John Paul II — Preparing the 21st Century

Published November 1, 1997

Crisis Magazine

Even at the height of Hollywood’s infatuation with things Catholic, no screenwriter would have dared propose such a storyline:

Months after his country regains its independence, a son is born to Polish parents in the small provincial town of Wadowice. His mother dies before he makes his First Communion. Raised by his father, a gentleman of the old school and a retired military officer of deep piety, the youngster is easily the best student in the town schools, an enthusiastic athlete, an amateur actor of note in a town that prides itself on its theatrical tradition. One of his close friends is the son of the leader of the local Jewish community. After moving to Cracow with his pensioner-father he enters the ancient Jagiellonian University, but his brilliant academic performance and his rapidly developing career as an actor in avant-garde theater are abruptly terminated by the Second World War.

Amidst the brutalities of a Nazi occupation intended to wipe Poland off history’s map forever, he works as a quarryman, blaster, and manual laborer, often walking four kilometers to work in the freezing Polish winter, clad in jeans and wooden clogs, his face smeared with Vaseline to prevent his skin from freezing. At risk of his life he helps organize a resistance movement aimed at saving Polish culture through the power of the “living word,” proclaimed in an underground theater; at the same time, he takes his first steps in Carmelite spirituality under the tutelage of a quirky lay mystic who forms young men into “Living Rosary” groups after the priests of the local parish have been sent to Dachau.

His father dies and the young man’s vocational struggle intensifies: is his life to play itself out on the stage or in the sanctuary? When his decision to seek the priesthood matures, he enters a clandestine seminary run by the heroic archbishop of Cracow, who serves Hans Frank a meal of stale bread and acorn coffee when the haughty Nazi governor insists on being invited to dine at the episcopal manse. The surreptitious seminarian (one of whose classmates suddenly disappears, only to end up in front of a firing squad) studies philosophy and theology in the dim light of the chemical factory where he works the midnight shift; his books are pock-marked by the lime that splashes out of the water-purification machinery he tends. In the wake of the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis try to forestall a similar eruption of resistance by arresting every young man in Cracow; our protagonist dodges Gestapo patrols, makes his way across town, and enters the bishop’s residence where the clandestine seminary is re-formed. He lives in a makeshift dormitory that was once the archbishop’s drawing room; after the Poland’s “liberation” by the Red Army in 1945, he engages a Soviet soldier in a long, earnest conversation about the possibility of God.

After priestly ordination, graduate studies in Rome, and a sympathetic look at the worker-priest movement in France, he returns to Cracow and, after a year in a country parish, begins an intense ministry to university students at St. Florian’s Church. While Stalinist orthodoxy is being ruthlessly enforced in Polish intellectual life, liturgical innovation, a pastoral strategy of “accompaniment,” and thousands of hours in the confessional distinguish his approach to the university chaplaincy. Completing a second doctoral degree, he joins the faculty of the only Catholic university in the communist world; there, he and his philosophy department colleagues conduct a bold experiment aimed at nothing less than the re-configuration of post-Cartesian intellectual life. While commuting back and forth by overnight train to his teaching position he continues his pastoral ministry in Cracow and works to develop a modern Catholic sexual ethic in conversation with his former parishioners, now preparing for marriage or starting their families.

One of the last episcopal nominations of Pius XII, he is consecrated bishop at 38 and within four years is elected administrator of the archdiocese when the incumbent ordinary dies and the Church and the government deadlock on a new appointment. One of the intellectual leaders of the Second Vatican Council, he makes crucial contributions to its Declaration on Religious Freedom and, above all, to its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Proving that Providence has a wicked sense of humor, he is nominated archbishop of Cracow with the enthusiastic support of the communist government and is created cardinal at 47.

As archbishop he conducts the most extensive implementation of Vatican II of any diocese in the world, all the while refusing to behave as cardinals are supposed to behave: he skis, he kayaks, he vacations with lay people. A working intellectual, he continues to teach at the Catholic University of Lublin and spends two hours every day in his chapel, writing at a desk before the Blessed Sacrament. To the intense chagrin of the communist authorities, he pursues a relentless, sophisticated, and increasingly vocal defense of religious freedom: demanding church-building permits, defending youth movements, clandestinely ordaining underground priests for work in Czechoslovakia.

Invited to preach the papal Lenten retreat in 1976, he prepares a series of meditations in which Holy Scripture, St. Augustine, and the German philosopher Heidegger are the first three references. Two years later he is elected the 264th bishop of Rome, the first non-Italian in 455 years, and the first Slavic pope ever. KGB leader Yuri Andropov warns the Politburo of grave troubles ahead, and is vindicated when the Polish Pope returns to his homeland in June 1979 and sets in motion the revolution of conscience that eventually produces the nonviolent revolution of 1989, the collapse of European communism — and the end of the Soviet Union Andropov served.

The Slav Pope revamps the practice of the papacy, through pastoral pilgrimages to every corner of the world and through a magisterium that addresses virtually every large question involved in the ongoing implementation of Vatican II, to whose completion he has pledged his pontificate. Surviving an assassination attempt, he redefines the Catholic encounter with Judaism, invites Orthodox and Protestant Christians to help conceive a papacy that could serve them, preaches to 60,000 raptly attentive Muslim teenagers in a Casablanca stadium, and describes marital intimacy as an icon of the inner life of the Trinity. After a bout with cancer and sundry other medical difficulties, the world press pronounces him a dying has-been; within the next six months, he publishes an international bestseller translated into 55 languages and gathers the largest crowd in human history in Manila, shortly after changing the course of the Cairo World Conference on Population and Development. When he addresses the United Nations in October 1995, the world, whether it likes what it hears or not, knows that it is listening to its moral leader. Two days later, the irrepressible pontiff does a credible imitation of Jack Benny during Mass in Central Park and the preternaturally cynical New York media loves it…

Man of the Century?

As I say, the story, as fiction, is simply too much. But it is not fiction. All of this really happened. But what does it mean? What is the truth about the human condition, the Church, the modern world, disclosed by this extraordinary personal epic?

It is difficult to imagine a twentieth-century life more fraught with dramatic tension than that of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. Jonathan Kwitny, in a new biography, dubs the Pope “the man of the century” — and Kwitny is right about this, if wrong about many, many other things. But to grasp the kernel of Wojtyla’s life and papal project (the two are intimately related), it has to be understood that John Paul II as “man of the century” is not a matter of Catholic special pleading. John Paul II is not the man of the Catholic twentieth century; he is the man of the century, period.

To be sure, this has been one of the most ecclesiastically consequential pontificates in centuries; it may well be the most important for the Church’s internal life since the Reformation. But if John Paul II is the man of the century, then a search for the reason why that is true must take us beyond the trials and triumphs of contemporary Catholicism and deep into the heart of the singular crisis of the twentieth century — a crisis which, John Paul insists, is prologue to the twenty-first century and the new millennium. To think about John Paul II as the man of the century is not, therefore, to look backwards. It is precisely to look ahead.

The Crisis

When this journal was founded fifteen years ago, those of us present at the creation were primarily focused on a discrete set of problems at the intersection of Catholicism and public life: thus the original title, Catholicism-in-Crisis, which recalled the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and his colleagues in the 1930s, confronted by the threat of a rising totalitarian tide. Some may wonder why a title that starkly proclaims a “crisis” has been retained, given the defeat of the threat to which we were responding fifteen years ago. But the “crisis” in our original title was not simply the threat posed by Soviet power. It was the crisis of modernity, of which Soviet power was one threatening expression.

Given its dominical mandate to be light and salt in the world, the Church had to engage that crisis. But how was the Church to grapple with the crisis of modernity? Radical confrontation had been tried; one result was the secularization of the European mind. Accommodation had its obvious dangers; could the Church dialogue with some of the solvents of modernity without deconstructing its own evangelical message? In brief: was a Church that had proclaimed its solidarity with the “joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men of this age” — in a solemn statement about its relationship to “the modern world” — capable of fulfilling that commitment?

As it happens, the crisis of modernity and the crafting of an evangelical Catholic response to that crisis have been precisely the questions that have shaped the life, intellectual project, priesthood, episcopate, and papacy of Karol Wojtyla. One way to parse his distinctively twentieth-century life is to think of it as an ongoing Catholic engagement — intellectually and pastorally — with the two great crises of modernity: the crisis of truth and the crisis of freedom.

Ideas and Consequences

Over some sixty years, Wojtyla’s personal experience has amply confirmed Richard Weaver’s famous aphorism that “ideas have consequences.” For the young worker who risked summary arrest and execution by the Gestapo for the crime of reciting his country’s poetry, as for the bishop who defended his priests from communist thuggery, ideas most certainly have real-world, life-and-death consequences. But being of a naturally philosophical cast of mind, Wojtyla began to ask questions about the bloody crossroads between ideas and realities while still a clandestine seminarian.

Why did a century that began with an assertive confidence in humanity’s new “maturity” — a century which was supposed to overcome ancient superstitions and prejudices under the benign tutelage of the scientific revolution — become the most sanguinary in human history? Why the mountain of corpses and the oceans of blood? Why were the first public fruits of humanity’s new “maturity” Marxism-Leninism, fascism, and National Socialism? What went wrong? How could the damage be repaired?

Conventional wisdom looks to high politics and economics as the engines of history: Marxism-Leninism, fascism, and National Socialism were the results of the unification of Germany, the industrial revolution, World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, etc., etc. Wojtyla — who learned from his father that Poland, the nation, had survived through its language, its literature, and its religious convictions when Poland, the state, was abolished — became convinced that history runs in more deeply-graven channels. Thus he began to look to culture, to the structure of ideas and morals that undergirds a society or a civilization, to discern the sources of history’s ebb and flow.

We cannot understand the crisis of the twentieth century, Wojtyla came to believe, if we think of it in merely material terms: as a clash of political and economic systems. In a deeper and longer perspective, the crisis of the twentieth century is a crisis in the order of ideas. Since Rene Descartes’s famous “turn to the subject, Western intellectual life had become ensnared in a prison of solipsism: in what one of Wojtyla’s Lublin colleagues, Wojciech Chudy, once called the “trap of reflection.” The ever-more-intense preoccupation with how we know things led, over time, to a profound skepticism that we could know anything at all with certainty (except, perhaps, the processes by which we knew that we knew nothing with certainty). The “turn to the subject,” conceived in rationalistic terms, became subjectivism, which led to a systematic, principled skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of things.

This philosophical entrapment had real-world consequences. If “truth” was a human construct with no tether to reality itself, and if the truth of history revealed itself in dominance and power (the contributions of Hegel and Nietzsche to this particular witches’ brew), then there was a certain grim logic to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Polish people as untermenschen. To challenge this was necessarily to challenge the ideas which made plausible the perverse claims of Aryan racial superiority and the concept of history they advanced.

The real-existing communism with which Wojtyla contended as priest and bishop was yet another structure of lies, built on a foundation of radical skepticism about the possibility of humans grasping the truth of things. A typical joke of 1970s Poland captured the essence of the problem: Communist boss — “How much is 2+2?” Polish worker — “How much would you like it to be?” Thus it was no accident that one of the most memorable posters produced by the artists of Solidarity, the movement of social reform and nonviolent political revolution that John Paul II inspired, had it that “For Poland to be Poland, 2+2 must always = 4.”

The crisis of truth went hand-in-glove with the crisis of freedom. Was freedom a matter of indifferent choice between essentially equal opposites — the “freedom of indifference” that Servais Pinckaers has described as a bitter fruit of nominalism? Or was freedom the human capacity to seek the good and the true in order to achieve happiness? Was freedom a neutral faculty? Or was freedom necessarily ordered to the truth?

Here, again, were ideas with serious consequences. For if freedom is not ordered to a publicly-knowable truth — if my truth is as good as your truth and neither one of us recognizes a principle by which we can adjudicate whose truth is truer (so to speak) — then all social relationships dissolve into relationships of power, understood in its basest form as my capacity to enforce my will against yours. Nazism and Marxism-Leninism were undisguised, unapologetic totalitarianisms; the freedom of indifference, Wojtyla came to understand, opened the possibility of what he would describe as pope as “thinly-disguised totalitarianism.”

Wojtyla’s thinking about freedom was deeply influenced by his experience as a confessor and spiritual director. The freedom of indifference not only made it impossible to build a free society which recognized the dignity of the human person; it also drained personal life of its inherent drama. According to numerous of his former penitents, Father Karol Wojtyla, confessor, never said, “You must do this.” He would, rather, explore the “dramatic” circumstances of the penitent’s life (in confessions that often ran more than an hour); he would help the penitent identify the dramatic tension in which he or she lived; priest and penitent explored together the possible responses to that tension and the Christian principles that should guide reflection on the options — and then Wojtyla would say, “You must choose.”

The Heart of the Matter

Precisely because they were the vanguard of resistance to Nazism and communism, Western democracies may have imagined themselves immune to this twin crisis of modernity: freedom, after all, had been their rallying-cry against totalitarianism. But as early as 1991, John Paul II began to suggest that the developed democracies were also in crisis. Thus he argued, in his U.N. address in October 1995, that freedom, one of the “great dynamics of human history,” cannot be indifferent to truth. For a modernity that cannot give a persuasive account of the meaning of its highest value — freedom — is a modernity incapable of securing freedom’s future. No one is going to pledge life, fortune, or sacred honor to the defense of indifference.

As for the crisis of truth: well, one need look no farther than three decades of debate over the sexual revolution to understand that the democracies are deeply divided between those who think that moral truth emerges from reality (“The human body has a language; you should respect its grammar and syntax.”) and those who believe that truth is a human construct (“I will do what I please; what I please is what pleases me; none of this is anyone else’s concern.”)

Viewed from this angle, John Paul II’s teaching since the Revolution of 1989 has been a multifaceted response to the twin crises of truth and freedom as experienced in free societies on the edge of a new century and a new millennium — crises to which the Second Vatican Council was, to Wojtyla’s mind, the Providentially-inspired answer.

The Council’s product can be faithfully “read” a number of ways. Rocco Buttiglione persuasively argues in The Thought of Karol Wojtyla that Wojtyla has long believed that the Council as a whole is best read through the prism of Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom. Here is where the Church confronted head-on the crises of truth and freedom, the claim that any genuine freedom must be uncoupled from a normative concept of truth. The Council ringingly affirmed that the human person, precisely in his personhood, has a right to religious freedom. But the Council also taught that the right of religious freedom is ours so that we may freely meet our obligation to seek the truth — including the ultimate Truth, which is God in His self-revelation. Human nature, Wojtyla has argued philosophically, is directed toward the good; and the person who seeks the good wants to direct himself to something that is, objectively, good. The internal dynamic of our freedom, its impulse toward goodness, impels us to take seriously the question of what is, in reality, good — which is also what is true.

Thus in Wojtyla’s holistic view of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, forms a kind of triptych with the Council’s two great dogmatic constitutions: Lumen Gentium (on the Church) and Dei Verbum (on divine revelation). Gaudium et Spes explores the ways in which the Church (analyzed in her essence and functions in Lumen Gentium according to the theory of revelation as divine self-gift adumbrated in Dei Verbum) proposes to the world how it might achieve its aspiration to freedom, and thence to justice, peace, and prosperity. But the bottom line of the entire exercise is Dignitatis Humanae, which embodies the Council’s great philosophical creativity. For it is in Dignitatis Humanae, Wojtyla argued, that the Church showed the way out of the subjectivistic/relativistic “trap of reflection,” demonstrating how a free human act (man’s interior dialogue of conscience) is necessarily ordered to truth. Twentieth-century philosophy has insisted that we can’t get to the truth of things — to metaphysics — because the cosmologies on which classic metaphysics were built have been debunked by Newton and Einstein. But there is another, more secure path to truth, Wojtyla and Vatican II claim. We can get to metaphysics through anthropology: we can get to the truth of reality through the truth about the human person — free, active, creative, intelligent.

Put more evangelically: the bedrock conviction on which Karol Wojtyla’s life has been built is the conviction that the Christian story is true, and in that truth is disclosed the telos, the goal, of human freedom. The Christian story is not simply one among many possible accounts of the Way Things Are. Rather, Wojtyla has long been convinced — and his pontificate is a series of variations on this one great theme — that the story of the Church is the story of the world, rightly understood. Thus the Church’s task is not to condemn modernity. The Church’s task in the modern world is to propose, to persuade, to convince modernity that, in Christ and the Church, is to be found the true “narrative” of the human condition, including the human quest for freedom. Sometimes that will require speaking the truth to power, forcefully. But it is all in the service of persuasion and, ultimately, conversion.

Sign of Contradiction

If the life and pontificate of Karol Wojtyla are in fact a monumental effort to help give freedom — modernity’s great aspiration — a more secure foundation, why has this Pope been so controversial?

When all the complaints (many legitimate) about a biased media have been heard, and after one takes due account of the internal struggles in post-conciliar Catholicism, a fact of life remains: John Paul II has been controversial precisely because he is a sign of contradiction. His aim is the conversion, not the demolition, of modernity. But to some minds, an invitation to conversion is indistinguishable from a mortal assault.

Those committed to the pleasure principle, to a world in which human willfulness is the highest measure of freedom, will not take kindly to the Pope’s insistence that suffering and obligation are at the core of Christianity, and that true freedom is achieved precisely through self-giving.

Those who insist that we are incapable of knowing the truth will not take kindly to Wojtyla’s conviction that truth is real, that truth is apprehensible, and that truth (although apprehended through a marvelous array of particularities) is universal.

Those who contend that human beings are infinitely plastic and that, because of that, morality is something we construct will rightly perceive a challenge in the Pope’s calm insistence that there is a universal human nature, from which we can “read” universal moral norms and obligations.

All of which is to say that, for those who think that “What for?” is the ultimate question, John Paul II is inevitably going to be a sign of contradiction. For Karol Wojtyla has long been convinced that utilitarianism, with its reduction of the human “other” to a manipulable object, is as dangerous a threat to human dignity and to human freedom as Marxism-Leninism or Nazism.

The Witness

John Paul II’s critics say he is living in another century. They are, in fact, right. What they have wrong is the date: the 21st century, not the 19th, the 18th, or the 17th, is where Karol Wojtyla’s imagination has lived for some time.

At the end of what he once termed a century of tears, he now proposes the possibility of a “new springtime of the human spirit.” This is not, it must be emphasized, optimism. Optimism is for opticians: optimism, like pessimism, is a question of how one looks at things. And that can change, with a mere turn of the head.

At the U.N. in 1995, John Paul II assayed a self-definition and a ground for his vision of human possibility in sturdier terms: “I come before you as a witness: a witness to human dignity, a witness to hope, a witness to the conviction that the destiny of all…lies in the hands of a merciful Providence.” Karol Wojtyla, whose personal story is beyond the imagining of novelists, has long believed what he said as pope at Fatima on 13 May 1982, the first anniversary of Mehmet Ali Agca’s attempt on his life: “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.”

“No coincidences.” Is this, perhaps, the hardest of hard sayings for the modernity whose most cherished good — freedom — John Paul II has tried to serve? If Nietzsche’s will-to-power is one specter haunting the twentieth century, then Wojtyla’s insistence that, in the final analysis, we are not in charge — of history, or of the disposition of ourselves — is yet another inescapable sign of contradiction. But it is a sign of contradiction that contains within itself the “key” (a favorite Wojtyla word) to resolving modernity’s twin crises.

Freedom will inevitably decompose into license, license into anarchy, and anarchy into an imposed authoritarianism, absent the moral disciplines summoned forth by a culture which celebrates life as a gift — a culture in which the giving of self, rather than the aggrandizement of self, is the noblest aspiration. This “law of the gift” is built into the human condition, the philosopher Wojtyla has long argued; it can be demonstrated by a disciplined reflection on the nature of human action, or human moral agency; and, as such, it can form the basis of conviction on which free and pluralistic societies ordered to goodness and human flourishing can be built. That, Wojtyla insists, is what the Via Dolorosa of late modernity has taught us. And that is why the twenty-first century can be a springtime of the human spirit.

For Wojtyla the Christian believer, of course, the liberating character of the law of the gift is confirmed in the great drama of salvation: in the self-abnegation of the Incarnate Son of God, whose self-offering to the Father is vindicated in the Resurrection, in which all of creation is reconfigured to the glory God intended for it “in the beginning.” The Church, born in blood and water from the pierced side of the crucified Christ, is thus the bearer of a compelling proof about the law of the gift. But that is what makes the Church the servant of the world: the Church’s story is a preview of the world’s story, told in truth.

That is what Karol Wojtyla has been preaching for more than fifty years. And that is why he is not simply the man of this century, but the prophet of the new millennium.

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.

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