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The Church Loses Its Light

"While exchanges and conflicts of opinion may constitute normal expressions of public life in a representative democracy, moral teaching certainly cannot depend simply upon respect for a process. . . . Opposition to the teaching of the Church's Pastors cannot be seen as a legitimate expression either of Christian freedom or of the diversity of the Spirit's gifts."

This thinking often contributed to prickly relations with the U.S. church hierarchy. The Vatican disciplined Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle for perceived doctrinal missteps. Partly as a result, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops insisted on new guidelines to govern relations with the Holy See. In 1986, Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, the outgoing president of the conference, noted "a growing and dangerous disaffection" between the Vatican and the U.S. church.

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Among theologians who experienced John Paul's wrath was the Rev. Charles E. Curran of Catholic University in Washington. In 1986, he lost his teaching license for asserting that a person could "dissent in theory and practice" from the condemnation of artificial contraception and still be a loyal Roman Catholic. The action against him was a "definitive judgment" that had specific papal approval.

Practicality vs. Principle

John Paul was fascinated by science. In contrast to the church's traditional wary approach to the subject, he established a Pontifical Academy of Sciences, a body made up of eminent scholars, Catholics and non-Catholics, to advise him on developments in the field. He also commemorated the 100th birthday of Albert Einstein and directed that Galileo, imprisoned by the Inquisition in 1633 for asserting the truth of Copernicus's theory that the Earth circles the sun, be fully rehabilitated.

In October 1996, he declared that physical evolution is "more than just a theory," advancing the church's view, held for a half-century, that the process was worthy of discussion but still open to question.

At the same time, he deplored the Enlightenment, the 18th-century movement that gave the Western world many of its scientific, economic and humanitarian glories. Its triumphs included the Industrial Revolution and the propositions embodied in the Constitution of the United States. But its central idea was that the human being, not God, is the center of the universe. This struck at the heart of Catholic dogma.

In "Crossing the Threshold of Hope," a book of reflections that became a bestseller in 1994, John Paul traced these developments to Rene Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician. His dictum, "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), countered the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the landmark theologian who said being was a gift from God that preceded every human activity, including thought.

John Paul spoke repeatedly and movingly against the modern tendency to make profit and efficiency the measures of success. He blamed this trend for the alienation of individuals, the disintegration of the family and the abandonment of objective standards of behavior in modern society. In 1993, he used the occasion of a World Youth Day gathering in Cherry Creek State Park near Denver, one of a series of biennial events he began in 1986, to summarize his thoughts on the "culture of death":

"In a technological culture in which people are used to dominating matter, discovering its laws and mechanisms in order to transform it according to their wishes, the danger arises of also wanting to manipulate conscience and its demands. In a culture which holds that no universally valid truths are possible, nothing is absolute. . . . Good comes to mean what is pleasing or useful at a particular moment. Evil means what contradicts our subjective wishes. Each person can build a private system of values."

At a Mass the next day, he cut short a homily that said, in its widely quoted prepared text: "In our own century, as at no other time in history, the 'culture of death' has assumed a social and institutional form of legality to justify the most horrible crimes against humanity: genocide, 'final solutions,' 'ethnic cleansings' and the massive 'taking of lives of human beings even before they are born or before they reach the natural point of death.' "

Religious Rapprochement

John Paul made novel and far-reaching gestures toward establishing closer ties with many faiths, not just Judaism. In 1986, he organized a prayer-for-peace meeting at the shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi to which he invited non-Christian leaders as well as Christians. Among those attending were the Dalai Lama, the archbishop of Canterbury and Mother Teresa.

In 2001, during a visit to Syria as part of a pilgrimage retracing the journey of Saint Paul, he became the first pope to enter a mosque.

But John Paul was unable to realize one of his most cherished goals, that of reconciling with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which split with Rome in 1054. He was able to visit the predominantly Orthodox countries of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Greece, but was not allowed into Russia.

Recognizing that more than half of the world's Catholics now live in developing countries, he transformed the church's leadership, greatly reducing representation from Italy and elsewhere in Western Europe.

In 1994, after he made appointments to bring the voting strength of the College of Cardinals, the body that will select his successor, to 120, 60 percent of the members were from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe or the United States.


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