We've Looked at Popes from Both Sides Now

By McCormick, Patrick | U.S. Catholic, November 2000 | Go to article overview

We've Looked at Popes from Both Sides Now


McCormick, Patrick, U.S. Catholic


Have a spate of recent books on the papacy been robbing Peter to pay for publicity? Or do they chronicle the development of a modern style of church leadership?

MARTIN LUTHER, WHO HAD HIS OWN STRUGGLES with the papacy, believed that all Christians were both sinners and saints (simul iustus et peccator). No doubt he would have thought the same thing about popes, particularly if he were alive today. In the last couple of years there's been a storm gathering around the Vatican regarding good and bad pontiffs, a storm that came to a head in September when John Paul II beatified both John XXIII and Pius IX. Many Catholics and other interested pope-watchers were astounded and disappointed at this odd coupling: of the engaging and optimistic pope who opened Vatican II with the 19th-century prelate who instituted the infamous Syllabus of Errors, pushed papal infallibility on the church, and declared war on modern culture, politics, and thought.

Still, the recent papal fuss has not been limited to "Good Pope John" and "Plo Nono." Recent years have seen a spate of bestselling books praising and condemning modern popes--some of them giving the papacy credit for ending the Cold War and bringing the church into the third millennium, some of them blaming popes for collaborating with the Holocaust and attempting to drag the church back into a medieval past. Some popes have been held up as courageous, compassionate, and ecumenical, extolled for acknowledging past sins and opening doors to reform, renewal, and reconciliation. Meanwhile, other pontiffs (or sometimes the very same ones) have been vilified as anti-modern--and sometimes anti-Semitic--autocrats unfit to wear the "shoes of the fisherman."

Twenty-two years into the longest pontificate of the 20th century, John Paul II has been the focus of dozens of books, with (at least) four major and largely complimentary biographies on Karol Wojtyla appearing in the last five years. New York Times reporter Tad Szulc's solid and highly readable Pope John Paul II: The Biography (Pocket Books, 1996) traces the Polish roots of Wojtyla's life and thought, examining the complex relationship the young cleric--and later archbishop and pontiff--had with his country's communist regime. Szulc also reports on the pope's significant efforts to improve church relations with Judaism and the state of Israel.

In Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi's more sensational and less convincing His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time (Penguin, 1996), the two investigative reporters examine--and probably exaggerate--the pope's secret role in Poland's Solidarity movement and the demise of Soviet communism. Along the way they also offer the now-standard criticisms of the pope's unbending defense of the church's ban on contraception and abortion as well as his forceful reaction to internal and theological criticism and dissent.

IT'S CLEAR FROM THE TITLE OF JONATHAN KWITNY'S Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II (Henry Holt, 1997) that the former Wall Street Journal reporter also sees Wojtyla as the person most responsible for bringing down the Iron Curtain, albeit through moral vision and activist leadership that inspired those who eventually undermined Soviet domination. At the same time, the author is not uncritical of the pope's response to internal dissent or of his fierce defense of official teachings on sexuality, gender, and celibacy.

It is, however, in George Weigel's impressive (even massive) Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (HarperCollins, 1999) that the pope receives his most thorough and flattering treatment. Weigel, invited by Wojtyla to write this work, has amassed a nearly staggering amount of information about the life, career, and thought of one of the most prolific and activist popes of all time. But unlike Szulc and the others, Weigel has come to praise not only John Paul II's struggles against communism and his formidable efforts at improved relations with Judaism--but also to argue that the pope has been correct in his dealings with dissenting voices from liberation, feminist, and other theologians. …

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