This volume carries on George Weigel’s role as papal biographer (see Witness to Hope), celebrating Pope John Paul II as a heroic figure on multiple fronts. If Weigel had lived in nineteenth-century France, he clearly would have been termed an ultramontane—one who looked beyond the Alps to Rome. Instead, Weigel looks from Washington to Rome.

Weigel begins with a brief review and synopsis of Karol Wojtyła’s pre-papal life and the first two decades of his pontificate, a subject covered in encyclopedic detail in Witness. He then focuses on John Paul’s role as the “Millennial Pope,” the shrewd and courageous “nemesis” of communism. According to Weigel, eight months after his election, JPII “ignited a revolution of conscience in his native Poland—a moral challenge to the Cold War status quo that helped set in motion the international drama that would culminate in the collapse of European communism.” In that context, the reader is treated to numerous tidbits of reporting and speculation concerning the pope, collected by the Soviet KGB, Polish SB, and East German Stasi. This material has been culled from an archive of classified documents once available only to senior Communist Party and secret police officials, but made accessible in the five years after the pope’s death. The identity and code names of various emissaries and moles who gathered information are provided. There is a long note regarding the possible role of the KGB and the Stasi in the attempted assassination of John Paul. We are also told that Vatican curial officials were growing concerned lest their conciliatory diplomatic program for Eastern Europe, known as Ostpolitik, be undermined by the bold initiatives coming from the Solidarity movement and vigorously supported by John Paul.

Recounting Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli’s meeting with President Ronald Reagan on December 15, 1981, Weigel concludes that Reagan was “rather more attuned to John Paul II’s way of reading and conducting world politics than Cardinal Casaroli....It was Reagan who spoke in terms of moral witness and the power of moral conviction.” At the same time, Weigel insists that Wojtyła had always understood himself not as a politician but as a priest and bishop who spoke in defense of the dignity of the human person and in defense of religious freedom. Weigel dismisses journalists’ speculation about a “holy alliance” between Reagan and the pope, but lists “interesting parallels.” “Both were orphans, at least of a sort.” “Both were men of the theater, with shared convictions about the power of words.” “Both were what might be called positive anticommunists, in that the cause of freedom and the promotion of human rights set the context for their respective critiques of communist theory and practice.” “Both were unafraid of challenging the conventional wisdom and their own bureaucracies.” The last characterization may be true regarding John Paul’s personal strategies versus the curia’s Ostpolitik, but not regarding other internal church issues. For example, the pope’s Christmas address to the Roman curia on December 20, 1990, spoke of “the churches in and formed out of the church.” Such a perspective served to buttress centralization and the power of the Vatican curial bureaucracy. By contrast, Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church spoke of “the church in and formed out of the churches.”

The second part of the book,  “Kenosis” (“Emptying”), treats selected events and accomplishments of the last six years of the pontificate. We revisit the planning for, and celebration of, the Great Jubilee—including the confession of Christian sinfulness in history and the request for pardon, the pope’s pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Fatima, and World Youth Day 2000. We are told that, prior to the 2001 consistory, “there was an unusual amount of turmoil in senior church circles over the pope’s intention to create Bishop Walter Kasper a cardinal.” During his May 2001 visit to Damascus, John Paul became the first pope to enter a mosque. “Presented with a Qur’an, he kissed it.... The gesture was a kiss for Muslims.” Weigel also gives attention to how the Russian Orthodox Church rebuffed the pope’s many ecumenical overtures. Finally, there is an extended analysis of differences between the curia’s opposition to the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and JPII’s supposedly more sympathetic views toward President George W. Bush and his decision to go to war. “John Paul would certainly have welcomed regime change in Baghdad as a way to relieve the suffering of the people of Iraq,” his biographer writes. “He was committed, however, to promoting such change through nonmilitary means.” Weigel, of course, was a very public apologist for the Bush administration’s policies.

In general, Weigel’s praise of the pope is fervently offered; his criticisms are directed at bishops, admittedly in some instances deserved. Weigel notes the malfeasance “of so many American bishops” in regard to the pedophilia scandal. He reports that, at a meeting in the papal apartment on April 13, 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law offered to resign but was urged “to stay and resolve the problems” in Boston. Then Weigel says, “To his credit, Cardinal Law was reflecting the realities of the moment.” The author adds that Rome had still not been adequately informed and only later received a dossier of materials “from prominent U.S. Catholics who were known to be defenders of the pontificate and who were urging strong leadership to address the twin problems of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance.” Noting that Pius IX was free to appoint whomever he wished in only a limited number of dioceses, Weigel declares that the free right of episcopal appointment throughout the world may be the single greatest accomplishment of modern Holy See diplomacy. In that regard, he notes that John Paul appointed more Catholic bishops than any previous pope. But, in part 3 of the book, which “assess[es] the man and his accomplishments in detail,” Weigel concludes that “at the end of the pontificate it was difficult to say that the world episcopate as a whole reflected John Paul II’s dynamic, courageous, intellectually sophisticated, and spiritually profound model of episcopal leadership.” Weigel attributes this failure to a narrow, clerically dominated vetting process, “which asked about a man’s orthodoxy, but not about his talent in convincing others of the truth of Catholic faith, his success in bringing others into the church, or his boldness in advancing the church’s social doctrine publicly.”

That explanation is not sufficient. The blame cannot simply be passed to others. Weigel reports that in a conversation on January 4, 2000, the pope, astonishingly, told him that a forthcoming compendium of Catholic social doctrine was necessary “because the bishops don’t know the social doctrine of the church.” One wonders why such persons were raised to the episcopacy. Yet Weigel dismisses criticism of supposed Vatican centralization, and expounds negative views of theologians and universities, the Jesuits, and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. He also tells us that John Paul was deceived and betrayed by Marcial Maciel, the now utterly discredited founder of the Legionaries of Christ. A note tells us that in February 1998 Weigel interviewed Maciel, but there is no mention of Weigel’s own outspoken support for Maciel and the Legion.

It is clear that Weigel was a member of a group whose points of view gave them privileged Vatican access during John Paul’s pontificate. In his discussion of papal humor, we read that “in 1994, a lunch guest at Castel Gandolfo, Father Richard John Neuhaus, told the pope that he was ‘ahead of history.’ ‘So that is why I broke my leg?’ John Paul replied.” Indeed, Weigel’s insider’s credentials are on display throughout the book, and as a consequence one frequently turns to the notes to look for the source of quotes or anecdotes. Sometimes, one wishes there were a transcript to corroborate anecdotal statements. For example, Weigel refers to the pontificate’s difficult reception in Germany and says that it was “due to several factors, not least of which was John Paul’s Polishness.” For that appraisal, Weigel cites interviews with Cardinals Walter Kasper and Joachim Meisner—a somewhat narrow sample of German opinion, which one suspects might have been reacting to substantive features of JPII’s papacy, including his mode of exercising ecclesial authority.

Weigel’s concluding paragraphs herald Pope John Paul as the prophet seeking to heal the defective humanism of late modernity—“because he was a disciple, a radically converted Christian whose unshakable faith in Christ gave birth to a world-changing hope for a new springtime of the human spirit.” Springtime is good. But if John Paul ushered in a springtime, why have other disciples of unshakeable faith—including theologians of great stature such as Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Jean-Marie Roger Tillard—characterized the life of the post–Vatican II church as suffering through a difficult wintertime? Maybe Weigel needs to broaden, and deepen, his frame of reference.


Related: Eamon Duffy's review of George Weigel's Witness to Hope
John Paul II's Legacy: several Commonweal writers reflect

Bernard P. Prusak teaches theology at Villanova University.
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