The death of Pope John Paul II creates a huge vacuum not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but also in the wider world of moral discourse.
This pope was not afraid to bring his faith and his office to bear on political and economic issues. Whether it was the tyranny of Nazis and Communists in his homeland, or the hollow materialism of rich western democracies, Pope John Paul II made an effort to speak a message of moral clarity from a Christian point of view.
Of course, his morality was not always clear to everyone. His determination to enforce the church’s long standing dictum against contraceptives seems especially cruel given the raging AIDS epidemic in Africa. And his determined effort to keep women out of the priesthood, even in the face of desperate priest shortages, seems strangely short sighted. Not that theology should be driven by necessity, but neither should it be locked in dogmatic concrete.
At any rate, the passing of Pope John Paul II leaves for the pontiff who will follow him a legacy of active involvement in world affairs and an aggressive effort to reform and revitalize the church. The new pope will face many of the same challenges as did his predecessor, as well as some new ones. These challenges will certainly call for divine guidance if not intervention.
Perhaps the most daunting of the issues the new pope will face is the centuries-old animosity between Christians and Muslims. Pope John Paul II was not very successful in his efforts to reach out to Islamic leaders. The new Pope will need to try harder and be more creative. With the war on terror widely viewed in the Middle East as a war on Islam, some sort of dialogue between leaders of these two great world religions must take place. Otherwise we can only expect more bloodshed and more fear.
The new pontiff might take a lesson from John Paul’s efforts with Jewish leaders. The pope’s willingness to acknowledge the failures of the church during the Holocaust was an important first step in healing centuries of old wounds and suspicions between Catholics and Jews.
The Christian church also inflicted wounds on Islam. And while we may have forgotten the impact of the Crusades, our own version of holy war, Muslims have not forgotten. Just last month a high ranking Sunni Muslim called on the Catholic Church to offer an apology for the activities that occurred during the medieval crusades.
Interestingly enough, Pope John Paul actually came close to doing just this. At the turn of the millennium, the pope offered a prayer that asked God to forgive the church’s past use of violence.
And while he did not mention the crusades in particular, that period of church history certainly qualifies as a time when violence was employed.
This is not to suggest that the Catholic Church alone is responsible for all the conflict that exists between Christians and Muslims. Numerous factors, internal and external have combined to create the deadly political and religious conundrum we encounter today.
But perhaps the one who millions of Catholics regard as the envoy of the Prince of Peace can at least begin a conversation between Christians and Muslims that could lead to peace. This much is for sure–waging war without any effort to seek some form of reconciliation with our enemy only leaves us with war without end.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.