MIAMI – John Paul II’s ascension to power in 1978 as a deeply orthodox pope when many American Catholics were shifting away from orthodoxy set off a cultural clash that defined his papacy.

On the world stage, the Polish-born pontiff was seen as a hero who helped foster the fall of communism, visited 127 countries to fight war, poverty and injustice and sought a historic reconciliation among Catholics, Jews and Muslims.

To some Americans, he was the pope who valiantly fought the secularization of the church. To others, he regressively quashed dreams born at the Vatican II Council of 1962-65 that the church could change with the times – spurning followers’ pleas to permit gay, female and married priests and greater involvement of lay people in church decisions.

“His legacy in America is mixed,” said Tim Matovina, a professor at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

Still, those who approved of his views and those who didn’t held him in high esteem.

“Even people who disagreed with him recognized his stature and his integrity,” said the Rev. Joseph Fessio, chancellor of Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.

Colleen Carroll Campbell, author of “The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy,” remembers being in a crowd of 800,000 at the 2002 World Youth Day rally in Toronto.

“The young people were kneeling on the hard pavement for his Mass, crying, listening to him calling them to gospel values,” Campbell said.

Beyond that, a disconnect came into play.

“To conservatives,” said Matovina, “it was great that they finally had a pope who would hold the line on the sacredness of the faith.”

“He presided over one of the worst disasters in the history of the church in the U.S.,” said Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for Call to Action, a Chicago-based Catholic group fighting to liberalize the church.”

Added David Clohessey, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: “For the thousands who were sexually abused on his watch, his legacy will be quite tainted. Fundamentally, he didn’t address the crisis.”

Fessio, though acknowledging the church mishandled the scandal, said “you can’t blame the pope for everything. No one is God.”

John Paul’s papacy began when the church was trying to digest sweeping changes wrought by the Vatican II Council convened by Pope John XXIII from 1962 to 1965.

The council had created important reforms, among them celebrating Mass in the language of the people rather than in Latin and increasing the involvement of laity in the life of the church.

It led many American Catholics to believe liberalization was coming in other areas. So they were deeply disappointed when Pope Paul VI in 1968 issued his encyclical Humanae Vitae, which strongly reaffirmed the church’s teachings on sexual morality, and when John Paul II, in his own encyclicals, further affirmed the orthodoxy of the church.

“In the liberal view,” says Matovina, “Vatican II gave a promise of change in the church, of greater openness, of taking the modern world seriously. In their view, Pope John Paul II pulled the rug out.

“Conservatives say Vatican II was misinterpreted, that liberals had taken its meaning and changed it, and the pope got back to its proper literal interpretation.”

Today, two-thirds of U.S. Catholics believe celibacy should be optional for priests, according to a 2004 study by the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. A majority approves ordaining women as priests. U.S. Catholics also are selectively following church teachings. Most accept such “core” beliefs as the idea that Mary is the mother of God, but fewer go along with such “peripheral” beliefs as the prohibition on birth control.

And a 2002 New York Times survey found that even among Catholic lay teachers, 53 percent believe a Catholic can have an abortion and remain a good Catholic and 65 percent believe a Catholic may divorce and remarry.

The clash of beliefs came at a time when the U.S. church already was in ferment. Membership increased from about 48 million in 1965 to about 67 million in 2004, mostly because of Hispanic immigration. But the Boisi study also pointed out that only a third of U.S. Catholics today go to church every weekend, down from three-fourths in 1950.

A 2003 book, “The Index of Leading Catholic Indicators: The Church Since Vatican II,” by Kenneth C. Jones (Oriens Publishing, $16.95), said that between 1965 and 2003, the number of priests dropped from 58,000 to 45,000 and is projected to fall to 31,000 by 2020. Nuns dwindled from 180,000 to 75,000.

Matovina notes the irony: “The biggest religious group in America is Catholics, with 67 million; the second biggest is people who used to be Catholics, with 25 million.”

The pope’s responsibility for such broad change is debated. Said Matovina: “U.S. Catholics are not engaged in religious cultural wars. They’re just trying to get from Sunday to Sunday with a spiritual sense that works in their own lives.”

But Call to Action’s Pieczynski said the pope had too much power. “He centralized power in the church very much like a monarchy. Nobody else decided who became a bishop.”

Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University, goes further: “He centralized power in the Vatican in ways not seen since Pope Pius IX 1846-78.”


Nothing split many American Catholics from the pope as much as the sex-abuse scandal.

A 2004 study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “Serious failings of the bishops have been shameful to the church, harming it as a moral force.”

A New York Times/CBS poll at the height of the scandal in 2002 said 45 percent of Catholics thought the pope and the Vatican did a poor job of handling the issue. “The pope was the only one with the ability to discipline the bishops,” Pieczynski said. “He didn’t discipline anybody.”

“I can’t say the fault lies squarely with the pope,” said the Survivors Network’s Clohessey. “I desperately want to believe that had he met face-to-face with abuse victims, he would have responded compassionately and taken action.

“Any rigid, centuries-old, secretive, male-dominated bureaucracy moves slowly.”


American AIDS fighters also were dismayed by the pope’s position against birth control. When a Vatican spokesman told the BBC in October that the AIDS virus was so small that condoms won’t stop it, the United Nations Joint Programme on AIDS called the statement “factually incorrect,” and the World Health Organization condemned it as “dangerous when we are facing a global pandemic.”


In the end, history will determine the stature of John Paul II as pope.

“It’s too early now to make that determination,” said Fessio, of Ave Maria University.

“In the U.S., the past 50 years from a Christian point of view have seen a decline in morals and spiritual standards, with divorce widespread, contraception seen as normal, family traditions weakening.

“But now we speak of a new springtime. I see new life and vigor in the faith. Some of these things would have happened without him. But he has been an inspiration.”

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