Published October 8, 2002
The Catholic Difference
Discussing her documentary, “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope,” in a recent interview, the distinguished film-maker Helen Whitney noted that “There was nothing easy about that film….He is a tower of contradictions, and I had to honor them.”
Full marks to Helen Whitney for her professional integrity in telling a story as she had come to understand it. But permit me to suggest that the Pope is less a “tower of contradictions” than the contemporary secular (or “searching”) mind is a tangle of confusions. Which is, perhaps, why “John Paul II: The Millennial Pope” is less a documentary about the life, thought, and work of the Holy Father than it is a film about the modern crisis of belief – with the Pope as a kind of Rorschach blot to which various people react.
Everyone who has known John Paul for any length of time, indeed anyone who has studied his life and his teaching carefully, comes rather quickly to a simple conclusion: consistency, not contradiction, is one of the outstanding characteristics of John Paul II. He is completely, even relentlessly, consistent in his Christian convictions, and those convictions consistently shape his teaching, his moral judgments, and his method of governing the Church. Why, then, does so much of the media world (including intelligent people like Helen Whitney) find the Pope “contradictory”?
Perhaps because he is an ardent defender of human rights and an ardent opponent of abortion. But the Catholic Church has always insisted that abortion, as a matter of public law, is a civil rights issue: a question of legal protection for the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human community. No contradictions there.
Perhaps because the Pope believes and teaches that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life, and demonstrates profound respect, even reverence, for other world religious traditions. John Paul II, however, would insist that it is precisely his faith in Christ, and all that that has taught him about the human yearning for truth, that has opened him to a respectful dialogue with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. No contradictions there.
Perhaps because he seems so warm, open, and humane, even as he challenges young people to chastity and challenges everyone to keep the bar of spiritual and moral expectation high. For the Pope, though, warmth and openness mean taking everyone with the seriousness they deserve – the seriousness that recognizes that every human being is capable of spiritual and moral greatness. And in John Paul II’s view, we miss that greatness when we treat sex as either a “need” or a contact sport. No contradictions here.
Perhaps because John Paul II, a leading figure in the collapse of communism, is also a sharp critic of the cult of consumption. The Pope, however, would propose that both communism and the “shop-‘til-you-drop” mentality misread the nature of the human person. Human beings, he tells us, can’t be understood as mere bundles of material “wants.” A human being is a human being precisely because of an innate, burning thirst for transcendent truth and love. No contradictions here.
Perhaps because the man who helped bring democracy to central and eastern Europe nonetheless insists that democracy is not a machine that can run by itself, but a matter of the virtues that make a people capable of self-governance. More than a few of the American Founders would have said the same thing, of course; in any event, to call men and women to live their civic and political lives as citizens capable of bringing moral truth into public life is entirely consistent with the Pope’s noble vision of human possibility. So no contradictions here.
John Paul II is a sign of contradiction in one important sense: he refuses to concede, to that packet of confusions called “post-modernism,” that there is no sense to be found in life and that everything is merely a matter of seeing and doing things “my way.” That, he insists, is dehumanizing because it means enslavement to our passions.
Passions transformed into love: that is what John Paul II calls us to, and as readers of 1 Corinthians 13 will recognize, there’s nothing contradictory about that, either.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.