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Chronicle of a Modern Christian Radical

George Weigel’s remarkable biography of a remarkable pope closes with G. K. Chesterton’s description of Saint Thomas More: “He was above all things, historic: He represented at once a type, a turning-point, and an ultimate destiny. If there had not been that particular man at that particular moment, the whole of history would have been different.” This is an apt description of the life and times of Karol Wojtyla, the poet, actor, and philosopher who would become Pope John Paul II, the most enduring and consequential person of the last quarter of our century and certainly one of the great popes in the history of the church.

As George Weigel notes, John Paul II caused the century to end differently from how many intellectuals supposed it would. After the loss of the papal states in 1870 and the steady march of communism and secularism from first two decades of the century forward, the Roman Catholic Church was expected to be continually reduced in stature until the triumph of secular collectivism, informed by science and led by a new class of intellectuals, became evident to all. At the end of the millennium, however, it turns out that the Catholic Church retains its status and influence in both spiritual and worldly affairs, and, in Weigel’s words, “the most compelling public figure in the world, the man with arguably the most coherent and comprehensive vision of the human possibility in the world ahead, is the man who is best described as the complete Christian.”

Witness to Hope sets out to demonstrate that John Paul II is both the focus and the cause of the change, the witness to hope in our times and the voice of hope to hundreds of millions. In making this case, and in a range of other areas, the book must be considered a spectacular success. Weigel’s approach is not simply to assemble the public record but, rather, to examine the mind of Karol Wojtyla “from the inside”: the pope’s motivations, goals, and methods from his own point of view and from the theological perspective that has been the core of this papacy. To make this possible, the author was granted access to Vatican archives–access no previous papal biographer has ever been granted. He makes excellent use of this access, providing the reader an inside account of the pope’s role in the fall of communism and the collapse of dictatorships, the theological controversies over liberation theology and dissent, and the emergence of a new Europe and a new America. Weigel had eleven extended conversations with the pope and interviewed thousands of people who have had close contact with John Paul II in all his dealings.

While the end result is a biography that heralds the life of its subject, the biography in no way feels “authorized”; indeed, it was decided at the outset that the book would be Weigel’s own and its subject would have no veto power over the content. This surely will not be the last attempt to write the “definitive” biography of this pope, but it is difficult to imagine a book that could surpass it. In its astonishing scope, attention to detail, and balance of analysis, this book provides everything one could hope for in a biography of such a significant figure.

A Pope Without Precedent

How is it possible even to begin to assess this pope’s impact on the church and the world? Let us recount the facts. John Paul II has been pope for longer than all but ten men in the history of the church. He has made 84 pilgrimages and 134 pastoral visits, traveling a total of 670,878 miles–2.8 times the distance between the earth and the moon. In his trips outside Rome, he has delivered 3,078 addresses and homilies and has spoken to hundreds of millions of people. No human being in the history of the world has spoken to so many people in so many cultural settings. The printed record of his teaching covers ten feet of shelf space. He has promulgated a new canon law and a new catechism, beatified 798 men and women, and canonized 280 new saints. He has appointed 159 new Cardinals, and 101 of the 115 members of the College that will vote on the next pope are his appointees.

Summing up his biography, Weigel lists eight main achievements of this pope: a renovated papacy, the full implementation of Vatican II, the collapse of communism, the clarification of the moral challenges facing the free society, the insertion of ecumenism into the heart of Catholicism, the new dialogue with Judaism, the redefinition of interreligious dialogue, and his personal inspiration to millions.

This list is somewhat surprising because it makes clear that this papacy has turned out very differently from how its early detractors predicted it would. I remember being in seminary and observing the emerging opinion among many that this pope should be considered a very simple reactionary attempting to repeal the Second Vatican Council, keep women in their place, and close the window that church had opened to the outside world in the previous decade. Weigel calls this the “conventional critique” of this papacy, and his refutation of it is withering. Anyone who still holds that view has been willfully blind to the core of this papacy, which has marched steadily forward, undeterred by critics from all sides.

There are two new insights that Weigel has brought to his subject, ones that have not been covered in the more journalistic treatments to which Pope John Paul II has been subjected over two and a half decades.

First, Weigel understands this pope to be a “Christian radical” who is always centered on understanding the roots of the spiritual, cultural, and political difficulties experienced by the modern world. The use of the term radical here is quite brilliant, because it implies not heterodoxy but its opposite. Given the present state of the culture in most parts of the world, what proposition could be more radical than to assert the absolute truth of orthodox Christianity?

The pope’s root theme is summed up by Weigel as follows: “Christ, the redeemer of the world, reveals the astonishing truth about the human condition and our final destiny; self-giving love is the path along which human freedom finds its fulfillment in human flourishing.” In pursuit of this theme, the pope has been the most consistent champion of the dignity of all human life, and he has advanced this view regardless of the political fallout. His celebration of rightly ordered sexuality within the family and his opposition to euthanasia and abortion cut against the grain of current thinking in secular society. Despite all attacks, he has never wavered from his position, advanced everywhere with compassion and drama. His “radicalism” is also evident in his willingness to challenge entrenched institutions, from communism in Poland to state-education in Cuba to consumerist materialism in the West.

The second new insight Weigel presents is his understanding that this pope has been an outsider in Rome. He had not been acculturated to be a pope. He had known next to nothing about the “ins” and “outs” of the Roman Curial bureaucracy. He has never shown much interest in the never-ending political controversies that vex ecclesiastical politics. As a consequence, his papacy has been primarily evangelical rather than bureaucratic in character. Furthermore, this evangelism has meant not only speaking truth to the world but also exhorting the Catholic Church to become ever more faithful to its divine calling to be an example of the light of Christ in the world.

It goes without saying that Weigel’s treatment is deeply sympathetic, but it notably manages to avoid hagiography. Indeed, it might surprise the reader to discover that, in places, Weigel offers measured criticism of several aspects of this papacy (for example, on the Vatican opposition to the Gulf War and the limitations of the pope’s management style in securing his theological legacy within the Curia).

But a Farther-Reaching Project

In that same spirit, I might suggest that Weigel has not appreciated the full scope of the pope’s teaching concerning economics. The pope has not set out merely to embrace the productive and moral power of the market economy and to restrain it within a juridical and moral framework, as Weigel argues. His project concerning economics has been more intellectually far-reaching: to revive the late-scholastic continental tradition of economic thought and to demonstrate its compatibility with the insights of modern economic science, particularly that of the “humanistic” Austrian school approach. But this is a small quibble in what is clearly a triumph. Weigel has captured this extraordinary man like no other writer.