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An Expansive and Prolific Theologian

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page A37

As the most prolific pope of modern times -- he produced 14 major policy statements, or encyclicals, plus hundreds of apostolic letters, homilies, speeches and articles -- John Paul II was hard to pigeonhole as a theologian.

His subject matter was broad, ranging from age-old questions about the Gospel and the Holy Trinity to such contemporary issues as international trade, urban planning and maternity leave. He made a religious case for Third World debt relief years before that idea caught on as an international issue.

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"Many of the policies he advocates would delight the most leftward members of the U.S. Congress," noted the American author Damon Linker. But, Linker said, "the arguments he uses to justify them are reminiscent of . . . the religious right."

In counsel with his bishops, John Paul issued the Vatican's first new Roman Catholic catechism -- an overall statement of church doctrine -- since the one published in 1566, following the Council of Trent. The 600-plus-page guide is now the basis for church teaching, whether Sunday school for children or post-graduate programs at Catholic universities around the world.

"His sheer level of output is phenomenal," said the Rev. Thomas G. Weinandy, a theologian at Oxford University. "It is almost certainly higher than any other pope."

Much of the pope's theology was built around the millennium and the Jubilee Year that Catholics celebrated to mark the 2000th anniversary of Jesus's birth.

"He was ahead of everybody in the world in focusing on the millennium," Weinandy said. "Virtually from the start of his pontificate, in 1978, he was looking ahead, 22 years ahead, to that milestone."

The pope structured the church's millennial celebrations around the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Three of his first encyclicals dealt serially with the members of the Trinity: Redemptor Hominis (Redeemer of Man) concerned Jesus; Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy) concerned God; and Dominum et Vivificantem (Lord and Giver of Life) was about the Holy Spirit.

In 1997-99, the pope instructed Catholics everywhere to spend a year contemplating each of the three members. The millennial year, 2000, was for study of the Trinity as a whole.

"The point of the trinitarian theology was to set the whole of the 20th century in the framework of the Trinity," Weinandy explained. "After the horrors of the century, with the Holocaust, Hiroshima, ethnic cleansing and all that, the world needed the mercy of God, and needed Jesus as the Redeemer. And the Holy Spirit fills the role of the life-giver, looking ahead to the new century."

Another early product of John Paul's long pontificate was his "theology of the body," set forth in 129 addresses from 1979 to 1984. In this carefully connected series of talks, the pope set forth a view of human sexuality and its central role in love and marriage. "Indeed, the very words 'I take you to be my wife -- my husband,' can be fulfilled only by means of conjugal intercourse," the pope said.

"The theology of the body is a clarion call for the church not to become more spiritual, but to become more incarnational," said Christopher West of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia.

Through it, he added, "we see the church's teaching on sexual morality not as an oppressive set of rules, but as the foundation of a liberating ethos."

The pope's personal experiences as a young man living first under Nazism and then Communist rule deeply influenced his attitudes on government, the working class and economics, noted Rodger Charles, a lecturer in theology at Oxford. "The pope's teaching builds directly from the horrors he saw himself under the Nazis and Stalin."

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