But what gets less attention is the fact that it was the Catholic Church that launched the very notion of a sphere of liberty and morality not bound to the state. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, Fareed Zakaria recounts in "The Future of Freedom," the Catholic Church remained as an imperfect conscience for rulers who would define the rules of kings as synonymous with the whims of kings. When Emperor Theodosius slaughtered the Thessalonians, Ambrose, the Archbishop of Milan, was so repulsed he refused to give the emperor Holy Communion. The emperor cried, No fair! He argued that David had done worse in the bible, to which Ambrose replied, "You have imitated David in his crime, then imitate him in his repentance!" Off and on for eight months, the most powerful ruler in the entire world mimicked the biblical David, dressing in rags like a beggar in order to plea for forgiveness outside the Ambrose's cathedral.
Over time, the papacy's moral authority increased. Pope Leo III may have been forced to anoint Charlemagne as Roman Emperor, but by doing so he also cemented the notion that even kings were answerable to a higher authority. When Emperor Henry IV challenged the Pope's power of investiture he ended up, as legend has it, kneeling in the snows at Canossa to beg for forgiveness. It was only in modern times, best symbolized by Napoleon crowning himself Emperor of the French, that this external authority was firmly rejected in favor of his own will-to-power. It is no coincidence that Napoleon is widely considered the first modern dictator.
Some of John Paul the Great's detractors saw his "social conservatism" as a contradiction to his criticism of capitalism run amok, or regarded his opposition to the death penalty as at odds with his opposition to abortion. John Paul confounded so many because his views on these and other issues were unswervingly consistent with a vision of the world bound not by the ideological categories of the moment but by the standards of eternity. My guess is his vision will be debated long after words like right and left have melted away like the snows of Canossa.