A Life of Moral Consistency

Sadly, it’s rare for a church leader, or for the leaders of most of our dominant institutions, to demonstrate a spirituality that attracts millions of people around the world - particularly many young people. But the scene of millions lining up to pass by the body of John Paul II and attend his funeral in Rome in early April was remarkable indeed. The enormous attraction to this pope goes far beyond the circle of those who agree with all the positions of the Catholic Church or even all of the decisions of his papacy.

The ecumenical and interfaith attraction to John Paul II reflects his own practice of reaching out to more people in more faith traditions than any pope ever has. He was the first pope (since Peter, it was noted) to visit a synagogue and the first to visit a mosque. His March 2000 trip to Israel, with its moving visit to the Western Wall and the Holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem, said more against anti-Semitism than all the words he spoke. It changed the relationship of the church and Judaism.

As I watched the nonstop coverage of the pope’s death, I was struck by how many people - especially political leaders - wanted to claim the pontiff as their own, as someone who affirmed their causes and commitments. At the same time, they ignored the other things this pope said and did that directly challenge their own political decisions.

One of the great attractions of Pope John Paul II’s spirituality was his consistency. At the core of Catholic social teaching is the idea of a "consistent ethic of life," an ethic that seeks to protect and defend human life and dignity wherever and whenever they are threatened, and which challenges the selective moralities of both the political left and right.

Many conservatives pointed to the pope’s clear teachings on abortion, euthanasia, and sexual morality, which are often contrary to the positions of many liberals. But they seemed to forget the strong and passionate opposition of this pope to the war in Iraq, to capital punishment, and to the operations of the global economy that neglect the poor and deny human rights for millions. This pope helped bring down communism, but he was no capitalist and constantly lifted up a vision of economic justice.

Promoting a "culture of life" was the language of John Paul’s papacy before it became the rhetoric of President Bush, and its meaning goes far beyond the narrow interpretations of the Republican Party. Yes, Pope John Paul II certainly opposed John Kerry’s views on abortion, but the White House did not get the photo op they wanted when the president visited the Vatican and the pope shook his finger disapprovingly at George W. Bush over the U.S. war in Iraq.

A CLEAR STATEMENT of the pope’s beliefs was in his final "State of the World" address delivered to members of the diplomatic corps on January 10, 2005. John Paul II identified four of what he called "the great challenges facing humanity today." These four were the causes to which he dedicated his life.

First, the pope noted the challenge of life, and said: "Life is the first gift which God has given us, it is the first resource which man can enjoy. The Church is called to proclaim ‘the Gospel of Life.’ And the State has as its primary task precisely the safeguarding and promotion of human life." He went on to refer specifically to abortion and other issues at the beginning of life, and the social and cultural threats to the family.

Second is the challenge of food. He cited the dramatic statistics of millions of children dying from hunger and called for "a radical commitment to justice and a more attentive and determined display of solidarity. This is the good which can overcome the evil of hunger and unjust poverty."

He also raised the challenge of peace, decrying the wars and armed conflicts around the world and the countless innocent victims they claim. "I have spoken out countless times," said the pope, "...and I shall continue to do so, pointing out the paths to peace and urging that they be followed with courage and patience. The arrogance of power must be countered with reason, force with dialogue, pointed weapons with outstretched hands, evil with good."

Two years earlier, just before the Iraq war, the pope declared more strongly: "War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.... War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations." In his tribute to the pope in Time magazine, James Carroll, Boston Globe columnist and author of Constantine’s Sword, wrote: "John Paul II made the renunciation of coercive force the political center of his pontificate."

FINALLY, HE RAISED the challenge of freedom. "Freedom is a great good, because only by freedom can human beings find fulfillment in a manner befitting their nature. Freedom is like light: It enables one to choose responsibly his proper goals and the right means of achieving them." Noting in particular the right to religious freedom, he said, "As long as human beings are alive, it will always be present and pressing."

Many legitimate concerns have been raised about the pope’s internal church policies. His conservative opposition to married or women priests, his anti-communism which sometimes led to an overly harsh treatment of liberation theologians who were committed to the poor, his replacement of progressive bishops with far more conservative ones - all are a part of his legacy.

But the world will long remember his consistency in defending human life and human dignity. It was deeply attractive, spiritually and morally, to people who long for public integrity, particularly to those of a new generation. And the life of John Paul II is a lesson of its truth and power for all of us.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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