e-mail us

Winter Books

Weigel puts favorable spin on John Paul’s pontificate


By George Weigel
Cliff Street Books, 992 pages, $30
To order: phone #


Romano Guardini once skewered the modernists -- those progressive Catholics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whose embrace of scientific study of the Bible and other alleged heresies provoked the wrath of Pius X -- as representing “liberalism held in check by dogma.” The idea was that only the vestigial force of church teaching separated the modernists from a radical sell-out to the values of the Enlightenment.

The remark comes to mind reading George Weigel’s massive new biography of John Paul II, though in Weigel’s case it has to be reformulated -- his book reads more like “dogma held in check by patriotism.” The only thing that separates Weigel from radical ultramontanism seems to be the Republican Party platform.

A senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Institute in Washington, Weigel’s politics found their apogee during the Reagan Revolution: Capitalism is the best of all possible economic systems, positive “rights” (such as the U.N.-recognized right to a decent standard of living) do not exist, and America’s use of force around the world is almost always justified. Yet Weigel is also a deep admirer of John Paul and too smart not to know that the pope shares none of these views.

Thus some of the most interesting portions of Witness of Hope come when Weigel struggles to reconcile his Catholicism with his reflexively pro-American stance. The latter usually seems to prevail. Weigel argues, most evidence to the contrary, that John Paul has endorsed capitalism and rejected a “third way” between laissez-faire economics and socialism (he attributes the clear language in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, calling for just such a third way, to curial influence on the pope). Laborem Exercens was a flawed document because it had too many nice things to say about labor unions. One of the most serious miscalculations of this pontificate, according to Weigel, was its decision not to support the Gulf War. John Paul has largely failed, in other words, to fall in line with Weigel and his colleagues on the American Catholic right -- such as Michael Novak and John Neuhaus -- in accommodating Catholic doctrine to the exigencies of U.S. political conservatism.

That, however, is virtually the pope’s only defect. Otherwise Weigel has left little work for the postulator of John Paul’s eventual case for sainthood to do, save collecting evidence of a miracle or two. Witness to Hope is an extended valedictory to “John Paul the Great,” a fact that is both the book’s great strength and its fatal flaw.

Weigel had the benefit of more than 20 hours of interviews with the pope, plus access to virtually every Catholic of note in both the Vatican and in Poland. The book is rich in new detail. The account of the negotiations leading up to the 1992 decision to open formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel, for example, is riveting. Weigel also adds to our understanding of already-familiar figures: He reveals that John Paul had first wanted to make Joseph Ratzinger prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education, and only Ratzinger’s insistence that it was too early for him to leave Munich led to his fateful appointment as the church’s doctrinal czar. Other tidbits abound. We learn, for example, that the first-ever meeting of all the presidents of national bishops’ conferences took place on April 8 and 9, 1991, in Rome. The subject? The need for bishops’ conferences -- which, according to this papacy, have no theological status -- to raise more money for the Vatican.

Most important, Weigel’s determination to tell John Paul’s story from the “inside out” leads him to return, time and again, to the leitmotifs of this pontificate: Christian humanism (especially a deeply personalistic, sacramental understanding of sexuality that belies the pope’s image as a prudish scold); the inner link between freedom and truth, as opposed to Western notions of freedom as the absence of restraint; culture as the driving force in history, more important than transitory economic or political arrangements. Anchored in a careful examination of the pope’s documents, Weigel helps us understand the spiritual and philosophical convictions that drive John Paul forward. This is the great contribution of Witness of Hope as compared to earlier efforts, such as Tad Szulc’s Pope John Paul II and Jonathan Kwitny’s Man of the Century, both of which concentrated more on the pope as a statesman (especially in the context of the Solidarity uprising in Poland).

Weigel’s insistence on telling the story from John Paul’s point of view, however, often means he badly misrepresents the pope’s critics. Leonardo Boff’s analysis of the internal structures of the church is dismissed as “obviously not Catholic theology”; Fr. Hans Küng is a “dissenting theologian” who shrank into irrelevance after having his canonical license revoked; Fr. Charles Curran’s position on sexual ethics created “an absurd situation in which church teaching was either infallibly defined or virtually non-existent.” Given the depth and clarity of Weigel’s analysis of papal teaching, these potshots seem especially tendentious.

Another example makes the point. In discussing 1998’s Dialogue for Austria, an unprecedented national assembly of Austrian Catholics that presented their bishops with a sweeping mandate for change in the church, Weigel writes: “The pope’s concern for the reevangelization of Europe was not prominently featured in the Salzburg discussions or resolutions.” I covered the event and I did not see Weigel in Salzburg, so I’m not sure how he knows the content of the discussions there. I do know his report is false. Delegates at the Dialogue for Austria repeatedly stressed that for John Paul’s new evangelization to work, the church first must get its internal house in order. As long as Europeans -- or anyone else -- perceive the church as an oppressor of women, gays and dissidents, it is unlikely to generate much sympathetic attention. Weigel may disagree with this analysis, but it is borne of a concern for evangelization every bit as genuine as John Paul’s.

Weigel blames the Western press for its relentless focus on a certain canon of issues in covering John Paul: birth control, married priests, women’s ordination, homosexuality. He’s right that reporters too often skip to the sections of the latest papal document that address these issues, ignoring the line of argument that leads there. Yet Weigel seems to suggest that the press invented these concerns, which misses the point: They make the papers because a majority of Catholics around the world care about them. Facile claims that alienated Catholics would not flock to the pope’s public appearances do not change this reality.

Weigel asserts toward the end of Witness of Hope that “public action” has been taken against only six theologians over the 20 years of John Paul’s papacy. Even on the strictest possible definition of both “theologian” and “public action,” this number is inaccurate (think of Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, Küng, Curran, Sr. Ivone Gebara, Boff, Fr. Tissa Balassuriya, Matthew Fox and Fr. Paul Collins, just to name the first eight that come to mind). Moreover, it leaves out of view the bishops who have been disciplined, such as Raymond Hunthausen, Dom Pedro Casaldáliga, and Jacques Gaillot, and also neglects non-theologians such as the late Fr. Anthony de Mello or Eugene Drewermann. The plain truth is that under John Paul, progressive Catholics have been driven into internal exile unless they happen to teach at a non-Catholic university or otherwise enjoy protection from the institution. Though Weigel is correct that some Catholics wish the pope had gone even further, it does not change the fact that John Paul is responsible for one of the three great chills in the church’s intellectual life this century (the anti-modernist drive under Pius X and the crackdown following Humani Generis under Pius XII were the other two).

Like many a biographer, Weigel falls into the trap of overplaying his hand, making exaggerated claims for the importance of his subject -- scarcely necessary in the case of Karol Wojtyla, a towering 20th-century figure by any standard. But Wojtyla was not, prior to his election as pope, recognized by scholarly peers as “an accomplished philosopher”; he was not “one of the better-known churchmen in the world”; he was not widely seen prior to 1978 as “one of the most effective diocesan bishops of his time, and in any place.” Moreover, Weigel’s assertion that John Paul’s pontificate is the most consequential since the Counter Reformation is overblown. In view of John XXIII, it is not even the most important since World War II.

Witness of Hope is styled as the definitive treatment of its subject: It is subtitled “the,” not “a” biography of John Paul. In its deep grasp of the pope’s inner vision, it lives up to that billing. But given its inability (or unwillingness) to take seriously the alternative visions John Paul has suppressed, or to offer any critique of his claim to stand in full continuity with Vatican II, Witness of Hope is more like the definitive favorable spin on John Paul’s pontificate.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. He may be reached at jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999