What is your own relationship to the CatholicChurch?
I departed from the Catholic Church as a consciousdecision, rather than merely lapsing, shortly after leaving the seminary inmy early twenties. After a gap of twenty years, I returned to belief andpractice in 1990 and I now regard myself as a faithful Catholic, but alsoas a loving critic of the Church.
After my absence from the Church forsuch a long period I returned to find much that distressed and even angeredme, including changes in the liturgy and the conflict between liberals andconservatives. My attempts to criticize the Church in a positive fashion,I believe, are not ultimately harmful; after all, if I can find faultwith the Church and yet stay in it, that demonstrates that difficulties donot amount to destructive doubt.What does "The Pontiff in Winter" say about John Paul II that other booksdon't? The last serious biography of John Paul II,by George Weigel, finishes in the fall of 1998. Since then, we have hadthe Jubilee Year , 9/11, the pedophile priest scandals, the Iraq war, andthe War on Terror. Also the pope has become very ill and debilitated in thelast four years: so who is really running the Church? The Church in theworld therefore looks very different today than it did seven years ago. Mybook is an attempt to update the papal story. At the same time, I wantedto offer a critique of this papacy as well as a credit account. Mostbiographies degenerate into hagiographies, especially if they are written byCatholics. There is a view that to criticize the pope is to attack theChurch. I think that John Paul has been agreat pope, but he is human, and he exists within historicalcircumstances.What do you find most problematic about John Paul II's papacy? MostCatholic critics, including even bishops, object to the way in which he hastended to draw the reigns of power into the Vatican center, thusthreatening the strength of the diocesan or local Church. But I am muchmore interested in a kind of contradictory middle ground between the praisefor the great things he has done, and criticism of his lack of collegiality(the authority issue). For example, he preaches compassion for suffering(for AIDS victims, for example) and yet he is intransigent on the use ofcondoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. He praises women, and yet heproposes a model of womanhood that is acquiescent and based on the obedienceof the Virgin Mary. He encourages interfaith dialogue, and yet he hassanctioned as recently as the year 2000 a church document (Dominus Jesus)saying that other religions are "defective." The net result is that wehave a pope who keeps the liberals and the progressives occasionally happywith rhetorical statements which are undermined by deeper and more permanentpolicies. These policies, I believe, run counter in many respects to theSecond Vatican Council of the 1960s. Hence my objection to John Paul isthat on certain issues (obviously not all) he is a profoundly reactionarypope. The consequence of that reaction has been the departure of anincalculable number of Catholics from the faith.
I am referring to civic pluralism, which includesfreedom to exercise one's own beliefs and values under theprotection of a secular government or state; this was the legacy of thefounding fathers of America who had learned from the bitter experience ofreligious conflict in Europe. The Church's espousal of American-stylepluralism was finally accepted at the very end of the Second Vatican Councilon 7 December 1965. It was a great revolution in Church thinking.John Paul II, as Archbishop of Cracow, advocated the acceptance ofreligious liberty during the council as he was a Polish bishop confrontingatheistic Communism in his native land. After the collapse of the Sovietsystem, however, he began to critique democracy and pluralism in the lightof what he saw as flaws. In the mid 1990s, John Paul's writing onsecularism, democracy, capitalism, and pluralism became ever morecritical. He began to state clearly in print that we are only free inorder to pursue to truth. Ultimately, as he points out, the truth is thethe truth of the Catholic Church as expounded by the infallible Magisteriumof the popes.
I believe that the consequences of this have been far-reaching. First, I believe that it has resulted in the decision of the European Union to accept a Christian dimension to its constitution (since John Paul has in fact put a wedge between Christianity and pluralism); secondly, that he has discouraged that other great and troubled world religion, Islam, from believing that faith can flourish in pluralist societies.Many 20th-century popes have had problems with'unbridled' democracy and capitalism untempered with concern for the poor. There's the idea that capitalism isdehumanizing and that "freedom without virtue is the new slavery." What does the pope think of the U.S. in this regard, and what is your opinionof his view? This is partly covered above, but I would add this: It is clear from studyingthe biographical details of John Paul's life that he always viewed Americathrough jaundiced eyes. He was reared in a spirituality of self-denial andmortification and therefore had a hatred of excess and a tendency towardsausterity. There is plenty of evidence that he was prejudiced againstAmericans as people who are selfish, materialist, wasteful, and hedonistic.He was not inclined to see the advantages of freedom, democracy, andcapitalism as Americans see them, but as necessary evils which can only beameliorated by the teachings of the Catholic Church.How would you respond to critics who say you use innuendo and half-truthsto imply things about John Paul II thatdidn't happen? For example, you introduce the pope's philosophyconversation partner, Anna-Theresa Tymieniecka, by describing her as "sexually appealing."A biographer, even a papal biographer, is not a theologian, nor a philosopher, nor even justa Church historian: one writes biography with all one's receptivities andantennae. The description of Anna-Theresa as sexually appealing is based ona number of accounts, including the way she dressed, in mini-skirts, forexample, even in her fifties. One can see from photographs moreover thatshe was extremely attractive. Since the pope spent so much time with her,sometimes alone, this is of interest I believe: after all, it was not as ifhe was spending a lot of time with a nun covered from head to toe. He washuman; and it is of interest that he should have such a relationship notlong before he became pope. In the same vein, how do you respond to critics who say you deliberatelymisunderstood or skewed the pope'sreference to Mary, mistranslating his words about "special audiences" toimply he'd seen visions of her?This is a criticism made byGeorge Weigel, and it is a silly objection. An "audience" is not a wordthat makes much sense to people unused to specialist language of religionand Catholicism: "audience" is usually used of papal audiences, to meanoccasions on which the pope meets special visitors for interview,conversation, discussion. When editing the book in England this came upand it was decided that interview was a more accurate rendering of thephrase. There was nothing sinister, no innuendo. The innuendo is all in MrWeigel's head. What do you think of the pope's lifelong devotion to Mary?