John Paul II on the Move—Can He Unite His Divided Church?
NEVER has a pope traveled so much in such a short period of time. Mexico, Poland, Ireland, the United States—John Paul II visited them all within the first year following his election on October 16, 1978.
Judging from the enthusiastic receptions he received in each country, a person might conclude that the Catholic Church is enjoying the best of times. In Poland, the pope’s homeland, there was a special welcome. About half of the country’s 35 million population were said to have seen him during his visit in June.
Does such interest in John Paul II reflect a strong Catholic Church, or something else? How have peoples been affected by his visits?
The Church in Crisis
Rather than being strong and enjoying the best of times, the Catholic Church is experiencing difficult times. “Our church,” wrote U.S. theologian Edward J. Foye, “is in a dangerous and unhealthy state.” (National Catholic Reporter, Oct. 19, 1979) “We’re in anguish,” said Monsignor John Tracy Ellis, dean of American Catholic historians. “There is not a seminary that is not divided between the right and the left and the status quo.”
In the United States alone, some 10,000 priests have left the priesthood since the mid-1960’s, and few persons any longer are choosing the priesthood as a profession. In 1965 there were 49,000 U.S. seminarians; in 1978, only 11,200. The situation with the nuns is even worse. In 1966 there were 181,421 of them, but the number has dropped by more than 50,000. Catholic schools in the U.S. close at the rate of almost one a week because of a lack of nuns.
In other countries visited by the pope the situation is perhaps even more critical. Reporting on last January’s trip to Mexico, the New York Times noted:
“Pope John Paul II will arrive in Mexico this week on a delicate mission—to forestall an open rift between the conservative and progressive wings of Latin America’s Roman Catholic Church. . . .
“His decision to go to Mexico reflects the gravity of the situation . . . Since 1968, the Latin American church has become deeply involved in politics, and progressive priests are rebelling against the traditional discipline of their bishops.”
During the pope’s visit to their countries, news commentators said the crowds were “profoundly moved.” But in what way? Editor-in-chief of The Observer of London, Conor Cruise O’Brien, wrote:
“If I could see any sign that people are behaving better, after watching and seeing the Pope, I would feel that they had indeed been ‘profoundly moved,’ and I would rejoice . . . Unfortunately, I can see no sign at all of such improvement. . . .
“The Pope condemned violence, repeatedly and in strong terms. The [Catholic] Irish Republican Army then gave a press conference in which it announced its intention of carrying on as usual.”
Six days after John Paul II appealed to Catholics in Ireland ‘to turn away from violence and return to the ways of peace,’ terrorists shot dead a 38-year-old Protestant dock worker. Apparently in retaliation, Protestants the next day killed a Roman Catholic man. “And so it all continues, just as we knew it would,” said an Irish parish priest.
Nevertheless, crowds were visibly moved by the pope’s presence. But it was in a way similar to that in which crowds are moved by the presence of a famous movie star or politician. Indeed, the pope would arrive with the colorful pomp and ceremony of a member of royalty—a spectacle to behold!
The pope’s training as an actor obviously helped him in his rapport with the crowds. He had toured Poland with a theatrical company before entering the priesthood. Kissing the ground on arrival, joking and singing with the people in their own languages, kissing babies and reaching out to clasp hands, the pope quickly became a popular figure in the countries he visited. Time magazine noted that he displayed “a deft politician’s hand that would have shamed Lyndon Johnson,” the late American president.
But despite the pope’s personal popularity, the U.S. Catholic of November 1979 observed: “We aren’t even listening, much less applying what he says to our lives.” Why not?
Why the Pope Is Not Heeded
There are a number of reasons. A fundamental one is loss of credibility. A Catholic from Philadelphia said of John Paul II’s visit to his city:
“He drove the parade route protected by the guns of hundreds of police, walked up the red carpet to the pinnacle of the $200,000 platform surrounded by the military plumage of the Knights of Columbus. Later he dined at one of the most luxurious mansions in our city, the cardinal’s home, accepted priceless art treasures from Caesar and then asked the St. Charles Borromeo seminarians to keep the Word of God pure. . . .
“And then this happy, friendly, gentle man who captured our emotions returned to Rome to his Castle Gandolfo, to his Temple St. Peter’s, to his armed Swiss Guards and to his library and museum of priceless treasures. . . .
“He told us of the greater responsibility of rich nations to redistribute their wealth to the poor. Should not that responsibility extend to the Vatican also?”—“National Catholic Reporter,” Oct. 26, 1979.
Virginia M. Rickmeier of Chicago, no doubt speaking for many Catholics, said: “Listening to the Pope, particularly about ‘worldly matters,’ would be easier if he practiced what he preached. It is somehow difficult for a family, struggling to meet day-to-day expenses, to think of giving to the poor when the pope lives in grandeur. How many of the laity can boast a summer residence? . . . How can one truly compare today’s papacy with all its pomp to the humble, yet strong and venerable Saint Peter?”—U.S. Catholic, November 1979.
Indeed, what a contrast between the splendiferous life-style of Catholic leaders and that of Christ and his apostles! Yet it is not because of this contradiction that most Catholics are not heeding the pope.
Perhaps the main reason that they are not heeding the pope is his view on birth control. As one person said: “When you believe the Pope is dead wrong on an issue, as in ‘Humanae Vitae,’ it is difficult to put much stock in further statements.”
About 50 years ago Pope Pius XI asserted in an official pronouncement that “those who indulge in [artificial birth control] are branded with guilt of a great sin.” Pope Paul VI did not want to put the Church’s doctrine of papal infallibility in question. So, in 1968, he issued his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), in which he affirmed that for Catholics “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.”
It was this position that most Catholics were hoping John Paul II would change. A poll released on the eve of his visit to the United States showed that 66 percent wanted him to approve artificial methods of birth control. But what happened? On October 5 the pope told an assembly of U.S. bishops in Chicago:
“You rightly spoke against both the ideology of contraception and contraceptive acts, as did the Encyclical Humanae Vitae. And I myself today, with the same conviction of Paul VI, ratify the teaching of this encyclical, which was put forth by my predecessor ‘by virtue of the mandate entrusted to us by Christ.’”
Yet relatively few Catholic couples agree with the pope. And since neither do many priests, his directives go unheeded. “Who is the Pope to come into my bedroom?” demanded one Catholic mother years ago. “It seems to me all a matter of conscience.”
John Paul II would have done well to heed the apostle Paul’s advice at First Corinthians 4:6, as rendered by the Catholic Jerusalem Bible: “Remember the maxim: ‘Keep to what is written.’” By going beyond what is written in God’s Word, the pope has prolonged the tremendous dissent and division within his Church.
The long-existing Church decree prohibiting members of the clergy to marry has caused many of them also to turn a deaf ear to the pope. Literally hundreds of thousands of priests and nuns have quit since the 1960’s, largely due to this decree. Yet, on October 4, in Philadelphia, John Paul II restressed the need for priests to remain celibate.
However, this is not what the Scriptures teach. The Bible shows that even the apostle Peter and other apostles of Christ were married. The following day, October 5, Catholic columnist Gary Wills noted this in the Chicago Sun-Times, citing Mark 1:29-31 and 1 Corinthians 9:5. He then raised the question as to why the Church has covered up the existence of Peter’s wife, and explained:
“The answer, of course, is that Rome’s celibate priests tried to ignore the scriptural evidence for Peter’s married apostolate. They have assumed or asserted that only a celibate priesthood is worthy—thus calling Peter’s priesthood unworthy. The apostolic norm is denied . . .
“I find it odd that Pope John Paul, traveling as the successor of Peter, will emphasize in America the importance of a celibate priesthood when Rome is forever emphasizing the importance of St. Peter among the apostles, though he exercised that apostolate in the company of his wife.”
Thus, because of feeling unjustly forced to submit to a man-made law, many priests and nuns have left. Some have left the Catholic Church altogether, no doubt being reinforced in their decision by discovery of the Bible warning: “Now the Spirit manifestly saith, that in the last times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to spirits of error, and doctrines of devils, . . . forbidding to marry.”—1 Tim. 4:1-3, Catholic Douay Version.
A Uniting or a Dividing?
Of course, the pope hoped by his visits to heal and unite the Church. But it seems the opposite has occurred. “We were beginning to speak to one another and to heal the wounds of the ’60s” said Monsignor John E. Egan of Notre Dame. “We were beginning to listen again, to hear other people’s views. We have now opened the wounds again. While we are all united in our admiration of the Pope, we are once more divided on the issues of the church.”
Yet more than merely the pope’s views on religious teachings are causing division and concern. A case in point is his handling of a scandal involving his friend, Polish priest Michael M. Zembrzuski, as reported in the National Catholic Reporter of September 21, 1979. Zembrzuski headed the monastic religious order Pauline Fathers (Order of St. Paul, the First Hermit) in the United States. But breaking his poverty vow, Zembrzuski ‘wheeled and dealed’ financially, squandering, it was claimed, millions of dollars in charitable donations.
Bishop George H. Guilfoyle and the then head of the Passionist Fathers in Chicago, Paul M. Boyle, were appointed as Vatican investigators. In an investigation taking years because of its complexity, they found Zembrzuski’s style of living “immoral,” “insidious” and a “scandal.” Among other things, they wrote:
“Father Zembrzuski entertained lavishly, spending huge sums of money on himself and his friends. His friendship with a woman, whom he supported generously with monastery funds, gave rise to many rumors and accusations.”
Guilfoyle and Boyle, in their final report to the Vatican in February 1979, emphasized in the strongest terms possible that Zembrzuski and the priests loyal to him should be dismissed. But the recommendations went unheeded by the pope. To the contrary, Zembrzuski was honored by being included in the official entourage for the pope’s June visit to Poland.
Such actions cause many to wonder just what kind of man John Paul II really is. He seems to be a man of different faces, of contradictions. On the one hand he upholds unpopular, burdensome—even unscriptural—Church teachings that work hardships on his people. Yet, on the other hand, with the crowds, and especially the children, he appears compassionate and loving.
When convenient, the pope appeals to God’s Word and Christ’s example. Admonishing priests in Mexico to avoid revolutionary, subversive activities, he said: “The Gospels clearly show that for Jesus anything that would alter his mission as the Servant of Yahweh [Jehovah] was a temptation.”
Yet, does the pope practice what he here preached? Does he himself follow Christ’s example? How often have you heard him proclaim the name and purposes of “Yahweh, Most High over the whole world”? Yet Jesus said in prayer to Yahweh: “I have made your name known.”—Ps. 83:18; John 17:6, Jerusalem Bible.
The pope’s failure to make known God’s name and to stick faithfully by God’s Word, would suggest that John Paul II never will prove successful in uniting his divided Church, regardless of how many trips he makes.