The death of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, finds American Catholics at a crossroads.
Because the American church is so divided, it may be difficult to work out its place in worldwide Catholicism. Many -- almost certainly a majority -- of its members have found themselves estranged from this pope because of his resistance to change in the church. Others, of course, have cheered the pontiff's theological conservatism on such matters as abortion, gay marriage and a male-only priesthood.
What has been unmistakable is that under John Paul II, this split American church has not had influence in Rome commensurate with its size (about 63 million). The sex-abuse scandal involving American priests made relations between the Holy See and the American church even more difficult.
The death of this pope resolves none of these issues. But it's obvious that American Catholics interested in renewing the quest for conversation about them and change won't be speaking for all Catholics in the United States.
No one yet knows how the next bishop of Rome will lead, but throughout John Paul II's long reign, he resisted change at almost every turn, even as he reshaped the papacy so that it operated far beyond the 100-acre Vatican. He pinballed around the globe in jets and yet he stood resolutely in the church's doorway to block the advance of modernity into much of the church's life. He was an insistent traditionalist who rejected new ideas if they challenged matters that, for him, were settled long ago.
Millions of Catholics supported his steadfast unwillingness to change church policy, practice or teaching. They loved his insistence that no woman should ever become a priest, that artificial birth control methods violate God's will and that priests should remain unmarried and celibate. He would countenance no more discussion of these and some other matters. In fact, his position against ordaining women, he said, should be held "always, everywhere and by all."
When the pope was auxiliary bishop of Krakow, he participated in Vatican II, the council that threw open the church's windows and changed the life of the church and the shape of its ministry. But in many ways he ruled as a pre-Vatican II pope, curiously mixing deep dedication to political freedom with an unflagging allegiance to church tradition and history. The former trait earned him the sincere gratitude of the forces of liberty for his pivotal role in the collapse of European communism. It may be the accomplishment for which he's most remembered.
But even as he strongly backed political freedom, he seemed to have a visceral dislike of theological dissent. Catholic scholars who strayed from his understanding of orthodoxy often were silenced or punished.
Several years ago, a group of American bishops, pushing for change in how the papacy works, accurately described "a widespread feeling that Roman documents of varying authority have for some years been systematically reinterpreting the Vatican II documents to present the minority positions at the council as the true meaning of the council."
The pope's supporters praised him for keeping degenerate and whimsical change at bay while his critics charged he was unwilling to adopt changes essential to keeping the church credible to the very people to whom it is trying to minister.
Oddly enough, both were right. To be faithful to its history and role, the church must hold fast to core beliefs and not flap in the breeze of theological faddishness. John Paul II held to that, even while finding some accommodation with such modern theories as evolution.
But to be heard in a world of competing and conflicting voices, the church must speak in ways that make sense to modern ears. For some, that is where this pope often failed, preferring dogmatism to dialogue. As a practitioner of Vatican centralism, he too often spoke to the church instead of speaking for it.
But even the strongest of popes cannot lock in all church policies, practices and teachings forever. So it's probable that some of the matters John Paul II refused to discuss will be brought up again now, and the various elements within the church will assess whether there's an opportunity for (or danger of) movement on some of them.
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.