Magazine article The Christian Century

Papal Witness: A Philosopher Pope in a Media Age

Magazine article The Christian Century

Papal Witness: A Philosopher Pope in a Media Age

Article excerpt

POPE JOHN PAUL II, the "pilgrim pope," understood intuitively that his ancient office was perfectly suited to reach a global audience in a media age. He gave peace, justice and human dignity a personal face that was somehow perfectly suited to the times, while reminding people that those values are older and more permanent than the institutions of modern politics.

Presidents and prime ministers in sober, dark suits waited nervously for a word with the genial pastor in a white cassock because they understood that this pope could speak directly to their constituents in words that made a difference. In a nice variation on the fable about the emperor's new clothes, an old man whose costume was medieval told the powers that ruled the world that they were naked, and all the people began to laugh.

John Paul II was also the "philosopher pope." He changed the intellectual terms of engagement between faith and the modern world. For a century and more, progressive voices in Christianity had called for greater theological responsiveness to modern thought. In the process, a good deal of extraneous baggage was jettisoned, and theologians became more adept at distinguishing Christian proclamation from shifting historical patterns of expression. By the 1970s, however, even liberal Protestants had begun to ask whether the forms of modern thought were setting limits on the proclamation rather than providing a voice for it.

Karol Wojtyla, whose studies in phenomenology shaped his concept of the human person living in solidarity with others, knew how to use philosophy to make the gospel comprehensible in the modern world. But he also understood that the reality of God at the beginning and end of history will always transcend the limits of human reason and limit the ambitions of human morality.

John Paul II rejected the demands of an adolescent modernity that insisted on having every truth reformulated in its own terms, and he could be harsh in dealing with theologians who seemed to him to be catering to modern whims. A world that has truly "come of age" is a world that has encountered some of its own limitations.

John Paul II dealt tenderly with that world's wounded aspirations, teaching it that suffering can be redemptive and offering it a realistic vision of what a passion for peace and justice might yet accomplish. In a way, he honored the modern world with the assumption that it was mature enough to hear the gospel on the gospel's own terms, no longer requiring simplified versions edited to avoid shocking modern sensibilities. …

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