Admirers and Doubters
Even critics of John Paul's II's papacy would agree with the appraisal of one of his fans, the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly America : "In a world full of politicians, he was a man who spoke from principle." They would agree, too, that the pope's positions had a decisive influence on the course of history during the last quarter of the 20th century. But it is many of those strict positions, in particular resolute stands against contraception, abortion, and a larger role for women, and for a strictly male and celibate priesthood, that they charge actually weakened the church. What many find most deeply troubling is the sense that this pope tried to undo what the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) tried to achieve--to make the church a less authoritarian institution. The pope's supporters, of course, celebrate his strictness, noting it weeded out what his biographer George Weigel calls the "Lite brigades" within Catholicism. "I think the church is much stronger now," says Michael Novak, an influential Catholic thinker, "with much stronger cadres of people who know what they are doing."
Among those who disagree is Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, former editor of the lay Catholic biweekly Commonweal. Though the pope called for equal treatment of women in the workplace, she says, "it didn't help matters within the church." In Brazil, for instance, as the official church became increasingly conservative and because it did not deal openly with violence against women, child support, and sexually transmitted diseases, even devout women claim that they are "a different part of the church," says Maria Jose Rosado-Nunes, a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo. And in his book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit , historian Garry Wills observes that many people "suspect that John Paul's real legacy to his church is a gay priesthood." Says Steinfels: "He's done some wonderful things, but he will have a lot to answer for."
This story appears in the April 11, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.