Ethics & Public Policy Center

A Pope’s Legacy

Published in National Review Online


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center and a frequent National Review Online contributor, brings his monumental biography of Pope John Paul II to completion with a new volume, published earlier this week: The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy. He spoke with NRO editor-at-large Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book, the pope, and the late pontiff’s significance for the Church and the world.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: If you had to describe John Paul II’s significance in a sentence or two, for an ecumenical audience, how might you approach it?

GEORGE WEIGEL: John Paul II was the pivotal figure in the collapse of European Communism, and he was the great Christian witness of the last half of the twentieth century. The latter explains the former, which is itself something deeply significant for understanding the cultural dynamics of history.

LOPEZ: Would that answer be any different for a Catholic audience?

WEIGEL: Not really, although I would add for a Catholic audience that he brought the Second Vatican Council to a fine point of development by providing an authoritative interpretation of the Council’s key texts. Other councils had provided “keys” to their proper interpretation through creeds, canons, anathemas, and so forth. Vatican II did none of this, and so there was a 15-year free-for-all about what Vatican II really intended and meant. John Paul II essentially ended the free-for-all with his teachings over 26 and a half years, which gave the Church authoritative “keys” to understanding the most important Catholic event since the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century.

LOPEZ: Why do you call John Paul II “a pope of many surprises”?

WEIGEL: The first surprise, of course, was that he was a “pope from a far country,” the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever. The next surprise was that this man who had lived most of his adult life under totalitarian systems had a deeply thought-through understanding of the moral dynamics of freedom rightly understood, as applied to everything from the ethics of interpersonal relationships to the construction and flourishing of free polities and economies. The third surprise was his remarkable capacity to embody paternity in an astonishing variety of cultural circumstances, and in a world seemingly bereft of fatherhood and its distinctive combination of strength and mercy. The fourth surprise, for those who imagine that politics, economics, or some combination of politics and economics drives history, was his demonstration that culture — in the form of aroused consciences — can bend history in a more humane direction. The fifth surprise was that he held the world’s attention for decades, in a media age when even the most compelling public figures burn out their welcome after five or ten years. And I suppose the last surprise was the way in which his living his illness and suffering publicly became a kind of icon of the central mystery of Christian faith for people around the world.

LOPEZ: A good portion of the book comes from new information you had access to from the Polish secret police, the German Stasi, and the KGB, and other previously classified Communist-era documents. What was most revealing there?

WEIGEL: The sheer magnitude of the Communist effort to suborn, blackmail, and ultimately destroy the Catholic Church in central and eastern Europe, and to penetrate the Vatican, was very striking. Millions of man-hours and billions of dollars were spent on this effort to impede the work and foul the reputation of what the Soviets and their satellites clearly perceived as the main ideological enemy. I thought it also striking that the Vatican had virtually no counterintelligence capability, that John Paul II was evidently aware of this, and that he changed the papal routine so that his work on Poland and related issues was on close-hold in the papal apartment.

LOPEZ: Did it come as a surprise to you that you would come to write so much about those years?

WEIGEL: When Polish colleagues shared with me the documents they had mined from the secret-police and foreign-ministry files of the Polish and East German Communist regimes, and when I began to look closely at KGB materials that only became available after I had published Witness to Hope, it became obvious that there was a great story to be told here, and that the second volume of what I had always intended to be a multi-volume biography of John Paul II was the place to tell it.

LOPEZ: You spent time with John Paul II and have written comprehensively about him — was there anything during the course of writing The End and the Beginning that surprised you to learn about John Paul II’s papacy?

WEIGEL: I certainly didn’t know that the SB, the Polish secret police, had tried to blackmail the pope prior to his second visit to Poland in 1983 (which took place under martial law) by means of a bizarre strategem I describe in The End and the Beginning. And, in retrospect, I began to see that the last half of 2003 was a kind of “dark night” for John Paul II, who had of course been formed in the spirituality of St. John of the Cross, author of The Dark Night of the Soul.

LOPEZ: If your publisher’s desires and other practical considerations were not concerns, would there be another book on John Paul II from you? What would it be on? Is there some tangent you’d love to go on with him? Any specialization or devotion or habit you’d like to explore?

WEIGEL: As far as biography strictly speaking is concerned, I have now finished what I set out to do in 1995, and what I promised the pope I would finish when we had our last meal together just before Christmas 2004. As for future books, I may write a personal memoir of our encounters some day. But that would be a different, more informal kind of book.

LOPEZ: In meeting with John Paul II as you did, did you ever argue? Are there any insights you can share about how he approached differences?

WEIGEL: We obviously had different views of the prudence of American and British military action in Iraq when that was being debated in 2002 and 2003. Then as always, John Paul II approached differences in a thoroughly adult way: principles and prudential possibilities were explored and discussed, and, when necessary, we agreed to disagree and to continue the conversation.

LOPEZ: How important was “Be not afraid!” on October 22, 1978, to Church history? To world history?

WEIGEL: I believe Yale’s John Lewis Gaddis, perhaps our premier historian of the Cold War, is right when he argues that the beginning of the end of European Communism came when John Paul II stepped onto the tarmac at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979; that was the beginning of nine days that changed the course of history by setting in motion the human dynamics that led, ultimately, to the Revolution of 1989. And if Gaddis is right, then that clarion call to courage October 22, 1978, was the beginning of the beginning of the end for Lenin and Stalin’s empire.

As for the Church, October 2, 1978, marked the end of a period of drift and created the possibility of a truly evangelical Catholicism, confidently taking the Christian proposal to the world.

LOPEZ: What was the most significant confrontation with evil in John Paul II’s life (that we know of)?

WEIGEL: He once described his experience of the Second World War as “humiliation at the hands of evil,” and I have long believed that that was the experience that forged the unique personality of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. That was the experience in which his decision to accept God’s offer of the priesthood was clarified; that was the experience that led him to devote his priesthood to an intellectual and pastoral defense of the dignity of the human person. So in biographical terms, that was a significant confrontation with evil.

But that the Evil One confronted John Paul II on many occasions, no one should doubt — and I offer several different kinds of examples of those confrontations in The End and the Beginning.

LOPEZ: There was recently a “Theology of the Body Congress,” largely based on the pontificate of John Paul II. How important are his writings on the human person and sexuality? Do they have wider transformational possibilities?

WEIGEL: They have changed the discussion of sexual morality in the Catholic Church, and they’re beginning to do so in the world. Believe it or not, a group of Columbia students self-organized an outdoor discussion of John Paul’s books on sexual ethics at Rockefeller Center recently. No one could have imagined any such thing happening in, say, 1978, when he was elected.

LOPEZ: Why was the 2000 Jubilee year so important? Did it go beyond the Catholic Church?

WEIGEL: John Paul was determined, in the Great Jubilee of 2000, to make the world and the Church confront the fact that Christianity is based on the witness of transformed lives, real lives, lived at a certain moment in history and at defined places — places we can still touch. Jesus of Nazareth transformed lives in ways that led those lives to transform the world: That’s not a pious myth; that’s not a happy bedtime story; that’s a matter of fact. How else would the bones of an obscure and probably illiterate fisherman from the far edges of the Roman Empire end up buried on Vatican Hill? Bringing the world and the Church to grips with the historicity of the Christian claim was the primary purpose of the Great Jubilee of 2000.

LOPEZ: Why was evangelization so important to him?

WEIGEL: Because he believed — really believed — that the Christian Gospel reveals the truth about the human person, and he was a man passionate about the human person.

LOPEZ: What did you find most striking about John Paull II’s “last encyclical,” his very public death? Did he do it consciously? Because we needed to see it? Because he felt called to do it?

WEIGEL: He lived out the last years and months of his life the way he did because he was a Catholic priest who believed that the entire purpose of the priesthood is to invite others into a profound experience of the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

LOPEZ: What is the “new humanism” you write of, and how is John Paul II its prophet?

WEIGEL: Unlike the “atheistic humanism” of Comte, Feuerbach, Marx, and Nietzsche, the new humanism of John Paul II takes full account of the human capacity for transcendence, morally and intellectually. Moreover, John Paul’s new humanism understands that the God of the Bible came into human history as a liberator. To take man seriously is to take the question of God seriously; and to take the question of God seriously is to enter into the depths of the mystery of human freedom.

LOPEZ: During these final years, what was his dark night? And what is a dark night — we tend to misunderstand that, I think?

WEIGEL: A “dark night” is a period of spiritual dryness, a “desert experience,” and many great saints (as well as many ordinary saints, whose lives are all around us) experience such periods of struggle. I think John Paul II went through one such experience in the summer and fall of 2003, and came through it with an even greater determination to turn his suffering into a window into the mysteries of God’s redemptive purposes, made plain in the death and resurrection of the Son of God.

LOPEZ: Do you have any idea what he might have been happiest about in his years as pope and what he might have regretted? Any insights into how he might have approached the questions?

WEIGEL: He was always looking forward, so I don’t know that he spent a lot of time weighing this or that. He was certainly wounded, deeply, by the revelations that priests had betrayed their vocations by abusing the young, and that bishops had betrayed their vocations by failing to get to grips with clerical sexual abuse. He truly hoped that the world had turned a corner into a better way of solving its problems in the Revolution of 1989, and he was disappointed in that hope, obviously. But he remained to the end a man of good spirits and hope; our last meal together in December 2004 was full of good humor, with John Paul, on several occasions, laughing as much as he could given his Parkinson’s disease. He truly believed that God’s purposes would be vindicated, and he could be a man of hope and good cheer because of that.

LOPEZ: Any idea how he would have wanted to be remembered?

WEIGEL: As someone who had spent his life inviting others into the profound relationship with God that he had experienced, I think.

LOPEZ: What was the relationship between the current pope and his predecessor truly like?

WEIGEL: Great mutual respect, and a recognition, I think, of how their different intellectual gifts complemented each other in their collaboration over 20 years.

LOPEZ: A sympathetic column in the New York Times in recent months cast Benedict as the good reformer pope and John Paul as the bad pope, essentially, vis-à-vis priest scandals. Is that fair? If not, what would be a fair, honest assessment?

WEIGEL: No, it’s not fair, and if I may say so, it’s based on ignorance of the record, at least with respect to John Paul II. John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood for 26 and a half years. He drew into the priesthood, by his own example, tens of thousands of young men who will never abuse their priestly vocation by abusing others. His apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, led to a significant reform of seminaries and of the way the Catholic Church trains its priests. I explore John Paul’s role in the scandals of the recent past at length in The End and the Beginning — including the issue of whether he was slow to grasp the meaning of the Long Lent of 2002, and the issue of his being misled by Father Marcial Maciel — and I invite those who want to get at the truth of all this to read those parts of the book carefully.

LOPEZ: What is the consistency between JPII and B16?

WEIGEL: Both are men of Vatican II, rightly understood. Both are men who believe that the Catholic Church and its social doctrine have important things to offer to the building of free and virtuous societies. Both are men of dynamic orthodoxy, rooted in the great tradition of Christian faith but eager to put that tradition into active conversation with contemporary thought.

LOPEZ: Do you expect John Paul II will one day be canonized?

WEIGEL: I think the people of the Church have already recognized that John Paul’s was a life of heroic virtue, and I expect that the Church will formally acknowledge that the people got it right, in due course.

LOPEZ: What is the most pressing issue for the Catholic Church today?

WEIGEL: As always, the question is whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth, when he returns. Immediately, the most pressing question for the Church is identifying and ordaining the kind of bishops who embody the dynamic orthodoxy and evangelical Catholicism of John Paul II and Benedict XVI; a corollary issue is dealing with those bishops who can’t do the job, or haven’t in the past. The Church deserves leaders who are as on fire with the Gospel as many of the people of the Church are today, thanks to two great popes.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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