• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Holy Warrior

His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time

by Carl Bernstein, by Marco Politi
Doubleday, 582 pp., $27.50

The glossy publicity material for His Holiness, a book being published simultaneously in eight countries and in excerpted form by Reader’s Digest, contains a list of nineteen “Possible Questions” for the authors. Designed for anticipated press conferences and interviews, these questions are anything but probing and do not suggest that the authors, both investigative journalists, hold their colleagues in high esteem. Nevertheless, such “puff” questions are revealing in their way: more than half of them are invitations to the authors to boast of their discoveries, and they show that Bernstein and Politi (who writes for the Italian daily La Repubblica) mean their sub-title to be taken seriously. They do believe that they have brought to light the hidden history of our time.

Their book is written in a style appropriate to such a claim, rhetorically inflated and awash in hints of secret conversations, confidential informants, and unrevealable sources. In their chatty descriptions of people, places, and events, the authors miss few opportunities to reproduce a cliché. A Jewish attorney in the Pope’s birthplace is said to have been held “in the highest esteem both by his co-religionists and by most of the Gentile movers and shakers of Wadowice.” As a substitute for an account of Karol Wojtyla’s debt to Polish literature we are told that “Adam Mickiewicz, the Romantic bard, in particular set strings resonating in Karol.” At audiences with the new Pope, we learn, “nuns went crazy.” His Holiness is simultaneously urgent and soggy, with gobbets of interesting information adrift in a tumbling onrush of breathless, “colorful” prose.1

What have our authors discovered that lay hidden before? According to their own claim, two things. First, a hitherto unknown alliance during the 1980s between Pope John Paul II and the Reagan administration, whose aim was to bring down communism in Europe and prevent its appearance in Central America. Second, that the role of the Pope in engineering the downfall of communism in Europe was vastly more important than anyone had hitherto suspected. They also claim to have revealed for the first time the nature and extent of US (covert) support for Solidarity after the imposition of martial law in Poland in December 1981, and to have shown that it was papal influence that shaped US policy in other matters—notably the opposition of the Reagan and Bush administrations to international agencies that support and practice family planning.

Since the authors are cagey about some sources—“secret,” “confidential,” and “private” appear frequently in the rather unhelpful endnotes—and heavily dependent on interviews (over three hundred by their account), it is impossible to check or corroborate much of the information.2 But it seems reasonable to believe them when they tell us that William Casey (director of the CIA) and Vernon Walters (“Presidential ambassador-at-large”) met regularly with the Pope, briefing him on US satellite information about Soviet troop movements and the like. It seems plausible to infer that the US administration came to think of the Polish Pope as a natural and powerful ally, treated him as such, and were in their turn favored by a Pope whose objectives dovetailed well enough with those of the US governments of the era—as they put it, “Wojtyla’s Church became the administration’s principal ideological ally in the struggle against the Sandinistas.” In the same way, the authors are probably right when they say that the minutes of the Soviet Politburo in the early Eighties reveal a lot of nervousness over Poland and its friend in the Vatican. As the Polish Communists well knew, a change in the position of the Catholic Church, from compromise to resistance, could have a destabilizing impact on the local regime and region.

Bernstein and Politi may therefore be said, giving them maximum credit, to have demonstrated convincingly the existence of mutual US-Vatican interests and support as well as the fears aroused in Soviet circles by actual or anticipated papal initiatives.3 But they can hardly be said to have discovered things previously unknown. Thus the authors claim to have uncovered a “covert CIA operation, secretly authorized by Carter, to smuggle anti-Communist books and literature into Eastern Europe.” I am interested, though not surprised, to learn that these smuggling operations had CIA financial backing; but that books were being taken clandestinely into Communist countries during the decade prior to their liberation is old news, and not only to those of us who had a walk-on part in that drama. The same is true of American backing for Solidarity in its underground years; all that this book adds to our knowledge of that support is an estimate, based on confidential sources, of the amounts involved ($50 million) and the supposition that this support was part of a secret agreement with the Vatican. In neither case will this information come as a shock to contemporary observers, scholars, or other journalists.

It is thus absurd to describe as “essentially accurate” Richard Allen’s puerile and self-serving description of the Reagan-Vatican relationship as “one of the greatest secret alliances of all time.” It is a gross overstatement to suggest that the Vatican and Warsaw joined Moscow and Washington as the “essential coordinates” of the cold war. These and other hyperbolic claims reflect the authors’ own blinkered perspective, as well as their rather charitable attitude toward their sources, whose information is rarely questioned and whose motives pass uninvestigated. In any history of the last years of the cold war, or of the collapse and fall of the Soviet Union, the Pope will obviously figure prominently, not least for the part played by Solidarity and the Polish opposition in the undermining of Communist credibility. In a similar vein, the story of the struggle for the soul of Latin America unavoidably entails consideration of the motives and interests of the Vatican at a time when those interests dovetailed with the overt and covert undertakings of conservative US governments. But that is not the full story, and the incapacitating defect of this book is that it takes the part for the whole and believes that it has uncovered the hidden narrative of our time when it has in practice confirmed and fleshed out just one interesting chapter.

It is tempting to suppose that this might have been a better book had there been less Bernstein and more Politi. For Marco Politi is an expert on the Vatican, and it is the story of this Pope and the hopes and disappointments surrounding him that offers a far more interesting clue to the history of our time than any number of energetic attempts to uncover secret alliances and hidden plots. The expectations aroused by the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla were unprecedented in modern times. In the Catholic Church he was regarded by some as a likely radical—open, imaginative, and young (just fifty-eight when elected pope in 1978), but already a veteran of Vatican II. Energetic, charismatic, and seemingly modern, this was the man who would complete the work of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and who would lead the Church into a new era, a pastor rather than a Curial bureaucrat.

Many “liberation theologists” favored his election, and liberal cardinals and archbishops in South America and elsewhere campaigned for him. His conservative supporters took comfort in his reputation for unbending theological firmness and the moral and political absolutism deriving from his experience as a priest and prelate under communism. This was a man who would not compromise with the Church’s enemies. Others still saw in him an “intellectual” pope, at ease in the company of scholars and himself well-versed in at least some aspects of modern thought, notably the philosophy of Husserl. All supposed that at the very least they would have a pope of the center, modern enough to handle the Church’s new dilemmas, traditional enough to hold the line against too much innovation.

In some sense they were all wrong. Karol Wojtyla is not a man whose strong views cancel each other out or tend to equilibrium. He is, rather, a man of many extremes. He may have been the first non-Italian pope in half a millennium, but he was no outsider—perennially re-elected to the Synodal Council of Bishops and a participant in Vatican II at the age of forty-two, he was a particular favorite of Paul VI and almost certainly that Pope’s private choice to succeed him. Like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the powerful head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Wojtyla had been startled out of his early reforming enthusiasm by the radical aftershock of John XXIII’s reforms and was already an instinctive administrative as well as a doctrinal conservative at the time of his election. But his style belied his message.

From the outset, this was a pope devoted to Reconquista, to breaking with his predecessors’ Roman acquiescence in modernity, secularism, and compromise. His campaign of international appearances—complete with carefully staged performances in huge open arenas with oversized crucifixes and a paraphernalia of light, sound, and theatrical timing—was not undertaken without design. This was a Big Pope, taking himself and his Faith to the world; not the old, shrinking Western Catholic world of Italy, France, and Spain, but to Brazil, Mexico, the US, and the Philippines. There was something strikingly immodest about the ambitions of this new Pope, visiting thirty-six countries in the first six years of his incumbency and openly proclaiming his goal, as the authors of this book rightly put it, of shaking “the Church out of its inferiority complex vis-à-vis the world.” Intuitively grasping a central feature of Catholicism’s popular appeal, John Paul II beatified and sanctified as no modern pope had done before him, virtually recasting the history of his Church in a hagiographic and martyrological vein.

The initial appeal of this energetic, messianic papal style was not confined to the non-European world. In Central Europe, too, the first Polish pontiff was no less adept at fulfilling his admirers’ expectations. Breaking with the “Ostpolitik” of his predecessors, he visited Poland in the year following his elevation to the papacy, attracting huge gatherings of the faithful and the admiring and definitively throwing in the Church’s lot with the forces for change that would soon thereafter coalesce into the Solidarity movement. He also discouraged Catholics everywhere in Central and Eastern Europe from negotiating, compromising, or debating with Marxism, and thereby offered his Church not merely as a silent sanctuary but as an alternative pole of moral and social authority, a crucial if temporary ally for the political opposition in Communist lands.

The same charismatic self-confidence that was used to such public effect in the Philippines or Central America thus became a political weapon in Communist Europe, neutralizing the efforts of “reforming” Communist leaders to negotiate civic compromises with the newly emboldened local spiritual leadership. In the decade following his visit to Poland, there can be no question but that John Paul II played a central part in the reduction and defeat of Soviet domination in Central and Eastern Europe. It was only after the initial wave of enthusiasm in Asia and the Americas had subsided, and communism in Europe had been overthrown, that the contradictions of the new papacy began to emerge.

  1. 1

    The book resembles nothing so much as a five-hundred-page Time magazine piece—as well it might, since it was in Time that Carl Bernstein, in 1992, first revealed the hitherto secret material on which the present book is based.

  2. 2

    Especially when the authors appear to be engaged in mind-reading, as on page 487, where we are told what the Pope was purportedly thinking while addressing an unappreciative audience in Kielce, Poland. Nothing in the sources for that speech suggest privileged authorial access to papal thoughts on the podium.

  3. 3

    There is some discussion of the hypothesis that it was the Soviet secret services who set up the unsuccessful attempt to kill the Pope in 1981, but the authors of this book are no better informed than previous investigators and conclude rather lamely that the charge is credible but “not proven.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print