George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and a frequent National Review Online contributor, brings his monumental biography of Pope John Paul II to completion with a new volume, published earlier this week: The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. He spoke with NRO editor-at-large Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book, the pope, and the late pontiff’s significance for the Church and the world.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: If you had to describe John Paul II’s significance in a sentence or two, for an ecumenical audience, how might you approach it?
GEORGE WEIGEL: John Paul II was the pivotal figure in the collapse of European Communism, and he was the great Christian witness of the last half of the twentieth century. The latter explains the former, which is itself something deeply significant for understanding the cultural dynamics of history.
LOPEZ: Would that answer be any different for a Catholic audience?
WEIGEL: Not really, although I would add for a Catholic audience that he brought the Second Vatican Council to a fine point of development by providing an authoritative interpretation of the Council’s key texts. Other councils had provided “keys” to their proper interpretation through creeds, canons, anathemas, and so forth. Vatican II did none of this, and so there was a 15-year free-for-all about what Vatican II really intended and meant. John Paul II essentially ended the free-for-all with his teachings over 26 and a half years, which gave the Church authoritative “keys” to understanding the most important Catholic event since the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century.
LOPEZ: Why do you call John Paul II “a pope of many surprises”?
WEIGEL: The first surprise, of course, was that he was a “pope from a far country,” the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever. The next surprise was that this man who had lived most of his adult life under totalitarian systems had a deeply thought-through understanding of the moral dynamics of freedom rightly understood, as applied to everything from the ethics of interpersonal relationships to the construction and flourishing of free polities and economies. The third surprise was his remarkable capacity to embody paternity in an astonishing variety of cultural circumstances, and in a world seemingly bereft of fatherhood and its distinctive combination of strength and mercy. The fourth surprise, for those who imagine that politics, economics, or some combination of politics and economics drives history, was his demonstration that culture — in the form of aroused consciences — can bend history in a more humane direction. The fifth surprise was that he held the world’s attention for decades, in a media age when even the most compelling public figures burn out their welcome after five or ten years. And I suppose the last surprise was the way in which his living his illness and suffering publicly became a kind of icon of the central mystery of Christian faith for people around the world.