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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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A pontificate of paradox

John Paul II leaves legacy of achievement in political freedoms and controversy on social issues

When Pope John Paul II died April 2 at age 84, world leaders lionized him, describing the pontiff on the day of his death as extraordinary, brilliant, magnificent, a “great and saintly man,” and a “gift from heaven.”

He was all these things, but John Paul—who led the Roman Catholic Church for 26 years, the third-longest pontificate in history—was perhaps more than anything a paradox. He is credited with progressive, even revolutionary, human-rights achievements: His greatest legacy is his role in toppling the totalitarian government of his native Poland in 1989, which led to the fall of European communism. He stared down dictators, lobbied on behalf of the poor and powerless, and openly reprimanded the U.S. government for the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars. He regularly criticized the “culture of death,” American consumerism and European secularism.

Yet on other moral and religious issues, he was a strict conservative who stuck to his belief in traditional roles for women and his opposition to abortion, birth control, divorce, euthanasia and stem-cell research. As pope, he was described as an autocrat who stifled dissent within the church. His critics say he left the church in disarray—with a still-unfolding global clergy sex-abuse scandal and declining membership, particularly in Europe.


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