Saving the legacy of John XXIII

The late Pontiff began a process of renewal

John XXIII and John Paul II are often pitted against one another in media and other commentary in a manner that would please neither man. John XXIII is presented as the Pope who opened the windows of the Church to the modern world and John Paul as the man who slammed them shut again. This is an appallingly simplistic way to view things.

John XXIII famously convened the Second Vatican Council but John Paul, then in his early 40s, was an enthusiast for the Council and remained so all his life. He knew that much in the Church had become stale and dead and was in need of renewal.

Vatican II was, of course, a pastoral council first and foremost. The hope was that it would usher in a new Pentecost.

Pope John would never in a million years have anticipated what followed the council. He would never have anticipated the huge numbers of priests and religious who simply abandoned their vows or else interpreted them so radically that the religious life often fell to pieces. This was not renewal by any interpretation.

Pope John could never have anticipated the enormous fall in vocations in this part of the world or the wholesale fall in Mass attendance that happened at the same time.

Was Pope John or the council to blame for this? Of course not. What was to blame was the fact that the council took place in the 1960s when a radical secularisation was taking root all over the Western world.

‘Secular City’

This was a time when the death of God was announced (actually, it had been announced by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche decades before, but let’s not quibble), and Harvard theologian Harvey Cox became famous with his book The Secular City which argued that the ‘Secular City’ was in fact a realisation of the Kingdom of God.

In Britain, Anglican bishop John Robinson wrote Honest to God, a wholesale denial of many core aspects of the Christian faith. What was happening in the Catholic world was also happening across virtually all of the Churches of the West, except the Evangelicals.

The fact is that many Catholics, lay, priests and religious, mistook the spirit of the age for the Holy Spirit and used and misused and misinterpreted the council to justify many changes that the council never in fact authorised, for example, some of the wilder liturgical changes.

Quebec and the Netherlands were particularly extreme examples of this tendency to use the council to justify anything and everything. The Church in Quebec almost disappeared overnight. Something similar happened in the Netherlands.


When John Paul became Pope in 1978 he took over a Church in turmoil. Priests and religious were still abandoning their vows in huge numbers, seminaries and other centres of Catholic study and spiritual formation were openly rejecting key teachings of the Church. He wanted to do something about it.

He stopped releasing priests and religious from their vows so easily. If married people couldn’t be released from their vows, why, he argued, should it be different for priests and religious?

He released a series of encyclicals and other papal documents intended to reaffirm key aspects of the Catholic faith.

One of the most important was Veritatis Splendor (The Splendour of Truth) which took issues with theological tendencies within the Church that relativised morality.

A very important document released to coincide with 2000, the millennium year, was Dominus Iesus (The Lord Jesus) the aim of which was to affirm exactly that, Jesus is Lord.

Some theologians seemed willing to negotiate away that claim in dialogue with non-Christian religions.


John Paul also had to deal with the rise of liberation theology in Latin America.

Sometimes he is caricatured as an implacable foe of liberation theology which strongly favoured the ‘preferential option’ for the poor. John Paul was never opposed to that. He was a persistent critic of the excesses of capitalism, so how could he be?

But he saw that within liberation theology there was a temptation to confuse the preferential option for the poor with the Marxist option for the poor. He opposed that, and so does Pope Francis.

What John Paul sought to do was to rescue the Second Vatican Council from those who were egregiously misusing it and misinterpreting it.

As a man of the council, John Paul was for greater dialogue with the other Christian faiths and the non-Christian religions. He supported necessary liturgical changes. He supported changes to the formation of seminarians and a reorientation of moral theology away from the impersonal nature of some of the moral theology that predated the council.


He was an avid supporter of democracy, just like the council, and did a huge amount to bring democracy to the former Eastern bloc and elsewhere.

But he knew he had to try and bring an end to the theological and moral chaos that was unleashed in the Church by radical misinterpretations of the council. He knew perfectly well that every other Church which went down that sort of path ended up in a dead-end.

He only partially succeeded in his project. In a way it is up to Francis to continue the legacy of both John XXIII and John Paul II.

John XXIII started the process of renewal. John Paul had some success in stopping that process of renewal becoming a process of dissolution instead and now Francis’ task is to put it properly on-course again without inadvertently encouraging again those who knocked it off course in the first place by misinterpreting the Second Vatican Council.

In canonising both men this is surely what he is trying to tell the Church as a whole.