For all of his inspiring qualities – personal charm, deep spirituality, acceptance of other faiths – Pope John Paul II’s tight grip on church leadership and unwillingness to change unpopular teachings clashed with the more democratic approach that many of the 65 million U.S. Catholics favor.
John Paul leaves behind an American church uplifted by his piety, yet struggling with several of the same problems that preceded him: a dramatically shrinking U.S. priesthood, disagreement over the proper role for lay leaders, and a growing conservative-liberal divide over sexuality, women’s ordination and celibacy for clergy.
Many of the troubles buffeting the U.S. church began before John Paul was elected in 1978 – though the pontiff ultimately was unable to arrest them.
Church attendance, among Catholics and other denominations, had already started on a steep decline. The 1968 decision by Pope Paul VI to uphold the church ban on artificial contraception sparked widespread dissent from Catholic teaching on sexuality. Men left the priesthood by the hundreds to marry and fewer people enrolled in seminaries to replace them.
It was in this environment that John Paul launched his defense of Catholic orthodoxy and tried to reinvigorate the priesthood.
In five visits to the United States, more than any of his predecessors, he gained religious celebrity, especially among young people. When he arrived at New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1979, a school band welcomed him with the theme from “Rocky.”
“I think what the pope did for the public credibility of the church in the United States was quite significant,” said George Weigel, his American biographer. “He was the great Christian witness of our time.”