The passing of Pope John Paul II into eternal life is not only a loss for the Catholic church; it is a loss for Christians of all traditions and confessions. Indeed, though I trace my confessional identity to the Reformation protest against “Rome,” it was John Paul II who reminded me that to be Christian is to be catholic.
Pope John Paul II articulated what papal biographer George Weigel describes as “the catholic difference;” that is, the Pope unapologetically asserted that to confess Jesus is Lord is to see the whole world differently. The Pope’s vision of catholicism, in other words, is what Weigel calls an “optic:” “a way of seeing things, a distinct perception of reality” that made a difference. But this was a catholic difference: on the one hand, this vision was generous and ecumenical, such that Christians from across traditions and around the globe could join together to proclaim the Gospel to the modern world. It is no surprise, then, that Pope John Paul II was committed to reconciliation, overseeing the most comprehensive commitment to religious dialogue in the history of the Vatican–including fruitful dialogue between Rome and the churches of the Reformation. (This passion was articulated in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint.) On the other hand, this catholic vision was different. The Gospel proclaims that the whole world belongs to God, and that this makes a difference: for the way we think about justice, economic distribution, our relation to material goods, human relationships and bodies, and even how we think about suffering. So the Pope was also unabashed in his assertion of this difference, never shy to articulate a prophetic critique of what he saw as the creeping “culture of death” taking hold of the modern world, whether in the oppressive form of Communism which he helped topple, or in the form of America’s persistent use of the death penalty and unjust military interventions. The Pope’s prophetic vision of the Gospel’s impact on every sphere of life helped those of us who are Reformed to be reminded that ours is a catholic vision.
The Pope’s vision will forever be known as one committed to the “culture of life” as opposed to the culture of death. Unlike the simplistic versions of this bandied about in American party politics, Pope John Paul II left us with a rich philosophical and theological articulation of this moral vision in encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. At the heart of this was a theology of the body that could affirm all the goods of embodiment, from the arts to sexuality, in a way that avoided the puritanical gnosticism of much of evangelicalism. And in his final years the Pope modeled for us a profound theology of suffering, trying to show a modern world that, despite all our pretensions to mastery and control, that there is redemption to be found by living out of control, and receiving grace from a God of great gifts.
Christians of all confessions, and perhaps especially Christians from the so-called “Reformed” churches, should take time this week to give thanks to our giving God for the gift of John Paul II. We would do well to learn to see the world through the optic of “the catholic difference.”