Voices continue to claim that John Paul's reign has been a failure, even on the eve of his 25th anniversary as Pope. He is blamed for the scandals in the Church — shouldn't he have disciplined bishops? He is blamed for dissent in the Church — shouldn't he have disciplined wayward theologians?
What can be said, honestly and forthrightly, in the Pope's defense? Isn't it just our affection for an indisputably holy old man that makes us want to make excuses for him?
Quite a lot can be said for him, actually. In fact, his governing style has been celebrated as brilliant for more than a decade, and yet some of the very people who described it best seem to have forgotten all about it.
His is the governing style that banished communism from Poland — not by decree and denunciation, but by the hard way; the way that lasts. Here are three characteristics of it.
The Pope creates facts.
When he was cardinal-archbishop of Krakow, the Pope didn't spend his time denouncing communists who wouldn't allow him to build new churches. Instead, he went to the places he wanted churches built and started saying Masses in meadows until a de facto parish had been formed, one the communists had to recognize.
In the cities, he didn't spend his time excommunicating communist sympathizers. Instead, he encouraged Catholic projects like the Solidarity movement, creating a positive anti-communist initiative that swept the country.
Look at the “facts” the Pope has created or boosted in just the last decade: The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Jubilee Year, the wildfire growth of the new lay movements he encouraged within the Church, the World Youth Days, the Year of the Rosary and, with his new encyclical, a resurgence of Eucharistic adoration.
If his was a papacy mostly concerned with delineating and denouncing the darkness, would these candles have been lit?
The Pope's arguments transcend ideological factions.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was sometimes criticized for not explaining in clear detail the evils of the ideology of communism, even as it swept Poland. After the fall of communism, we know better.
The Pope spent his energy — and credibility — teaching about the dignity of the human person, the value of work and the proper ends of the economy. Just as importantly, he spent his time reminding Poles of their unique culture and national identity. These proved deadly antibodies against the disease of communism.
If he had taught mainly about the wickedness of communism, he would have raised defenses and entrenched in his opponents. Instead, he took seriously the questions that communism raises and answered them.
The Pope has done the same thing in the Church. Take sexual morals. Instead of repeating denunciations that the world thinks it has understood and rejected, he has patiently introduced a new theology of the body. He answers the world's questions about sexuality by elevating sexuality's importance beyond what the world could guess.
The Pope is a witness to hope.
Some critics have argued that the Pope is too “optimistic” rather than “realistic” — that he expects really good encyclicals and youth rallies to trump the decadence elsewhere in the Church.
But the man who saw his country liberated by force from the Nazis only to be drowned under the horrors of communism is not likely to have rose-colored misconceptions about the wonderfulness of men.
What this Pope does have, is faith. He knows that God really did create the universe, really does care about its future and really will help it along. He believes that human beings are prone to sin, but that love, and its constant companion, freedom, is — in the words of Solomon — stronger than death.
If the Pope's governing style puts a great deal of trust in human freedom to eventually choose the truth, it's because God's did first.
And the man who saw the Berlin Wall go up and then come back down, the man who praises America's freedom even while he regrets its excesses, may be onto something.