The death of Pope John Paul II brings one of the Roman Catholic Church’s longest papal reigns to an end and closes the last chapter on one of the most significant lives of our times. By any measure, John Paul II was one of the most influential figures on the world scene, leading over a billion Roman Catholics worldwide and exercising a significant influence on world affairs during some of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century.
Inevitably, his death raises fundamental questions about how evangelical Christians should understand the papacy itself, as well as those who hold the papal office. Given the low level of theological knowledge and the high emotionalism of the era, many evangelicals appear confused when confronted with an event like the death of a pope. Furthermore, evangelicals are more likely to have been aware of this pope in contrast with those who held the office in the past. In this age of mass communications and media, John Paul II has been one of the most publicized, televised, and celebrated public figures of our age.
For evangelicals, the crucial question comes with the institution of the papacy itself. After all, the Reformation of the 16th century required a rejection of papal power and authority, and the Reformers soon came to understand the papacy as an unbiblical office that inevitably compromised the authority and sufficiency of scripture. Over time, the heirs of the Reformers came to understand that the papacy is a fundamentally unbiblical office that posits an earthly monarch as the earthly head of the church. Furthermore, this office is then invested with claims to spiritual and temporal power that are combined with claims of apostolic succession and serve as foundational pillars for the comprehensive claims of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Protestant rejection of the papacy was no small matter, though some liberal Protestants and careless evangelicals seem to have forgotten why. Beyond this, the papacy is inextricably linked to the structure of Catholic theology and the superstructure of truth claims, practices, and doctrines that constitute Catholicism. Evangelical Christians simply cannot accept the legitimacy of the papacy and must resist and reject claims of papal authority. To do otherwise would be to compromise biblical truth and reverse the Reformation. With the death of John Paul II, evangelicals are confronted with a sensitive question: Can we recognize genuine virtues in a man who for over a quarter of a century held an office we must expressly reject?
We should be unembarrassed and unhesitant to declare our admiration for John Paul II’s courageous stand against Communism, his bold defense of human dignity and human life, and his robust and substantial defense of truth in the face of postmodernism. In many of the great battles of our day, evangelicals found John Paul II to be a key ally. This was especially true with the crucial issues of abortion and euthanasia. With bold strokes and a clear voice, this pope defended human life from the moment of conception until natural death. In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (1995), he argued for an implacable opposition to what he called the “culture of death”–an age that would increasingly embrace death rather than life and forfeit human dignity on the altar of human autonomy and individual rights.
In Veritatis Splendor (1993), John Paul argued that the modern concept of freedom as unrestrained human liberty would lead to the destruction of Christian ethics and the undermining of all authority. In this powerful statement, the pope defended the very nature of truth against postmodern denials and a culture increasingly attracted to moral relativism.
The legacy of this pope cannot be separated from the facts of his life. Born May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, just south of Krakow in Poland, Karol Wojtyla would come to adulthood in the context of Communist oppression. Throughout his life, he would identify himself as a Pole and a Slav, and the twists and turns of his biography would become a focus of world attention.
Trained as an actor, Karol Wojtyla would later decide to enter the priesthood, following a calling that brought great respect in his native Poland. With remarkable speed, Father Wojtyla moved into the hierarchy of the church. He was consecrated a bishop in 1958–just 12 years after entering the priesthood. In 1964, he was installed as Archbishop of Krakow, and just three years later he was created a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
Long before he became a cardinal of the church, Karol Wojtyla had attracted the attention of the Vatican. He had studied in Rome and had developed a reputation in the academic circles of the church. Theologically, he was seen as a progressive, and he took an active part in the Second Vatican Council, called into session by Pope John XXIII.
When Pope Paul VI died at Castel Gandolfo on August 6, 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla was already discussed as a potential successor. Nevertheless, when the College of Cardinals elected Albino Luciani on August 25, 1978, it looked as if Cardinal Wojtyla had lost his chance to become pope.
All this changed on September 28, 1978, when Cardinal Luciani–now Pope John Paul I–died in his sleep during the night, barely a month after his election as pope.
The election of Karol Wojtyla as pope came on October 16, 1978, and he immediately announced that he would take the name “John Paul II” as a way of honoring his immediate predecessor. Nevertheless, it was clear that this new pope would take the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church firmly in hand.
In his early years, this Polish pope was known by millions of persons around the globe, primarily as a man who opposed Communist tyranny with personal courage and the weight of his papal office. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope since 1522, and the historical importance of his election became clear as he used the full influence of his papal office to encourage the Solidarity movement in his native Poland.
Along with President Ronald W. Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II saw Communism as an assault upon human dignity and the human spirit. Like Ronald Reagan, John Paul II grew in international stature after surviving an assassination attempt. In the case of John Paul II, the 1981 assassination attempt that nearly took his life was organized by the Bulgarian secret police, presumably under orders from the KGB in the Soviet Union.
Evangelical Christians should honor the courage of this man and his historic role in bringing Communist tyranny to an end–at least within the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. Added to this, we should honor his defense of human dignity and his eloquent and influential witness against abortion and the Culture of Death.
Even so, we must also recognize that John Paul II also represented the most troubling aspects of Roman Catholicism. He defended and continued the theological directions set loose at the Second Vatican Council. Even as he consolidated authority in the Vatican and disciplined wayward priests and theologians, he never confronted the most pressing issues of evangelical concern.
Even in his most recent book, released in the United States just days before his death, John Paul II continued to define the work of Christ as that which is added to human effort. Like the church he served, John Paul II rejected justification by faith. Beyond this, he rejected the biblical doctrine of hell, embraced inclusivism, and promoted an extreme form of Marian devotion, referring to Mary as “Co-Redemptrix,” “Mediatrix,” and “Mother of all Graces.”
In the end, evangelicals should be thankful for the personal virtues Pope John Paul II demonstrated, and for his advocacy on behalf of life, liberty, and human dignity. Yet we cannot ignore the institution of the papacy itself, nor the complex of doctrines, truth claims, and false doctrines that John Paul II taught, defended, and promulgated. As Roman Catholics mourn the passing of the pope, we should take care to respond with both compassion and conviction, fulfilling our own responsibility to take the measure of this man and his legacy.