ecumenism the twentieth anniversary of whose promulgation we are observing.”

I can’t help feeling a little sorry for those Anglican divines who have been attempting ecumenical dialogue with the missionaries of the current successor of Peter.

All this may seem a far cry from the Pope the world knows best: that sunnily perambulating, baby-kissing figure, supremely at his ease among the crowds and before the cameras. But in reality, there is no conflict. “John Paul Superstar,” as Time magazine called him, and the author of Familiaris Consortio are the same father figure in different contexts. Bonhomie on festive occasions is entirely compatible with sternness, when thought appropriate, in the bosom of the family, and in relation to the family. And it is above all within the family of the Church, and in relation to the sexual life of the Catholic family, that this particular pope most feels the need to be stern.

On general subjects, the Pope can often sound like a modern liberal. His general utterances about the third world, for example, sound very like the Brandt Report. But even in relation to the third world, whenever specific Catholic issues come in, the swish of discipline can be heard in the Pope’s utterances. He has been cold toward those religious who have devoted their lives to work among the poor of the third world; these religious appear to be seen by him mainly in the role of potential victims of creeping Marxism, in the guise of “liberation theology.” And the Pope has set his face against the notion that contraception can now be of any legitimate use in relation to the frightful demographic problems of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. At Santo Domingo, in October of last year, John Paul II called on the Church in Latin America to:

Resist the agents of neo-Malthusianism who want to impose a new colonialism on the Latin American peoples, weakening their life force with contraceptive practices, sterilization, liberalization of abortion, and disintegrating the unity, the stability, and the fertility of the family.

It is on subjects connected with sexuality that this pope is at his most emotional and most negatively authoritarian; no contraception, no abortion, no release from vows of celibacy, no women priests, no legitimation of any homosexual activity.

At the center of the Wojtyla pattern of feelings and ideas about these matters apears a vision of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross on which her son is crucified. This is the theme of the coat of arms Wojtyla adopted when he became bishop of Kraków, with the motto totus tuus (“all thine”). The Cross and Virgin form a traditional and poignant Catholic image, but it dominates the mind and imagination of the present pope with a peculiar intensity. This appears most notably in his pronouncements on the family, sexual morality, celibacy, and gender discrimination in relation to the priesthood. These matters have had a central place in this pontificate and John Paul’s teaching in relation to them is animated, permeated and dominated by his intense personal devotion to the Virgin Mother at the foot of her son’s cross. The culminating passage of Familiaris Consortio runs as follows:

May the Virgin Mary, who is the Mother of the Church also be the Mother of “the Church of the home.” Thanks to her motherly aid, may each Christian family really become a “little Church” in which the mystery of the Church of Christ is mirrored and given new life. May she, the Handmaid of the Lord, be an example of humble and generous acceptance of the Will of God. May she, the Sorrowful Mother at the foot of the Cross, comfort the sufferings and dry the tears of those in distress because of the difficulties of the families.

Obviously, this teaching exalts women, in a way. But the way is a way defined and interpreted by male celibates, the closed caste from which the elite of the Church is drawn. The Pope stresses again and again the “dignity” of women—another Vatican II term, now applied in a special sense. This “dignity,” in practice, seems to consist entirely in submission to rules laid down by male celibates; in avoidance of contraception and abortion, in all circumstances; in unquestioning acceptance of women’s exclusion from the priesthood; and especially in a sustained effort to emulate the Virgin Mother, however difficult that may be, especially for married women. And if it proves too difficult, there is always the cross to contemplate. “Spouses,” according to John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, are “the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross.”

In his play Le Soulier de satin, Paul Claudel has the Moon put the following queries to his heroine: “Is it not your marriage night tonight? And where did you think you were going to spend your marriage night, except upon the Cross?” Commenting on this passage, I once wrote that Claudel’s Moon sounded like a demented Reverend Mother. That was circa 1960. But in 1985, it is painfully clear that this is precisely the kind of Reverend Mother who would find favor in the sight of the present Holy Father.

In its spirit, the pontificate of John Paul II is a tremendous archaism, a splendid example of Polish baroque. But in its outward appearance, this pontificate seems hearteningly modern, open in style, no longer reclusive. Most lay Catholics probably pay much more attention to the Pope’s attractive public appearances that to his somber teaching. “The Pope is a very nice man, and a credit to us all, even if he does have this hang-up about contraception,” probably sums up the attitude most general among urban lay Catholics. But for the many earnest and troubled religious whose hearts had lifted at the promise of “aggiornamento,” this pontificate is a period of captivity. Perhaps the next synod, summoned by the Pope for the coming autumn, will bring them deliverance. But I doubt it.

Personally, as I studied the writings of John Paul II, I found my faith revive: my faith, that is, in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment; in Voltaire and Diderot, as liberators of the human mind from an oppressive and obfuscating dogmatism. Faith in the Enlightenment is hardly the faith this pope wants to revive, but never mind. If God can move in mysterious ways, I suppose Enlightenment can too.

This Issue

October 10, 1985