What the Pope Really Did

8 April 2005

What the Pope Really Did

By Gwynne Dyer

It was the biggest photo-op in world history, and everybody who is anybody was there. Even the Protestant president of the United States and the Muslim clergyman who is president of the Islamic Republic of Iran felt obliged to show up for the Pope’s funeral. But the media circus has already moved on to the next global event — two divorced British people in late middle age getting married in a registry office in Windsor — and there is one last opportunity to consider the life of Karol Wojtyla.

Forget all the stuff about how he smothered all the new thinking and decentralisation that were beginning to transform the Catholic church when he was chosen pope in 1978. It’s true, but he was elected precisely to carry out that task. The conservatives in the Curia who had been sidelined by Vatican II were determined to stop the rot (as they saw it), and they were well aware that Wojtyla was a man in their own mould when they pushed him forward as the dark-horse candidate to succeed John Paul I.

He acted as they expected that he would, and it would be foolish to condemn him for it. He held those beliefs long before he became pope, and he never hid them. But there was one thing he did that astonished and appalled the conservatives. It was also the one thing he did that will still define the Catholic church’s policy centuries from now.

Most of John Paul II’s policies are eminently reversible, if a subsequent generation of church leaders should decide that a different line on contraceptives or women priests is more in accord with divine teaching. That isn’t likely to happen any time soon, given the way that he has packed the College of Cardinals with like-minded individuals, but with enough time many things become possible. What later generations are most unlikely to reverse is his acknowledgement that Judaism is a valid alternative path to God.

We are not just talking “apology” here — although Christians certainly owed apologies to the Jews for two millennia of slander and persecution — nor even “reconciliation”. John Paul II went far beyond that, though few members of the general public realised it at the time: he recognised Judaism as a true religion.

There is an old saying, beloved of Catholic theologians, that “error has no rights.” It drives the ecumenical crowd crazy, but it is perfectly logical: if you believe that your religion is true, and the others are different, then the others are false. John Paul II was perfectly affable and hospitable to various Protestant Christians who came to visit, but he truly believed that they were wrong, wrong, wrong — and he refused to enter into the equal relationships that they fondly imagined to be possible between the various Christian sects.

He was more open to the Orthodox Christian world, both because he came from eastern Europe himself and because the quarrel between the Orthodox churches and the Church of Rome has always been about hierarchical and stylistic matters, not about basic doctrinal issues. It was in his relations with the non-Christian religions that are also in the lineage of Abraham, however, that John Paul II broke decisively with Christian and Catholic tradition.

In fourteen hundred years of constant and intimate contact between the Muslim and Christian peoples around the Mediterranean, he was the first pope ever to enter a mosque. He doubtless continued to believe that Christianity was the one true successor to Judaism and that Islam was a post-Jewish, post-Christian heresy, but he was the first pope to argue that cordial relations between them were possible and desirable. And in the case of the Jews, he went much farther.

It’s understandable that the new religion of Christianity, struggling to distance itself from its Jewish roots, should have insisted that the Christian revelation had invalidated and replaced the older faith. By implication, however, that meant that those Jews who refused to convert were in revolt against God — and from that mind-set came the Christian image of Jews as “Christ-killers,” and two millennia of savage Christian persecution culminating in the European holocaust of 1942-45.

Karol Wojtyla was a witness to that holocaust, which may be why he did the extraordinary thing that he did. On his visit to Israel in 2000, he posted a prayer in a niche in Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall which said: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations. We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”

By posting that prayer in the wall, he acknowledged that this uniquely Jewish method of communicating with the Almighty is valid — and by its contents he accepted that the Jewish covenant with God is still in force. It was a thing done in a moment, but it ended two thousand years of Christian rejection of Judaism. The Catholic church, while still advocating the conversion of everybody else, no longer seeks the conversion of the Jews, which is as close as it can come to acknowledging the essential validity of the Jewish faith.

That was the Big Thing that John Paul II did, and it is more important and will last far longer than all the other things he did put together.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“Forget…now”)