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John Paul II's Hope for the Springtime of the Human Spirit

R&L: Witness to Hope joins at least two other massive studies of Pope John Paul II’s life, Szulc’s Pope John Paul II: The Biography and Bernstein and Politi’s His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time. What makes this biography distinctive?

Weigel: John Paul II can be understood only from “inside” the Christian convictions that make him who he is. Other biographies have approached John Paul from the “outside,” as a world statesman who is, incidentally, a Christian, a priest, and a bishop. Witness to Hope begins with a prologue titled, “The Disciple.” That is a crucial difference, and it sets up a very different kind of biography.

Witness to Hope also includes previously unrevealed documentation: John Paul’s December 1980 letter to Leonid Brezhnev during the first great Solidarity crisis; the pope’s 1983 letter to Deng Xiaoping; and the 1988—89 exchange of correspondence between John Paul and Mikhail Gorbachev. Several of Father Karol Wojtyla’s personal letters in the 1950s to a young friend on the nature of love are also disclosed here for the first time. I also was able to draw on private autobiographical memoranda that the pope kindly provided me.

In addition, readers will find an inside exploration of the negotiations that led to diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, and the first-ever account of Andrei Sakharov’s dramatic encounter with the pope, which had a direct impact on the democracy movement in the U.S.S.R. Witness to Hope also offers a look inside the negotiations with Fidel Castro, leading up to the pope’s epic pilgrimage to Cuba in 1998.

Finally, Witness to Hope includes a discussion of every major teaching document in John Paul’s pontificate, in what I hope is a reader-friendly fashion.

R&L: In this biography you give John Paul three sobriquets that each reflect a certain facet of his life and work: “a witness to hope,” “a sign of contradiction,” and “a Christian radical.” I would like for us to unpack each of these in turn. First, what has been the nature of the pope’s witness to hope?

Weigel: Karol Wojtyla has looked into the heart of virtually every modern darkness and has come out on the far side of that encounter as a “witness to hope,” as he described himself at the United Nations in 1995.

Hope is not optimism, which is a matter of optics, of how you look at things. Hope is a sturdier reality, a theological virtue. John Paul II’s hope in the human capacity, under grace, to fulfill modernity’s great aspiration to freedom and his hope that the future can bring a springtime of the human spirit have been powerful forces in the last two decades of this century of tears.

R&L: Second, what do you mean when you say that John Paul is a sign of contradiction?

Weigel: The pope is a thoroughly modern man who nevertheless challenges a lot of the conventional wisdom of self-consciously modern people. In a world dominated by the pleasure principle and by personal willfulness, he insists that suffering can be redemptive and that self-giving is far more important to human fulfillment than self-assertion. In an intellectual climate where the human capacity to know anything with certainty is under attack, he has taught that there are universal moral truths, that we can know them, and that, in knowing them, we encounter real obligations. To a world that often measures human beings by their utility, he has insisted that every human being has an inviolable dignity and worth. While others insist that the world runs by politics and economics, he has taught the priority of culture in the dynamics of history. Being this kind of a “sign of contradiction” does not make John Paul a pope against modernity, however. If the goal of freedom is human happiness, human flourishing, then a strong case can be made that the pope’s “contradictions” are very much in service to that goal.

R&L: Finally, what makes John Paul a Christian radical?

Weigel: He is a man for whom the truth of 1 Corinthians 12:31–the “more excellent way”–is quite simply the truth of the world, its origins, and its destiny. It is not just one option in a supermarket of “spiritualities.” Nothing happens for John Paul II outside the horizon of his commitment to the “more excellent way.” He wants to introduce those who have not encountered that way to it; he wants to help those who are “on the way” deepen their commitment to it. Whether he is meeting a world leader, the association of Italian hairdressers, or the young people who flock to him, the encounter always takes place “within” the horizon of his commitment as a Christian disciple and pastor. John Paul II is not an adept statesman who just happens to say Mass every morning; his Christian commitment and his priesthood are the sources of his statesmanship and, indeed, of every other facet of his life.

R&L: In addition to an account of his life, you also offer a great deal of analysis of John Paul’s papal teaching, which seems to cluster around three themes: freedom, work, and truth. Can you describe how he has developed these three themes in light of traditional Catholic social teaching and in response to the challenges of the modern world? Let’s start with the theme of freedom.

Weigel: In a homily in Baltimore in October 1995, John Paul said that “freedom consists not in doing what we like, but rather in having the right to do what we ought.” That is a very Actonian understanding of freedom–freedom ordered to moral truth and goodness. John Paul’s freedom for excellence, as we might call it, is also a direct challenge to a prominent notion of freedom in our culture today: freedom as an indifferent, neutral faculty of choice that can legitimately attach itself to anything. The truly human texture of freedom, John Paul insists, is to be found in freedom’s inherent link to moral truth.

R&L: Let’s turn now to the second theme. What has been important about his treatment of the nature of human work?

Weigel: Some Christian interpretations of the creation stories in Genesis hold that work is a punishment for original sin. John Paul II disagrees. He knows the difficulty of work, perhaps as only a former manual laborer can. He nonetheless insists that work is a function of human creativity, which, in turn, reflects God’s creativity. What John Paul terms the “Gospel of work” is a Christian reading of work as a form of participation in God’s ongoing creation of the world. John Paul’s analysis of work is also deeply influenced by the nineteenth century Polish poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid, who wrote that work, undertaken with love, is the highest expression of human freedom. For John Paul, work and freedom go together, as do freedom and truth.

R&L: Finally, how has John Paul defended the idea of truth in the modern world?

Weigel: By insisting, and by trying to demonstrate philosophically, that human beings can grasp the truth of things, even if in an incomplete way. Many Americans would be stunned to learn that philosophers today are profoundly skeptical that there is any such thing as “truth”: There is “your truth” and “my truth,” but nothing properly describable as “the truth.” John Paul knows that this radical skepticism is a prescription for anarchy and then tyranny, as the will to power–settling an argument by my imposing “my truth” on you through brute force–comes to dominate public life. That is why the pope’s defense of the human capacity to know the truth of things is crucial for democracy. Radical skepticism and democracy cannot coexist indefinitely.

R&L: In John Paul’s development of these three themes, what has been the keystone principle in his papal teaching?

Weigel: The keystone of the edifice of John Paul II’s teaching is the conviction that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life. According to many secularists, the intensity of that conviction makes the pope a sectarian. On the contrary, it is the depth of his Christian commitment that has opened him up to intense conversations with Christians of other communions, with the Jewish people, and with other major world religions.

R&L: Much of John Paul’s life has been spent in opposition to the great totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century. How would you characterize his response to tyranny?

Weigel: The creativity of John Paul’s analysis of totalitarianism and his prescription for effective resistance was its recognition that culture is the key to history. A people in firm possession of their historic culture could mount an effective, nonviolent resistance to totalitarianism; they could say “no” to communism, for example, on the basis of a higher and more compelling “yes”–for example, to the Catholic culture of Poland. This culture-first reading of history gave a new form of power to the powerless, attacked communism at its maximum point of vulnerability, and demonstrated that a revolution of conscience could ignite a nonviolent political revolution that led not to a new form of tyranny but to the restitution of civil society as the basis of democracy. That is what John Paul II did in east central Europe. That is what he tried to do in Cuba. And that is why the Communist leadership in Beijing has blocked his access to that country.

R&L: On this topic, one of the great disputed questions about this papacy has been John Paul’s role in the collapse of communism in central and eastern Europe. According to your research, what is the connection between this papacy and the end of the Soviet empire?

Weigel: John Paul was the chief, although not the only, inspiration of the revolution of conscience that preceded and made possible the political revolution of 1989. Conspiracy theories about the pope and American intelligence agencies are journalistic fantasies.

It seems to me that, even before the imposition of martial law in Poland, John Paul had intuited that communism was finished. It might take decades, but people who had decided not to acquiesce any longer in the Communist culture of the lie would eventually win out. As it happened, history went on “fast-forward” in a way that no one could have predicted–although it is certainly the case that the pope was less surprised by the Communist crack-up than many others. He knew, in his heart, that it was coming. And he knew why.

R&L: Although you officially did not begin work on this biography until 1996, you have been commenting on this papacy since John Paul’s election. In your move from papal commentator to papal biographer, what did you discover about this pope that surprised you?

Weigel: I have been struck by the dramatic continuity between Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s program and style as archbishop of Kraców between 1964 and 1978 and the program and style of Pope John Paul II. A lot of what the world has seen from Rome since 1978 was previewed in Kraków in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

I have been deeply moved by encountering the intensity of the Holy Father’s prayer life. I have gotten to know the pope’s robust and dry sense of humor. And I have been somewhat surprised by the degree to which the traditional managers of popes are still uncomfortable, twenty-one years after his election, with John Paul II’s determination to be a pastor rather than a bureaucratic manager.

R&L: Finally, how has the research for and writing of this book affected your family, your life, and your faith?

Weigel: I am very grateful to my family for their patience with what has been a very intense project, involving a lot of travel. That they have gotten to know the Holy Father in the process is a bonus for which I am grateful to him. As a Catholic, I believe that John Paul II is Peter amidst the disciples; I have also been deeply moved by the way in which this “witness to hope” profoundly touches the lives of those who do not share his, or my, faith.