Man of the Century

The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II
by Jonathan Kwitny (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1997, BX138.5.K95) 754 pp., $30.00

I first got interested in reading Man of the Century when I heard a National Public Radio interview featuring the author and Fr. Richard McBrien. The question arose about who has teaching authority in the Church. Kwitny cited Vatican II documents which affirm that supreme jurisdiction regarding faith and morals belongs to the pope. Rather than offer an opposing text, McBrien appealed to authority--his own. "I have been teaching theology for thirty-five years..." He went on to characterize Kwitny's statement as "fundamentalism." Of course, it would not have done Kwitny any good to make a further appeal to the actual texts since that is exactly what you expect fundamentalists to do. (They can't stand ambiguity so they look for security in black and white answers--in case you haven't heard.)

Later in the NPR interview Ray Suarez asked about the upcoming papal trip to Cuba. Kwitny attempted to place it in context of the pope's position vis-a-vis both communism and capitalism. McBrien said he would be looking at something else: what it showed about the state of the pontiff's health. Kwitny pointed out the Holy Father had just finished a grueling visit to France for World Youth Day and had another taxing trip scheduled for Brasil in the fall.

These exchanges made me think that Kwitny might have a good ability to "set the record straight." I was not disappointed. For example on the question of whether pope is going against Vatican II, he makes it clear he is not. He describes his involvement in the council as a young bishop and the consistency of his teaching with it. It is sometimes said the Holy Father has backed away from the Vatican II teaching on "collegiality." Kwitny shows in effect there was no particular teaching to back away from--if it is understood as a kind of primus inter pares (first among equals) sharing of authority. But collegiality in the sense of talking to a broad range of people before making a decision was something he practiced as bishop of Krakow. And as pope he was willing to take counsel and turn from his first impulse--for example, on the question of recognizing Israel.

On a myriad of other questions this is a book which can help to set the record straight: the pope's relationship to "Liberation Theology," his supposed bias against women, his disciplining of theological dissenters, etc. The real story is both more complex and more fascinating than the standard assumptions. One little example: the pope's remark about "husbands not lusting even after their own wives" is put into context and shown to have a meaning well beyond the jokes. A bigger example: what the actual procedure was in calling Fr. Hans Kung (and other dissenting theologians) to some accountability. And a question of justice relating not to John Paul II, but his predecessor. David Yallop wrote a book called In God's Name arguing that Pope John Paul I had been assassinated and accusing six people of having the motive and means to have done it. The book was a sensational best seller. Kwitny exposes some of its shabby research, citing a much more reliable account Thief in the Night by John Cornwell.

But the biggest question on which the author hopes to set matters straight is the pope's responsibility for the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. He rather effectively demolishes the view there was a conspiracy between the Vatican and the Reagan administration which brought totalitarianism down. Instead he advances the position that beginning in the late forties, Fr. Karol Wojtyla was laying the intellectual groundwork for its eventual fall. It was then he began inspiring young Polish leaders with a view of the supreme dignity of each human person. When he became bishop in 1958, he played key role in organizing an effective national church. Twenty years later, at the age of 58, he became pope. Kwitny argues that he steered a policy between the Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI and rigidity of President Reagan. Moreover it was John Paul II who carried the day. The bulk of the book is dedicated to showing that his approach worked. The downfall of communism was not brought about by military or even ultimately economic considerations--but because of ideas and spirituality. The thesis makes considerable sense to me, but then I am convinced that what finally concerns man is not economics, but meaning.

Kwitny gives tantalizing glimpses into the pope's own spirituality. On one level it is highly intellectual--and he seems to have an almost super-human personal discipline. But on another level his religiosity seems embarassingly external. As a boy he would kneel before statues to pray. As an adult he sometimes prostrated himself in a chapel. He was attracted to the controversial mystic, Padre Pio. While he was studying in Rome, he went to San Giovanni Rotondo and spent hours waiting in line to go to confession to him--and was evidently told "you will attain the highest position in the church." He thought the prophecy was fulfilled when he was made cardinal of Krakow. He not only sought out Padre Pio for confession, but for a miraculous healing. When a doctor friend of his fell sick with a terminal illness, bishop Wojtyla sent a letter to Padre Pio asking for his prayers. She recovered and attributes her healing to the prayers of the mystic.

What impressedd me most in Man of the Century was his pastoral zeal. His indefatigability as pope is well known, but the level of his commitment shined through most clearly in his early assignments--one to a small country parish, the other to the university. Neither were ones he sought or felt himself particularly suited for, but he threw himself into them with an incredible devotion. I have to say I was simply amazed by what Kwitny recounts of his relationship as a priest to university students. The intimacy they acheived through Masses, confessions, outings, discussions was marvelous. And during it all, the young priest was thinking and putting into writing a philosphy and spirituality which would reshape his country and the eventually the entire world.

Man of the Century is worth reading. It is not the definitive work on Pope John Paul II (I am personally waiting for George Weigel's promised biography). And by way of contrast he makes some strong criticisms of Pope Pius XI and Pius XII. Some of them seem undeserved. And hindsight is always 20/20. (We can all for example imagine how we would have responded to Nazism if we lived back in the 30's, but we are less sure exactly how to respond for example to abortion in our own day.) Nor does Pope John Paul II escape criticism. I am fully prepared to accept that he has his blind spots and has made his blunders--for example in some financial matters. Evangelical poverty seemed to have come almost "naturally" to him, but along with it a kind fatal lightness about financial matters in general. Still this was another area where cirmcunstances forced the pope to learn and he did so rather quickly.

Of particular interest to Catholics from Seattle are the pages Kwitney devotes to the "Hunthausen affair." Once again the overall context the author provides can help set the record straight. My own sense is that we are not quite ready for that. The investigation was taken as a personal attack, especially by us priests, and we reacted with predictable defensiveness. The emotions are probably still to raw to take a more serious look at what was involved. Nevertheless, for those willing to do so Man of the Century can help. It brings matters together in a way I have not yet seen. Hardly a definitive treatment, it does however state the issues succintly and separate out what does not really pertain.

This is scarcely a book for those who, like the priest referred to initially, have pre-judged the present pope. "Conservatives" may like it even less than "liberals" but it will tend to help set the record straight.

Other Books reviewed.

Pope Pius XII and the Shoah (New Yorks Times vs. New York Times)