What is your own relationship to the Catholic Church?
I departed from the Catholic Church as a conscious decision, rather than merely lapsing, shortly after leaving the seminary in my early twenties. After a gap of twenty years, I returned to belief and practice in 1990 and I now regard myself as a faithful Catholic, but also as a loving critic of the Church.
After my absence from the Church for such a long period I returned to find much that distressed and even angered me, including changes in the liturgy and the conflict between liberals and conservatives. My attempts to criticize the Church in a positive fashion, I believe, are not ultimately harmful; after all, if I can find fault with the Church and yet stay in it, that demonstrates that difficulties do not amount to destructive doubt. What does "The Pontiff in Winter" say about John Paul II that other books don't? The last serious biography of John Paul II, by George Weigel, finishes in the fall of 1998. Since then, we have had the Jubilee Year , 9/11, the pedophile priest scandals, the Iraq war, and the War on Terror. Also the pope has become very ill and debilitated in the last four years: so who is really running the Church? The Church in the world therefore looks very different today than it did seven years ago. My book is an attempt to update the papal story. At the same time, I wanted to offer a critique of this papacy as well as a credit account. Most biographies degenerate into hagiographies, especially if they are written by Catholics. There is a view that to criticize the pope is to attack the Church. I think that John Paul has been a great pope, but he is human, and he exists within historical circumstances. What do you find most problematic about John Paul II's papacy? Most Catholic critics, including even bishops, object to the way in which he has tended to draw the reigns of power into the Vatican center, thus threatening the strength of the diocesan or local Church. But I am much more interested in a kind of contradictory middle ground between the praise for 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 of condoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. He praises women, and yet he proposes a model of womanhood that is acquiescent and based on the obedience of the Virgin Mary. He encourages interfaith dialogue, and yet he has sanctioned as recently as the year 2000 a church document (Dominus Jesus) saying that other religions are "defective." The net result is that we have a pope who keeps the liberals and the progressives occasionally happy with rhetorical statements which are undermined by deeper and more permanent policies. These policies, I believe, run counter in many respects to the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Hence my objection to John Paul is that on certain issues (obviously not all) he is a profoundly reactionary pope. The consequence of that reaction has been the departure of an incalculable number of Catholics from the faith.
I am referring to civic pluralism, which includes freedom to exercise one's own beliefs and values under the protection of a secular government or state; this was the legacy of the founding fathers of America who had learned from the bitter experience of religious conflict in Europe. The Church's espousal of American-style pluralism was finally accepted at the very end of the Second Vatican Council on 7 December 1965. It was a great revolution in Church thinking. John Paul II, as Archbishop of Cracow, advocated the acceptance of religious liberty during the council as he was a Polish bishop confronting atheistic Communism in his native land. After the collapse of the Soviet system, however, he began to critique democracy and pluralism in the light of what he saw as flaws. In the mid 1990s, John Paul's writing on secularism, democracy, capitalism, and pluralism became ever more critical. He began to state clearly in print that we are only free in order to pursue to truth. Ultimately, as he points out, the truth is the the truth of the Catholic Church as expounded by the infallible Magisterium of 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 is dehumanizing 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 opinion of his view? This is partly covered above, but I would add this: It is clear from studying the biographical details of John Paul's life that he always viewed America through jaundiced eyes. He was reared in a spirituality of self-denial and mortification and therefore had a hatred of excess and a tendency towards austerity. There is plenty of evidence that he was prejudiced against Americans as people who are selfish, materialist, wasteful, and hedonistic. He was not inclined to see the advantages of freedom, democracy, and capitalism as Americans see them, but as necessary evils which can only be ameliorated by the teachings of the Catholic Church. How would you respond to critics who say you use innuendo and half-truths to imply things about John Paul II that didn't happen? For example, you introduce the pope's philosophy conversation 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 just a Church historian: one writes biography with all one's receptivities and antennae. The description of Anna-Theresa as sexually appealing is based on a number of accounts, including the way she dressed, in mini-skirts, for example, even in her fifties. One can see from photographs moreover that she 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 if he was spending a lot of time with a nun covered from head to toe. He was human; and it is of interest that he should have such a relationship not long before he became pope. In the same vein, how do you respond to critics who say you deliberately misunderstood or skewed the pope's reference to Mary, mistranslating his words about "special audiences" to imply he'd seen visions of her? This is a criticism made by George Weigel, and it is a silly objection. An "audience" is not a word that makes much sense to people unused to specialist language of religion and Catholicism: "audience" is usually used of papal audiences, to mean occasions on which the pope meets special visitors for interview, conversation, discussion. When editing the book in England this came up and it was decided that interview was a more accurate rendering of the phrase. There was nothing sinister, no innuendo. The innuendo is all in Mr Weigel's head. What do you think of the pope's lifelong devotion to Mary?
I find it impressive. I have a great devotion to the Virgin myself, like most Catholics.
I think that it would be diffiicult for him to resign as there is no proper mechanism for this and it could cause disputes. For example, if a new pope was elected during this lifetime, those who disagreed with the new pontiff could argue that John Paul was manipulated by the Curia. A pope should make arrangements for his possible failure to fulfill his office when he is in the full vigor of his powers, not after his abilties have become suspect. We are in a dangerous and difficult period as far as the papacy is concerned. Your book mentions a Polish secretary who's now a "gatekeeper" for the pope. Who do you think is "running the show" at the Vatican now?
I have it on good authority that John Paul's Polish secretary, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, aged 64, reads the papal documents and advises him on what to sign and what not to sign. It is also reported that he writes most of the pope's homilies now, and that he ultimately determines who sees the pope and for how long. Dziwisz is, I believe, a very good man, highly intelligent, and deeply loyal to the pope (he was his secretary in Poland); but since Catholics have great faith in the election process of popes, itdoes seem strange that this unelected priest should be virtually running the Catholic Church. What changes would you like to see from the next pope?
I would like to see a pope who does not attempt to run the Church as if he were a chief executive of a multi-national company, and his bishops mere branch managers. I think we expect too much of our popes, and consequently they expect too much of themselves. I would like to see a pope who, as in times past, saw his role as that of a final judge of appeal over differences, presiding in charity over all the Christian churches. I would like to see a human pope, rather than a superman pope. Since John Paul II selected the bishops who became cardinals and will vote for the next pope, is any real change possible?
I think there is a great danger that after such a long and authoritarian pontificate, the natural pluralism of selection has has been eroded. But we cannot underestimate the power of individuals to go their own way. The martyred Oscar Romero of Salvador was just such a bishop: he was chosen as an archconservative, but upset all expectations by becoming a radical and dying for it.
Your books have been critical of specific popes. On a more positive note, what do you see as the best things about John Paul II and his papacy?
Without a doubt he has earned his place in history by his contribution to the downfall of communism. We all sleep more safely in our beds as a result. It has to be remembered, moreover, that as a Polish bishop he refused to compromise with the Soviet regime even when it was Vatican policy to do so. He is truly a great pope; but he is also a human pope who has lived beyond his moment.