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God’s Politician: Pope John Paul II,
the Catholic Church, and the New World Order

by david willey
st. martin’s, 258 pages, $18.95

Fifteen years ago, as the long pontificate of Paul VI drew to a close, a consensus on the qualifications for the next pope began to take shape among liberal Catholic opinion-makers. The new pope should be a vigorous, confident leader: at home in the modern world, a man of deep spirituality, conversant with contemporary intellectual life, an activist rather than a recluse, an adept publicist, a Christian who radiated hope—in short, a charismatic figure who could revitalize the public face of Roman Catholicism at the end of the twentieth century. The new pope should also be a man of the Second Vatican Council, committed to securing the Council’s teaching in the thought and practice of the Church. Building on the wayfaring innovations of Paul VI, the new pope should escape the gilded cage of the Vatican and bring the Gospel message to the nations: what the Church and the world needed, it was thought, was more an apostle than a CEO of Roman Catholic Church, Inc. Ideally, the new pope would have extensive pastoral experience, and, longest of all long shots, he should be non-Italian. 

All of which is precisely what the College of Cardinals gave us on October 16, 1978, when, after the brief “September papacy” of Albino Luciani, it elected Karol Jósef Wojtyla, the archbishop of Kraków, as the 263rd successor of Peter as Bishop of Rome. 

Why, then, have Catholic liberals been so unenthusiastic, to put it gently, about this papacy and this pope?

Little direct light is shed on that question by God’s Politician, alas. David Willey, the BBC’s correspondent in Rome since 1972, has accompanied John Paul II on many of his pastoral pilgrimages abroad. Yet rarely has the old saw—“travel narrows the mind”—been vindicated more completely than in this sour, indeed mean-spirited, book. The more of John Paul Mr. Willey sees, the less he likes—indeed, in an act of extraordinary chutzpah (even for a journalist), our cradle Catholic author confesses, in his prologue, that while his “faith in God is intact,” his “allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church has been suspended” while he “examine[s] this brief Polish interlude in its long history.”

David Willey’s (mis)understanding of the Church is succinctly captured in a single sentence toward the end of his book: the Church is “a hierarchical organization run by ecclesiastics who are more interested in the application of rules than in kindling the religious convictions of their faithful.” Given that lens, Willey’s vision of John Paul’s “bulldozer papacy” follows predictably enough. John Paul is a supremely gifted actor whose charming exterior masks his “inquisitorial and totalitarian methods,” which are deployed in the service of his “implacable hostility to theological innovation,” his determination to “stifle dissent among theologians and bishops,” and his relentless opposition to the notion that “the Roman Catholic Church [has] a social and political role to play in helping peoples free themselves from oppressive regimes and social injustice.”

But then, what are we to expect of a pope for whom “humility was never [a] distinguishing mark,” a pastor who, “at a minimum personal security risk . . . passed by some of the most wretched and overcrowded slums in the world” while “cocooned behind the bulletproof windows of the papal limousine”? After all, this is a pope who still exhibits a bizarre “attachment to [the] quaint ceremonies and customs” of Polish “folk Catholicism”; little wonder that John Paul, the pope of the “iron fist,” has “tended to deny those new freedoms” promised by Vatican II. And, as if this were not enough to seal the indictment, there is Willey’s offended professional amour proper : “Wojtyla neither likes nor trusts the media. He finds its values shallow and its behavior intrusive . . . . He is usually disappointed by journalists. He cannot see why they should not be glad to act as evangelizers.”

To call God’s Politician “tendentious” is to praise it too highly. For not only is our BBC correspondent given to the most extreme forms of ideological spin-doctoring, he can’t even get the facts straight. Facts small and facts large are treated with similar insouciance. David Willey doesn’t seem to know that the Soviet secret police were the “KGB.” He misdates a crucial exchange of correspondence between Nikita Khrushchev and John XXIII by two years. He states, flatly, that Mikhail Gorbachev was the head of a “post-Communist Soviet Union.” He thinks the “Internationale” was the Soviet national anthem. He mistakenly insists (twice) that John Paul II has “set up” a “Latin rite diocese” in Moscow. He confuses the Ark and Kolbe churches in Nowa Huta, the steel-milling suburb of Kraków. He misstates the ecclesiastical ranks of the secretary of state of the Holy See, the archbishops of Prague and Managua, the bishop of Gdansk, and a prominent Roman theologian. He understates the Communist count of Czechoslovak pilgrims at a great 1985 rally in Velehrad in Moravia by 200 percent. He misstates the authorship of the great petition for religious freedom in Czechoslovakia that eventually drew some 600,000 signatures in the years before the Velvet Revolution. He misstates (by seventeen years) the date on which Nicolae Ceausescu became leader of Romania. He believes, somehow, that Asia is “predominantly Muslim.” He writes of Pope Pius XI in 1847—which happens to be ten years before Pius XI was born. He confuses the millennium of Polish Christianity with the 900th anniversary of the death of St. Stanislaw [Stanislaus], and then compounds the error by talking about the “950th anniversary.” But it is when ideology rears its ugly head that David Willey’s sloppiness runneth over: thus he hits the trifecta of errors in one sentence about Hans Kung, writing that the “German priest and theologian” (wrong) had been disciplined by the “Holy Office” (wrong) because he had “brought into discussion” the doctrine of papal infallibility (wrong).

Willey does give the pope credit for igniting the Revolution of 1989 in Poland; but beyond that concession to reality, God’s Politician is of little use in understanding the pontificate of John Paul II. And while the book does illuminate, along the classic via negativa, certain facets of the current “progressive” Catholic funk, one hardly needs to spend twenty bucks and 240 pages revisiting those chronic complaints. Still, an interesting question remains: fifteen years into a papacy that, God willing, bids fair to extend into the third Christian millennium, why do people like David Willey (and the people who will take God’s Politician seriously) have such a terribly difficult time with John Paul II?

I suggest that at least four factors are in play here.

First, and at the most vulgar level, there is the matter of the pope’s politics. John Paul II has been a sign of contradiction to Catholic “progressives” and to the journalistic establishment that feeds on the Catholic left and its discontents because he has refused to concede to fashionable opinion on the lifestyle issues that occupy such a large part of the contemporary gauchiste political agenda: abortion, euthanasia, “gay rights,” “alternative marriage,” and so forth. Thus David Willey devotes an entire chapter to deploring what he regards as the Pope’s culpable indifference to the “world population bomb,” but seems blithely unaware that his own sources on these matters—Worldwatch Institute, the United Nations Population Fund, the World Bank—are hardly to be regarded as purveyors of “value-neutral” analysis. (Willey even quotes, without comment, the claim by the deputy minister for family planning in Beijing that the notorious Chinese population-control program is “based upon education and voluntary acceptance of the country’s true needs, not coercion.”)

On other fronts, one might have expected that a pope who had helped his flock confront (indeed, overturn) the regimes of Marcos, Pinochet, and Stroessner would have earned some credits from political liberals. But John Paul’s implacable anticommunism and his insistence that politics is an exercise in ethics have made him a deeply suspicious character even when, by prevailing establishment standards, he “does the right thing.” Thus the discussion of the Revolution of 1989 in his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus , while challenging certain realist assumptions about the nature of international politics and the causes of the Communist crack-up, contained an even sharper (if largely implicit) criticism of ideological detentists and others on the Western left who lost sight of the moral catastrophe of communism during the last decades of the Cold War.

The politics of John Paul II have in fact been remarkably consistent. John Paul II enters the world of affairs, not as a diplomat, but as a pastor for whom the God-given human dignity of each member of the human family is a pressing concern. Or, as he put it himself during a flying press conference en route to South America in 1987, “I am not the evangelizer of democracy, I am the evangelizer of the Gospel. To the Gospel message, of course, belong all the problems of human rights, and if democracy means human rights it also belongs to the message of the Church.” But it is not the Republic of Procedures and the Imperium of the Autonomous Self that John Paul has in mind when he talks about “democracy”; rather, it is a democracy that holds itself accountable to the “truth about man”—a truth which, against the grain of the times, John Paul insists we can know.

At another level (and as amply illustrated by God’s Politician), the liberal problem with John Paul II is shaped by a liberal caricature of Polish Catholicism: a caricature, it should be noted, that was vigorously promoted by the propagandists of Poland’s Communist regime. According to this burlesque view, the Polish Church is irremediably authoritarian, not-quite-in-touch-with “the spirit of Vatican II,” excessively (even idolatrously) Marian in its piety—and, when you get right down to it, just a little dumb. But one need not romanticize the Polish experience of Catholicism in the twentieth century to understand just how grossly inadequate a portrait of a complex reality that parody is.

The Polish episcopate practiced collegiality (to be sure, under the firm leadership of Cardinal Stefan Wyszy’nski) years before the Second Vatican Council. The Kraków-based Tygodnik Powszechny (“Universal Weekly”) maintained a level of publishing excellence throughout the Communist period that any American or British Catholic journal would be proud to claim—and under far more difficult circumstances. Viewed from a more sympathetic angle, Polish Catholicism’s Marian piety is in fact a striking example of successful “inculturation”: 300 years before the ecclesiastical chattering classes knew there was such a thing. (Why do people who applaud the experimental Zairean liturgy find the Black Madonna so hard to take?) And as for the charge that the Church now seeks to impose a “black totalitarianism” in the aftermath of “red totalitarianism,” the truth is that the Polish hierarchy today is engaged in a great debate, which far transcends the usual liberal/conservative categories, over the role(s) of the Church in consolidating Polish democracy; and if the disagreements that exist (and they can be fierce) are not displayed for all the world to see, well, that may be because the Polish bishops think that collegiality implies not trashing your brother bishops in the pages of the New Yorker.

Then there is Polish Catholic intellectual life: an oxymoron, as far as David Willey and “progressive” Catholics are concerned. It is really quite striking that a pope who is, by any measure, a world-class intellectual has been dealt with so cursorily at that level of analysis. For beyond George Huntston Williams’ The Mind of John Paul II: Origins of His Thought and Action, which was published a dozen years ago, there has been precious little serious American (or English-speaking) examination of John Paul II as a philosopher and theologian. Nor has the pope’s ongoing involvement with the development of phenomenology and the impact of that involvement on his moral teaching and on the new empirical sensitivity about development economics demonstrated in Centesimus Annus been very carefully analyzed. As a philosopher, John Paul II is, admittedly, not a very easy read. But people prepared to plow through Rawls and Rorty, Foucault and Fish, Dworkin, Derrida, and MacKinnon ought to be willing to make at least some effort to understand the intellectual project of the world’s most influential religious and moral teacher: unless, that is, people have succumbed to the lurking suspicion that there just may be something to all those jokes about “dumb Polacks.”

In the fourth place, John Paul II has offended “progressive” sensibilities by insisting that Catholicism remains a communion capable of giving a coherent and authoritative account of the “hope that is within [us]” (1 Peter 3:5). Thus the new Catechism of the Catholic Church , which the Holy Father calmly and persistently proclaims as an authentic fruit of the Second Vatican Council, has been subjected to a continuous stream of disapprobation, even ridicule, from American Catholic intellectuals, some of whom have publicly denied that such a compendium of belief is even possible “these days.” (The ridicule has not been limited to our shores, of course; David Willey admiringly cites Leonardo Boff on the catechism, the Brazilian wondering “what exotic Roman Catholic being is going to be capable of creating a text equally applicable to the Eskimos of the Arctic, the destitute of Bangladesh, the German business tycoons of Bavaria, the Yuppies of New York, and the Xavante Indians of Brazil.” So much for the universality of the Good News. Meanwhile, the catechism is selling like mad in France. France!)

And here, one suspects, is the root of the progressives’ discontent with this papacy: it is not so much discontent with John Paul II (although he is surely to be regretted) as with the very idea of an authoritative teaching tradition, embodied in an ecclesial magisterium, capable of defining the boundaries of orthodoxy and orthopraxis, and convinced that there is a direct relationship between truth and freedom. John Paul II, the pope who acts like a pope, is thus “hard to understand”—a man who, in David Willey’s judgment, “presides over a less and less tolerant Catholic Church.” The great sadness here, of course, is the radical disjunction in the progressive mind between authoritative truth claims and tolerance: you can’t have both. But the progressive mind waffles even on that point, for it certainly honors the authoritative truth claims of “women’s rights” advocates and the United Nations Population Fund. It does seem to be a matter of whose truth is being gored.

The National Catholic Reporter’s Peter Hebblethwaite, who made “many valuable suggestions” to our BBC correspondent, recently informed readers of the 1993 Britannica Book of the Year that “uncertainty about the pope’s health . . . suggested that his pontificate was entering its final phase.” One suspects, with little fear of offending against charity, that the wish is the father of the thought here. And while no one knows precisely what God has in mind for Karol Jósef Wojtyla, it does not appear that the world is any less in need of a pope who will boldly preach, as John Paul has done from the day of his inauguration, “Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” And, oh yes, the Holy Father was seen skiing this past Christmas season, six months after his colon surgery. Alas for Willey and Hebblethwaite (but happily for many, many others), they may have John Paul II to kick around for a whole lot longer.

George Weigel’s most recent book is The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism.

Image by Zkoty1953 via Creative Commons. Image cropped.