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As Time and other premillennial makers-of-lists have discovered in recent months, there is no lack of candidates for the position of emblematic figure of the twentieth century.

In the world of politics alone, there are several plausible nominees on a slate that includes the admirable and the odious in fairly equal proportion: Churchill, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Roosevelt, Reagan. Widening the search beyond the world of organized political power, a powerful case can be made for James Watson and Francis Crick, unravelers of the DNA “double-helix,” the key to biotechnology and what will almost certainly be the most urgent set of issues on the twenty-first century’s public agenda. In a historical period dramatically shaped by the application, for good or ill, of new scientific knowledge, some might also argue for Fermi, Heisenberg, or another of the great mid-century nuclear physicists as the man who made the most enduring impact on our times. And while his status as a scientist and a student of the human condition has been badly shaken in recent decades, there is no doubt that Sigmund Freud had an enormous impact on the twentieth century.

There is an element of the arbitrary in all such list-making, of course. And indeed here is an instance where the postmodern passion for hermeneutics makes eminent sense. In choosing the emblematic figure of the century now drawing rapidly to a close, it really is a matter of how one looks at things—in this instance, the dynamics of history.

If one believes that politics is not an independent variable in human affairs—if (as so many have argued in these pages) politics is a function of culture, and at the heart of culture is cultus, religion, what we cherish and what we worship—then a serious case can be made for Pope John Paul II as the man who most singularly embodies humanity’s trials and triumphs in the twentieth century.

One facet of the “culture first” case for John Paul II’s preeminence is institutional. The Roman Catholic Church has arguably been the most influential religious community of the past ten decades in shaping the world the twenty-first century will inherit; the Catholic Church has been decisively formed for the next century by John Paul’s authoritative interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, the most important religious event of this century; therefore John Paul II can be considered the twentieth century’s seminal figure. Moreover, his teachings will be institutionally developed and carried into the future, unlike another great Slavic moral witness with a plausible claim to being the man of the century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. In making that case, of course, it has to be remembered that a great reforming Pope and his accomplishments are not an individual achievement. John Paul II emerged from the heart of the Church and the priesthood, and he cannot be understood apart from that.

But a deeper argument can and should be explored here. John Paul II is not the emblematic figure of the twentieth century simply because his teachings and witness, which have had such a demonstrable impact on the history of our times, will be institutionally extended into the future, unlike the teachings of Churchill, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, FDR, or Reagan. No, John Paul II is arguably the iconic figure of the twentieth century because his life has embodied, personally and spiritually, the human crises with which Churchill, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, FDR, and Reagan (not to mention Watson and Crick, Heisenberg, Fermi, and Freud) were all engaged in their distinctive ways. And his teaching, which has emerged from a profound philosophical and theological reflection on those crises, has demonstrated the resilience, indeed the indispensability, of religious conviction in addressing the crisis of contemporary humanism. The twentieth century, which began with the confident assertion that a maturing humanity had outgrown its “need” for religion, proved that men could indeed organize the world without God. It also proved that, in doing so, men could only organize the world against each other, bringing humanity to the brink of catastrophe on more than one occasion.

Finally, if one believes that the Christian movement bears the truth of the world’s story, then John Paul II looms very large indeed. So, of course, do others: Billy Graham, who gave a new dynamism and unprecedented worldwide reach to evangelical Protestantism; Karl Barth, embodiment of the last great effort within the sixteenth-century Reformation traditions to reconstitute Christian orthodoxy apart from Rome or the Christian East. But neither Graham nor Barth became the kind of global moral witness that John Paul II has become. And in that sense (for the Pope insists that his public moral witness is, semper et ubique, a function of his Christian faith), neither was the kind of evangelist that John Paul II has been, throughout the worlds-within-worlds of humanity.

Nineteen sixty-eight was a bad year in a century replete with bad years. In February of the year in which the West seemed to come apart at the seams and Red Army tanks crushed the reform communism of the Prague Spring, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow wrote his friend, the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, about the large-scale philosophical project on which he was engaged in the midst of his pastoral responsibilities:

I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played out on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration planned at times by atheistic ideologies we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person.

That radical humanism—that life-forming commitment to “the inviolable mystery of the person”—was, and is, Karol Wojtyla’s response to a century in which false humanisms had created mountains of corpses and an ocean of blood, Auschwitz and the Gulag, abortion as a widespread means of fertility regulation, and the prospect of the biotechnical remanufacture of the humanum. In thinking through, preaching, writing about, and acting upon the implications of a radical humanism worthy of the human person, John Paul II addressed three of the most pressing issues on the human agenda in a way that seems likely to shape the debate on those issues long into the future: the priority of culture, the nature of sexual love, and the anthropology of freedom.

In the first instance, he boldly challenged the notion, rampant throughout the century, that either politics or economics was the engine of world-historical change.

The twentieth century experienced the lethal consequences of the political madnesses set loose in the world by the French Revolution. And this made it all the more striking (and perhaps indicative of the divine sense of irony) that the collapse of totalitarianism as a plausible political model came in 1989, two hundred years after the Jacobin fire had first melted men’s minds and consciences in the name of a false idea of freedom. Marxist economics would have engineered its own failure in due course, given its evident incapacity to compete in a world dominated by the microchip and digital revolutions. But even after communism was on the wane—indeed, even after its collapse—a kind of Marxist hangover continued in the West, where too many continued to believe that economics rules reality.

John Paul II’s role in the collapse of European communism rid his Slavic brethren of that particular political plague, challenged the assumed preeminence of politics and economics in our understanding of history, and taught the world a lesson about the real engine of change: culture.

The Pope’s pilgrimages to Poland in June 1979 and to Cuba in January 1998 were the two bookends, so to speak, of his “culture first” strategy of change, which is the public dimension of his longstanding commitment to resist the “pulverization” of the human person (as he put it to de Lubac). In both Poland and Cuba, Communist regimes had held a historically Christian nation in their grip for forty years. In both Poland and Cuba, John Paul addressed that particular political form of human pulverization by restoring to a people its authentic history and cultural memory. His message said, in various ways and without ever making reference to the regime then in power, “You are not who they say you are. Here is who you are. You [Poles, Cubans] are ‘Polish’ [or ‘Cuban’] because Christianity was the crucial factor in creating a human reality called ‘Poles’ [or ‘Cubans’]. Reclaim that source of your identity, deepen your commitment to it, and you will be free in a way that no worldly power can ever take from you.” The results were evident in Poland within fourteen months: a revolution of conscience, launched by John Paul II in June 1979, gave birth in Gdansk to the Solidarity movement, and ten years of nonviolent struggle later, communism was finished. The results have not been as rapid or dramatic in Cuba, but Fidel Castro and those who would continue his style of governance cannot be optimistic about the ultimate outcome.

The crack-up of communism was, like all epic historical moments, the product of the convergence of many things: Marxism’s economic inadequacies; the dynamics let loose in east central Europe by the 1975 Helsinki Final Act; the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; generational change in the Soviet leadership. But if one wants to understand why communism collapsed when it did (in 1989, rather than in 1999, or 2009, or 2019) and how it did (without bloodshed, in the main), then one simply must factor into this complex equation John Paul II’s revolution of conscience. And in taking account of that, one is inoculated against both the Jacobin-political and Marxist-economic delusions about the dynamics of history. For that epic achievement alone, John Paul II has a serious claim to being considered the emblematic figure of his, and our, times.

Then there was, and is, the sexual revolution, another attempt to redefine the humanum in the name of a certain concept of freedom: in this instance, the freedom to pursue the pleasure principle so long as “no one else” (or no one else in whom the state asserts a “compelling interest”) gets hurt. World Christianity’s early response to the sexual revolution was not impressive. Much of liberal Protestantism simply surrendered to it. And the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, the first major papal attempt to address the implications of the sexual revolution after it had broken out into mainstream Western culture, was a pastoral failure. When John Paul II was elected ten years later, the Humanae Vitae episode had contributed to a serious credibility problem for the Church on a host of other, related issues; and, just at the moment when the human wreckage caused by the sexual revolution had begun to cause some second thoughts among its former enthusiasts (especially among women), the Catholic Church, it seemed, had little to contribute to restructuring the argument.

John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” which he laid out in 130 general audience addresses between 1979 and 1984, is arguably the most creative Christian response to the sexual revolution and its “pulverization” of the human person to be articulated in the twentieth century. Its philosophical core is Wojtyla’s claim that what we might call a “Law of the Gift” is built into the very structure of human being-in-the-world. Because of that, self-giving, not self-assertion, is the royal road to human flourishing.

This depth truth of the human condition, which John Paul believed could be demonstrated by a careful analysis of human moral agency, had enormous implications for meeting the challenge of the sexual revolution. Sex, as often experienced in today’s sexual free-fire zone, is instinctive and impersonal. But that kind of sex does not rise above the level of animal sexuality, which is also instinctive and impersonal. Sex that is an expression of self-giving love, not a use of the other for temporary gratification, is the only sex worthy of human beings. Chastity, on this analysis, is what John Paul called the “integrity of love,” the virtue that makes it possible for one to love another as a person. We are made free, Wojtyla argues, so that we can make a free gift of ourselves to others; we are free so that we can love freely, and thus love truly. Genuine freedom—the freedom that disposes of itself in self-giving—is the context of a genuinely humanistic sexual ethic.

The theological core of John Paul’s “theology of the body” is his profoundly sacramental apprehension of reality. Our embodiedness as male and female is not an accident of evolutionary biology, he insists. Rather, that embodiedness and the mutuality built into it express some of the deepest truths of the world, and teach us something about the world’s Creator. John Paul even goes so far as to propose that sexual love within the bond of marital fidelity is an icon of the interior life of God the Holy Trinity, a community of mutual self-donation and mutual receptivity. Thus sexual love, within the bond of Christian marriage, is an act of worship.

It will be well into the twenty-first century before the Catholic Church, much less the wider culture, even begins to assimilate the contents of John Paul II’s theology of the body. A secondary literature capable of unpacking these dense, compact audience addresses is badly needed. But for the moment, it is worth noting that the Bishop of Rome, often assumed to be the custodian of a tradition deeply scarred by a Manichean deprecation of human sexuality, has articulated a deeply humanistic response to the sexual revolution that says to the readers of Playboy and Cosmopolitan alike, “Human sexuality is far greater than you imagine.”

In the third place, John Paul’s II’s radical humanism has helped recast the debate about the future of public life in free societies for the twenty-first century. After a century in which monarchy had collapsed and totalitarianism in its Fascist and Communist forms had been defeated, it seemed at the opening of the 1990s as if democracy and the market were triumphant. If you wanted a society that protected basic human rights while advancing the common good, you chose the participatory politics of democracy; if you wanted economic growth, a higher material standard of living for all, and the widest possible inclusion in what the Editor-in-Chief of this journal has called the “circle of productivity and exchange,” you chose a market-oriented, not state-directed, economy. John Paul II shared both of those convictions, as he made clear in the 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus. But he quickly decoded the new threats to the “mystery of the human person” in the post-Cold War world, and he spent much of the decade of the 1990s trying to explain that freedom detached from moral truth—the “freedom of indifference” that dominated the high culture of the triumphant West—was, inevitably, self-cannibalizing.

Freedom untethered from truth is freedom’s worst enemy. For if there is only your truth and my truth, and neither one of us recognizes a transcendent moral standard (call it “the truth”) by which to adjudicate our differences, then the only way to settle the argument is for you to impose your power on me, or for me to impose my power on you. Freedom untethered from truth leads to chaos; chaos leads to anarchy; and since human beings cannot tolerate anarchy, tyranny as the answer to the human imperative of order is just around the corner. The false humanism of the freedom of indifference leads first to freedom’s decay, and then to freedom’s demise.

Similarly, on the economic front, unless a vibrant public moral culture disciplines and directs the explosive human energies let loose by the free market, the market ends up destroying the culture that makes it possible. In what Zbigniew Brzezinski nicely described as the “permissive cornucopia” of the future, a society of unprecedented material wealth and equally unprecedented license, the virtues necessary for the market to work—self-command, the willingness to defer gratification, the talent for teamwork, the skill of prudent risk-taking-atrophy. MTV, not the Federal Trade Commission or the International Monetary Fund, is the true enemy of the free economy.

This vision of the free, prosperous, and virtuous society, itself a product of the radical humanism of Karol Wojtyla, has not won the day in the developed world. But the proposal is out there. And that proposal is part of the intellectual and moral patrimony of over a billion Roman Catholics, as well as many, many others who find in it the most comprehensive, and compelling vision of public life on offer at the threshold of a new century and a new millennium. That proposal, too, buttresses the claim that Pope John Paul II is the emblematic man of our times.

“Be not afraid!”, the antiphon of John Paul’s inaugural homily on October 22, 1978, quickly became a kind of motto for the pontificate. That this clarion call to a recovery of courage at the end of the twentieth century was never regarded, even by the Pope’s adversaries, as an impossible dream or a sentimental piety tells us a lot about Karol Wojtyla. Milovan Djilas (then a dissident in what was then Yugoslavia) was right when he said that the most impressive thing about the Pope was that he was a man utterly without fear. Courage of that sort explains a good part of the attraction of Karol Wojtyla’s radical humanism as a response to the crises of the twentieth century.

It is just as important, however, to underline that this fearlessness is neither Stoic in character nor the by-product of Karol Wojtyla’s personal “autonomy.” Rather, it is a specifically Christian fearlessness. It was first exemplified for young Karol Wojtyla by his widower-father and by the bishop who ordained him, the man he calls the “unbroken prince,” Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, who led the Church of Krakow through the dark night of the Nazi Occupation. Those experiences of fearlessness have been deepened by Wojtyla’s lifelong meditation on the mystery of the Cross, for the Pope is, in his heart, a Carmelite, and St. John of the Cross remains his spiritual master. His Cross-centered gaze on the world and its history precludes any hint of the Panglossian in the Pope’s Christian humanism. In it, fear is not displaced, but rather transformed: transformed through a deep personal encounter with the crucified and abandoned Christ, which sets those who experience it free from fear.

That the universality of one’s interests, compassion, and concerns is in inverse proportion to the depth of one’s particular convictions is one of the truisms of the late twentieth century. By the general reckoning of many of his contemporaries, the intensity of Karol Wojtyla’s conviction that the Cross is the truth of the world, and not simply another option in a supermarket of “spiritualities,” ought to have made him an impossibly narrow, even dangerous, sectarian. But here, too, Pope John Paul II has been an important, perhaps even decisive, sign of contradiction.

Judged by externals, John Paul II has a claim to papal greatness and to world attention because of the exceptional range of his outreach to those who do not share his deepest convictions: to secular scientists, to Jews, to Muslims, to Christians of other confessions. Yet Wojtyla insists that these encounters (which, in the case of the dialogue with Judaism, are of a sort not seen for more than nineteen hundred years) have come about not despite his Christian faith but because of it. Respectful dialogue with all who are “other” is not in tension with Christian orthodoxy or the papal task of safeguarding the deposit of faith. Respectful encounter and dialogue are what Christian orthodoxy demands.

The Pope himself was eager to make this point at the United Nations in 1995. In a passage that surprised some observers because it invoked what one official in the Vatican Secretariat of State called the “J-word” before an audience of world political leaders, John Paul made sure that everyone present in the General Assembly hall knew that his defense of universal human rights and a genuine humanism for the post-Cold War world was not the result of some generic “spirituality.” Defining himself as a “witness to hope,” the Pope had this to say about the sources of that hope and its public implications:

As a Christian, my hope and trust are centered on Jesus Christ, the two thousandth anniversary of whose birth will be celebrated at the coming of the new millennium.... Jesus Christ is for us God made man, and made part of the history of humanity. Precisely for this reason, Christian hope for the world and its future extends to every human person. Because of the radiant humanity of Christ, nothing genuinely human fails to touch the hearts of Christians. Faith in Christ does not impel us to intolerance. On the contrary, it obliges us to engage in a respectful dialogue. Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one.... Thus as we approach the two thousandth anniversary of the birth of Christ, the Church asks only to be able to propose respectfully this message of salvation, and to be able to promote, in charity and service, the solidarity of the entire human family.

He was standing at the marble rostrum of the UN General Assembly, but he was teaching a basic lesson in Christology. And in doing so, the Pope was calling both Christians and those for whom Christianity is ineluctably “sectarian” because of its insistence on the universal salvific mission of Christ to take seriously the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation.

It was not the first time John Paul had addressed this issue or suggested that it had important public implications. In Redemptoris Missio, his 1990 encyclical on Christian mission, John Paul had taught the orthodox faith of the Church: that many are saved who do not belong to the Church, but that those who are not saved in the Church are nonetheless saved because of Christ. At the same time, and in the same encyclical, John Paul made a decisive break with certain aspects of the Christian past and embraced the method of freedom when he wrote that “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing” (emphasis in original). Here was a decisive, historic break with the shadow-side of the Constantinian legacy. The Church, not by a merely prudential calculus but for the weightiest of theological reasons, renounced any use of state power in advancing its mission. A deep respect for every human being’s search for the truth and a commitment to the method of persuasion in preaching the gospel were twin, “universal” implications of the radical specificity of the Christian claim embedded in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

And here, too, John Paul II taught the twentieth century something important about the nature of the human person and about genuine humanism. A universal empathy with others comes through, not around, particular convictions. One empirical test of the truth of particular convictions is their capacity to engage empathetically with the “other” in ways that enrich the humanity of all concerned. It was, in the root meaning of the word, a crucial lesson at the end of a century in which “otherness” had too often been seen as a lethal threat, with lethal consequences.

The twentieth century, which witnessed the announcement of the death of God, was in fact a century of the death of the gods. None of the false gods of the twentieth century was able to exorcise the paralyzing fear that first hung like a pall over the opening battles of World War I and then drifted down the decades, blighting the lives and destinies of four generations of human beings. Being on the right side of history didn’t expel the demon of fear from the Bolsheviks and their progeny; it gave greater scope to deviltry, from the execution rooms in the Lubyanka basement to the frozen wastelands of the Kolyma mines. Racial determinism and its presumption of biological superiority didn’t exorcise the passions that informed German National Socialism; the master race, living out its fears, created a new reign of terror from the Atlantic to the Urals. The therapeutic society explained fear away, which worked only for a while, or medicated it, which was another form of the pulverization of the human person.

In the face of the great fear of his time—a fear formed by irrationality and the nihilism that always accompanies the degradation of reason—John Paul II could say, and mean, “Be not afraid!” because he worshiped the one true God, whose conquest of fear he had encountered in God’s only-begotten Son.

With the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth, a human being was inextricably taken up into the Godhead. And if, as St. Paul insisted to the Romans, Jesus Christ is the first fruits of God’s salvific action in and for the world, then all creation is eschatologically destined to fulfillment within the inner life of God. This truly radical humanism is the most compelling response to the false humanisms that wrought havoc with the twentieth century. Communion with God is the source of the liberation that humanism has sought for centuries.

John Paul himself would insist most vigorously that there are many others who could claim to be the human icon of the twentieth century. This is not simply a question of modesty, for Pope John Paul II knows that the truths he has taught and lived are iconic: they point beyond themselves to the One who is the Truth. Self-giving as the source of genuine human flourishing and the central moral imperative of true humanism is such a truth. This is the gospel, and the Church’s raison d’être is to preach it. The Church is the Body of Christ. And thus the figure of this century, or any century, is Jesus Christ.

That, Pope John Paul II has insisted since his 1994 announcement of the Great Jubilee of 2000, is what the world’s celebration of the turn of the millennium must recognize: that the revelation of God in the incarnate Christ is, at the same time, the revelation of true humanism.

George Weigel is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II, recently published by HarperCollins.

Image by Levan Ramishvili, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.