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Issue Date:  February 4, 2005

By John Cornwell
Doubleday, 336 pages, $24.95
Dissecting John Paul II


Even those who are bitterly disappointed in the papacy of John Paul II, as author John Cornwell clearly is, should offer a more balanced assessment of his reign than his The Pontiff in Winter presents. While some assessments border on hagiography, this one leans toward wholesale condemnation. At the end of the book, he characterizes Pope John Paul’s lengthy papacy thus: “His major and abiding legacy, I believe, is to be seen and felt in various forms of oppression and exclusion, trust in papal absolutism, and antagonistic divisions.”

It is one thing to opine that these traits have marked his papacy, as any honest and objective observer could; it is another thing to argue that they constitute his “major and abiding legacy.” Every concession of a positive trait or action of John Paul is quickly followed by an interpretation of an event that (supposedly) demonstrates the misuse of that charism or opportunity. Thus, for Mr. Cornwell, the pope is charming and charismatic, but he uses these attributes only to advance an agenda of personal power. The pope’s ability to connect with and inspire huge live audiences is beguiling and theatrical. His long hours in the confessional as a young priest are described as “directing the one-on-one theater of the soul in the darkness of the confessional,” itself a theatrical description for simply hearing confessions. An intellectual, playwright, poet and polyglot (and thus an exception among recent, if not all, popes) who personally wrote numerous encyclicals, he had a “usual aptitude for inelegant phraseology.” Cornwell opines that John Paul II was “an aspiring philosopher: that he was well-meaning, clever, undoubtedly original, bold -- but essentially an autodidact and, academically, completely out of his depth.”

At times Cornwell engages in psychohistory or psychologizing. For example, he writes: “Contemplating Karol Wojytla’s profound abhorrence of contraception and abortion, it is crucial to remember that as a young man, having lost his mother, sister and brother, he witnessed the tidal wave of hatred and violence that threatened to crush the life out of an entire people.” True, he experienced personal loss and lived through the Nazi devastation of Poland, but connecting these to his long-standing opposition to contraception and abortion is connecting dots that even a psychiatrist might resist.

Having denigrated the pope’s intellectual proclivities, Cornwell describes him as driven by a mystical vision inspired by the Blessed Virgin and confirmed by the Third Secret of Fatima and suggests that he experiences delusions as well. Even a skilled analyst might resist drawing such conclusions if he or she were the pope’s therapist.

If this book caricatures John Paul, there is truth in the caricature. John Paul has centralized authority in the papacy, shut women out of ordained ministry and power, reiterated that contraception is sinful while thousands die from sexually transmitted AIDS, appointed loyalist bishops instead of visionaries, confided in and empowered a coterie of like-minded Vatican officials, given little opportunity for bishops, priests or laity to voice their opinions or shape the local church, silenced theologians who do not fit his theological parameters, established exceptional structures and empowered conservative groups like Opus Dei, diminished the flame of hope ignited at Vatican II, refused to address creatively the crisis in the West in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, failed to revive moribund Catholicism in Europe and, although physically debilitated, stubbornly held on to power.

One aspect of this papacy that the book captures well is the declining health of the pontiff and consequently decreased direct papal involvement in overseeing the Vatican. As active as his papacy has been, these last years have been ones in which others (a select group) increasingly oversee the operation of the church.

In large part, I do not think that John Paul’s papacy has been liberating for individual Catholics, bishops’ conferences, lay ministers or women or that it has been supportive to progressives. But neither do I think it has done nothing to enhance the church. His personal piety, his fight against communism, his relations with other Christian churches and with other religions, his defense of human rights, his willingness to visit (and ability to connect with) scores of national and local churches and his intellectual and linguistic ability have all served the church well.

The major flaw in this book is that it portrays a complex man as simple.

Chester Gillis teaches theology at Georgetown University.

National Catholic Reporter, February 4, 2005

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