The first Polish pope, Karol Wojtyla (1920–2005), was born in Wadowice, Poland, into a middle-class family. As a young man he witnessed the brutal Nazi occupation of his homeland and as an adult endured the oppressive rule of the Polish Communist Party. After his ordination as a priest, he studied in Rome, then returned to Poland, where he moved quickly up the ecclesiastical ranks and became a cardinal in 1968.

When Pope John Paul I died in 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla was elected the first non-Italian pope in 400 years. Taking the name of his predecessor, John Paul II pledged to continue the practice of ecumenism but also signaled that he would jealously guard doctrinal purity.

John Paul immediately began to travel the world. In his first two decades he embarked on eighty foreign tours and visited more than 120 countries. On tour he drew huge crowds, particularly among young people, whom he asked to embrace fidelity and reject all forms of what he called “the culture of death.” He has written two books and more than a dozen major “letters to the world” (encyclicals). Two of his most significant encyclicals focusing on late twentieth-century political and social conditions are Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae. In Centesimus Annus (1991), he condemns both Soviet-style communism for its deprivation of human rights and free market capitalism for its failure to protect the poor and promote human dignity. Evangelium Vitae (1995) condemns all forms of “the culture of death,” including abortion, euthanasia, contraception, and capital punishment. John Paul’s pontificate remains one of paradox. Inextricably linked to the tragic history of Poland, he has proven to be a tough opponent of dictators and a champion of democracy. Although professing to continue the collegial spirit of Vatican II, he has little tolerance of dissent and has silenced renowned Catholic theologians, such as Hans Küng (Switzerland), Edward Schillebeeckx (Netherlands), and Charles Curran (United States), who have questioned papal authority. John Paul’s immediate legacy is at least twofold. First, by appointing 120 members to the College of Cardinals, his influence on papal politics and Catholic doctrine will be felt through the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Second, in the 2,000-year history of the papacy only twelve popes have had longer pontificates.
Suggestions for Term Papers
1. Read Centesimus Annus (see Suggested Sources). According to Pope John Paul, what is the proper role of the state in a capitalist society? State your own position on the question and provide reasons for taking it.
2. In 1981 a deranged Turkish communist, Mehmet Ali Agca, attempted to assassinate John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square. Investigate John Paul’s response and his subsequent relationship with Agca.
3. Evaluate John Paul’s role in loosening the Soviet Union’s control over eastern Europe.
4. Select one of the theologians disciplined by Pope John Paul II, that is, Küng, Schillebeeckx, or Curran, and do a research project on the issues that led to his censure.5. Study one of John Paul’s major tours and assess its impact on the countries and societies involved.
6. Liberation theology is an important social and theological movement in Third World countries. Investigate John Paul’s views on this and assess the influence his opinion has had.

Research Suggestions

In addition to the boldfaced items, look under the entries for “Vatican II, 1962–1965” (#63), “Solidarity in Poland, 1980–1990” (#82), and “The Breakup of the Soviet Union, 1991” (#91). Search under pope, Vatican, and liberation theology.


Primary Sources

Bloch, Alfred, and George T. Czuczka, eds. Toward a Philosophy of Praxis: An Anthology/Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II). New York: Crossroad, 1981. A representative collection of John Paul’s scholarship.

John Paul II. Agenda for the Third Millennium. Translated by Alan Neame. London: HarperCollins, 1996. A good indication why he has been so concerned about papal authority.

———. Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Translated by Jenny McPhee and Martha McPhee. New York: Knopf, 1994. An accessible guide to John Paul’s optimistic view of life.

———. Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Reflections on his pastoral obligations.

Miller, J. Michael, ed. The Encyclicals of John Paul II. Huntington, Id.: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 1996. A well-edited edition of twelve encyclicals including Centesimus Annus.

Secondary Sources

Bernstein, Carl, and Marco Politi. His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Argues that John Paul did much to end the Cold War.

Hebblethwaite, Peter. The New Inquisition? The Case of Edward Schillebeeckx and Hans Küng. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1980. A revealing study of how John Paul silenced dissent.

Kwitny, Jonathan. Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. Shows how universal John Paul’s influence has been.

McBrien, Richard P. Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St. Peter to John Paul II. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. A short biography by one of John Paul’s most consistent critics that includes tables, lists, and bibliographical leads.

Reese, Thomas J. Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. A close examination of the Vatican’s organization and finances.

Szulc, Tad. Pope John Paul II: The Biography. New York: Scribner, 1995. The most comprehensive English language biography. Strong on the pope’s early life.


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