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Home > Christianity Today Magazine > Churches & Ministries > Catholicism

Christianity Today, Week of April 4

Pope John Paul II and Evangelicals
Protestants admired his lifelong admonition to "Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!" An interview with George Weigel.
Interview by Michael Cromartie | posted 04/04/2005 09:30 a.m.

George Weigel, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II. He was interviewed for Christianity Today by Michael Cromartie, director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's Evangelical Studies Project.

Overall, how did this papacy influence Protestantism, particularly evangelicalism?

I hope it demonstrated to the worlds within worlds of evangelical Protestantism that the Catholic Church is a vibrantly evangelical Church, committed to bearing witness to Christ and preaching Christ on a global basis. With the possible exception of Billy Graham, no man in the twentieth century did more to preach Christ to more people than Pope John Paul II. At his papal installation on October 22, 1978, he set the basic framework for his pontificate: "Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!"

This Pope was tremendously popular with Protestants and with many nonbelievers. What made him an Everyman's Pope?

His integrity, for one thing: here was a man visibly spending out his life in service to the Christian truths truths he preached and taught. His confidence in the Lord surely made him attractive, too. When the Pope said, as he did in so many ways, that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life, people knew that he knew that from the inside, from his own commitment to Christ. I suspect nonbelievers found him attractive because of his passionate defense of human rights and his commitment to dialogue among people of different convictions. We should always remember, though, that he didn't understand "dialogue" as a form of political correctness; for John Paul II, dialogue meant engaging difference, respectfully, acknowledging that all truths lead to the one Truth, Who is God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Did the Pope moderate his views of independent Protestant sects during his papacy? He seemed very anti-independent Protestant sects at the beginning of his papacy. Did he remain that way?

The Pope understood that Latin America is the new demographic center of world Catholicism; he also understood that the vibrancy of evangelical, Pentecostal, and fundamentalist Protestantism there, and in Africa, and elsewhere, is defining the new ecumenical reality for world Christianity. Father Richard Neuhaus kept the Pope informed of developments in the "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" initiative. And when Neuhaus spoke on this at the 1997 Synod of Bishops, urging that the Americas be evangelized by "evangelicals and Catholics together," the Pope gave him a friendly wave from the dais.

At the same time, I think the vibrant Christian witness and clear moral teaching of John Paul II led many evangelicals to re-think their views of Catholicism.

The agreement between global Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism over justification by faith: Will that be one of his lasting legacies?

I hope so. One might have hoped that more would have come out of this concretely, in terms of genuine ecclesial reconciliation. But what we have learned since 1999 is that there are other issues on the table between Catholicism and the Lutheran World Federation.

This Pope was a philosopher. What should people remember from his teaching about persons and about the nature of truth?

That human beings can't live without truth: that, without truth, we die, just as we die without water or food. Human beings have a thirst for truth built into us; that thirst is best met by the Gospel of Christ, in whose holy face we see both the truth of the merciful Father and the truth about our humanity.

What business, especially that which may impact relations with Protestants, has he left unfinished?

I think it's fair to say that many, perhaps most, Protestants (and certainly most Orthodox) have felt far less a sense of ecumenical urgency than John Paul II. I hope that sense of urgency grows in the years ahead.

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