The Pontiff in Winter

The Pontiff in Winter
Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II
John Cornwell
Doubleday, $24.95, 336 pp.


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...

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About the Author

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