The beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1, 2011, six years after his holy death, became, appropriately enough, the occasion to remember a spiritually radiant personality: a Catholic priest and bishop who, contrary to all expectations, captured the world’s imagination and held it for more than a quarter century. Indeed, the beatification ceremony might be considered a moment at which the Church’s official leadership caught up with the spontaneous judgment of the Church’s people, which was rendered by chants of “Santo subito!” at John Paul’s funeral Mass on April 8, 2005. That John Paul’s Christian witness had touched innumerable lives was also made clear by the numbers of pilgrims who came to Rome for the beatification, as well as by the many letters, some simply addressed “Pope John Paul II—Heaven,” that found their way to the Office of the Cause of the Beatification and Canonization of the Servant of God John Paul II in the Vicariate of Rome—not a few of which came from non-Christians and non-believers. The fact that John Paul II’s life of heroic virtue affected men and women across the religious and political spectrums contributed to making his beatification, like that of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, a moment of genuine ecumenical and interreligious encounter.
And yet, amidst the celebration, there were the usual dissenters who continued to insist that this was a pope who had dragged the Church backwards, intellectually and pastorally, in a pontificate of “restoration” that betrayed the Second Vatican Council’s promise of a new Catholic dialogue with modernity. As they had done since the early 1980s, these counter-voices insisted that Karol Wojtyła, the man, and the pontificate he crafted, reflected a premodern cast of mind that ill suited the modern (or “postmodern”) world—a mantra picked up by the less-alert sectors of the global media. Yet anyone who has taken the trouble to look seriously into both Wojtyła’s pre-papal life as well as his pontificate would have to conclude that this indictment is mistaken.
“Premodern” simply is not an adequate category through which to understand the intellectual development of a man who, in the late 1940s, was dissatisfied with aspects of the neo-Scholastic theology in which he had been trained. “Premodern” cannot adequately describe a scholar who deliberately chose to study the phenomenology of Max Scheler for his habilitation thesis, or who was a vigorous participant in efforts to renew philosophical anthropology throughout the 1950s. Nor does it seem appropriate to call “premodern” one of the most intellectually engaged bishops in Europe in the years before and after Vatican II. Karol Wojtyła was a man who deliberately sought the intellectual companionship of philosophers, theologians, historians, scientists, and artists from a wide range of intellectual perspectives; a man who, as both pastor and scholar, displayed a deep human sympathy for those caught in the modern crisis of belief; a man who was an avid reader of contemporary philosophy for more than a half century.
Then there is the record of the pontificate itself. Would a pope with a “premodern” intellectual perspective have written the first papal encyclical on Christian anthropology, making the renovation of Christian humanism the leitmotif and program of his pontificate? It seems unlikely. Would a “premodern” pope have defended the universality of human rights before the United Nations in 1979 and 1995, while transforming the Catholic Church into perhaps the world’s foremost institutional promoter of the democratic project? It seems unlikely. Would a “premodern” pope have underscored the importance of free and uncoerced assent to religious teachings in an encyclical on the imperative of Christian mission, writing that “the Church proposes; she imposes nothing”? Would a pope who lived, intellectually, in the premodern world have given the Church an empirically sensitive social magisterium in which there is no hint of nostalgia for the world of the ancien régime? Would a “premodern” pope have written an international bestseller in which he openly described philosophy’s “turn to the subject” as irreversible, or an encyclical that acutely analyzed the condition in which human reason finds itself three centuries after that epic “turn”? It all seems very unlikely.
Nor does it seem likely that a “premodern” pope would have visited the Great Synagogue of Rome and the Umayyad Grand Mosque in Damascus, called world religious leaders together twice for days of prayer in Assisi, and (against considerable internal opposition) achieved full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel. A “premodern” pope would not have insisted that the Catholic Church honestly confront the Galileo case and its subsequent effects on the dialogue between the Church and science. A “premodern” pope would not have hosted seminars that included agnostic and atheistic philosophers, historians, and scientists at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo. A “premodern” pope would most certainly not have described sexual love within the bond of marital fidelity as an icon of the interior life of God the Holy Trinity. And no “premodern” pope would ever have told the leadership of the Roman curia that the Church of discipleship formed in the image of a woman, Mary, has a certain theological priority over the Church of authority and jurisdiction formed in the image of a man, Peter.
The facts simply do not support the notion that this was a “premodern” pope whose mentality and teaching grated unbearably on modern consciousness. This mistaken critique of John Paul II also misses the originality of his challenge to late modernity and postmodernity. John Paul II did not propose a return to the “premodern” world. Rather, he proposed a thoroughly modern alternative reading of modernity. John Paul II’s thought and his teaching were a challenge to look at the modern world, its triumphs and its struggles, through a different, and perhaps sharper, lens.
That challenge was crystallized in Fidei Depositum, the 1992 apostolic constitution with which John Paul II issued the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In that very personal document, John Paul spoke of the “symphony of truth.” The phrase nicely captured an essential aspect of the late pope’s thought and action. For as a man who was first and foremost a disciple of Jesus Christ, and as a scholar who analyzed the teachings of the Catholic Church with contemporary intellectual methods, Karol Wojtyła was convinced that Christian faith has a unity. The Creed is neither a random inventory of truth claims nor a “system” constructed by human ingenuity. Rather, Catholic faith for John Paul II was, is, and always will be a unified understanding of the human condition that begins in God’s revelation, which is the source of doctrine and the starting point of theology. Here, the pope reflected an ancient Catholic sensibility. In the “symphony of truth” that constitutes the faith once delivered to the saints, the “instruments” that make up the ensemble do not perform in a haphazard or incoherent way but support each other in a melodic structure that, by its very nature, demands to be engaged as a whole.
And here lay a series of challenges to key elements of the intellectual sensibility of postmodernism.
One facet of postmodernism begins and ends its reading of ancient texts with the historical-critical method, leading many to claim that it is impossible for Christians today to have access to the origins of the Church. John Paul II’s magisterium, which affirmed historical-critical scholarship as an important tool of biblical interpretation, nonetheless suggested an alternative reading of our situation: The Church is never cut off from the sources of faith, because the living Christ is always present to the Church.
Then there are those postmodern radical pluralists for whom discontinuity is the hallmark of human history. From his personal experience as well as through his study of history, John Paul II recognized that the human project frequently takes unexpected turns, even in the course of a single lifetime. Yet the pope nevertheless taught an alternative reading of our circumstances. Although Christian faith is symphonic, an ensemble of truths rather than a solo instrument, it nonetheless maintains its unity over time and space. Despite differences of language, culture, and historical moment, the authentic Christian truth preached in the twenty-first century is the truth once given to the apostles. That too is a datum of revelation, for it reflects Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit will preserve the Church in Christ’s truth. Moreover, it is a datum of revelation that can be confirmed by those forms of contemporary historical scholarship that do not begin with an unwarranted assumption of the radical discontinuity of human experience.
Elements of moral truth form part of the “symphony of truth” that is Catholic faith in its fullness, and they offer yet another important challenge to postmodern moral relativism. From his first steps as a professorial lecturer in moral philosophy until the last years of his pontificate, Karol Wojtyła, whose approach to the moral life was shaped by both extensive pastoral experience and intense reflection, challenged the radical relativists who may grudgingly concede that in matters of the moral life there may be “your” truth and “my” truth, but who also insist that there is certainly no such thing as “the truth” stricte dictu. John Paul II had an alternative view of our moral situation. He was convinced that a careful philosophical reflection on human moral agency revealed truths that are built into the world and into human beings: truths that feed the human mind and soul, truths we ignore at grave peril to ourselves and to the human project.
In all of this, John Paul II challenged postmodern theories that presupposed the futility of our search for truth with a coherent understanding of the Christian proposal, in which the various affirmations of the Creed are clarified in their relationship to each other and to the whole. The men and women of the twenty-first century were not, he believed, condemned to live in a world that is fragmented, cut off from the past, and ultimately incomprehensible. There was an alternative reading of modernity. And that, John Paul II was convinced, was what the Second Vatican Council intended the Catholic Church to propose: a rereading of the contemporary situation in which the modern world’s intense reflection on the human person would be revitalized through an encounter with Christ, who reveals both the face of the merciful Father and the true meaning of our humanity.
The bloody twentieth century demonstrated beyond doubt that the great humanistic project of the past several centuries had been derailed. The Church’s great service to the late modern world, Karol Wojtyła believed, was to help rescue the humanistic project through a Christ-centered humanism. That is what Bishop Wojtyła wrote to the Vatican commission preparing the agenda of Vatican II. That was Wojtyła’s understanding of the Council as he experienced it from 1962 to 1965. That was the program he advanced in his implementation of the Council in Kraków. And that was the understanding of Vatican II that guided his pontificate. John Paul II was not, in any sense of the term, interested in the “restoration” of a “premodern” Church. He was passionately committed to the proclamation of a thoroughly modern Christian humanism that allows the Church to address the civilizational crisis of our times.
John Paul II’s alternative construction of modernity was also evident in his distinctively Slavic reading of history—a reading that has parallels to that of another great Slavic witness to the dignity of man, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In his 1983 Templeton Prize lecture, Solzhenitsyn tried to locate the root of the evils of the twentieth century. Why did a century that had begun with robust confidence in the human future so quickly decay into the greatest period of slaughter in human history? What accounted for the fact that a century bright with expectation had by its mid-point produced two world wars, three totalitarian systems, a Cold War that threatened catastrophe on a planetary scale, oceans of blood and mountains of corpses? There were obviously a host of factors at work, but beneath them all Solzhenitsyn discerned a profound truth: “Men have forgotten God.” In a twenty-first-century world in which distorted religious convictions are themselves twisted into warrants for savagery and terrorism, it can seem a diagnosis that hints at a cure worse than the disease. But that is to mistake Solzhenitsyn’s distinctive Slavic reading of history, which John Paul II shared, for a simplistic (or, once again, a supposedly “premodern”) religiosity. It’s a mistake that misses something terribly important.
In a Slavic view of the world, culture—not politics, and not economics—is the dynamic engine of history over time. And at the heart of “culture” is “cult”: what we cherish, what we esteem, what we worship. If the object of our worship is false—and the pretense that a thoroughly modern mind has no need of worship is itself the worship of a false god, the self-constituting self—culture will inevitably become corrupt. And when a corrupt culture, including desperately defective ideas about the human person, is married to modern technology, the result is human suffering on an unprecedented scale. That, at bottom, is why the twentieth century unfolded the way it did. The barbarism stemmed from the fact that men forgot God, and in forgetting God, forgot who and what they were—and could be.
John Paul II agreed with those who have been arguing for some years now that secularization is not a neutral phenomenon. A thoroughly secularized world is a world without windows, doors, or skylights, claustrophobic, ultimately suffocating. A thoroughly secularized culture from which transcendent reference points for human thought and action have disappeared is bad for the cause of human freedom and democracy, because democracy finally rests on two convictions: that the human person possesses an inalienable dignity and value, and that freedom is not mere willfulness. At an even more profound level, a thoroughly secularized world is bad for human beings. “Silence,” as German Cardinal Karl Lehmann once put it to me, “is stifling: Human beings cannot live with the silence.”
This brings us back to John Paul II’s alternative reading of the modern condition and his Christian humanism. In John Paul’s vision of the human person and of history, the question of God remains central precisely because the question of man is and always will be central. To ask the question of man is, inevitably, to raise the question of God. To try to read the course of history without God is to read history in a shallow way, because God’s search for man and the human response to that divine quest is the central reality of history. To ask, “What is man, and how does the human person function in history?” is to confront the question of God. A true anthropology, a true humanism, speaks of “God-and-man,” and thus liberates men and women from the stifling confines of “the silence.”
Immersing myself in the life and thought of Karol Wojtyła during the preparation of Witness to Hope and its sequel, The End and the Beginning, and in many hours of personal conversation with John Paul II over more than a decade, I became convinced that what then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once called John Paul’s “passion for man” was formed in the cauldron of the Second World War. There and then, he decided to spend out his life in defense of the dignity and value of every human life, and to do so through the priesthood of the Catholic Church. There and then, he committed himself to help build a “culture of life” to stand against the late modern world’s many manifestations of the “culture of death”—and he committed himself to doing so, not “against” modernity, but by means of a more authentic, thoroughly modern humanism. He could not have known, in 1945, where that commitment would lead him. But that the commitment remained constant while his life’s journey unfolded along a sometimes surprising course cannot be denied by anyone who studies that remarkable life carefully.
These convictions about Christ-centered humanism are also the key to understanding John Paul II’s influence on the history of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first. During the latter years of the pontificate, when John Paul became an international celebrity of a distinctive sort, one often got the impression that some commentators wanted to “split” the pope, setting the “good” pope-as-defender-of-human-rights over against the “disturbing” pope-who-defended-the-teaching-of-the-Catholic-Church. But this was to misread completely what friends and critics alike recognized as a remarkably integrated personality. Moreover, that misreading of Wojtyła leads to a misreading of his times, and ours.
It was precisely because of his convictions about God, Christ, culture, and history that the pope could ignite the revolution of conscience in Central and Eastern Europe that we now know as the “Revolution of 1989.” It was precisely because John Paul II was convinced that God is central to the story of man that he could, by calling men and women to religious and moral conversion, give them tools of resistance that communism could not blunt. It was precisely because John Paul II understood that Christianity is not a form of religious idealism, existing somewhere outside history, that he could call people to solidarity in history—and thus change the course of history. Stalin’s famously derisive challenge to the papacy—“How many divisions has the pope?”—was met by a man who knew and understood the power of truth in history, which is another way of describing the power of God in history. And because of that, as Mikhail Gorbachev admitted, Stalin’s empire was dismantled nonviolently.
Faith in God can and does transform the world. Faith in the God-made-visible in the world through the person and work of Jesus Christ is liberating. Confidence in the capacities of the men and women whose possibilities for goodness have been revealed in Christ can change the course of history for the better. There is truth beyond “the silence,” and it is liberating truth.
There is one other crucial aspect of John Paul II’s alternative reading of modernity. So much of modern and postmodern thought teaches us that the royal road to human happiness lies in self-assertion. Karol Wojtyła had a different understanding of the road to human flourishing; he believed it lay along the path of self-giving. That none of us is the cause of our own existence was, for John Paul II, far more than an elementary fact of biology. It is a biological fact that, reflected upon critically and carefully, reveals a deep truth about the human person: We find the truth about ourselves in making ourselves into the gift-for-others that our own lives are to us. The self-giving self, not the self-asserting self, is the truly human self.
Wojtyła believed that this deep truth of the human condition could be demonstrated philosophically, but at the same time he understood it to be a central conviction of Christian faith. That is why, for him, the martyr was the highest form of Christian witness—for in martyrdom the complete gift-of-self coincides in the most radical possible way with the convictions to which one has given one’s life. In a world Church whose most precious heritage from the twentieth century includes thousands upon thousands of names in the modern book of martyrs, this conviction of John Paul II about the centrality of self-gift to a true understanding of the human condition ought to strike a powerful chord.
Whatever the fragmentation that besets every human life, every human being yearns to live with an undivided heart. Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, was a thoroughly modern man with a great reverence for the past. As newly available materials from communist-era secret police files make unmistakably clear, he was a man who knew human wickedness and the enduring power of evil in history; and yet, as I suggest in The End and the Beginning, he was able to overcome evil with the power of truth and with a shrewd sense of how the “children of light” ought to work in and through history to bend the course of events in a more humane direction. He was neither a naïf nor a romantic; he knew that suffering and death are the universal human lot; and yet he showed in his own dying that suffering conformed to Christ can be ennobling and inspiring.
Above all, John Paul II was a Christian disciple who lived out the conviction that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life. That conviction shaped an undivided and very large heart, a life of heroic virtue, and a striking analysis of our postmodern cultural circumstance. And while a life of heroic virtue is what the Catholic Church officially acknowledged in beatifying Karol Wojtyła, his distinctive reading of the signs of these times is an essential part of the challenge that Blessed John Paul II posed—and continues to pose—to twenty-first century culture and twenty-first-century public life.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His most recent book is The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.