Magazine | November 29, 2010, Issue

For God and Man

The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, by George Weigel (Doubleday, 608 pp., $32.95)

In this book, George Weigel maintains the very high standard he has long achieved of presenting controversial Roman Catholic subjects with the sympathy and insight of a committed adherent and the balance and rigor of an eminent scholar and historian. There will doubtless be herniating masses of further documentation published on every phase of the subject’s 27-year papacy. And there will be more elaborate discussions of the vast subjects John Paul II grappled with as he tried to reconcile Catholic Christian faith with the destabilizing influences of the Enlightenment, and the relativism and the temptations of gratification, that have assaulted modern Catholicism. But there is no reason to believe that any future account will give a more balanced view of what the future pope said in 1976 was “a lively battle for the dignity of man.”

Before settling down to his leisurely account of the latter half of John Paul II’s pontificate, Weigel executes a quick march through the pope’s early years (already covered in his 1999 volume Witness to Hope). Many of John Paul II’s closest friends were murdered by the Nazis, for hiding Jews and other hunted innocents, and the tradition of suffering and martyrdom was a vivid and intimate experience for him. This was one of the reasons that he beatified 1,338 Servants of God, 1,032 of them martyrs, and canonized 482 new saints, of whom 402 were martyrs; adding significantly to the 302 saints that had been canonized since the process was inaugurated in its present, relatively routine form in 1588. His view of the world and of man’s fate was stern, but it was not grim: He believed that life was “cruciform,” that suffering was the inescapable lot of all, but that life was no less capable of providing happiness, accomplishment, and nobility for that. There was much sadness in the world, but none of it needed be purposeless, and all fates were appealable through spirituality. As pope, John Paul II prayed intensely, every day, for dozens of supplicants seeking relief from illness, bereavement, or other ailments of the world. He took on these causes as his own, and there were many documented, happy outcomes. He is even reliably credited with two exorcisms. It is little wonder that he is widely regarded, even by very sober people, as a miraculous figure.

He was pope for longer than anyone except St. Peter (34 or 37 years) and Pius IX (32 years). His output of 14 encyclicals, 14 apostolic exhortations, and many other messages, speeches, and homilies fills twelve feet of shelf space. His 1,164 general audiences were attended by nearly 18 million people (an impressive average of over 15,000 every Wednesday for decades, indoors and out), and he was personally seen, in his endless tours in the world (including to Azerbaijan, which had only 120 Roman Catholics), by the astonishing and completely unprecedented total of approximately 230 million people. His funeral was attended by 74 heads of state and government, more than the funerals of John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Charles de Gaulle combined, along with almost a million members of the public.

His remarkable human qualities have never been seriously disputed. The balance sheet of his pontificate is complicated, and is presented in this book with scrupulous fairness. The Church itself generally flourished. There were twice as many Roman Catholics in the world when the pope died as when he was elected, and the acute crises of recruitment abated appreciably, though not altogether. The talk of schism and erosion in the agnostic secular media, which for over a century have regarded the Roman Church as a primitive and saturnine bumblebee defying all laws of nature and surely destined to fall down, was moderated, and they came, generally, to address the subject in less disdainful and funereal terms.

#page#His role in defeating Communism was seminal and on the scale of President Reagan’s. He destabilized the regimes in Poland and in Nicaragua, and cooperated closely with the United States in mobilizing discontent among the more than 100 million Roman Catholics behind the Iron Curtain. He had the traditional skepticism of the Pole toward the Soviet Union, compounded by both moral and practical contempt for the brutality and inefficiency of Communism as he had seen and grappled with it in Poland for a third of a century. He scrapped the policy, adopted by Paul VI, of appeasement of the East in exchange for certain concessions.

He was largely responsible for a drastic change in the perception of the abortion issue, especially in the U.S., from a matter of the right of control of a woman over her own body to a matter about equally of the protection of the rights of the unborn and most defenseless, vulnerable, and innocent people. He positively made over the relationship of the Holy See with Israel, and of Roman Catholics officially with the Jews. His many gestures in this regard — notably his visits to Yad Vashem and the Western Wall, where he placed a prayer of forgiveness for past wrongs against the Jews by all Christians — were profoundly affecting, and brought balm to the wounds of two millennia. His preparation for the third millennium, and especially his sequence of atonements for various wrongdoings in the previous thousand years, and his jubilees celebrating relations with almost all occupations of people, had considerable, and entirely positive, impact. And he did much to foster a general perception that ecclesiastical issues were matters of reasoned opinion and not of mindless trendiness or hidebound obstinacy. He was, in his way, a feminist, but defined the role of women otherwise than as being interchangeable with men.

He put the Church squarely behind the full range of democratic freedoms, the responsible market economy, and the presence of a moral dimension in the organization and conduct of society. The Roman Catholic Church was no longer identified with reactionary dictatorships, in the same measure that it was no longer manipulated by populist demagogues. And John Paul II brought Church economic thinking a long way forward from the pretentious and ill-considered third-way options of Pius XII’s corporatism and Paul VI’s socialistic reverence for economic planning, neither of which had any chance of practical success, or even serious implementation.

Against these great accomplishments, the prolonged effort to unite Christians, which John Paul II defined as making “the real but imperfect communion” shared by all Christians the basis for “a Petrine ministry that served everyone’s needs,” made disappointingly little headway. It must be said that the notion that the other churches, especially the various Orthodox denominations, would accept the leadership of the papacy after more than 900 years of schism, and nearly 500 years since the Reformation, was a bit unworldly. So was the dilution of belief in just-war doctrine by faith in the Polish example of gradual, bloodless disintegration of an evil foe. The pope himself did not stoop to anti-Americanism in his opposition to the Iraq wars, and was certainly under no illusions about the nature of Saddam Hussein, but for a time he allowed his spokesmen to engage in outrageously anti-American polemics, delusional pacifism mixing infelicitously with Eurosnobbery. The pope’s attempt to arrest the evaporation of the Christian tradition in Europe was also unsuccessful. He warned Europe repeatedly of the hazards of a collapsed birthrate and of the immigration of not-easily-assimilable people in large numbers, but his effort to mobilize opinion was compromised by his quixotic enthusiasm for making ill-starred overtures to the Muslim clerisy.

The author is frank in lamenting the Holy See’s exaggerated faith in international organizations, and its tendency to blame all the ills of the Third World on the developed countries and to pronounce anything desirable a human right. The pope was deceived by Marcial Maciel, the successful but corrupt and deviant founder of the Legion of Christ, and his placing the Society of Jesus in trusteeship did not cure the Jesuits of their habit of being a perennial locus of theological dissent. The pope moved late, and not decisively enough, in the child-abuse scandal, though his disapproval of the practices was appropriately severe. He seemed incapable of believing the priesthood capable of such depravity, just as he seemed incapable of thinking that passive attachment to the right would not succeed, opposite Islamic extremists, as it had against Polish Communism.

#page#One of my few reservations about this analysis is that the author omits to mention that the pope gave the store away to the Vatican employees, and — in his enthusiasm for the Solidarity labor movement in Poland — was so generous to the unskilled workers in the Vatican that he damaged its fiscal position, which had to be shored up by a committee led by North American cardinals from business centers, especially Cardinal O’Connor of New York and Cardinal Carter of Toronto. And more important, I think the author glides too effortlessly over the problems with the pope’s position on sexual relations. Once sexual activity was transformed by the act of swallowing a pill from a matter that could promote procreation to one of mere pleasure, in which almost all heterosexual people between the ages of 16 and 75 engage, the character of sex changed, and the spectacle of septuagenarian celibates enunciating a Theology of the Body was bound to be seen as questionable. The Holy See offers a counsel of perfection, in the knowledge that almost no one will follow it; its position is further undercut by the bishops in many countries, including the U.S. and Canada, whose opinion essentially is that the popes have spoken but the faithful should resort to birth-control devices at will if it serves their interests. The Holy See is going to have to either adapt or retreat from a position that has been rendered obsolete not so much by deteriorating mores as by the march of popularly accessible science. And the Church will have to do more for women: It can provide them a more equal role (which is nonetheless not identical to that of men). This is not an issue that can be finessed with papal encomia, however sincere, to the distinct genius of the female.

Weigel also goes native for the Poles in secular matters and mistakenly ascribes the Soviet occupation of Poland to the fact that Normandy was invaded instead of Slovenia (the latter option, favored by Churchill and his generals, was a mad enterprise that was never taken seriously by Roosevelt or Stalin, and would have left all Germany and France, as well as Poland, in Stalin’s hands), and deprecates the Yalta accords, which, in fact, guaranteed Polish independence and democracy. His citation of Henry Kissinger’s statement that John Paul II was the greatest man of the 20th century is also a bit unrigorous; that honor usually goes to Roosevelt and Churchill for the salvation of Western civilization, and the scientists put up a respectable argument for Einstein. It is enough, and perfectly truthful, to say that John Paul II was a contender.

This book is not a rollicking read, but it’s a steady, solid, authoritative work about a great man who believed that the Catholic Church “should bend its global mission toward the recovery, defense, and promotion of the inalienable dignity and value of every human person.” Pope John Paul II was a prophet, but as George Weigel writes, the “nature of his prophetic charism had to do not with clairvoyance but with faith. . . . [His] unshakeable faith in Christ gave birth to a world-changing hope for a new springtime of the human spirit.” This biography is worthy of such a man and so great a mission.

– Mr. Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at

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