e-mail us


John Paul an important figure, but is he man of the century?


By Jonathan Kwitny
Henry Holt, 750 pages, $30 hardcover


Popes who reign at the end of the century always have a better chance of being called the "man of the century" than popes who rule in the earlier decades.

Had this century ended on June 4, 1963 -- the day after John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli) died, three months after he issued his globe-shaking yet world-embracing encyclical, Pacem in Terris, seven months after his church-changing Second Vatican Council (1962-65) opened -- he truly and rightly could have been the "man of the century."

In five years Roncalli altered Catholic and Christian and interfaith and inter-ideology world history. Even after 36 biographies (just in English and Italian -- plus three-score books on Vatican II), John XXIII's impact has scarcely been adequately measured.

The last pope who rounded out a century, Leo XIII (Gioacchino Pecci -- 1878-1903), 25 years pontiff, was widely hailed -- and loved -- as "the working man's pope." He was a serious contender, against Charles Darwin or Karl Marx, for man of the 19th century.

And consider, again in this century, a pope such as Benedict XV (1914-22), that oddly shaped and rather sad nobleman, Giacomo della Chiesa, the first pontiff to be faced with a world war. He had a harder pontificate than John Paul II. Imagine Benedict's agony: The leaders of all the major powers in the First World War and practically all the combatants were Christians. And he was the head of Christendom. For Christians might he, in his failures and frustrations, be an Imitation of Christ-style man of the century?

For Jonathan Kwitny, Pope John Paul II is man of the century because of Karol Wojtyla's firsthand role with Solidarity in the overthrow of communism in Poland and, by extension, Eastern Europe. The Pan-Slav liberator.

Thanks to Kwitny we now have the vital companion book to Tad Szulc's 1995 biography Pope John Paul II. These journalistic navigators, very different in their approaches, have provided an important cocked-hat sighting of John Paul II. They located him in his time. Not a happy time -- and Kwitny's work illuminates this -- for those Catholics, including bishops, whose touchstones are Vatican II's "people of God" designation (terminology Archbishop Wojtyla opposed), Medellin, the 1968 Latin American Bishops Conference (which as pope he has subverted through his episcopal appointments), and collegiality (which he ignores, or twists to suit his purposes).

It takes Kwitny about 120 pages to build up steam, but this is a very large book -- 750 pages. Once he is chuffing along, Kwitny at his best is a very good read indeed.

There are three Wojtylan trajectories in Kwitny's book. First, he is the man of destiny -- destined to be pope. Second, there is Wojtyla's intellect and strength of will, leading to direct actions (such as openly protecting Catholic journals and clandestinely ordaining Czech priests; providing funding and guidance to Solidarity) that helped overthrow the Marxists. Third, Wojtyla the priestly controversialist and thinker about human sexuality issues was, Kwitny contends, the key figure in the final version of Pope Paul's 1968 anti-contraception encyclical, Humanae Vitae, and Paul VI's preferred successor. Perhaps.

This is journalism, not history -- the journalists always beat the historians to the bookstore shelf. One difference between journalism and history is that for a journalist, a good quote is proof. For historians, it is not.

I must, however, now make an unfortunate and unanticipated diversion.

About 150 pages into the volume, Kwitny, in passing, delivers a smack at the late Catholic writer Peter Hebblethwaite -- which as a reviewer I could ignore but as the NCR editor who hired Hebblethwaite I ought not.

In a lengthy footnote, Kwitny writes, in part: "Hebblethwaite was particularly esteemed by Catholics who disagree with Vatican policy on sexual issues, but he also often wrote with sketchy sourcing about matters that were persuasively denied to me by everyone who seemed in a position to know. These denials rarely found their way into his articles. When I tried to question Hebblethwaite, he refused to talk to me. Eventually I discounted his undocumented words, which explains why some other things he wrote are not repeated in this book."

Hebblethwaite's writings have to stand history's tests on their merits. I initially hired Hebblethwaite in the mid- 1970s to cover Poland, which he did. Not an easy time to quote sources. When I based him in Rome as Vatican correspondent, his coverage of this pope's travels was superb and insightful; his frequent stories of Vatican intrigues accurate and solid. Reporting Vatican intrigue is difficult to do and even harder to publicly source.

Hebblethwaite certainly indulged himself with some betes noires and occasional notable journalistic flights of fancy -- not least concerning Cardinal Giovanni Benelli or his worries about the always pending infallibility status of Humanae Vitae. Yet over three decades Hebblethwaite wrote probably 1,500 articles in a range of newspapers and magazines for a dozen editors on both sides of the Atlantic. For which or how many of these does Kwitny stone him? Kwitny provides no clue -- though he's entitled to his view. Now back to Pope John Paul II.

Kwitny, a former Wall Street Journal writer and PBS host, is an industrious investigative reporter. He is fascinated with spies, covert operations and intrigue (partly to demolish Carl Bernstein's "unholy alliance" silliness about John Paul II's teaming up with President Ronald Reagan and his William Casey-led CIA to use Solidarity to overthrow the communists. Kwitny's Solidarity interviewees contend that Reagan's Washington refused all help.) The author occasionally wanders off into spydom to return with some papacy- or church-related spy-versus-spy gems that, though not always directly relevant, he tosses into our laps with the glee of a young boy returning from an illegal apple orchard raid.

Kwitny, like all enterprising journalists, gets his interviews where he can, and there are many of them -- and he footnotes his attempts when they're refused, a bit like putting "Entrance Examination, Calcutta University (Failed)" on one's business card.

Interviews aside, Kwitny leans very heavily on three books and the English Catholic newspaper The Tablet. In each of 26 chapters, he footnotes Time magazine Vatican correspondent Wilton Wynn or Wynn's 1988 book Keepers of the Keys at least once. In 11 chapters it's George Hunston Williams or William's book, The Mind of John Paul II. Mieczyslaw Malinski and his Pope John Paul II is Kwitny's third continuing source.

For his interpretation of Catholic history, Kwitny appears dependent on Thomas Bokenkotter's 1979 book A Concise History of the Catholic Church. Members of the American Catholic Historical Association might wonder at Kwitny's reference to "church historian Michael Novak."

Though it's not a device Kwitny used with characters in his earlier books, Kwitny refers to Karol Wojtyla until he is 19 only by his nickname, Lolek -- "like 'Chuck' or 'Charlie' in English," writes Kwitny.

Szulc etches a deeper portrait of Wojtyla where Kwitny provides a broader understanding of his activities. Szulc's sometimes more difficult biography better paints the gray bleakness of his picture of motherless Karol Wojtyla in his wartime wooden clogs and scruffy clothes and in his secondhand cassocks as a priest.

Kwitny captures the lighter side of Wojtyla -- fun despite his overwhelming capacity for study; kayaking while mentally wandering down the most humorless and abstruse tunnels of philosophy and theology; swimming with the young ladies and talking frank sex with college students unabashedly and knowing he was unabashed; yet always praying, praying, praying and reading, reading, reading and writing, writing, writing.

With some first-class reporting Kwitny restores Warsaw Cardinal Stefan Wyszinski's seriously underestimated early role in dealing with Poland's Marxist masters. Quite convincing.

Kwitny is at his best presenting the persons he's interviewed. When he questions Dr. Wanda Poltawska, a birth-control-eschewing psychiatrist and sex specialist, the reader feels her hesitancy, the determined viewpoints. Wojtyla is portrayed as decisively influenced by her views.

But Kwitny doesn't let go. He pursues her written work, searches for her studies, and what he finds is they don't amount to much and wouldn't stand up to peer evaluation in the West.

Time and again in this book we watch the energetic Kwitny trying to get to the source. But this is the Catholic church and the Vatican, and much of the old axiom still holds -- those who know don't talk, and those who talk don't know. So those footnotes about who wouldn't talk -- Archbishop Justin Rigali is one -- become important, too.

Kwitny does not have a good grasp of Catholic terms or many events. He is quite wrong when, for example, he states that "many people mistakenly believe that [collegiality] was a part of Vatican II."

Collegiality was very much a part of Vatican II's discussions and aspirations. As Vatican II historian and theologian Fr. Joseph Komonchak puts it, "the pope himself often invokes the term collegiality by reference to the council." Kwitny has a simplistic, even prejudicial interpretation of collegiality as a notion that "would have reduced the pope from an autocrat to just a presiding bishop."

Kwitny also is inaccurate in suggesting the council session of 1964 made Wojtyla into "an international celebrity." Even 12 years later -- two years before he became pope -- Wojtyla was a virtual unknown at the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. Some U.S. bishops knew who he was and U.S. Polish Catholic circles certainly welcomed him. But a celebrity he was not.

Or again, he has Frs. Charles Curran and David Tracy being tried as heretics by the Catholic University of America. And there's the usual piddling stuff in a book of this length -- Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark is always footnoted as McKerrick.

But on the broader trail, stepping in Wojtyla's footsteps, Kwitny is an excellent guide. Oddly, for a journalist seeking detachment, he is often the faithful page. Of Wyszynski's and Wojtyla's fighting communism Kwitny writes: "The aim was not victory, but a better world after victory. And it worked. Thank God." Understandable -- but appropriate?

Working from hindsight, Kwitny overemphasizes what Paul VI did for Wojtyla when Wojtyla was in Rome. When Wojtyla wasn't in town or giving retreats to the curia, Paul was showing equal courtesy and attention to other archbishops from other countries, some of whom also gave retreats. It's just that not all of them became pope.

But Wojtyla did. Not, though, in a straight line from intellectual priest in Poland to the papacy. There's a tendency in John Paul II biographers to underplay the significance of the fact that this pope was not the first elected to succeed Paul VI. Albino Luciani was. The first time out, the cardinals did not want Wojtyla. Period.

More, had John Paul I received better medical care, he might still be pope.

Dare one suggest that, not discounting the works of the Holy Spirit, achieving the papacy is a great human drama that also includes large measures of luck and politicking?

If so, then as luck would have it, John Paul II was there when the Poles needed him most. Good for them. Not so good for Latin Americans under their oppressive yoke, as Kwitny carefully shows.

After we are dead, the historians will have their say and Kwitny's book will receive its final review. But journalists like Kwitny and Szulc are so good at chasing down sources that historians are going to be hard-pressed to write history without reference to these books. Particularly Kwitny's.

John Paul II -- man of the century? A contender, certainly.

In reality though, the man of the century is a tie between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Angelo Roncalli. (But that's just a journalist's view.)

Arthur Jones is NCR's editor-at-large.

National Catholic Reporter, September 26, 1997