2016-06-30
Excerpted from The Pontiff in Winter with permission of Doubleday.

Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, has shown himself to be a man of rare depth of soul, an evangelist of tireless energy who traveled to the ends of the earth to spread the Christian Gospel. Priest and prophet, he has acted to conserve the traditions of the Catholic Church while urging transformation in preparation for a millennial springtime of the spirit.

He raised the consciousness of his Polish countrymen, exposing the sterility of Soviet totalitarian rule. He has preached freedom as a characteristic of our humanity. But he warned of the danger in capitalist democracies of liberty that lacked moral culture. He presented to the world an original understanding of Christian humanism and saw marital sex as an icon of the Trinitarian God. He has strived for Christian unity, reaching out to Eastern Orthodoxy and the Churches and communions separated from Rome by the Reformation. All the while he has toiled, despite encroaching illness, pain, and old age, to maintain the unity and continuity of the Catholic Faith. As Shakespeare's Kent says of the passing of King Lear: "The wonder is he hath endured so long / He but usurped his life." His ardent supporters among the faithful seem justified in hailing him Karol the Great.

But there is a parallel rather than an alternative Catholic version, rarely expressed in public in deference to a taboo that forbids criticism of living and even dead popes. A widespread constituency of Catholics, men and women, clergy and bishops throughout the world, is convinced that John Paul has drawn so tightly on the reins of universal authority that he has undermined the discretion, the authority, the integrity, and the strength of the local, diocesan Church. They believe that while appearing triumphant in the world at large, he is leaving his Church in a state of weakness and conflict.


This centralizing papal dynamic over more than a quarter of a century has had profound consequences, of which the complex scenario of sexual abuse by priests is but one example. The systemic corruption of clerical sexual abuse has revealed a dimension of paralysis and vacillation on the part of local bishops and senior clergy who attempted to conceal and deny it. Undermined by years of centralizing papal rule, there was a tendency for local church leaders to look over their shoulders to Rome, where initiative and authority were deemed to reside in all matters. And yet action was not forthcoming from the papal pinnacle. Indifference and complacency were found right up to John Paul himself until world indignation left Rome no choice but to acknowledge the crisis.

His failure to recognize from the outset a complex set of crises within the priesthood, and to handle them appropriately, contrasts starkly with harsh denunciations of those who failed to achieve the high standards of sexual morality he set for Catholic laity. John Paul advocated exclusion of those Catholics who are divorced and remarried without annulment (nearly forty percent of Catholic marriages end in divorce in Western countries), or who live in unmarried partnerships or in homosexual relationships.

His hard line on all forms of contraception in any circumstances has alienated generations of the faithful, many of whom have fallen away. In Africa, while agencies were right to warn against encouraging promiscuity through free distribution of condoms to the young, he has taken an extreme stance. His insistence that condoms should not be used in any circumstances has condemned untold numbers of Catholics at risk for HIV infection to certain death. He has excluded women from any future hope of priestly ministry not only within his own pontificate but by attempting to legislate for his papal successors for all time. He has shut his ears to pleas for married clergy and rejected requests for laicization by priests who have married and started families-refusing them the sacraments.

While making a show of encouraging interfaith dialogue and urging ecumenism, he has characterized other religions (that is, non-Christian religions) as "defective," claiming that many Christian denominations, including the Anglican (Episcopalian) denominations, were not proper churches, their priests and bishops not proper priests and bishops. Despite his deep longing to come to an accord with the Russian Orthodox Church, he has established Roman Catholic dioceses in Russia in defiance of the concerns of the entire Orthodox Church.

His debility in his latter days has exposed the long-term consequences of his autocratic papal rule. He has become a living sermon of patience and fortitude, appealing to the sympathies of the entire world; but the billion-strong Church has been run increasingly by his Polish secretary and a handful of aging reactionary cardinals. We have had a papacy in which a pope utters virtual heresy, bishops and faithful are told they may not discuss women priesthood, a Curial cardinal teaches that condoms kill, prelates guilty of having shielded pedophiles are honored, and a U.S. president has exploited the papacy as an election campaign stop.
To understand John Paul, as he himself has declared often enough, is an exercise in penetrating the inner man. "They try to understand me from the outside," he once said. "But I can only be understood from the inside." Unlike his predecessor John XXIII, who spoke constantly from the heart, John Paul has revealed his personality in theatrical displays that have enraptured and beguiled his huge audiences. Exploiting modern broadcast communications to their fullest extent, his omnipresence and monopoly of the limelight have reduced within his Church all other authority, all other holiness (unless dead), all other comparisons, voices, images, talents, and virtues. The legislator, the single dispenser of blessings, beneficence, and wisdom-there has been no hidden corner of the Church where he was not present, heard, read, and where he was not absolute.

This has been a big papacy, difficult if not impossible to capture in the round. His story has been told already in many different ways. As he prepared to travel to Cuba in February 1998 to meet with Fidel Castro, The Times (London) judged him the most influential political figure in the world during the previous twenty years. And the paper was right, up to a point. His encouragement of the Polish people to reject Soviet communism had reverberations throughout Eastern Europe and beyond. A line of malevolent dictators-Marcos in the Philippines, Baby Doc in Haiti, Pinochet in Chile, Jaruzelski in Poland, Stroessner in Paraguay-fell from power after he had kissed the soil of their countries.

Tributes to John Paul's intellectual status have been no less ardent. He has been feted as the sole philosopher Pope in history. His biographer, George Weigel, argues that John Paul's teachings have raised him to unchallenged status in "the history of modern thought." Mr. Weigel believes that John Paul II, among many outstanding achievements, returned "the great humanistic project to its true trajectory, which aimed, he argued, straight into the Holy Trinity Itself." John Paul, by this verdict, has set the world on its true course for this new millennium.

As John Paul's papacy lengthened and the obituarists repeatedly updated their eulogies, a variety of adulatory perspectives on his life and times have emerged, enhancing the cult of his personality: John Paul the athlete, poet, playwright, pastor, theologian, prophet, politician, confessor, contemplative, preacher, ecumenist, counselor, sage, reconciler, moralist, living saint.

A number of biographies and portraits were published between 1994 and 1999 in expectation of John Paul's imminent demise. They include accounts by Michael Walsh, the late Jonathan Kwitny, the late Tad Szulz, Marco Polio and Carl Bernstein, and George Weigel. Any writer attempting a new portrait of John Paul owes a consider able debt to these authors, whether one agrees with their conclusions or not. They have brought a wealth of documentation and exclusive interview material to their portraits. But John Paul's refusal to die according to a timetable set by others (Vaticanologists have been predicting his imminent death since at least 1 994) has rendered them outdated. This new portrait of John Paul II is not a biography of comprehensive record. I do not attempt to compete with the thoroughness of earlier biographies, a comprehensiveness that tends, through sheer mass of detail, to weigh down its extraordinary subject like a diamond set in lead. I have attempted to be selective in order to emphasize connections that bring his character and contradictions to narrative life, from his childhood to the year of the new millennium. Then, picking up where the latest biography ends, I tell the story of his pontificate during the first years of this decade, a period that includes the jubilee Year, the papal visits to Jerusalem and former Soviet republics, the 9/11 attacks in America, the War on Terror, the Iraq war, his relations with America, the continuing struggles within the Catholic Church over authority and regard for other religions, and the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood that has rocked the Church to its foundations.

This critical post-1999 era has seen the Holy Father in the final stages of Parkinson's disease, immobile, often incapable of speech, and suffering from blank episodes of concentration and memory. Urgent questions were raised in the late 1990s about the possibility of resignation. In the first year of the millennium, John Paul set aside such suggestions by publicly avowing the mystical nature of his personal pontificate.

John Paul in his young manhood and prime defined the term "mystical" in a subtle and orthodox manner-as the spiritual meeting of two liberties: the acting human person with the person of Jesus Christ, encountered not as an object in the world but as the All. In his early years as an academic and bishop, moreover, he was preoccupied with defining the nature of the human person as "ex-centric" rather than self-centered. We become more ourselves, and more like Christ, who is the model of humanity, he said, by self-giving.

At the same time, his pyramidal notion of the function of the papacy, the cult of his papal personality, seemed to encourage an epic self-centeredness. And the more central, holy, and absolute the pope, the less significant his bishops, his clergy, and the laity. A token of the soaring cult of his personality: In his native Poland, most churches now have on prominent show an outsize statue of John Paul. As a Polish correspondent to the international Catholic weekly The Tablet noted at Christmas 2003: "To my knowledge no other public figure has had so many statues erected in his lifetime, except Joseph Stalin."

He saw himself in the eye of an unrelenting, ever-expanding, global storm; his mystical vision has no doubt lent greater simplicity to the complexity and fragmentation. "In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences," he had declared to a mass gathering in Fatima, Portugal, in 1982. Then, in the millennium year 2000, he unfolded Fatima's prophecy in its fullness-the Third Secret, which turned out to be a prediction across the entire century about him, Karol Wojtyla. It was meant. It was written. As was his survival despite bullets, his Parkinson's, and his slips in the shower, along with all his grand initiatives, declarations, pronouncements, and judgments.

Papal biographer Weigel has declared John Paul "the man with arguably the most coherent and comprehensive vision of the human possibility in the world ahead." Cardinal Avery Dulles, eminent Jesuit theologian and author of The Splendor of the Faith, writes that John Paul's vision is "capable of encountering and respectfully challenging all opposing ideologies and spiritual movements." Such encomiums leave little room for the coherent and comprehensive vision of Jesus Christ, let alone that of the countless spiritual teachers within and outside of Christianity down the ages.

This new portrait of John Paul, written in the ominous light of the post-millennium period in which religious fundamentalism offers the greatest threat to world peace, and problems of poverty and deprivation proliferate, tells the story of a pontiff who has matched remarkable talents with corresponding frailties and foibles. His pontificate has seen opportunities crowned with success and opportunities lost. The power and timing of his initiatives in Poland were impeccable. But at a time when fundamentalist religions are in antagonistic confrontation with the West, his most tragic failure has been his refusal to acknowledge the potential for discovering within Christianity a basis for pluralist societies.

*** Over the years, he increasingly undermined the prospects for collegiality, reducing the status of his bishops ("They treat us like altar boys," said the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago of John Paul and the Roman Curia). Once an outstanding champion of political and religious freedom, John Paul began to place limits on liberty-limits that he alone could define: "Authentic freedom," he wrote in his key encyclical, or letter to the world, Veritatis Splendor (Splendor of the Truth), "is never freedom `from' the truth but always freedom `in' truth." The Catholic faith had the fullness, the monopoly, of the truth, he asserted in the Vatican address he endorsed called Dominus Jesus (The Lord Jesus, 2000).

***

[John Paul II] has taken Catholicism in the direction of papal fundamentalism-the idea that Catholic beliefs and values are handed in a mandatory fashion top-down. He has muted the voices of the Church's many saints, theologians, bishops, and laymen and women who constitute the Catholic wisdom of the present and of the ages. Faced with his inevitable demise, his supporters are busy attempting the perpetuation of his papacy for generations to come.

Under John Paul the Catholic Church has become the voice of one man in a white robe pronouncing from the Roman pinnacle, rather than a conversation between past, present, and future; between many cultures, ethnicities, and spiritualities; between the Church universal and the Church local-wherever people gather for the Eucharist.

The questions arise: How and why should this have come about? And what does this situation mean for the future of Catholicism?

John Paul is a human being; he is eminently, outstandingly, and impressively human. But reacting to the burdens and temptations of his ancient and impossible office, the crises of the times, and the persuasions of his devotees, he has run the papacy as if he were a Superman. But a Superman has no place in a Church of communities that require to be fully themselves in their smallest groups; that flourish and gather strength from their own local resources as well as from the Roman center. Another Superman on the throne of Saint Peter can only continue the tragic process of abdication of responsibility, maturity, and local discretion that we have witnessed in the Catholic Church this past quarter of a century.

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