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His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time
By Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi.
Doubleday, 582 pages, $27.50

On October 21, 1978, five days after the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II, the “liberal” Polish Communist journal Polityka opined that, since World War II, Poland had been “a special example of a creative and fruitful coexistence between nonbelievers and Catholics”––which seems, in retrospect, an almost unimaginably self-delusional judgment, even by Communist standards. Polityka's editors may have hoped that, with Wojtyla’s ascension to the papacy, a period of “mutual understanding” would ensue, securing the Yalta legacy in a continued Communist hegemony over Eastern Europe. In fact, precisely the opposite happened: John Paul II’s election marked the beginning of the end, not only of Stalin’s external empire, but of the Soviet Union itself. 

That the Pope played an indispensable role in the Communist crack-up is now widely conceded. What remains deeply controverted is how we should understand his impact on the world of affairs. In 1992, former Washington Post reporter (and Watergate celebrity) Carl Bernstein argued in a Time magazine cover story that the Pope had forged a “Holy Alliance” with President Ronald Reagan for the explicit purpose of toppling European communism. Bernstein now joins with Marco Politi, veteran Vatican correspondent for La Repubblica, to expand the “Holy Alliance” argument and wed it to a more comprehensive account of John Paul II’s life and papal ministry. 

On both these counts, His Holiness fails. The “Holy Alliance” hypothesis––which hinges on a June 1982 meeting between the Pope and President Reagan at the Vatican––is chronologically deficient. John Paul II had been in office for almost four years by the time he met Reagan and had, by Soviet lights, already done catastrophic damage to the Yalta system with his historic June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland. That pilgrimage was the moral, spiritual, and psychological impetus behind the formation, in the summer of 1980, of Solidarity, the Polish independent trade union that was also a political opposition with ten million members. Bernstein and Politi add some interesting detail (gleaned from recently released Soviet archives and interviews with Reagan Administration officials) to the story of how the Holy See and the White House helped nurse Solidarity through the imposition of martial law in December 1981 and the hard years of struggle that led to the electoral dismantling of Polish communism in June 1989. But does intelligence––sharing amount to a “Holy Alliance”? Solidarity activists derided the Bernstein hypothesis when it was first bruited in 1992, and there is nothing in His Holiness to suggest that their judgment was mistaken. 

Conspiracy theories of history are usually unilluminating, and His Holiness is no exception. The “hidden history of our time” is not the fact that John Paul II and U.S. special ambassador Vernon Walters studied satellite intelligence photography together in the papal library or that the U.S. government provided clandestine financial support for Solidarity during the 1980s. The real “hidden history” of the Communist collapse took place in the minds, hearts, and souls of those millions who were moved to take the risk of resistance by John Paul II’s challenge to “call good and evil by name” (as the Pope put it on his second pilgrimage to Poland in 1983). Any treatment of John Paul as essentially a political actor in these epic events misses the rich texture of the great human drama that took place in the Warsaw Pact countries between 1979 and 1989. It also, and just as unfortunately, misses the singular nature of John Paul II’s address to world politics, which is first and foremost religious and moral, rather than political and ideological. Indeed, John Paul II’s strategy toward communism marked a decisive shift beyond the more accommodationist currents prevalent in Vatican quarters during the pontificate of Paul VI. The Polish Pope explored the possibilities of what might be called a post-post-Constantinian approach to the Church’s engagement with the principalities and powers. That approach––which stresses the defense of basic human rights as a defense of the human person made in the image of God and repositions diplomacy within the context of bold and public moral witness––struck communism at its most vulnerable point. Over the past eighteen years, it has also had a marked effect in such diverse places as the Philippines, Chile, Paraguay, and the World Conference on Population and Development at Cairo in 1994. But for all his impact on the politics of nations, John Paul II cannot be understood as a “political” pope. His evangelical diplomacy is framed by religious and moral conviction, not by the Rules-of-the-Game as the world understands those conventions. 

His Holiness is even less satisfactory when its authors turn their attention to John Paul II’s impact on the Roman Catholic Church. Here, all the tired journalistic cliché are trotted out yet again. John Paul II is a misogynist Polish authoritarian, uncomfortable with women, determined to “systematically crush dissent,” feverishly committed to a “headlong flight to doctrinal conformity” based on “rigid philosophical distinctions,” etc., etc. You will look long, hard, and futilely to find in His Holiness any serious analysis of the Pope’s ground-breaking nuptial theology of the human body, or his emerging feminism, or his intense ecumenical outreach to Orthodoxy and the Reformation churches, or his commitment to a theological dialogue with Judaism unprecedented in nearly two thousand years, or his refocusing of Catholic social doctrine, or his passionate interest in the universality of sanctity in the Church, or his dialogue with atheist and agnostic philosophers and scientists, or his commitment to the “method of persuasion” in a revitalized Catholic evangelism, or his millennial sensibility. 

What you will find, in a variant on the regnant caricature, is an angry old man, “left to rail at the new world he had helped bring about.” 

This crude image of John Paul as a Polish Lear raging impotently on the heath underlies what is perhaps Bernstein and Politi’s most egregious passage: an eight-page account of the March 1994 meeting between the Pope and Mrs. Nafis Sadik, the UN bureaucrat who was to chair the Cairo world population conference in September of that year. The entire exchange between John Paul and Mrs. Sadik is given in quotation marks, and features an outraged Pope charging that “the irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women.” The authors claim that their reconstruction is based on a “memorandum” prepared after the fact by Mrs. Sadik. But not the slightest question is raised as to whether Mrs. Sadik (whose plans to have abortion declared a universal human right were derailed by the Holy See at Cairo) might not have an axe to grind in her “reconstruction” of her meeting with the Pope. Nor do the authors bother to explain why, in this single instance, John Paul should behave in a manner wholly alien to his personality and his approach to debate. Nor do the authors discuss the draft program of action, prepared for the Cairo conference by Mrs. Sadik and her colleagues of the UN Fund for Population Activities, which ignored marriage and would have required governments around the world to conduct propaganda campaigns on behalf of the sexual mores prevalent in certain of the less agreeable sections of Copenhagen. (See “What Really Happened at Cairo,” First Things, February 1995–– Eds.

This is not reporting or serious historical analysis; this is Oliver Stone does John Paul II, the man with a “tormented relationship to womankind.” In the wake of this unfortunate book and of Tad Szulc’s unsatisfactory 1995 effort, Pope John Paul II: The Biography, it seems ever more clear that this singular man, Karol Wojtyla, can be understood only “from inside.” Those interested in understanding one of the most dramatic lives of the century (and one of the most important pontificates of the second millennium) have to be prepared to take Karol Jozef Wojtyla as what he says he is: a radically committed Christian believer for whom a central, defining conviction––“Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life”––is the source of both his thought and his action. No other approach can get at the essence of the man and his work.

George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is currently at work on a biography of Pope John Paul II.