The Pontiff in Winter

 

John Cornwell is best known for his controversial Hitler’s Pope (1999). As I prepared to review his assessment of John Paul II’s long papacy, my eye was caught by the back cover, which reported some evaluations of that earlier book. Saul Friedlander stated in the Los Angeles Times, “As Cornwell brilliantly demonstrates, Pius XII brought forth the authoritarianism and the centralization of his predecessors to their most extreme stage.” And James Carroll wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, “Instead of a portrait of a man worthy of sainthood, Cornwell lays out the story of a narcissistic, power-hungry manipulator.” My eye lingered on these blurbs because they so perfectly summarized not the earlier book on Pius XII, but this one on John Paul II. Cornwell wants to show that the remarkable papacy of John Paul II, despite its impressive accomplishments, has dangerously weakened the church even as it has strengthened Vatican power. Writing as the aged pope visibly suffers the effects of Parkinson’s disease, Cornwell argues that John Paul had from the start offered authoritarian answers for questions, and that “his debility in his latter days has exposed the long-term consequences of his autocratic papal rule. He has become a living sermon of patience and fortitude, appealing to the sympathies of the entire world; but the billion-strong church has been run increasingly by his Polish secretary and a handful of aging reactionary cardinals.” Cornwell is a biographer in the classical tradition (think Plutarch’s Lives), less interested in the massive compilation of facts than in the making of a moral argument drawn from his subject’s character. And also like ancient biographers, he draws as freely from personal observation and court gossip as he does from the authorized sources. The book opens with a prologue (“John Paul the Great”) that recognizes how deserving of praise are this pope’s accomplishments, but adds an ominous, “and yet...” The book closes with an epilogue that reverses the balance, so that the “and yet...” element in John Paul’s papacy becomes most important, if not as the final judgment of his complex character, certainly as a challenge to a deeply troubled church. Between these brackets, Cornwell divides his treatment into two parts: “Holy Theatre” follows John Paul from 1920 to 1999, tracing the astonishing progress of the man who at thirty-eight was the youngest bishop in Poland and at fifty-eight was the head of the Roman Catholic Church; “In Pursuit of the Millennium (2000-2004)” carries the story past 9/11 and into the Iraq war, focusing on “the winter” of this superman pontiff. Cornwell writes with the energy and focus of a good journalist. Each of the thirty-five chapters is a sharply drawn vignette that moves quickly to the isolation of character traits and political implications. The result is a compulsively readable analysis of a person and a passionately argued plea for a less centralized church in the future. Cornwell’s focus on the pope’s character begins in the first chapter, “Close Encounters,” which reports on his own and others’ impression of John Paul as experienced in person, an impression that combines a positive sense of warmth and modesty, combined with something more negative: a sense that the pope only sees and hears what he wants to see and hear. The term “Holy Theatre” that Cornwell applies to the first part of his analysis is a way of framing this “dynamic paradox” or even “contradiction.” He argues that Karol Wojtyla had, from the beginning, a mystical sense of himself as an actor on history’s stage, but that, after long years at the pinnacle of power, this innate mysticism yielded to a more “vulgar and egocentric” understanding that supported “his own divinely ordained role as pope, and his extraordinary degree of certitude.” Cornwell rapidly records John Paul’s accelerated progress from professor and pastor to bishop and cardinal and, finally, pontiff. He is most interested in tracing the manner in which the very qualities that lent the younger man such unusual charisma, could, after stunning success, turn into something close to a tragic flaw. Cornwell considers the 1981 assassination attempt, together with John Paul’s subsequent application of the “Third Fatima Secret” to himself, as the point of turning from a sense of being guided by Providence to a conviction of being an indispensable instrument of Providence. After bringing the storyline to the point that all will agree presents the high point of John Paul’s success with regard to the larger world, namely the role he played in the liberation of Poland and the collapse of communism, Cornwell turns to less positive aspects of the pope’s exalted sense of historical mission inside the church: the political implications of his frenzied saint-making; the chilling effect on intellectual leadership of his efforts to control theologians; the alienating effect of his refusal to hear the voice of women within the church; the inadequacy of his teaching on sex. Cornwell sees running through all of these efforts a lip service paid to an exalted ideal, accompanied by an ever-increasing resistance to pluralism and democracy, an ever-growing insistence on papal authority as the answer to every problem. The last part of the book makes for particularly painful reading. No one can rejoice at the spectacle of a man who is so palpably suffering from age and illness, so obviously unable to meet the demands of being a superman pontiff, yet still unwilling to cede anything of the extraordinary power he accumulated over the decades. Much of that power is the result of shaping the episcopacy according to his own image in terms of doctrine and morals. But it is also the result of the inability of bishops to exercise genuine authority where it is most needed. Years of conditioning, years of being treated, as Cardinal Joseph Bernadin was once reported as remarking, “like altar boys,” has hollowed out the episcopacy. Cornwell’s final chapters pose the pointed question, “Who Runs the Church?”, as he spells out some of the more dismal manifestations of decline: the inattention to, and later inept handling of, the sexual-abuse scandals; the fostering of repressive right-wing movements within the church, even when the sinister aspects of their founders have been exposed; the confused state of what was once a crisp papal stance in matters of war and peace, oppression and freedom; the morally indefensible refusal to allow condoms as protection against AIDS; the stalled and frustrated conversation with Judaism; and the equally stalemated rapprochement with Orthodox Christianity. Cornwell concludes that in order to respond to the great crises facing the church when he came to the papacy, John Paul II tried, like a superman, to do everything. But because he is, after all, “human, all too human,” even such a heroic effort has led to a troublesome legacy. He suggests that those electing the next pope need to resist the temptation to choose another “Karol the Great,” even if one is available. They need, instead, to choose “a bishop among brother bishops, a judge of final appeal presiding in charity over differences and divisions, and a human being who knows, despite his call to leadership, that he remains a pilgrim with all humanity.” Even those who may find Cornwell’s treatment of the ailing pope too harsh can usefully ponder his conclusions concerning the present state and perilous future of the church.

Published in the 2005-03-25 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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