That no good deed goes unpunished is nicely illustrated by the terms in which several biographers have recognized Pope John Paul II as a seminal figure in the Revolution of 1989.
Thus Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, in their 1996 book, His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time, argue that, yes, the Pope played a large role in the collapse of European communism–as coconspirator with the Reagan Administration in a “holy alliance” that wedded the diplomacy of the Holy See to the anti-Communist passions of conservative Republicans and the wiles of the CIA. Jonathan Kwitny agrees with the basic proposition that “1989” cannot be understood without taking account of the Polish pontiff, but his 1997 biography, Man of the Century, inverts the Bernstein/Politi proposition by arguing that the Pope, a nonviolent revolutionary on the model of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., pulled the whole thing off against the machinations of the Reaganites and the CIA.
What these and similar journalistic accounts tend to discount, unfortunately, is the Pope’s own reading of “the history of our time,” whose locus classicus is the 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus. There, John Paul argued that “1989” could not be understood through the conventional analytic categories of Realpolitik. Rather, “1989” was made possible by a prior moral and cultural revolution, which created the conditions for the possibility of the nonviolent political upheaval that swept Marxism-Leninism into the dustbin of European history. The Pope was hardly unaware of the political, military, and economic factors that contributed to the breach of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. But, he suggested, if we want to grasp why “1989” happened when it did and how it did, a deeper reading of the dynamics of history and a more acute analysis of the twentieth-century crisis of European civilization are required. Against the Realist school of historiography and international relations theory, in both its left- and right-wing forms, John Paul argued for the priority of culture over politics and economics as the engine of historical change; and at the heart of culture, he proposed, is cult, or religion.
In the years after Centesimus Annus, John Paul II has insisted that what was true of the epic changes we call “1989” is also true for the consolidation of free societies in Central and Eastern Europe, and for the well-being of the established democracies of the West. Democratic polities and free economies, he argues, are not independent variables; absent the habits of mind and heart that make people democrats and that channel their economic energies to good ends, the free society risks becoming a “thinly-disguised totalitarianism” (as he put it in the most controversial section of Centesimus Annus). The tendency, even among some celebrants of the Pope’s role in “1989,” has been to dismiss this as so much pontifical rodomontade; and the tone-deaf Western media have generally agreed that these are the cranky protestations of an angry old man incapable of understanding the world he helped create (see, for example, Tad Szulc in his 1995 effort, Pope John Paul II: The Biography).
But two papal pilgrimages in mid-1997—to Poland in June, and to the 12th World Youth Day in Paris in August—provided ample evidence that John Paul II’s reading of contemporary history has not lost its salience, nor has it been blunted in its capacity to generate historical change. Moreover, the Pope’s reorientation of Catholic evangelism and social doctrine toward the conversion of culture has given him a distinctive understanding of the requirements of freedom in the third millennium—which he insists, against the backdrop of this fast-closing century of unprecedented wickedness, can be a “springtime of the human spirit.”
The Pope’s June 1997 journey through his Polish homeland took place under two shadows. The first was the memory of his 1991 Polish pilgrimage, the first after the Communist crack-up, which was widely (and accurately) regarded as the least successful of his visits to his native country. In retrospect, it is possible to see just how difficult the situation was in those heady days. Poles were still intoxicated with their new freedom and wanted to celebrate it with the man to whom they gave credit for their deliverance; but the prescient Pope, who had quickly decoded the new threats to freedom implicit in the value-neutral notion of democracy being exported to east central Europe from the West, wanted to talk about the dangers he saw ahead. The Polish hierarchy had not found an appropriate voice to make its presence felt in the new circumstances of democratic pluralism, particularly on the heated issue of abortion; neither had Catholic politicians who wanted to think with the Church, but who resented being instructed in their duties by bishops who seemed unable to distinguish their episcopal role from that of party bosses. The net result was a tense visit, full of controversies, in which the fervor and the sense of national unity demonstrated in the Pope’s 1979, 1983, and 1987 pilgrimages was often absent. This unhappy memory hung heavily over anticipations of the Pope’s June 1997 return home.
The second shadow was Poland’s recent political history. In September 1993 a coalition led by ex-Communists won the national parliamentary elections and took power in the Sejm. Two years later, on November 19, 1995, Alexander Kwasniewski, the youthful (and, some might say, Clintonesque) founder of the Democratic Left Alliance, defeated Lech Walesa for the presidency of Poland. Walesa’s erratic behavior in the years since 1989 made his dismissal by the electorate understandable; but the fact that it was understandable made it no less disconcerting. The icon of the Solidarity revolution had been displaced by a former Communist party apparatchik: what had happened to the brave dreams on which “1989” had been built? Is this what happened in a “normal society”?
The combination of these two factors, and concerns about John Paul’s health, made for considerable nervousness prior to the Pope’s arrival. Would a pilgrimage that might turn out to be the Pope’s farewell fail?
In the event, the pilgrimage was a triumph; as one exuberant Polish Dominican put it, “He’s done it again; it’s like 1979.” But what, precisely, had he done?
The eleven days between John Paul’s arrival on May 31 and his departure on June 10 were, to be sure, full of emotion and drama. The Pope struck a sympathetic chord and immediately re-connected with his countrymen when he said, at the arrival ceremony in Wroclaw, that he had come to them “as a pilgrim . . . filled with profound emotion,” because “every return to Poland is like a return to the family home, where the smallest objects remind us of what is closest and dearest to our hearts.” Three days later, at Gorzow Wielkopolski, John Paul reminded an immense throng that the late primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, had told him just after he had been elected pope that “You are to lead the Church into its Third Millennium,” and requested that they “ask God on your knees . . . that I am able to meet this challenge.” (The crowd chanted back, “We will help you!”—a phrase that conjured up memories of strikers in 1970 responding to the pleas of the new Communist prime minister, Gierek; the Pope answered the chant with a moment of papal whimsy: “I recognize the words but I hope it will be better this time.”)
Then there was Mass at Zakopane, the ski resort in the Pope’s beloved Tatra Mountains. The mayor, in traditional Polish highlander dress, knelt before John Paul on June 6 to thank him for “freeing us from the ‘red slavery’ and for teaching us how to eradicate from our Polish homeland all that is degrading, humiliating, and all that enslaves us.” After Mass, when the tough, craggy Polish mountain people began to sing to John Paul an old folk song about a highlander going into exile (“Mountaineer, why do you leave your beautiful hills and silvery brooks?”), one would have been hard-put to find a dry eye among the half-million present, including the Pope.
For eleven days, John Paul (who seemed to get stronger as the visit unfolded) worked the crowds masterfully. When hundreds of thousands of youngsters in Poznan began to chant Sto lat! (“May you live a hundred years!”), he was quick to reply, “Don’t flatter the Pope so much; you’d better think about Paris [the upcoming World Youth Day].” And, more poignantly, when an enormous congregation at the shrine of Czestochowa, home of the Black Madonna, began to chant, “Long live the Pope,” John Paul wryly responded, “He does, he does, and he grows older. . . .”
But the meaning of the Pope’s Polish pilgrimage should not be measured simply by the colossal crowds, with over 1.2 million in Krakow alone on June 8, when the Pope canonized Blessed Queen Jadwiga, co-foundress of the Jagiello dynasty. As in any papal event, what ultimately counts—what historians must finally deal with—are the texts. And the twenty-six major texts of this pilgrimage, taken together, spelled out John Paul’s distinctive vision of the priority of culture over politics and economics and his Vatican II-driven sense of the “public Church” as, essentially, the shaper of culture.
The June pilgrimage was deliberately filled with images of Poland’s Christian past: a pan-Central European celebration of the millennium of the martyrdom of St. Adalbert, held in Gniezno; the canonization of Jadwiga; the commemoration in Krakow of the 600th anniversary of the Jagiellonian University’s theology department. But this constant evocation of the past was not an exercise in pious nostalgia; rather, it was anamnesis in the service of the present and the future. As the Pope put it at the departure ceremony on June 10, “Fidelity to roots does not mean a mechanical copying of the patterns of the past. Fidelity to roots is always creative, ready to descend into the depths, open to new challenges, alert to the ‘signs of the times.’ . . . Fidelity to roots means above all the ability to create an organic synthesis of perennial values, confirmed so often in history, and the challenge of today’s world: faith and culture, the Gospel and life.” And that, he said, was why he had wanted to celebrate the canonizations of Jadwiga and John of Dukla, as well as two beatifications, during his pilgrimage: because “the Church’s saints are a particular revelation of the loftiest horizons of human freedom.”
The canonization of Jadwiga afforded perhaps the greatest temptation to forget present and future in a binge about Poland’s glorious past. But the Pope stoutly resisted this, and his canonization sermon focused on the fourteenth-century queen as a model for Poland today and tomorrow: Jadwiga the queen, for whom power was a question of public service; Jadwiga the diplomat, working to build a community of nations in east central Europe; Jadwiga the patroness of culture, “aware that faith seeks rational understanding,” who endowed the university that bears her dynastic name with a gift of her golden scepter; Jadwiga, born to wealth and privilege, whose “sensitivity to social wrongs was often praised by her subjects.” The message to Poland’s new democracy could not have been clearer: you are the inheritors of a great cultural tradition, and it is that tradition that will enable you to build a genuinely free society worthy of the half century of sacrifice you made in the name of freedom.
At the commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the Jagiellonian University faculty of theology, held in the collegiate church of St. Anne later that same day, John Paul sent another signal about the Church’s relationship to politics. As it happens, Karol Wojtyla was the last student to receive a doctorate from the Jagiellonian University theology faculty before it was shut down by the Communist regime in early 1954; and the struggle to sustain serious theological scholarship in Krakow had been one of the hallmarks of his time as cardinal-archbishop of the city. So it might have been expected that the Pope would take the occasion of this anniversary celebration to say something about Poland’s upcoming parliamentary elections, in which the heirs of the suppressors of the Jagiellonian faculty of theology were contestants. John Paul minced no words about “the dramatic struggle for existence” that that faculty had gone through “at the time of the Communist dictatorship.” And he reminded the congregation (composed of Poland’s leading intellectuals and educators, many of them his old friends) that the Church had “never resigned herself to the fact of a unilateral and unjust suppression” of the theology faculty by the Communist regime.
But this was not, he said, a matter of the Church’s offended amour propre. Rather, in terms reminiscent of Newman’s Idea of a University, he insisted that the defense of the theological faculty was a defense of the integrity of the intellectual life, a defense of culture, and a defense of the nation. The Church was not protesting the abuse of an ancient ecclesiastical privilege; by fighting for theology’s place in the academy, the Church “did everything in her power to ensure that the university environment of Krakow was not deprived of an academic studium of theology” that had made its own “contribution to the development of Polish learning and culture.” And a culture cut off from transcendent reference points could not serve the human good, because it could not know the truth about man.
Indeed, the Pope’s richly textured address at St. Anne’s, in which the politics of the present moment was not mentioned once, seemed to be saying to all concerned (within and without the Church), that while politics was undoubtedly important, the nurturance of culture, especially in the life of the mind, was far more important. You think that parliamentary elections will decide Poland’s future? No, the Pope suggested, Poland’s future really depends on “a lively awareness” that “man does not create truth; rather, truth discloses itself to man when he perseveringly seeks it.” That is what universities are supposed to do. That is why universities are, over time, of far more consequence to a nation than parliaments. And that is why the Church, embodied in her supreme pontiff, is reflecting with you on the meaning of true humanism, that “integral notion of the human person” that is a “condition for the sound development” of the intellectual life, rather than telling you for whom to vote.
Five days before, at Gniezno, John Paul had delivered a similar message about the free society’s dependence on a vibrant public moral culture to the presidents of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Germany: all new (or newly reunified) democracies. Politics was not just a matter of winning elections, he reminded them, nor was the success of economic reform to be measured solely by the indices of gross national product. Rather, “the greatness of the role of political leaders is to act always with respect for the dignity of every human being, to create the conditions of a generous solidarity which never marginalizes any citizen, to permit each individual to have access to culture, to recognize and put into practice the loftiest human and spiritual values, to profess and to share one’s religious beliefs.” The Realpolitik of amoral power had given Europe “this sorely tried century.” The birth of a new Europe capable of responding “to its age-old vocation in the world” depended on a European rediscovery of the continent’s ancient “cultural and religious roots.”
Prior to the Pope’s arrival, the scent of a valedictory was in the air. Eleven dramatic and intellectually challenging days later, speculation had already begun about a papal visit in 1998, this time to the Baltic region (where Solidarity was born) and to the Mazurian Lakes where Father Karol Wojtyla loved to kayak. It may not have been “1979 again,” as my enthusiastic Polish friend suggested. But John Paul’s politics of culture (combined with terminal ex- Communist incompetence in the face of catastrophic floods in Poland in July) had their effect: in September, the voters threw out the ex-Communists and elected a new parliament led by a reconfigured Solidarity coalition.
That parliament is now the steward of Europe’s fastest growing economy and east central Europe’s most stable polity. And so the great Polish experiment will continue: can democratic pluralism and a free economy be built and sustained on the basis of an intact Catholic culture? That John Paul II gave Poles and Polish culture a living past rather than a nostalgic past during his June 1997 pilgrimage bodes well for a positive answer to that historic question.
The evangelical potency of the Pope’s “culture first” approach to the “Church in the modern world” was also on display in Paris during the 12th World Youth Day in August 1997.
On his first pastoral visit to France in the spring of 1980, John Paul II, whose affection for the Gallic “Eldest Daughter of the Church” and her culture dates back to his student days, shocked a congregation of 350,000 at LeBourget Airport by bluntly asking, “France . . . are you faithful to the promises of your baptism? France, Daughter of the Church and educator of peoples, are you faithful, for the good of man, to the covenant with eternal wisdom?” Seven months later, the Pope acted on his judgment that the revitalization of French Catholicism was an urgent pastoral need by making what has been, arguably, the boldest episcopal nomination of his pontificate: the appointment of Jean-Marie Lustiger, son of Polish-Jewish parents, as archbishop of Paris.
Lustiger, who converted to Catholicism as a teenager, had been an innovative student chaplain at the Sorbonne and a Parisian pastor before being named Bishop of Orléans, where he spent a mere thirteen months before his translation to Paris. During his years as chaplain and pastor, Lustiger and a group of young lay intellectuals developed a distinctive analysis of the historical and cultural situation of the French Church. Prior to the French Revolution, the Church in France had been a “Church of power,” allied to the political order and in some sense dependent on it. Then came 1789 and the subsequent Terror, during which French Catholicism took the first and (until the twentieth century) hottest blast from secular modernity. Reeling from that massive and bloody assault, the Church divided. A restorationist faction sought the return of the ancient régime—at first tout court; later, when the monarchist option became politically untenable, culturally. This faction produced, over time, the extremism of Action Française, Petainism during World War II, and, ultimately, Lefebvrism in the post-Vatican II period. The counter-faction sought an accommodation with secularity and the political left, and eventually gave birth to the bizarre phenomenon of “Christian Marxism.” The bitter contestation between these two factions had divided French Catholics for over 150 years and had drained the Church of its evangelical vigor.
The creativity of the Lustiger group’s analysis lay in its claim that these two factions, far from being the polar opposites they claimed themselves to be, were in fact two variants on the same false option: the determination to be a “Church of power.” The two factions differed, of course, on what form of political power was preferable as a partner for the Church. But both agreed (although they could never admit it to each other) that to be the Church in France must mean to be a “Church of power.”
Lustiger and his friends disagreed. It was the marriage with power, they believed, that had made the Church so vulnerable to the assault of secular modernity. Nor was there any way to mediate between the claims of the accommodationist and restorationist factions: the restorationists regarded Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, as heresy (for declaring the state theologically incompetent), while the accommodationists had mistaken the Council’s opening to the modern world (in Gaudium et Spes) as an invitation to cohabit with Marxism and, later, postmodernist deconstruction, both of which led in short order to the dissolution of Christian orthodoxy.
In these circumstances, the Lustiger group proposed, the only option was the evangelical option: to abandon the pretense of power, to eschew alliances with any political force, and to bring France back to her baptismal promises, not through the mediation of politics but through the reconversion of culture. And this, in turn, meant taking the evangelical proposition straight to the molders and shapers of culture: the by-now thoroughly secularized French intelligentsia. After his accession to Paris, Lustiger began implementing this pastoral strategy of reevangelization “from the head down” in a dynamic fashion: in a slew of best-selling books, many of them addressing the possibility of faith amidst modernity; by refounding a seminary (and thus personally encouraging a more evangelically assertive Parisian presbyterate); and through a direct, personal, weekly outreach to students and the professoriate in a Sunday evening Mass and homily at his cathedral of Notre-Dame.
World Youth Day 1997 fit well into this strategy of reconversion through culture. World Youth Day would not simply happen in Paris. In the strategic vision of Cardinal Lustiger and his associates, shared by John Paul II, World Youth Day would be an integral part, perhaps even a turning point, in the reconversion of France through the evangelization of culture. Thus the Pope’s contacts with the French authorities were kept to the minimum required by protocol and good manners; there was a brief welcoming meeting with President Chirac and a brief predeparture meeting with Prime Minister Jospin. But whenever John Paul appeared in public in Paris it was in an explicitly ecclesial context: his was not a “Church of power,” but a Church of the Gospel whose witness to Christ compelled a defense of the rights of man.
The rhythm of the 12th World Youth Day was deliberately set by a model of pilgrimage that Lustiger had first encountered in his days as chaplain at the Sorbonne. There, Monsignor Maxim Charles, later the rector of Sacré Coeur, was reviving the French tradition of student pilgrimages with a group of young intellectuals who would later become close friends of Father Lustiger and, later, his informal advisors as archbishop. These pilgrimages, first to Notre-Dame, later to Chartres, were inspired by the theology of Louis Bouyer and his teaching that every significant Christian event should, in some fashion, recapitulate the Paschal Triduum, the core of Christian experience. Thus on every student pilgrimage, no matter at what time of the year, the retreatants would “relive” Holy Week, from Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil.
The Bouyer-Charles paschal template was adapted to World Youth Day 1997 to great effect. Thus the first official day of the youth festival (which happened to be a Tuesday) “was” Palm Sunday: the Holy Year cross, given by John Paul II to the participants in the first World Youth Day in 1985, was solemnly carried in procession by a dozen youngsters from around the world, through a crowd of perhaps 500,000 young people stretched from the Eiffel Tower along the Champ de Mars to the front lawn of the Ecole Militaire, where a great platform had been built for the opening Mass. Thursday, when John Paul II arrived in Paris and first met the young people, was “Holy Thursday”; the Gospel read during the welcoming ceremony was John 13:1-15, the washing of the disciples’ feet, which the Pope explicated to the youngsters in a text read in their language-based catechetical groups the next day. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults relived Good Friday by making the Way of the Cross at dozens of venues all over Paris. On Saturday night, a candlelight baptismal vigil was celebrated by a congregation of 750,000 at the Longchamp racecourse, as the Pope baptized twelve young catechumens from every continent. And then, after this re-creation of the Easter Vigil, came the closing Eucharist on Sunday morning, which turned out to be the largest attendance at one Mass in French history, with more than a million gathering at Longchamp.
The massive turnout far exceeded the expectations of the event’s planners, who, as things got underway, were anticipating perhaps 250,000 youngsters all week, and a crowd of 500,000 for the closing Mass. At least twice that number of young people turned out, and the outpouring of interest from French teenagers stunned the Paris press, which spent the better part of the week editorially wondering what on earth was going on. One also had the sense that it stunned those French bishops who, having internalized a sense of their own marginality, were unsympathetic to Lustiger’s pastoral strategy and its forthrightly evangelical approach to the keepers of the French cultural flame.
When John Paul II visited Reims in September 1996, similar skepticism about public interest was expressed but another massive turnout ensued. Then, the focus was on the Christian roots of the French nation, the occasion being the 1,500th anniversary of the baptism of Clovis. At World Youth Day, the two “icons” proposed for reflection were drawn from the modern history of French Catholicism: St. Thèrése of Lisieux, and Frederic Ozanam, founder of the worldwide St. Vincent de Paul societies, whom the Pope beatified at Notre-Dame on August 22. This choice of patrons for the papal pilgrimage to Paris was not accidental. Both were young Catholics (Thèrése died at twenty-four, Ozanam at forty). Thèrése, perhaps the most popular of modern saints, was a contemplative, a woman who made original contributions to theology. Ozanam was an intellectual in an age of radical skepticism, a democrat detached from the ancien régime fantasies of many of his coreligionists, a servant of the poor, a devoted husband and father, and an original thinker whose writings on the just society prefigured and influenced the birth of modern Catholic social doctrine in Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. The message being sent through this iconography was unmistakable: sanctity is possible in modernity; youthful enthusiasm can be drawn to Christ; Catholic faith can nurture a free society (liberty), human dignity (equality), and human solidarity (fraternity).
Cardinal Lustiger drove this point home on French national television the night World Youth Day concluded. Asked by a middle-aged interviewer how he explained such an extraordinary response to World Youth Day, the cardinal suggested that it was a question of generations. The reporter belonged to a generation that had grown up in the Church, had lost its faith (circa 1968), and had been fighting its parents, so to speak, ever since. These young people, the cardinal said, grew up empty; they have found Jesus Christ; they want to explore all that that means. Do not, he concluded, read their lives through your experience. They do not think that being Christian and being engaged, intelligent, compassionate, dedicated people are antinomies.
Or, as the Pope put it to the young in his closing homily at Longchamp: “Go forth now along the roads of the world, along the pathways of humanity, while remaining ever united in Christ’s Church. Continue to contemplate God’s glory and God’s love, and you will receive the enlightenment needed to build the civilization of love, to help our brothers and sisters to see the world transfigured by God’s eternal wisdom and love.” In the capital of a particularly skeptical and anticlerical Enlightenment, a new enlightenment of culture, leading to a new concept of the free society, was being proposed. The response suggested that World Youth Day 1997 may one day be remembered as a turning point in the modern history of France.
Professor Stefan Swiezawski, the distinguished Polish historian of philosophy who was instrumental in bringing young Father Karol Wojtyla to the faculty of the Catholic University of Lublin, once said that the post-Conciliar Church was “living in a new epoch.” “Vatican II was not just one Council; it marked the end of the Constantinian epoch, thank God. Now the Church has no army, no state. It is a quite different situation.” Working out the implications of this post-Constantinian ecclesiology with an eye toward the third millennium of Christian history has been one of the principal leitmotifs of the pontificate of John Paul II, who played such an important role in drafting Gaudium et Spes, the Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.
In some respects, of course, the Church will always be engaged with “power,” as the world defines power. Vatican diplomacy continues; the Holy See exchanges diplomatic representatives with 166 states and is an active participant in international legal and political institutions. What the pontificate of John Paul II has done, in fulfillment of the promise of Vatican II and its seminal Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), is to locate this inevitable engagement with the principalities and powers in an explicitly evangelical context. The Church’s defense of human rights (and especially the first human right of religious freedom), like its groping toward an ethic of “humanitarian intervention” in the post-Cold War world, its efforts to mediate ethnic and nationalist conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere, and its proposals for securing the moral foundations of the free society, cannot be understood merely as the Church’s dealings with the “real world.” In the ecclesiology and social doctrine of John Paul II, the witness of the “public Church” is an expression of the Church’s essential task, which is the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—a Gospel with many things to say about the nature of man, of human community, and of human destiny.
The “real world” is the human universe that has been redeemed and transformed by the atoning death of the Son of God. The Church is not “here” and the “real world” there; the story of the Church is the world’s story, rightly understood. This belief is what grounds the public ministry of John Paul II and directs his attention, as teacher and witness, to the realm of culture: that dimension of the human universe in which the self-understanding of individuals and peoples is formed and is transmitted to new generations. Because the Church is first and foremost evangelical, the Church must, in this post-Constantinian epoch, be the evangelizer of cultures.
This steady insistence on the priority of culture is difficult to grasp for those who read John Paul II as another great figure on a world-historical stage whose dramatic action is defined by politics. He has been that, of course. But he is that precisely because, not in spite, of the fact that he is a Christian, a priest, and a bishop who insists that politics is not all there is. Thus there are not two John Pauls: in conventional media terms, the “social progressive” and the “doctrinal conservative.” There is only one John Paul II, as there is only one Karol Wojtyla.
Jonathan Kwitny’s Man of the Century is less woodenheaded in its wrestling with the complex simplicity of the life of Karol Wojtyla than were Tad Szulc and the authorial dyad of Carl Bern stein/Marco Politi. But Kwitny, who deserves full marks for demolishing the Bernstein/Politi “holy alliance” fiction and who avoids the worst of Szulc’s gaucheries about the angry old man fighting vainly against the world he helped create, also tries to force Wojtyla’s life and accomplishment onto the Procrustean bed of his own political preferences: in this instance, the Pope becomes the last great twentieth-century exponent of democratic socialism and pacifism.* The public accomplishment, Kwitny rightly claims, is a large one: Wojtyla was crucial in the destruction of the totalitarian option that caused such immense human suffering throughout the century. But is John Paul II the “man of the century” because of a political achievement?
The crisis of the twentieth century, which gave birth to totalitarianism in its sundry forms, has been in the first instance a crisis of culture: a crisis in the order of ideas and morals. This has been Karol Wojtyla’s conviction since he helped lead a clandestine cultural resistance to the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II. The will to power, the hallmark of the politics of this century, was a direct consequence of the collapse of a publicly available concept of human freedom that was tethered to truth and ordered to an objectively knowable human good. A modernity that could not give a persuasive account of the truth of its highest aspiration—freedom—was a modernity in which freedom necessarily came to be understood as a neutral faculty of choice. And, absent any agreed and publicly accessible standards by which the goodness of various choices could be judged and adjudicated, the reduction of social life to a raw contest for power necessarily ensued. Nietzsche, in other words, was right; and seeing what was coming, he went mad.
If there is a plausibility to John Paul II as the “man of the century,” it is not because he put paid to one of the political epiphenomena of the crisis of late modernity; it is because he has advanced a proposal that cuts to the heart of the modern crisis of truth and freedom. That proposal, which has emerged from the heart of the Church, has been primarily directed toward the realm of culture because it is, first and always, an evangelical proposal: a proposal to consider the possibilities of human freedom in the light of God’s freedom, which led to the Cross. To account for the life of Karol Wojtyla, his stewardship of the office of Peter in the Church, and his impact on the history of our time means taking seriously the Pope’s conviction that reality is cruciform, and that the story of the world is, in the final analysis, the story of the Paschal Mystery.
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.
* Kwitny traces the intellectual origins of this political stance to what he presents as a hitherto-undiscovered book by Karol Wojtyla, Social Ethics, published underground in 1953. The problem is that the “book” isn’t a book, and Wojtyla wasn’t the principal author. Social Ethics, as scholars have known for some time, is the text of Wojtyla’s lectures for a social ethics course in the Krakow seminary. When Wojtyla was assigned to teach this course, he adapted the lecture notes of his predecessor, Father Jan Piwowarczyk. The notes are in fact a rather conventional exposition of Catholic social doctrine (with which Kwitny seems to be unfamiliar) in the period after Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. One of the Pope’s closest associates has confirmed that Father Wojtyla, for whom social ethics had not been a major intellectual interest prior to his assignment to teach the course, used the Piwowarczyk lecture notes with “some elaborations.” But “the material was not his own.”