The First Vatican Council (interrupted, after only half a year, by the start of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and then by the fact that Rome was occupied by the army fighting for the unification of modern Italy) decreed papal infallibility, namely the undeniable character, for Catholics, of the decisions (doctrinaire and moral) taken by any valid Pope. Thus deprived of his own state (after his predecessors had led it for over a millennium), considering himself a prisoner in the Vatican, Pope Pious IX chose to stake on a somewhat new role. It wasn’t so much about strengthening papal authority, already well defined for almost two millennia, but about conferring it valences suitable to the new historic context. A context in which secularization and the contesting of the Church’s influence in traditionally Catholic states risked placing the Church in a frustrating and humiliating ghetto.
The policy of modern states could no longer be influenced like it was in previous centuries, and the risk of seeing opposing regimes seeking to eradicate Catholicism was real (as was subsequently attempted in Mexico or in communist states).
Likewise, the age of the expansion of the principle of nations (which will reconfigure the political map of the world in the 20th Century) could lead to centrifugal tendencies, so that the reestablishment of the Papal monarchy (of a special kind) seemed for some a welcome alternative for the maintaining of the Church’s unity. At any rate, great social transformations and the spread of new values placed Catholicism in front of the need for new strategies in the new context of spiritual competition. We could even say that the Popes that followed the First Vatican Council managed, each of them, to be remarkable.
More than that, the Vatican went even further: not only did it declare the Popes to be infallible, but it also beatified and canonized most of them. That is the case of Pious IX (1846-1878), beatified in 2000; of Pious X (1903-1914), canonized in 1954; Joan XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005), both canonized two days ago. But other Popes from this period were not forgotten either, the process of beatification being started. Pious XII (1939-1958) was declared Venerable in 2009, and Paul VI (1963-1978) followed suit in 2012, while John-Paul I (1978) is also close to being beatified. All of this proves the Vatican’s policy of self-legitimization. If we are talking not only about remarkable Popes, but also about new Saints, it means that the orientation conferred upon modern Catholicism can only be providential. It’s an opinion that their critics, the conservatives and progressives, do not share.
An objective evaluation is indeed difficult. Especially in the case of John Paul II, the modern Pope that enjoyed the highest media coverage. He traveled more than all of his predecessors combined, he was shot right in Saint Peter’s Square, he met all important leaders of his age, he entered a synagogue and a mosque for the first time, he assumed ecumenism more than any other Pope, he allowed himself to be filmed skiing, swimming or talking in jail with the Turkish attacker that almost killed him. An unusual Pope in any case. Who first of all put into practice the suggestions addressed while preparing the Second Vatican Council, suggestions addressed in 1959 as auxiliary bishop of Cracow: more attention for sports and theater. He traveled with the energy of an athlete and he played his role as a theater actor, staking on media coverage like a film actor. Because his prestige relied on huge media coverage. Any gesture of his was conceived (or improvised) with the awareness that it will be known throughout the world through the written press, but especially through television. His face, at first energetic and in the end suffering, was known in every corner of the world, either directly or through images. He made over one hundred trips throughout the 5 continents, without counting those within Italy. He gave countless speeches adapted to difficult places and situations. He issued encyclicals that tackled controversial issues.
He was not only an authoritarian Pope, but he also knew how to polish this authority, subordinating it to goals shared by many people, goals such as peace, social justice, political freedom, individual rights. Even the values attacked by many, such as the rejection of divorce or abortion, were thus presented so as to stir fairly numerous adherents too. To talk about “the culture of life” against “the culture of death” (abortion, euthanasia, contraception etc.) can be sufficiently appealing. At any rate, he was a courageous and provocative Pope, even though his initiatives were primarily political. Here also lies his main accomplishment: the attempt to rehumanize politics, in a century bloodied by deceiving ideologies and authoritarian backsliding. He rejected both communism and the injustices of capitalism, manifesting a predilection for the so-called “third world” (on which he staked for a renewal of the Christian world).
He vehemently opposed wars, especially the Gulf War of 1991, which seemed so justified in the eyes of Westerners. He did not hesitate to reach an alliance with Muslims against birth control policies. He recognized the state of Israel (in 1994, with a delay of almost half a century) and contributed to the reevaluation of the Catholic stance in relation to Jews and Judaism (which started more seriously with the Second Vatican Council). He promoted a new type of penitence, practiced in the name of the Church, through which he admitted the historical faults of Catholicism: the inquisition, anti-Semitism, religious wars, mysogyny, slavery, forced conversions etc. All can seem simple rhetorical gestures, but at any rate they confer authority to a much too postponed search of one’s conscience. But apart from this welcome (and, inevitably, controversial) political dimension, John Paul II also bequeathed the attempt to widen Christian spirituality from learned theological discussions towards a more concrete philosophy. In his case it was the personalism that constituted the moral foundation of his activity and message, but which also blocked him in a rigid stance towards the evolution of sexual behavior.
His main failure, as avowed promoter of the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, is the strengthening of the Papal monarchy at the expense of Episcopal collegiality. As well as the failure in having a more fertile dialogue with contemporary culture, remaining a conservative from many points of view, using modern communications means in order to spread a message whose substance dates back from other centuries. In other words, politically he was very innovative, but far less so in a cultural sense. His pontificate did not really generate a Catholic culture that would stand at the basis of a more ambitious spiritual reform. But this remains a difficult task for his successors too, to the extent in which they would truly want to assume it.