The Challenges John Paul II Leaves For Us

Author: George Weigel

[Editor’s Note: This article was written shortly before the death of John Paul II. It is still timely, as it discusses the issues the cardinals will be considering as they meet to elect a new pope.]

It’s obvious that we are much closer to the end of the extraordinary pontificate of John Paul II than to its beginning. And as the pope himself has talked about the impending completion of his mission on several occasions in recent years, there is nothing unseemly in deepening the conversation about what we might call “the work John Paul II will leave for the rest of us.”

“The rest of us,” of course, includes the next pope—whoever the 265th Bishop of Rome may be, wherever he may have been born, and whatever his previous experience has been.

All conclaves tend to confound the predictions of pre-conclave prognosticators, but there is one thing of which we can be absolutely certain in thinking about the conclave that will elect the next pope: The legacy of John Paul II will loom very, very large. For, thanks to the pope’s historic achievements and his outreach to people of every race, creed and condition, the papacy now matters to virtually everyone. That makes the electors’ task a complex one, for the men who choose the next pope will, in an important sense, be choosing a pope for the world as well as the Church.

The next pope will be elected by the College of Cardinals, which has had the exclusive right to elect the Bishop of Rome since the 12th century. The apostolic constitution governing the conclave, which was issued by John Paul II in 1996, continues the practice of limiting cardinal-electors to those members of the college who have not reached their 80th birthday on the day the pope dies. Thus we can anticipate an electorate of between 110 and 120 cardinals—the largest in conclave history, an electorate one-quarter larger than that which elected John Paul II in 1978.

The cardinal-electors will be the most diverse such group in history. As of this spring, they range in age from 52-year-old Peter Erdõ, the primate of Hungary, to 79-year-old Marco Cé, the patriarch-emeritus of Venice. Their average age is 66. Of the electorate, 50 percent will come from Europe (but only 17 percent from Italy, the lowest percentage in modern conclave history); 19 percent from Latin America; 11 percent from North America; 11 percent from Asia and Oceania; 10 percent from Africa. Almost 80 percent of the cardinal-electors are local pastors, not figures in the Roman Curia. Eighteen percent are members of religious orders, with the Franciscans boasting the largest number of cardinal-electors (four), while the Salesians and the Jesuits have three each. Two cardinal-electors are affiliated with Opus Dei—a number that will doubtless disappoint the more gullible readers of The Da Vinci Code.

This unprecedented diversity will make the next conclave more complex both logistically and linguistically. Because of the decline of Latin as the Church’s lingua franca, the cardinal-electors don’t share at least the rudiments of a common language—and the results of that, for the pre-conclave discussion of issues and the conclave itself, remain to be seen. Then there is the fact that these men don’t really know each other; the last time most of them were in the same place at the same time was when John Paul II created new cardinals in October 2003, immediately after his own silver jubilee.

Moreover, the diversity of the cardinal-electors will be magnified in the pre-conclave discussions by the presence of some 65 cardinals who, having turned 80, have lost their vote but who will be very much part of the conversation about issues and the assessment of possible candidates in the two or three weeks that will pass between the death of John Paul II and the sealing of the conclave to elect his successor.

Even when “immured” in the conclave, the cardinal-electors will be living far more comfortably than in the past. Previously, curial offices in the Apostolic Palace were divided into ramshackle cubicles to house the electors, most of whom were unaccustomed to sleeping on cots and using chamber pots. Now, thanks to a new Vatican guest house built by John Paul II, the cardinal-electors will live in three-room suites in what amounts to a quite decent hotel with a more-than-adequate kitchen.

The actual election will take place in the Sistine Chapel, according to a long-standing tradition. Unlike previous conclaves, however, the cardinal-electors will be able to walk between the chapel and the guest house, and even through a substantial part of the Vatican grounds, before or after the day’s electoral work is done. In very human terms, the pressures felt in previous conclaves to get the job done expeditiously will not be felt in the next conclave; call it the absence of the “chamber pot factor.”

All of this adds up to a complex and probably lengthy conclave —one I could imagine going on for three, four, even five days of voting. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution governing the next conclave permits the electors to move to a simple majority vote from the two-thirds majority requirement after almost two weeks and some 30-plus ballots. But I regard this as a remote possibility. For after five days the world media would begin reporting the story of a “Church in Crisis,” and I cannot imagine the cardinal-electors wanting that storyline to set the stage for a man who is already going to have a next-to-impossible job—filling the exceedingly large shoes worn by John Paul II.

Clarifying the Issues.

The most urgent questions facing the Church will be addressed at some length before the conclave, in the formal “general congregations” of cardinals that will begin meeting the day after the pope’s death, and in those informal discussions known in Italian as the prattiche (which roughly translates as “exercises”). How those conversations unfold will have a great deal to do with who becomes the 264th successor to Saint Peter and the 265th Bishop of Rome. To borrow from Morris West’s famous image: The way in which the cardinals design and measure the shoes of the fisherman will have a lot to do with their choice of a man with the particular qualities needed to fit those particular shoes.

It may help, at the outset, to clarify what the issues are not. Neither the next conclave nor the next pope is going to change the Catholic Church’s teaching on the morally appropriate way to regulate births, although the cardinals may well discuss how to present that teaching with greater pastoral effectiveness. Neither the next conclave nor the next pope is going to endorse abortion or euthanasia; the inviolability of innocent life is a bedrock principle of both natural and revealed law.

Similarly, while the pre-conclave prattiche and the conclave itself may involve some discussion of the effects of the revolution in women’s lives (and the concurrent revolution in men’s lives) on the Church and the world, the Church’s practice of calling only men to the ministerial priesthood is not going to change. As John Paul II stated 11 years ago, the Church is not authorized to change that practice.

There will likely be some discussion of the advisability of ordaining proven and tested older married men to the ministerial priesthood in situations where the shortage of priests is drastically impeding the Church’s sacramental life. Yet the cardinals well know that this solution, if it is that, will create some problems as well as address others; thus we need not expect a full-scale retreat from the ancient linkage of celibacy and ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.

Which is to say that virtually all of what The New York Times imagines are “the issues” for the Catholic Church aren’t, in fact, the issues, and aren’t going to play a significant role in shaping the next conclave and the next pontificate.

The Great Issues.

Three large-scale issues are already under discussion within the College of Cardinals and among other senior churchmen. These mega-issues will certainly weigh heavily in the conclave’s deliberations, in the next pontificate and in the Catholic Church’s interface with the 21st century world. The first is the virtual collapse of Christianity in its historic heartland—Western Europe. The second great issue is the Church’s response to the challenge posed by the rise of militant Islam. And the third involves the questions posed by the biotech revolution.

Questions of the Church’s intellectual discipline also will be discussed in the next conclave. A fifth large issue may or may not come up but should, in my judgment, be addressed, and that is the question of the Church’s diplomacy—the set of ideas that have guided the “foreign policy” of the Holy See for two generations.


Europe is dying, its below-replacement-level birthrates shrinking its population in the most drastic and sustained reduction since the Black Death. Why is this happening? Might it have something to do with the effects of what the French theologian Henri du Lubac called “atheistic humanism”—a way of thinking that rejected the God of the Bible in the name of human liberation and that deeply shaped modern European culture? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great Russian writer, would likely agree, for he argued 20 years ago that Europe’s disastrous 20th century took place because men had “forgotten God” and had imagined the possibility, indeed the imperative, of politics-without-God.

The residues of atheistic humanism in Europe are now expressed in a form of secularism that is determined to keep all transcendent moral referents out of public life. The effects of this narrow-gauged secularism are much in evidence today. They were at work when the new European constitution signed this past October willfully denied that 1,500 years of Christian history had anything to do with contemporary Europe’s commitments to human rights, democracy and the rule of law. They were at work when the Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione was denied an opportunity to serve as European Minister of Justice, not because of his public commitments and record but because of his personal convictions (informed by both natural law and Catholic moral theology) about the morality of homosexual acts and the nature of marriage. They have been evident in the recent British controversy over Ruth Kelly’s service as education secretary in the Blair Cabinet, with critics charging that Kelly’s robust Catholicism will “cloud” her judgment on such matters as embryo-destructive stem-cell research.

Apostasy, the renunciation of religious faith, is not the only story of 19th and 20th century Europe. Modern European history is also the story of Christian renewal movements, of tremendous Christian missionary energy and of Christian martyrdom. But, for the moment, the apostates dominate Europe’s public culture. They do so in part because of the failure of Europe’s Christian communities to be effective transmitters of the faith and effective advocates for religiously informed moral reason.

No pope in history has invested more time, intellectual energy and personal struggle in calling Europe back to the promises of its baptism than John Paul II. While the seeds that John Paul has planted may flower in the future, especially among today’s young Catholics, the critical moment for Europe is likely to come in the next 20 or 30 years. Will a depopulating Europe, incapable of making the hard political decisions that would prevent fiscal chaos and social catastrophe, and increasingly beset from within by an assertive Islamic minority, become, as some scholars have warned, "Eurabia"—an extension of the culture and politics of the Arab Islamic world?

“Eurabia” would pose enormous strategic and economic problems for the United States and the rest of the democratic world. But even absent such a draconian finish to the story, Europe’s current antipathy toward biblical religion is already hurting the United States. The import into America of European legal ideas is already making a mark in our federal courts. That was most notable in Lawrence v. Texas, which cited European precedents to sharpen the Supreme Court’s identification of freedom with personal willfulness—a notion that strips the family and the political community of any thick moral texture.

Americans and indeed all free people have a stake in whether Europe’s current, sad decline can be reversed. That means they have a stake in whether the only plausible candidate for leading such a reversal emerges in the next 20 years: an evangelically revived and culturally formative Christianity. Finding ways to make that happen is one of the great issues for the Catholic Church that John Paul II will leave behind. A capacity to jump-start the re-evangelization of Europe will be one of the qualities the cardinal-electors will seek in the next pope. Whether they find such a man will have a lot to do with the rest of 21st century history, for all of us.


If one looks at the Catholic Church in global terms, as the cardinal-electors must, one cannot help but notice a jagged arc of conflict that runs from the west coast of Africa to Southeast Asia, ending at East Timor. The regions south and north of that dividing line are like two enormous tectonic plates, grating on each other—with the occasional, bloody upheavals that such geologic collisions sometimes produce. North of the arc are societies and cultures increasingly swayed by militant forms of Islam; south of it are Christian communities that, from Nigeria through Sudan to Pakistan and on into the Philippines and Indonesia, are often under assault from their Muslim neighbors, and/or the governments those neighbors accept.

The Catholic Church’s religious and theological dialogue with the worlds-within-worlds of Islam was shaped in the mid-1960s at the end of the Second Vatican Council, a time of perhaps excessively buoyant optimism in the Church and of relative calm in the Islamic world. The latter has now changed dramatically, in no small part because of strains of Islam influenced by the Islamic Brotherhood, the Wahhabi sect and other proponents of cultural aggression, civic intolerance and, too often, violence in the name of the one God and his one Prophet. The conflicts engendered by these changes have been evident along the fault-line running from Senegal to East Timor for more than a decade. Now, after 9/11 and the Bali, Istanbul and Madrid bombings, it should be clear that this conflict is global in scope. Thus the dialogue between Catholicism and the multifaceted Islamic world must also change, dramatically. From the Catholic point of view, the Catholic-Islamic dialogue of the immediate future must be framed in frankly strategic terms.

To put the case for strategy most simply: Can the Catholic Church be of some modest assistance to those Islamic scholars, lawyers and religious leaders who are working—often at great risk— to develop a genuinely Islamic case for religious toleration in something approximating what we in the West call “civil society”?

A billion Muslims are not about to become secular liberals. Thus a crucial question for the Islamic future is whether Islam can find within its own sacred texts and legal traditions the internal resources to ground an Islamic case for important facets of the free and virtuous society, including religious toleration and a commitment to the method of persuasion in politics. What might Catholicism bring to this discussion?

It can bring its own recent history—for it took the Catholic Church until 1965 to develop and articulate a thoroughly Catholic concept of religious freedom and its implications for the organization of public life. Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom Dignitatis Humanae taught that religious freedom is a fundamental human right and insisted that governments, which are incompetent in theological questions, must protect the civil rights of all citizens to seek and adhere to religious truth. This dramatic development in Catholic social doctrine could and should be brought into the Church’s global dialogue with the multifaceted worlds of Islam.

Because of its concern for imperiled Christian communities in Islamic-dominated lands, on the one hand, and a soothing rather anodyne approach to interreligious dialogue, on the other, the Vatican has been reluctant to press its Islamic liaisons to condemn terrorism forthrightly and publicly. But surely the cardinal-electors, well-aware of the threat that militant forms of Islam pose to the world Church, will want to consider whether a more forthright approach to aggression is in order, not least because militant Islam seems to be most aggressive where it perceives weakness. The point, it would seem, is not so much to be in dialogue with everyone as to be in dialogue with those Islamic partners best positioned to leverage needed change in their co-religionists’ self-understanding of Islam’s role in public life.

There are, of course, no guarantees that a new, strategic approach to the Catholic-Islamic dialogue will have the desired effects within the Islamic world, given the multiple other pressures at play. Nor am I suggesting that new forms of interreligious dialogue are, in and of themselves, “the answer” to the worldwide threat of militant Islam. They may well be part of the answer, however. Putting them into play is an urgent task for the Church and for the world, a task not only for the next pontificate but for those that follow it in this century and beyond.

The Biotech Revolution.

Many cardinal-electors have the sense that the world has, at best, a 10- to 20-year window in which to build the legal and regulatory structures necessary to channel humanity’s new genetic knowledge, and its marriage to technology, in directions that will lead to healing and genuine human flourishing, rather than to the nightmare of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The cardinal-electors are also aware that the dominant public approach to the biotech revolution is simply to ask, “Will it work?” This low-brow utilitarianism is reinforced by misplaced notions of compassion (as when the personal tragedies of a Christopher Reeve or a Michael J. Fox become political arguments for embryo-destructive stem-cell research) and by scientific hubris.

Changing the terms of the biotech debate is thus an urgent issue for both the Church and the world in the next generation. How could the next pontificate address that issue?

Perhaps the greatest contribution the Catholic Church can make to this debate is to demonstrate how careful moral reasoning on the biotech issues is not an imposition of sectarian values on a pluralistic society, but in fact contributes to a morally serious theory and practice of democracy. In the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, John Paul II alerted the world to the dangers inherent in a purely mechanical or instrumental view of democratic governance, arguing that a democracy without values, a democracy in which process trumps moral truth, risks decaying into a “thinly disguised totalitarianism.” In the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, he suggested that a robust public moral culture, clear on the moral principles that can be known by reason, is essential in defending such bedrock democratic principles as equality-before-the-law, as well as in managing passions and interests, fighting corruption, and maintaining democratic inclusiveness. In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the pope demonstrated how legalized abortion and euthanasia, which put certain classes of human beings outside the protection of the law, threaten the very moral structure of the democratic project. Can the Church develop these insights into a public moral language capable of challenging the utilitarianism that dominates debate on the “culture of life” questions today?

To take one important example: Catholicism challenges certain biotechnological procedures, including cloning, on the moral ground that they violate the innate human dignity of persons. What, precisely, is the content of that “human dignity”? How is it violated by certain practices? What are the consequences for democracy of these violations? John Paul II has given us a strong framework of principles for reflection on these questions. It is imperative that the Church, in conversation with all those who recognize the dangers in a purely utilitarian approach to devising the human future, begin to fill in that framework in order to shift the terms of the public moral debate.

With the biotechnology challenge compounding the grave problem of culturally acceptable and legal abortion and euthanasia, the social doctrine of the next pontificate must demonstrate ever more persuasively how the protection of innocent life is a first principle of justice without which democracy will self-destruct. The next pontificate must, in other words, make clear that the life issues are public issues with immense_ public_ consequences, and not simply matters of individual “choice.” If he does that, the next pope will advance the cause of a nobler theory of democracy—which is also crucial in facing the challenge of militant Islam.

The Church’s Intellectual Life.

John Paul II has been the “first modern pope,” if by that term we mean a pope with a thoroughly contemporary intellectual formation. Thus the charge that this has been a pontificate “against” modernity is, frankly, absurd. Rather, this has been a pontificate advancing an alternative modern reading of the modern quest for human freedom, one which challenges the West’s skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything (including the truth about human freedom). “Faith and reason.” John Paul II wrote in 1998, “are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.” This quest for truth, the pope proposed, is innate in us. To deny it is to deny an essential characteristic of our humanity, and the result of that stubborn denial is a stunted humanism eventually trapped in the prison of solipsism.

Alone among major Western cultural-forming institutions, the Catholic Church still believes that human beings can know what is true, what is good and what is beautiful, even if our knowledge is never exhaustive. Thanks to the intellectual initiatives of John Paul II, the Church can, if it has the will for it, defend those claims and explain their importance for living freedom with dignity and generosity, in thoroughly modern terms.

“If it has the will for it” is, of course, the crux of the matter. Critics (and, in some cases, diehard opponents) of John Paul II’s intellectual project—critics who cannot seem to grasp that this is not a pontificate against modernity but a pontificate with an alternative modern reading of the modern quest for freedom —remain firmly in control of Catholic intellectual centers throughout much of Western Europe and North America (which, among other things, suggests that the notion of this being a “repressive” pontificate is overwrought).

Younger scholars on both sides of the Atlantic seem more eager to take up the challenge posed by John Paul II than their elders, many of whom seem stuck in intellectual grooves forged in the late 1960s. Will the next pontificate and the next pope actively encourage these younger scholars and their commitment to extending the John Paul II project? Will the next pope and the next pontificate move more assertively to ensure that Catholic institutions of higher education develop the alternative to a crabbed, narrow, secularist humanism, which is Christian humanism?

If militant Islam is a serious threat to the future of free societies throughout the world, so is militant irrationality. The renewal of Western culture, which is essential to the defense of the democratic project, requires a new confidence in reason—a new confidence that we can know and defend certain truths about the dignity of man, and about a free and just society. Whether the next pope and the next generation of Catholic intellectuals successfully build on the legacy of John Paul II in challenging modernity to a higher concept of itself thus has important consequences for all of us, and for the course of history.

The Vatican and the World.

These four large-scale issues will certainly be among the questions shaping the deliberations that produce the next pope. In my judgment, a further large question should be added to the mix: the question of the Vatican’s address to world politics.

Is it not time, for example, to revisit the terms of the Holy See’s embrace of international and regional organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union? During the debate prior to the second Iraq War, senior officials of the Holy See made the argument that the U.N. Security Council was the sole agency capable of morally legitimating the resort to armed force in world politics. Thanks to the Duelfer Report and congressional investigations, we now know that, at precisely the time this claim was being made, members of the Security Council were blindly (or willfully) oblivious to (or complicit in) one of history’s largest financial scandals, the Iraq Oil-for-Food program—a program that worked to corrupt the Security Council’s deliberations on Iraq. Surely the time has come to raise the question of whether this and a host of other problems at the United Nations are systemic, not accidental.

The Holy See will continue to insist, as it must, that the nation-state is not necessarily the final or ultimate form of political organization. But unless that insistence is coupled with a serious moral critique of the current corruptions of the U.N. system—a critique that must hold open the question of whether some other form of international organization is not desirable—then the Holy See’s voice will cease to have any traction in these debates. That would be a loss for the Church. It would also be a considerable loss for the world of the 21st century, which is badly in need of a morally informed set of ideas capable of structuring the global debate on international security, human rights and development issues. The Holy See could help facilitate the development of that set of ideas—_if_ it is prepared to re-examine certain aspects of its position that seem, to some minds, more reflective of conventional European political sentiment than of what was once referred to as “Catholic international relations theory.”

A similar re-examination of the Holy See’s “default positions” might well take place in regard to European integration. The current Vatican default position on the European Union, which was set (like its positions on the United Nations) some 40 years ago, is something like this: An integrating Europe will be forced to ask the question of the sources of its unity. That question can only be answered, ultimately, by Christianity. Therefore, European Union expansion and the further integration of the Union through a new constitutional treaty create an evangelical opportunity—the opportunity to reverse the centuries-long process of European secularization.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Now, a soulless secularism threatens to become the official ideology of the European Union. That secularism has Orwellian overtones, as international legal scholar J.H.H. Weiler has observed, because in the name of “tolerance” it is remarkably intolerant of Christian conviction in the European public square. Ask Rocco Buttiglione. Or, more to the point, ask why Buttiglione got such tepid support from the Secretariat of State of the Holy See during his October 2004 inquisition. If the Holy See fears that raising its voice in defense of the right of Catholics to bring their philosophically and religiously informed moral convictions into public life will somehow jeopardize its “standing” in the European Union, then one has to ask, at some point, whether the game is worth the candle.

As with the Church’s approach to the interreligious dialogue with Islam, the default positions in the “foreign policy” of the Holy See must be re-set in the next pontificate—not to align the Holy See more closely with U.S. foreign policy but to retrieve and renew, at the levels of policy, witness and diplomacy, the distinctive discipline of Catholic international relations theory. Its revival, in turn, would mark a significant step in the world’s capacity to think through the great moral questions posed by the agitated world politics of the early 21st century.

In the Footsteps of a Giant.

Perhaps the wisest line ever written about John Paul II was written at the beginning of his pontificate by a French journalist, André Frossard, a convert from the fashionable atheism of his intellectual class. After John Paul’s clarion call to fearlessness and faith rang out across Saint Peter’s Square at the inaugural Mass on October 22, 1978, Frossard wired back to his Paris newspaper, “This isn’t a pope from Poland; this is a pope from Galilee.”

The cardinal-electors know that they will be trying to find a worthy successor to a giant—to a man some knowledgeable scholars call the most significant pope of the second millennium of Christian history. One cannot envy the man who succeeds such a colossal figure. Yet for all his personal initiative and boldness, John Paul II has always understood that “the Church” is far, far more than the papacy or the pope. Indeed, one way to sum up his heroic efforts is to see him precisely as the “pope from Galilee,” the successor of Peter who summoned his brethren, in virtually every corner of the world, to live out the meaning of their baptismal consecration —and in doing so, to “set the world ablaze” with the truth, as he challenged 2 million young people to do at World Youth Day 2000 in Rome. John Paul II, in other words, has quite deliberately left a lot of work for the rest of us to do.

And the “rest of us” includes his successor, whose stewardship of the Church that John Paul II leaves behind will shape the course of 21st century history far beyond the institutional boundaries of Catholicism.

George Weigel, the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This essay is based on the fourth William E. Simon Lecture, which he delivered at the Washington-based center in January 2005.