Translate this Page

The Prophetic Role Of Pope John Paul II
Endtime Issues No. 16
6 May 1999

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.
Professor of Theology, Andrews University

Pope Paul John II will be remembered as the most traveled Pope in history. A look at the Pope's itineraries, meetings and messages suggest that he has two major overriding concerns. The first is the restoration of Catholic unity and identity, especially among American Catholics, where the church is threaten by prevailing dissent over doctrines and discipline. To meet this challenge Pope John Paul II have visited the United States four times in recent years. The second is his desire to foster ecumenical understanding and cooperation among people of all religions under the moral and spiritual leadership of the papacy. His vision is to become the undisputed spiritual leader of mankind. This essay seeks to understand Pope John Paul II's strategy for achieving these objectives.


Extent of Catholic Dissent. In his public speeches to the crowds and especially in his private messages to the leaders of his church, Pope John Paul makes it clear that he is deeply concerned about the independent ways of American Catholics who believe they have a right to pick and choose their beliefs and practices in a cafeteria-style, accepting those teachings they agree with and ignoring those they disagree with. The American political experience with its emphasis on the democratic process, has influenced many American Catholics to question the teachings of their church and to develop their own independent beliefs and practices.

An indication of how widespread is Catholic dissent in America is provided by the poll taken for TIME (September 7, 1987). The poll indicates that a staggering 93% of professing Catholics believe that "it is possible to disagree with the Pope and still be a good Catholic." In fact, "only 37% accept the infallibility of papal teaching on moral issues." The major area of disagreement with official Catholic teaching is what Theologian Daniel Maguire calls "the pelvic issues:" abortion, artificial birth control, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, and divorce and remarriage. Other two closely related issues are priestly celibacy and the ordination of women as priests.

TIME's poll indicates that only 14% of Catholic agree with their church's teaching that abortion should be illegal in all cases; only 24% accept their church's teaching that artificial birth control is wrong; only 29% concur with their church that premarital sex is always wrong; only 24% agree with their church that divorce and remarriage in the church is wrong. Less than half of the Catholics (47%) believe that celibacy for priests should be obligatory and that women should not be ordained as priests.

Discipline, Unity and Identity. This prevailing dissent among American Catholics constitutes a challenge that the resolute John Paul is determined to meet. A major reason why he has come to America several times, is because he recognizes the exceptional vitality, influence and potential of American Catholicism. While in most countries of Western Europe less than 10% of Catholics attend Mass weekly, in the United States, according to the TIME poll, attendance is 54%. American Catholics are not passive spectators but active participants and generous supporters of their church. They may disagree with their church but they are deeply committed to her, though increasingly on their own terms.

The independent spirit of American Catholics is of grave concern to John Paul because he knows all too-well that America is trend-setter. It influences the world not only with blue jeans and running shoes, but also with its moral and religious values. In his opening remarks upon his arrival at the Miami International airport on September 12, 1987, the Pope said that America is called by God to fulfilled a noble destiny to the world. This means that the direction the American Catholic Church takes today, could well become the trend of the world-wide Catholic Church tomorrow.

Win Confidence. To restore discipline, unity and identity to the American Catholic Church the John Paul has used a twofold strategy during his visits to the United States. First, he has endeavored to win the confidence of Catholics to himself by utilizing effectively all the modern means of communication. Second, he has sold with holy conviction to American Catholics his unpopular stand against divorce and remarriage, artificial birth control, extramarital sex, homosexuality, abortion, optional celibacy and ordination of women as priests.

To win the confidence of Catholics in particular and of the American public in general, during his visits John Paul has not engaged publicly in tongue lashing and finger wagging, but he has wooed friendly crowds to himself by delivering warm homilies, bestowing blessings, listening to complaints, and showing his genuine concern and compassion for the poor and suffering ones. By winning first the confidence and respect of millions of Catholics who have seen his sincerity, piety and compassion in action, the pope has been better able to gain support for his unpopular stand on official church discipline and doctrines.

Reaffirm Official Teachings. There is no question that John Paul sees himself as a man called by God to save the Catholic Church from disintegration by reaffirming the commitment of its members and leaders to the historical teachings of Rome. An important lesson that John Paul learned in the hot battle he fought against nazism and communism in his own country of Poland, is that the church can survive only if it is rigorously disciplined and strongly united in essential doctrines and piety.

Consequently a major goal of John Paul's pontificate has been to forge a united church, updated in its external forms, but strongly traditional in its adherence to church discipline and teaching. One of the first steps he took to achieve this goal, was to revive the Sacred Congregation for Doctrine of Faith-formerly known as the Inquisition. This watchdog organization, presided by the German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has pressed charges against such theologians as Edward Schillebeeckx of Holland, Jack Pohier of France, Bernard Hasler of Switzerland. It has stripped Hans Kung of his post as teacher of Catholic theology at the University of Tubingen, and has suspended Father Charles Curran from his teaching post at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.

Another step taken by Pope John Paul has been to gradually build up a Vatican curia with a core of tough disciplinarians who will support his conservative program. The same is true of the new U.S. bishops he has hand-picked every year on the basis of their conservatism. By changing the makeup of the hierarchies, the Pope now enjoys greater support in promoting the reaffirmation of traditional Catholic teachings.

Catholic revisionists and feminists accuse John Paul of being out of touch with the reality of the Catholic Church in America. The truth of the matter is that it is these Catholic dissenters who are out of touch with the reality of the Catholic Church in Rome. These fail to realize that John Paul is not running a democracy, but a pyramidal hierarchy whose head is the pope and whose center is Rome.

Pope John Paul made this point very clear when in 1987 he told reporters in Miami that democracy is not the preferred form of government for the Catholic Church. Rather he pointedly stated: "It is an institution governed by Jesus Christ, a theocratic one." Since Catholics believe that Christ governs His church through His vicar, the Pope, it is the Holy See in Rome that decides what is Catholic and what is not.

Outcome of Papal Visits. Have the papal visits succeed in fostering unity and reaffirmation of traditional beliefs among Catholics? Contrary to what some news analyst may say, I believe that to a large extent they have been, for two major reasons. First, because people have been electrified by Pope John Paul's charismatic personality. They have come to admire even more his piety, sincerity and warm pastoral concern. Second, because to genuine Catholics the Pope speaks with the unique authority of one who claims to be the vicar of Christ on earth. He embodies the teaching authority of the church which, Catholics believe, was given to the Pope by Christ through the power of the keys bestowed upon Peter and his successors.

This high Catholic view of the Pope as the impersonation of Christ on earth, makes the words he has spoken during his visit s the final word that any true Catholic must and eventually will accept. While most Catholics may publicly express their disagreement with their Pope's teachings, privately and inwardly they welcome his word of authority. It gives to them a sense of assurance, certainty and stability, amidst the confusing and conflicting teachings and values of our time.


Global Spiritual Leader. The vision of John Paul extends beyond the parochial concerns of the American Catholic Church, to include people of all Christian and non-Christian religions. Thus, a second major goal of his visit has been to enhance his role as the moral and spiritual leader of mankind. John Paul sees himself as a man called to serve as the spiritual leader not only of his own church but also of mankind.

This global vision is evident in the major themes of his speeches in all his trips. He pleads for human dignity, brotherhood, social justice, peace, an end to the arm race, and especially for compassion toward the poor and downtrodden.

The role of John Paul as the spiritual leader of mankind is widely accepted. For example, in 1987 President Reagan traveled to Miami to personally welcome him as the spiritual leader not only of Catholics but of all Americans. It is noteworthy that never before had an American president traveled to another city to welcome a head of state. In the brief welcoming ceremony on the tarmac of Miami International Airport, Reagan encouraged the Pope to preach freely to the American people. "As you exhort us," the President said, "we will listen. For with all our hearts we yearn to make this good land better still."

To foster his role as the moral and spiritual leader of mankind, the pope welcomes regularly to the Holy See delegations and leaders from Christian and non-Christian religions. The pope is accepted by world religious leaders as the champion of the spiritual aspirations of mankind.

Why are religious and political leaders so eager to meet the Pope? Why do millions of non-Catholic Americans join their Catholic neighbors in cheering the Pope? This would hardly have happened forty years when conservative Protestants nourished deep hostility toward the papacy. A papal procession forty years ago might have brought out rock-throwers and perhaps bombers.

Similarly, diplomatic recognition of the Vatican by the United States would have been impossible thirty years ago. In 1951 President Truman had to abandon the plan to extend diplomatic recognition to the Vatican, because of the strong protests from Protestants. In 1984, however, President Reagan was able to recognize the Vatican and the Pope as a Head of State by appointing Mr. Wilson as official ambassador to the Holy See, without any significant Protestant reaction.

Prophetic Fulfillment. Social analysts describe with surprise this radical Protestant change of attitude that has taken place, from foes to friends of the Pope and of the Catholic Church. Seventh-day Adventists are not surprised by this Protestant change of attitude toward the Catholics, because for 100 years they have announced to the world, on the basis of their interpretation of Biblical prophecy, that American Protestantism would be foremost in bridging the gulf of separation from Roman Catholicism and in cooperating with Rome. A century ago Ellen White, a founder of Adventism, wrote with prophetic foresight: "The Protestants of the United States . . . will reach over the abyss to clasp hands with the Roman power" (GC 588).

The warm reception and ecstatic admiration of the Pope by millions of American Protestants, clearly points to an unprecedented acceptance of the religious leadership role of the papacy. The gulf of separation between Catholicism and Protestantism is truly being bridged. What has brought about this radical of attitude, from hostility to friendliness between Catholics and Protestants? The reasons are many, but three of them stand out, in my view.

Tolerance toward Non-Catholics. The first and foremost reason in my view is the new Catholic policy of benign tolerance toward non-Catholics. Paradoxically, while the Pope is intransigent toward Catholics by expecting them to uphold traditional church discipline and teachings, he is now tolerant and open toward outsiders. Protestants, for example, have been rehabilitated from heretics, to "separate brethren," and now to brothers and sisters in Christ. Similarly, members of world religions are now treated with openness and respect.

The reason for this new tolerance appears to be a new Catholic awareness-expressed even in the Constitution of the Church of Vatican II-that salvation is no longer found only inside the Catholic Church but also outside the Catholic fold, by all who live according to their conscience. The traditional view expressed in Pope Boniface VIII's Bull, "Unam Sanctam" that "there is one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and that outside this Church there is neither salvation nor remission of sins," has been replaced by the current view that there is salvation inside and outside the Catholic Church. This new Catholic attitude of tolerance and respect toward outsiders, is obviously paying back dividends in terms of good will and admiration toward Catholics and their Pope.

The Pope is successfully gaining global acceptance by adopting, what Jesuit Professor Vernon Ruland calls "The Catholic Double Standard" [The Christian Century (Dec 16, 1981), p. 1311]. This consists of strict intransigence toward Catholics and "benign tolerance toward outsiders." From Catholics the Pope expects uncompromising adherence to the official church teachings. From outsiders the Pope expects them "to strive sincerely to live according to their conscience." By adopting this double standard the Pope is succeeding admirably today in being widely accepted as the Papa urbis et orbis, the spiritual Father of Rome and the world.

Pope's Stand for Morality. A second reason that accounts for the Pope's popularity, especially among evangelicals, is his strong stand for certain fundamental doctrines of Biblical faith. Though evangelicals cannot agree with the pope on such points as the role of the Virgin Mary, the Mass, the intercession of the saints, masses for the dead, priestly celibacy and so on, they admire his strong commitment to the authority of Scripture, to the sacredness of marriage, to a Biblical sexual ethics, to protect the life of unborn babies, and to discipline the most blatant opponents of evangelical faith.

Instead of attacking Catholicism, evangelical are choosing to attack liberal Protestantism for undermining the authority of Scripture, for promoting unbiblical moral values, for conforming to the contemporary secular values. To them the Pontiff has become, as Prof. Martin E. Marty puts it, "a walking fortress of faith" (TV Guide, Sept 5, 1987, p. 34) in the midst of a godless society.

Unintentionally, perhaps, liberal Protestantism has contributed to enhance the authority of the Pope by eroding confidence in the authority of the Bible. One might say that to the extend that Protestantism weakens the authority of the Bible for defining Christian beliefs and practices, to that same extend it strengthens the authority of the Pope. The reason is simple. Most Christians resent tyranny but welcome the voice of authority, certainty and assurance. They want to hear from their church leaders, "This is the way, walk you in it!" When they fail to hear this voice of authority from the Scripture as proclaimed by their pastors, they become attracted to the Pope who claims to offer the infallible interpretation of Scripture.

Pope's Advocacy of Social Justice. A third reason that endears the Pope to mainstream Protestants and to people in general, is his advocacy of social justice, respect for the rights of all people, even of the unborn, a more equitable distribution of resources, peace based on justice, an end to the arm race, and especially, love toward the poor and downtrodden. By championing these legitimate human aspirations with zeal, dignity and devotion, the Pope has become for many the symbol of the noblest aspirations mankind must struggle to achieve.

Summing up, we could say that John Paul has learned to be a man of many things to many people. To devout Catholics he is the symbol of their piety, certainty and assurance of salvation amidst the conflicting teachings and values of our time. To evangelicals, he is a man of faith and courage, willing to withstand the secular, humanistic pressures of our times. To mainstream Protestant and people in general, he is the champion of peace based on social justice.

A Final Warning. The many positive facets that make John Paul attractive and popular must not blind evangelicals to the fact that he strongly stands for traditional Catholic teachings and practices. With more enthusiasm and greater communication skills than his predecessors, he stands for the teachings that have divided Protestantism from Roman Catholicism. The great Protestant truths of Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone, are still unacceptable to Roman Catholicism.

In his messages John Paul has repeatedly reiterated his strong commitment to the interpretation of the Scripture by the magisterium of the church, the intercessory role of Mary and of the Saints, transubstantiation, papal infallibility, the sacramental role of the priests, forgiveness only through the sacrament of penance, salvation by faith plus meritorious works, and masses for the dead. These are part of the list of Catholic teachings which John Paul views as not negotiable.

Ecumenical Christian unity for John Paul is possibly only in Catholic terms. At the 1979 meeting in Chicago with the nation's Catholic bishops, he quoted the testament of Pope Paul VI, who said: "Let the work of drawing near to our separated brethren go on, with much understanding, with much patience, with great love: but without deviating from the true Catholic doctrine."

Let us never forget that he stands for both social progress and Catholic conservatism. While in the area of social justice Rome has changed and John Paul has been a strong advocate of such changes, in the area of church doctrine and discipline, Rome is still the unchangeable Rome and John Paul is simply its most effective communicator.

John Paul travels around the world to negotiate deals with Catholic dissenters or with Protestant admirers, but to remind his own parishioners and the whole world, that historical Catholic beliefs are not negotiable. What should all of this mean to Catholic and non-catholics? To Catholics, it means that they should make no illusion that their Pope and their church is about to change their historical teachings, especially on sexual ethics.

To Protestants, it means that, on the one hand, we must admire John Paul's courageous and unpopular stand for the Biblical view of the sacredness of marriage and human life as well as his uncompromising denunciation of homosexuality and of sex outside marriage as sinful acts. On the other hand, we must never forget that the same Pope is equally uncompromising on the fundamental Catholic teachings that have divided Protestantism from Catholicism because they rest on venerable ecclesiastical traditions.

To Adventists, it means that that we must have the same kind of uncompromising courage displayed by John Paul. We need to articulate and accept more fully the Biblical view of the sanctity of marriage and human life, if we want to retain our identity and mission to the world.

John Paul's commitment to uphold traditional Catholic teachings constitute a challenge for all Christians, first to show respect for all, irrespective of creedal differences, and second, to seek for saving truth not in the broken cisterns of human traditions or of contemporary social values, but in the Word of God, the only source of truth that can make us free and secure for eternity.

Contact Information

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.
Professor of Theology and Church History
Andrews University
4990 Appian Way, Berrien Springs, MI 49103

Phone (616) 471-2915  Fax (616) 471-4013
E-mail: or
Web site: