The Pope's Divisions

The Pope's Divisions

Mini Teaser: The Peope who proved Stalin wrong.

by Author(s): James H. Billington

George Weigel, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (New York: Cliff Street Books, 1999).

Amidst all the ink spilled over the coming of a new Christian millennium, remarkably little has been written in the mainstream media about the leading Christian spokesman of our era. Pope John Paul II's life and thoughts have, however, now been fully chronicled in George Weigel's magisterial and well-written biography, a work that will both broaden and deepen our understanding of the man he calls a "witness to hope."

Weigel describes this "Pope from a far country" as "the man seen by more people than any man who ever lived", yet who remains "the least understood major figure of the twentieth century." Weigel rejects the political categories of liberal and conservative usually relied on in characterizing John Paul II. In a brilliant prologue he sets the stage for his own more nuanced and theology-centered exposition by laying out a series of paradoxes. The Pope is both a simple, pious Pole and a sophisticated, intellectual polyglot; both a mystic and a sportsman. He is "a celibate with a remarkable insight into human sexuality, especially as viewed from the perspective and experience of women." He is "arguably the most well informed man in the world, yet he rarely reads newspapers."

The great renaissance mystic, Nicholas of Cusa, defended medieval faith against rising skepticism in the early modern era by characterizing God as coincidentia oppositorum, "the union of opposites"--what an earlier mystic, Dionysius the Aereopagite, had called "the superessential Darkness that is hidden in the light of existing things." John Paul appears at the end of modernity as himself such a "union of opposites": fusing a passionate humanist defense of freedom and rights with an unremitting call for traditional Christian obedience and obligations.

This Pope has meditated deeply on the darkness of the last century, which produced more human suffering and martyrdom than any in history, but he sees flickers of light trying to get through the darkness from diverse corners of the world. He has served all the while as a "witness to hope" that the new millennium will bring the renewal we need rather than the retribution we deserve. In the last of his many memorable tableaux, Weigel recounts how some of the Pope's oldest Polish friends asked the aging "Wujek" (his old nickname and the Polish word for Uncle) in the late summer of l997 why he always gets up before dawn. He replied simply, "I like to watch the sun rise."

This biography has three distinctive characteristics that are rarely found--let alone woven together--in current historical writing. First, Weigel has essentially revived and blended together two of the oldest and most forgotten forms of biography: hagiography and the epic. This is an unabashedly admiring study by someone who has had substantial personal contact with a man that he clearly considers saintly. At the same time, it is an epic account of the global odyssey of a man whom he also considers a larger-than-life figure in pursuit of a sacred mission, facing many trials--including some from other, more timid custodians of the cause he is serving.

The book was written as if in response to the Pope's comment to Weigel in l996 about previous biographers: "They try to understand me from the outside. But I can only be understood from the inside." Like the Pope himself, Weigel sees important events in the external world--such as the fall of communism, which is central to this epic--as essentially caused by internal, moral forces. There is a providential cast to Weigel's narrative. Thus, he suggests that the religious-based, bottom-up movement of Solidarity in Poland posed (to use Arnold Toynbee's terms) the terminal challenge to which a Leninist empire could find no adequate response. Weigel's account of the Pope's consistently religious approach to the transforming events in his beloved native land will annoy those who believe that material causes are decisive in history and that the Pope had to be involved in some kind of political conspiracy for such dramatic changes ever to have occurred.

John Paul II has been a prophet of change, not a player with power. Weigel's account suggests that the Pope's moral force, unprecedented elevation and first papal appearance in Poland started an irreversible process of implosion. Looking at the other end of this process, I have argued in my Breakthrough to Hope (1992) that internal moral forces were also central to the final collapse of Soviet communism as I personally witnessed it in Moscow in August l991. I would further suggest that our near total preoccupation since then with the externals of economic and political failures at the top in post-communist Russia may have rendered us incapable of recognizing the inner moral forces that have sustained hope and are now producing constructive changes there from the bottom up.

A second distinctive feature of Weigel's book is that he has poured thoroughly modern content into these ancient genres. He has interlaced into his apologia for a contemporary holy man nearly all the important criticisms leveled against the Pope--both explicitly by his many detractors and implicitly by contemporary secular society. Whenever he describes a papal encyclical or major pronouncement, Weigel generally presents the major arguments advanced against it. Only then does he proceed to describe (and in some cases seem to construct) a papal rebuttal.

Weigel sees John Paul II not as a medieval throwback, but as a modern, even postmodern, figure anxious not just to convert but to convince the world. The Pope is shown to have been addicted to open discussion groups (from the time of his youthful kayak and ski outings), deeply shaped by his experience as a writer and actor immersed in the poetry and dialogue of the Polish romantic stage (the Rhapsodic Theatre), and the first Pope to become deeply versed in modern secular philosophy (writing a thesis on the phenomenology of Max Scheler).

This, then, is not just hagiography, but also a modern biography of a modernizing Pope anxious to put an old faith into new bottles and to open dialogue with a pluralistic world. Weigel suggests that Redemptor Missio may be "the most consequential of John Paul's encyclicals"; and it seems doubtful that any earlier Pope could have written the key words (let alone added the italicized emphases) in that document: "The Church proposes; she imposes nothing. She respects individuals and cultures, and she honors the sanctuary of conscience."

A third virtue of this biography is its relentlessly factual focus on what its subject actually did and said, and on the concrete character of each of the diverse forums and nations into which this unprecedentedly peripatetic Pope thrust himself. There is no psychologizing, no attempt to fit the Pope's many innovations into preconceived ideological categories, and little gratuitous attribution of ulterior motives to any of the main actors. Instead, Weigel provides a wealth of detailed, new and often colorful information largely derived from the first-hand accounts provided to him by dozens of people who have known the Pope well or were with him at crucial points in his life.

Witness to Hope brings into focus for the modern reader the frontal, two-fold cultural challenge that the Pope seems to be extending to all his varied audiences: Will you really, after the horrors of this century, recognize fully the sanctity of all human life? And can you freely, and without disparaging others, center your own life on allegiance to God as revealed in Jesus Christ?

Modern man is generally reluctant to confront--let alone answer--such stark questions personally; and the mass media seem structurally disinclined even to discuss them. As a result, little attention has been paid in the so-called advanced nations to the central mission and message of this Pope. He has all too often been trivialized as just another People magazine celebrity, demonized as a traditionalist wolf in sheep's clothing, or condescendingly included in the category of benign but vestigial spiritual curiosities.

Among John Paul's many challenges to this contemporary culture, none has been as polemically confrontational as his teaching on sex, gender and the role of women. Weigel makes it clear that this has been a central concern of his papacy from his first gathering with his bishops and his early focus on "The Theology of the Body" in an astonishingly extended series of 130 general audiences.

The sacrament of marriage and "the community of the family" are, for the Pope, unique human institutions in which we "guard, reveal and communicate love", which is the "fundamental and ultimate vocation of every human being." God's original creation of humanity in the divine image involved "from the beginning" two distinct genders whose bodies are, however, battlefields between love and lust, self-giving and self-assertion. In some of his most arresting pages, Weigel paraphrases the Pope as suggesting to us all that "human sexuality is far greater than you imagine", and that "the self-giving love of sexual communion is an icon of the interior life of God" capable of becoming "an act of worship . . . a way to sanctify the world." Weigel sees this exalted view as "exorcising the . . . deprecation of human sexuality from Catholic moral theology" and launching a "theological time bomb" that will probably detonate in the twenty-first century.

Of course, there have already been explosions against the papal teachings that have flown out of this theology into current public debates over birth control (which the Pope prefers to call "fertility regulation"), abortion, chastity (even within marriage), homosexuality and many other related matters. Feminists have not taken kindly to the Pope's view that "the true advancement of women requires that clear recognition be given to the value of their maternal and family role by comparison with all other roles and all other professions." Nevertheless, Weigel's detailed analysis suggests that the Vatican has been more successful in advancing its core concerns on these matters in international forums than a mostly adversarial Western press has reported. Women play for this Pope a central role not only within the family ("the domestic church") but also within the Church itself, where many have felt that the Pope was moving toward pronouncing the Virgin Mary as "co-redemptor" with Christ.

The Pope's personal warmth, good humor and dramatic flair have enabled him to avoid seeming to be scolding or self-righteous as he speaks in tough, traditional terms to a generation that resists the message but cannot resist the messenger. He may--again, paradoxically--have been more successful in reaching the world as a whole with this general message than in advancing his deep desire for the reunification of Christendom. Weigel is persuasive in arguing that the Pope was decisively shaped by the modernization and outreach emphases of Vatican II, but seems to recognize that his papacy has not significantly advanced ecumenism despite the engagement of some of the Pope's most talented protŽgŽs in this enterprise. Weigel's recounting of the Vatican discussion of the possible ordination of women reveals a strong inclination to hold fast to an all-male clergy by wrapping that historic practice in the robes of papal infallibility, without either formally proclaiming it to be an obligatory article of faith or seriously arguing the case. This will seem more authoritarian than authoritative to many Christians interested in a deeper dialogue with Rome on what seem to be central matters.

For example, the traditionalist turn of the Anglican communion at the l998 Lambeth Congress reflects the same rising force of African Christianity that the Pope recognized and helped stimulate in Catholicism. Yet both of the Protestant communions that are probably closest to Catholicism, the Anglican and the Lutheran, seem to have made more progress coming together with each other than either has with Rome. Weigel blames the waning of ecumenical progress almost exclusively on the growth of permissiveness within these and other "mainline" Protestant denominations. Such criticism is also voiced by the more evangelical Christian groups, whose numbers are growing particularly among the poor. Yet there is little indication in the book that the Pope has taken much spiritual account of Pentacostalism and other less traditional denominations.

The most serious failure of Catholic ecumenism during this papacy has been with the Slavic Orthodox churches--the very linkage that the Pope allegedly most wanted to make and seemed uniquely equipped to pursue. Weigel places almost all of the blame on the leaders of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church. They made many compromises with their Soviet overlords, themselves crafted a prolonged persecution of Eastern-rite Catholics in Ukraine, and have never extended to the Pope the episcopal invitation that he normally requires to make a foreign visit.

But John Paul had a cordial relationship with Gorbachev, who invited him to come to Russia in a spontaneous public gesture to which this normally bold Pope unaccountably failed to respond. Even more inexplicable on the part of a Pope who believes that culture determines history was the cultural insensitivity of beginning his post-Soviet diplomacy by appointing Polish bishops for newly delineated dioceses in Russia. Weigel is at his least convincing in implying that an already bruised Russian sense of national identity might have been consoled by a little more advance notification, or by the technicality that these bishops were only called "administrators."

There is no telling what the impact might have been if the first Slavic Pope had visited Russia as it was discovering freedom, recovering the Christian base of its culture, and looking for new beginnings from the bottom up. Instead, the Vatican seemed to be creating rival authorities to Orthodox bishops, and equipping them to extend their influence from the top down and further fragment Russia.

I participated in a conference on the Russian situation convened by the Vatican in Rome early in l992, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. A number of Russians were looking at that time, perhaps naively, for some grand gesture or bold proposal from the Pope. Some cardinals and informed Catholics seemed interested in exploring direct linkages between Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox parishes. Yet it seemed at the conference and subsequently that the Pope looked at this momentous point in history mainly through the eyes of the long-beleaguered Catholic regions of the former Soviet Union that were culturally close to Poland: Lithuania and western Ukraine. Within Russia the Vatican pursued the understandable but parochial task of providing leaders for a small number of scattered Catholic Christians, without sending any substantial positive signals to the broader Orthodox population that was just entering into an open-minded search for new answers to old religious questions.

It seems particularly tragic for such a global moral leader not yet to have seriously connected with the spiritual searching that continues beneath the surface of corruption and cynicism of today's Russia. Cynicism, after all, is morality in search of a home, Diogenes with his lonely lamp in search of an honest man. Honesty should compel Western Christians not to rationalize present inaction by focusing so exclusively on the past complicity of many Orthodox leaders with communist oppression. While John Paul II personally lived with integrity through both forms of totalitarianism, more than a few Catholic and other Western Christian leaders behaved similarly when living under fascism. The Pope has a deep feeling for the new martyrs of our era and has canonized many of them. The Soviet Union, the world's first atheist state, produced the greatest number of Christian martyrs of the twentieth century. The great majority of them died professing the Russian Orthodox faith. Their often dramatic stories have been little recorded, even by the Russian Church itself, and their "eternal memory" has been celebrated more in emigration than inside Russia. Perhaps Western Christendom will someday find some innovative ways to honor the sacrificial purity of dead martyrs whose names we may never know--even if it cannot find a path toward reconciliation with living leaders whose imperfections we know all too well.

How can an ordinary historian properly assess the life work of an extraordinary religious leader? Unlike almost every other leader of our time, John Paul looks more to the distant future than to the immediate present. He relies on the concrete and final judgment of a God with whom few of us have much contact, rather than on the transient verdicts of "History", rendered daily by chattering media commentators.

Based on Weigel's account, the impact of the Pope's global odyssey would seem to have been somewhat greater in Latin America and the Third World than is often assumed, and somewhat less in Western Europe and the remaining communist states of Cuba and China. (The Chinese leaders have never answered the letter he addressed to Deng Xiaoping eighteen years ago, one of several communications between communist leaders and the Pope that are published here for the first time.)
John Paul seems to have pushed the Vatican bureaucracy about as far as anyone could. The Žminence grise of Catholic diplomacy, the late Cardinal Casaroli, appears to have been a dragging anchor, and many of the interminable meetings flapping sails, on a ship that the Pope was trying to speed up. The often maligned Cardinal Ratzinger, on the other hand, is portrayed as the Pope's trusted navigator--a theological modernizer rather than an Inquisitor in modern dress. The brief glimpses we are given of the talented and diverse crew of new cardinals appointed by this Pope suggest that they may be his greatest legacy to the next pilot of St. Peter's craft.

Weigel gently suggests that the non-Catholic world might do well to heed and respond more imaginatively to the Pope's invitation to say what it would like to see in a future papacy. Many would be inclined to say simply: John Paul III. However, even if cloning were possible, there would still remain the unresolved, underlying dilemma posed by the conflicting legacy of his papacy--and perhaps of the office itself in this confused, often cruel and increasingly self-indulgent age: Is a pope, in the last analysis, a priest who must be defender-in-chief of a besieged institution, whose members venture out mainly to help others come in to join their company? Or is he--can he be--a prophet of broader human renewal, the forerunner of some new community of faith and human solidarity for the coming millennium? George Weigel's magnificent modern defense of an ancient faith suggests that this Pope has tried to be both on a global scale. No one who perseveres to the end of this exhaustive account of a seemingly inexhaustible Christian can doubt that he has been as successful as any mortal man could hope to be.

Essay Types: Book Review