No one can write an entirely successful biography of a living pope. Not only does the biographer lack access to fundamental sources such as diaries and private letters, but he is denied the perspective which only time—and death—can bring to any life. If he is a Catholic and sympathetic to his subject, he is further constrained by the glamour of the papal office. A living pope is always the greatest and best of men; but after death, as we used to be told in catechism classes, there comes the judgment.

In this doomed enterprise, nevertheless, George Weigel starts with some formidable advantages. An experienced commentator on religion and public affairs, he is one of America’s most intelligent Catholic conservatives. He has a short way with the more brainless forms of left-wing claptrap (evident here, for example, in his discussion of Cuban political rhetoric), a vigorous and well-paced style, and the ability to explain and simplify complex ideas clearly and persuasively—crucial above all in interpreting this philosopher pope. He writes out of a passionate sympathy with his subject, whom he considers to be "the most compelling public figure in the world, the man with arguably the most coherent and comprehensive vision of the human possibility in the world ahead....the compleat Christian." Moreover, he writes, he tells us, at the express invitation of the pope, issued during a "freewheeling conversation...over roast chicken and a good local wine." In preparing this formidable doorstop of a book, therefore, he has had regular access to John Paul II, in person and in writing, and the active cooperation of the Vatican bureaucracy. This is as near to the official view of the pontificate as we are likely to get.

Weigel’s account of Papa Wojtyla makes two essential claims. In the first place, he insists, the pope is the best and truest interpreter of the theological vision of Vatican II, authoritative not authoritarian, moving beyond the stereotypes of liberal or conservative to offer a deeply evangelical understanding of the sources of renewal opened up by the council, winnowing with a sure hand the pernicious sixties chaff from the golden grain of genuine conciliar reform. He emphasizes Wojtyla’s role in the formulation of the council’s pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), and insists that the pope’s reading of the relation of the gospel to modernity is to be preferred to all others.

The second and related claim is that Wojtyla’s philosophical humanism, emphasizing the fundamental dignity of human beings as free moral subjects, provides the providential antidote to the emptiness of modern atheism and secularism. The pope’s teaching, he believes, provides the basis for a reorientation not only of Catholic moral theology, but of the church’s conversation with secular culture, the implications of which will take generations to explore.

These are heady claims, but they are in line with Weigel’s generally astral assessment of the stature and impact of his hero. It is hard to blame him. Wojtyla is by any standards a titanic human being, and his Polish career alone, told here in fascinating and moving detail, reads like the stuff of sensational fiction, rather than the sober fact it is: the austere and orphaned childhood; the wartime career as quarry worker and secret seminarian; the remarkable ministry as university chaplain and philosophy professor, conducted in canoes and mountain-climbing shelters as often as in lecture rooms, inspiring and sustaining a generation of young intellectuals, to whom he became (and remains) their own priest and friend Wujek; the cold-warrior bishop, appointed at the virtual insistence of an eager Communist regime, which discovered too late that it had helped promote its most wily and formidable opponent; the daring philosopher-poet, exploring and celebrating the moral meaning of human sexuality; the old-fashioned ascetic, thinly clad in shabby clothes, giving his blankets to the poor, spending whole nights prostrate before the tabernacle, like something from a film on the Curé d’Ars.

Weigel’s enterprise runs into trouble, however, once Wojtyla becomes John Paul II. In part this is because of the sheer shapeless density of any papacy, and above all so long and hyperactive a papacy—by Weigel’s count almost 90 foreign visits involving more than 3,000 addresses, 134 pastoral visits within Italy, 700 pastoral visits in Rome, 13 encyclicals, 9 apostolic constitutions, 36 apostolic letters, 600 ad limina addresses, 877 general audiences. Weigel does his best to impose some sort of order on this riot of material, and he has an enviable gift of narrative and expository compression. Inexorably, however, the story degenerates into one damn thing after another, and turning the page becomes less and less enticing: It is difficult to imagine anyone other than a reviewer reading the book from cover to cover.

More seriously, Weigel’s total commitment to a single point of view eventually erodes the reader’s trust. Weigel is understandably determined to defend John Paul from a predictable range of accusations—that he is a misogynist, that he is authoritarian, that he does not believe in episcopal collegiality, that he has been deaf to the plight of the poor in Latin America, that he has discouraged theological creativity. The list goes on. Weigel often has serious points to make against these charges, but he sacrifices credibility for his argument by reducing all disagreement with the pope’s point of view to a thin chorus of sour voices off-stage. In all but a handful of instances, such as the appointment of Archbishop Jozef Glemp as primate of Poland, he refuses to consider seriously the possibility that the pope may be capable of errors of judgment, or that more than one view of an issue may be possible.

While pointing, quite rightly, to some of John Paul’s more imaginative and successful episcopal appointments, for example, that of Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan, he is startlingly silent about the many notoriously imprudent and divisive appointments which have resulted from the Vatican’s concern to install safe conservatives. He counters the claim that the pope does not believe in collegiality by emphasizing, quite rightly, the dramatic increase of papal contact with the world’s bishops which has resulted from the pope’s journeyings and from the reforms of the ad limina procedures which John Paul has instituted, and he emphasizes also the pope’s deserved reputation as a good listener, one-to-one. He never addresses, however, the almost universal criticism of the centralized stage managing of synods, nor the widespread sense in local hierarchies, by no means confined to radicals and malcontents, that they are increasingly perceived in Rome as branch managers of an international company. Weigel apparently sees nothing uncollegial (or counterproductive) in the pope’s addressing the mute Brazilian hierarchy for four hours in 1980, in order, as Weigel says, to "remind them of their mission," or in the fact that John Paul routinely uses his ad limina addresses, according to Weigel, to teach his fellow bishops.

Weigel’s blind spots become evident in his virtual silence about the pope’s coolness toward figures like Oscar Romero or Helder Camara, and in Weigel’s woefully simplistic account of liberation theology (which, so far as I could see from his footnotes, appears to be based on two journal articles published in 1973). In defending John Paul’s "shock therapy for the Jesuits," the pope’s astonishing suspension of the constitution of the order in 1981, and his imposition on it of the rule of a blind octogenarian as his personal delegate, Weigel says next to nothing about Pedro Arrupe, general at the time, who was then and after his death remains a revered figure, arguably the order’s most charismatic leader since Ignatius, and a man broken by the pope’s action.

In the end, Weigel’s lack of distance from his hero undermines his credibility as an apologist. He has no doubts at all about the wisdom—or the abiding effect—of the pope’s mass rallies. He enthusiastically celebrates John Paul’s skill in "working the crowds," and assumes that celebrity changes lives, and indeed the course of history. He appears seriously to attribute the arrival of "stable democracy" in Chile, for example, to the pope’s brief visit there in 1987. He is convinced that in one or two generations’ time we will see a church and world transformed by the impact of the crowds of young people who chant "John Paul Two, we love you" at the pope’s youth rallies, an optimism which seems reminiscent of the peace dreams of the flower-power generation, and about as likely. He thinks that the way to rebut the charge that theological creativity has been stifled in this pontificate is to point to the pope’s own encyclicals.

That in itself is a revealing strategy. Weigel is absolutely right to celebrate the splendor of the gift which the church has received in the talents and pastoral dedication of John Paul II. He is disastrously wrong in implying that in the creative if sometimes cacophonous conversation of Catholicism after Vatican II, John Paul’s is the only voice worth listening to.


Related: Eamon Duffy reviews George Weigel's God's Choice
John Paul II's Legacy: several Commonweal writers reflect

Eamon Duffy is Reader in Church History in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Magdalene College. He is the author of The Stripping of the Altars and Saints and Sinners, a history of the popes, both published by Yale University Press.
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Published in the 1999-10-22 issue: View Contents
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