By Lindsay Toler
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Modras has thought long and hard about the forces shaping John Paul II. "I think he really felt his election was providential," Modras begins slowly. "Here's this orphan, almost killed during the war, enters the seminary in Nazi-occupied Poland and goes into hiding in his archbishop's residence. He's ordained a priest and sent to study in Rome; he comes back and has this meteoric rise to archbishop of Krakow and then becomes the first Polish pope. That's not the normal way of ascending the hierarchical ladder. Plus, he's a romantic Polish poet. So if he thinks God chose him to be pope, he has to think that God did not choose him to change his mind."
It's a conviction that's meant no one else could change or question, either. In 1990, John Paul wrote the Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae ("The Heart of the Church"), outlining a framework that would give local bishops authority over Catholic colleges and universities. "The American tradition is that they have none, that these universities ought to be autonomous," notes Modras. "But Rome is not used to anything Catholic being autonomous." So far, U.S. bishops have resisted Rome's efforts to tie Catholic identity to doctrinal obedience. But this December, the new president of the Catholic University of America, Father David M. O'Connell, took an oath of fidelity, vowing to "hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety" and "avoid any teachings opposed to that faith." He urged presidents of other Catholic institutions to do the same.
Among lay Americans, the "cafeteria Catholic," who airily picks which rules to obey, is a cliche. Any chance that, if you took a vote of the world's Catholics, the majority would agree with the pope? "We in the U.S. are not even especially liberal; the Europeans are far more so," Modras counters irritably. "The U.S. bishops have been so acquiescent to Rome, they have functioned as branch managers. This is a boys' club that is quite separated even from Italy, let alone the rest of the Western world.
"The St. Louis Review (the archdiocesan newspaper) does not give an honest picture of the universal church," he continues. "The bishops of Oceania (who met last month) were quite critical of the way things are; they opened up issues of married priests, women priests, reconciling with divorced Catholics so they could return to the sacraments. These same issues were brought up a month earlier in Austria (along with more democratic governance and a local role in selecting bishops). People here don't appreciate the tremendous fissures and tensions in the church today."
The Rev. William Barnaby Faherty, S.J., an emeritus professor of history at SLU who's about as radical as a teddy bear, has been watching John Paul II for years, hoping he'd do more to ease the old "all roads lead to Rome" arrogance. Finally it dawned on Faherty: "Look what the church is trying to do! The mechanism running the diocese of Rome is trying to run the world. And it can't be."
Inspired, Faherty wrote a novel, The Call of Pope Octavian. Just published, it follows a Brazilian cardinal, an Italian cardinal and a woman journalist into the 21st century. They attend the convocation to elect a new pope, Octavian, who must do for the church what Emperor Octavian (Augustus) did for the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.: Find a form of governance that can span a diverse globe, keeping unity but respecting local ways and sensitivities.
John Paul II plays a big role in the novel, too. Faherty quotes the pope's biographer Tad Szulc: "This highly intelligent Pontiff never grasped the reasons for Catholic women's rising unhappiness with the Church." Then one of Faherty's characters remembers thinking, "What a great pope he would be, if only he would practice in his own church what he preaches to the world."
It's just one of many apparent paradoxes in the thought and behavior of this great, maddening man. He's spoken eloquently about the dignity of women but won't even restore the tradition of lay cardinals, a role a woman could fill with perfect legality. He has a strong devotion to Mary -- but as receptive, obedient and fertile. As a bishop, he was heavily involved in Vatican II; as pope, he's accused of unraveling its work. "One of the major goals of his pontificate has been to reinstate and reinforce the luster and authority of the papacy," remarks Modras, contrasting Vatican II's emphasis on decentralized power and full, egalitarian participation.
"The thing that most puzzles me, and maybe distresses me also, is that he is a puzzlement," says a priest who must go unnamed. He describes himself as "an informed observer who is very sympathetic to the fundamentals of what John Paul wants to accomplish and skeptical or sorry about the means that, at least in recent years of his pontificate, have been used." And then he launches into his list of paradoxes.
"He's moved forward and said more on ecumenism than virtually anyone before him, and for that I must praise him. But ecumenism is not just the Eastern church, it is also the Western non-Catholic church that he and his offices seem quite insensitive to. He's placed extraordinary emphasis on the importance of culture and enculturation yet allowed repressive measures to be taken against the possibility of a plurality of theological expressions. He is deeply aware of the mistakes made in the past by precipitate condemnations from the Holy Office (to wit, Galileo), yet he is willing to allow the Holy Office to condemn contemporary ideas precipitately. He is unquestionably intellectual -- his own postdoctoral work on phenomenology was daring -- yet he attempts to impose strictures on the ways in which academics operate. He has great respect for intellectuals in the Church, yet he allows the Vatican offices to chill their ability to question.