Much has been said already of the passing of Pope John Paul II. I’m not sure what else I can add. I’m actually a bit speechless. Not only was John Paul II the only pope I’ve ever known (and I’ll be 28 next month), the man was also a remarkable human being. Much ink has already been spilled about his upbringing, his role in the defeat of communism, his concern for children and the poor, and his eloquent defense of the “culture of life”—a much fuller-orbed culture of life than the one promoted by President Bush in his last campaign, incompassing not only abortion, but also government executions, euthanasia, economic oppression, and war.
John Paul II was also a stout defender of orthodox Catholicism. In searching for a unique angle to write about the late pope’s contributions to the Christian faith, one thing that popped into my head was Kevin Smith’s 1999 film Dogma. The crisis in the film was set up by a heretical bishop played by George Carlin, who, in an effort to moderize Catholicism, created a loophole in Catholicism’s dogma of salvation that threatened to destroy the world. In thinking over the legacy of John Paul II, Carlin’s “Catholicism WOW!” and Buddy Christ look more like something you’d see from liberal mainline protestants or a hipster evangelical megachurch than you’d see from your local Catholic parish. Rewriting the definition of salvation? Maybe if you are liberal Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong (who, incidently, is from New Jersey like Kevin Smith). Buddy Christ, complete with wink and thumbs-up sign? I don’t know if your local bible church would go that far, but if hip pastors are supposed to be wearing blue jeans and Hawaiian shirts (thank you Rick Warren!), can a wardrobe makeover for Jesus be far behind? John Paul II’s defense of orthodox Catholicism was an asset to his church and to Christianity in general, especially in the Western world, where we Protestants seem to want to liberalize ourselves into “respectability” or popularize ourselves into irrelevancy.
For all the faults of the Catholic church—and they are legion—it would be in a lot worse shape if it hadn’t been led for a quarter of a century by a man like John Paul II. Liberal Catholics chafed at his theological conservatism, but he held firm and the Catholic church is better for it. Whoever the next pope is, he will find that when it comes to John Paul II’s contributions to theology, diplomacy, and human compassion, he’s got a mighty big pope’s hat to fill.
UPDATE: For some assessments of the good and bad in JP2’s reign from an orthodox Lutheran perspective, see Josh S. at Here We Stand (nothing escapes totally unscathed in this one, including death itself), Rev. Paul McCain at Cyberbrethren, and Brit Lutheran John H. at Confessing Evangelical. I agree with these writers that while a conservative, orthodox pope like JP2 was strong ally against communism and the culture of death, his reign also made recovery of salvation by faith alone within the Catholic church more difficult.
And if you want your very own Buddy Christ to show how cool you are, here ya go.