Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II; drawing by David Levine

Was the Pope subjecting us to a Great Wu routine? It seemed so. Let Orson Welles, always a bit of a Wu himself, explain:

Mister Wu is a classic example [of theatrical hype]—I’ve played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage for about an hour shrieking, “What will happen when Mister Wu arrives?” “What is he like, this Mister Wu?” and so on. Finally, a great gong is beaten, and slowly over a Chinese bridge comes Mr. Wu himself in full mandarin robes. Peach Blossom (or whatever her name is) falls on her face and a lot of coolies yell, “Mister Wu!!!” The curtain comes down, the audience goes wild, and everybody says, “Isn’t that guy playing Mr. Wu a great actor!” That’s a star part for you!1

The release of the Pope’s multi-million-dollar project had clear marks of Wu upon it. The books and tapes were warehoused, embargoed, surrounded with the hush-hush of great revelations withheld. Then the drum-beat of anticipation ended in a clash of publicity’s cymbals. The books came sluicing out, in twenty-one languages, with television cameras recording their arrival in the stores, their opening, their (disappointing) sales.

In other cases, there would have been an explosion of disapproval if readers found there was nothing new in a book so wrapped in conspiratorial trappings. One looks silly striving to hide a thing that is not there. But for a pope of dogma and tradition, there is no shame in saying nothing new. He is not supposed to make reckless additions to the “deposit of faith.” Only God can issue new commandments, a new revelation.

The promoters of the book seem hard put to justify their exercise in mystification. Vittorio Messori, the journalist whose questions form the basis of the book, claims that the new thing is the format—the Pope promised to comply (but ultimately did not) with a request to be interviewed at length on television. John Paul II, who required that the questions be submitted beforehand, wrote his answers at leisure and sent them back to the journalist through his press representative. This is what Messori calls “a conversation.”

A snake-oil salesman has to think his audience obtuse in order to keep up his act. So Messori boasts that the Pope answered all his questions “without avoiding one of them”—though anyone who turns the page will find that the Pope avoided the very first one. After a long deferential windup, Messori asked: “Haven’t you ever had, not doubts certainly, but at least questions and problems (as is human) about the truth of this Creed?” Despite the tuckings and bowings (not doubts, as is human), he was asking a personal question. The Pope gave an institutional answer: even Peter had trouble with the idea that God could suffer. Nothing about the Pope’s own doubts (if any). Yet the “candor” of the new book was supposed to set it aside from all the Pope’s earlier (non-multimillion-dollar) publications. The Pope sidestepped another question (Number 22) when Messori asked about the “decisions by the Anglican Church [that] have created new obstacles” to church union. He was clearly referring to ordination of women priests. The Pope answered by saying high-minded things about the ecumenical movement; he never addressed the specific Anglican decisions.

Messori is not a dogged questioner (though he apologizes for being “provocative”). He butters up the Pope at all opportunities: “Allow me to observe that your very clear words once again demonstrate the partiality, the short-sightedness of those who have suspected you of pushing for a ‘restoration,’ of being a ‘reactionary’ with regard to the Council.” So certain questions begging to be asked were not asked—e.g., about the Pope’s partiality to the secretive and authoritarian Opus Dei movement. Messori is friendly with the papal press agent who arranged the “conversation” in the first place, Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, who is himself a member of Opus Dei.

There seems to be something of the Great Wu in the Pope’s own attitude toward himself. Asked about the role of a Polish pope in the downfall of communism, he answers: “Perhaps this is why it was necessary for the assassination attempt [on John Paul’s life] to be made in St. Peter’s Square precisely on May 13, 1981, the anniversary of the first apparition [of Mary] at Fátima.” That reminds me of James I’s belief that two plots on his life were providentially arranged to fall on a Tuesday, both of them the fifth in their month.2

Actually, many people see something providential in John Paul’s strengthening of Polish resistance to communism. It is the tie-in with Fátima that puzzles. And though Catholics believe that God’s providence embraces all the world, as well as their Church’s leadership, Bernhard Schimmelpfennig’s analytical history, The Papacy, reminds us that providence has also provided mankind with murderer-popes, perjurer-popes, and even heretic-popes.3


As an apologist for the faith, John Paul II seems to be giving rote answers. When Messori asks how one can tell that Jesus is the Son of God, John Paul answers that this is what Peter called him at Matthew 16:16. When Messori asks why God seems to hide his existence, the Pope answers that this question is just a result of Cartesian rationalism—which is not much comfort to those who see the problem very clearly but have never heard of Descartes.

But it is worth persevering with the book. As he goes along, the Pope seems to loosen up, to become more personal, to go back continually to his Polish experience, as if clamoring to get out of the restraints of his office. If there are no new doctrines, there are new approaches to doctrine. The Pope labors to say what he believes, not (only) what the office demands him to pronounce. Asked about eternal life—about heaven and hell—John Paul says that hell exists, but no man, not even Judas, can be said to be there. He repeats the text of 1 Timothy 2:4, that God wants everyone to be saved. It is an open question, he maintains whether man can be rejected by a God who saves. This goes far beyond what the new Catholic catechism says about hell. The Pope even quotes a favorite author of his, Saint John of the Cross, on interior hell and purgatory existing during one’s lifetime.

On the subject of salvation in general, the Pope says that the Church once placed too much emphasis on individual salvation, whereas God came to save the whole world, even to “divinize” it. Teilhard de Chardin got into trouble with the Vatican for holding those views. Yet the new catechism, by returning to old mysteries, unearths a vision of universal salvation in the teaching of the Creed. The dead Jesus “descended into hell” to reclaim the whole of history since Adam’s time. The catechism quotes an ancient homily saying, “He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep,” so that none shall be lost.

The Pope’s ecumenism is also less grudging than that of his predecessors. John Paul admits that Rome has things to learn from other churches; that truths emerge from other religions, including Buddhism, which might lie hidden but for the “dialectic” process of interaction between the various faiths. Elsewhere he gives an example of this by referring with approval to Cardinal Newman’s famous words, “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please; still, to Conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.”4 Newman was criticized for talking like a Protestant—and he had, indeed, learned of the primacy of conscience from the Reformation. Now the Pope has learned it, too. (The Catholic catechism quotes Newman on conscience, but from a less pointed text.)

As his book becomes more personal, the Pope goes back to his own history in Poland, to his first experiences of piety, to his study of phenomenology. One Catholic philosopher has criticized the Pope for speaking out of a specific philosophical school, as if people had to study Husserl in order to be Catholics.5 The same objections were raised to Saint Augustine’s Neoplatonic background, or to Saint Thomas’s Aristotelianism. But one must use refined language to approach divine mysteries, and it is bracing to see the Pope grappling with the most basic doctrines in fresh ways—especially for us Catholics who must listen to the sermons preached these days. For most priests in the pulpit, the basic doctrines of the Church—the Trinity, the Incarnation—are “mysteries” in the sense that they are technical points of theology not “relevant” to Catholics’ modern concerns. Sermons become therapeutic and empathetic, leveling farther down every day toward the Oprah Winfrey Show.

The sermons of Saint Augustine tried to take Christians into the heart of the faith—and so do John Paul’s reflections on the meaning of Jesus as the entry point for human beings into the inmost self-communication of God: “Man is saved in the Church by being brought into the Mystery of the Divine Trinity.” By reflecting on the Trinity, Saint Augustine developed a whole new view of human personality—that we are selves, not a self; that even God must exist in dialogue; that he is not only a unity (as Plato thought) but a community. It is in this vein that John Paul uses the insights of Martin Buber (the “I” is a relation, not a substance) or of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (identity cannot be constituted without a sense of other beings to talk of man’s relation to God).6 Saint Augustine would find something trinitarian in these views.


When a newspaper article of the 1920s called the conciliar “quibbles” about the dual nature of Christ a sign of the degenerate Greek intellect (Gibbon’s view), Chesterton wrote a poetic answer that showed the reaching of two Greek myths toward complementarity—the eagle of Zeus imposing order on the world, the vulture of Zeus feeding on Prometheus. At the end, a “simple” combination, the centaur, reacts in fear to a greater monster, who cries:

I am Prometheus. I am Jupiter.
In ravening obedience down from heaven,
Hailed of my hand and by this sign alone,
My eagle comes to tear me.7

The idea of the Incarnation may be monstrous. It is hardly dull, or irrelevant to the way people think of themselves and their world. In Jesus, the Pope writes, God does not answer Job from on high, but comes down to join him in “the tragedy of redemption.” It is a relief to see the Pope talk of the truths of faith with the excitement they deserve (whether true or false). The new catechism offers some of the same stimulation.

But when I am asked whether I am a church-going Catholic and answer yes, no one inquires whether I really believe in such strange things as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Resurrection. I am asked about ovaries and trimesters. The great mysteries of faith have become, for many inside the church as well as outside, the “doctrines” on contraception and abortion. These are hardly great concerns in the gospels and the letters of Saint Paul, which never mention them. But they crowd out most other talk of Catholic beliefs in modern conversation.

For this the current Pope must bear some of the blame. He tells us, in this book, that he is not obsessed with abortion; but he certainly encourages that obsession in others.8 His fine Husserlian talk of personality degenerates, at second hand, to hairsplitting on the difference between all the fertilized ova that fail to attach themselves to the uterine wall and those few that do. It’s a wonder some of the Pope’s followers, with this view of the fertilized egg as a person, do not stand by to baptize every uterine flux as well as every aborted fetus. (The Church did not baptize even fully formed fetuses in the past.) Talk of the degeneration of intellect into quibbles.

The real mysteries of the faith are easier to believe than the supposedly rational condemnation of contraceptives based on “natural law.” According to the Pope, the sex act must always be ordinated toward procreation, and never to pleasure alone. By that logic, eating and drinking must always be ordinated toward self-preservation, never to pleasure. The toast of fellowship among well-fed people is ruled out, all the symbolic and extraordinary uses of feasting and drink that find their highest expression in the agape feast and the Eucharist. The body does not physically need the eucharistic bread or cup, so they are unnatural.

The Pope attacks biblical fundamentalism in this new book. But his approach to women’s ministry is absurdly fundamentalist. Jesus chose only men apostles, in the context of his own culture, so there is something essentially male about priesthood. Yet he also chose only Jews, who spoke Aramaic, who were married, who had not read the (nonexistent) gospels; and those requirements are not imposed in modern conditions. The Pope, of course, claims that no denigration of women is intended in this “division of labor.” But his view of the superior dignity of males slips out when the Pope speaks of the father-hood of God: “The father-son paradigm is ageless. It is older than human history.” The “rays of father-hood” are divine. We hear of no mother-daughter paradigm for the divine-human relationship. No wonder the Pope can write, without any sense of irony: “Not only abortion, but also contraception, are ultimately bound up with the truth about man.”

How can the Pope be so intellectually probing and honest, yet so closed and simplistic on certain matters (all having to do with sex)? That is a conundrum his biographers will have a hard time reading. The answer may lie in his Polish experience at a time of crisis—as his own frequent references backward show. A church under persecution holds to all signs and rituals as acts of resistance. The piety of John Paul was embattled and sacrificial—he often refers to the benefits of persecution and laments the failure of “heroism” in a pampered age. Furthermore, he lost his mother at the age of nine (she died in childbirth!) and he seems to have shifted his love for the missing woman over to the Virgin Mary.

The Pope’s piety toward Mary is almost scary. She is the subject of more entries in the collected Prayers and Devotions than any other aspect of God or religion. The Pope can say the biblically correct things about Mary, as First Disciple and symbol of the church, but he is also interested in all the supposed apparitions of Mary in modern times—not only in Fátima, Guadalupe, and Lourdes, but in dubious events like that which occurred at Knock in Ireland (where the Pope went to pay homage to “Our Lady of Knock”).9 The Pope’s emphases on Mary verge on those in a sermon I heard an Italian priest give in Verona last September: “Our Protestant brothers—I say this with infinite sorrow—do not honor the Madonna, so they cannot understand the Faith, since she is at the center of it.”

It may seem odd that the Pope should honor Mary so, yet have a constricted view of women’s role in the church. But his image of Mary is one of submission.10 As a replacement for the mother who died early in Wojtyla’s life, she is a guardian of chastity, inhibiting sexual expression. The minatory role of celibacy shows up in the Pope’s odd argument that married people will not stay faithful to each other if they do not have the model of celibate fidelity near at hand. As he puts it in Prayers and Devotions: “Consecrated celibacy helps married couples and family members to keep the conscience and the practice of the loftiest ideals of their union alive… Virginity keeps consciousness of the mystery of matrimony alive in the Church and defends it from being reduced in any way and from all impoverishment.”11 By this standard, Jews or Protestants lacking a celibate priesthood, would be incapable of marital fidelity.

After his initial evasions, the Pope has invited us into his psyche with his own reflections on his early life. The challenge to biographers is very great. They will find important clues in his poems. His best-known poem deals with his experience working in a quarry, where comradeship and anger mix in ways more explosive than the blasting powder. He deals with alienation in “The Car Factory Worker.” But his other experience was as an actor and playwright. “Actor” begins:

So many grew around me, through me, from my self, as it were,
I became a channel, unleashing a force called man.
Did not others crowding in, dis- tort the man that I am?

As a prelate under Communist rulers, Woytyla had to maneuver, be strong but flexible. No wonder we read paradoxical lines like “truth must be hurtful, must hide” (from “Gospel”) or that Jesus must “walk behind the heart” (from “Development of Language”). The man who recognizes Jerusalem yet confers knighthood on Kurt Waldheim, who is open himself yet harbors those who hide in the Opus Dei, is one of the more complex and fascinating figures of the twentieth century. We do not know, yet, whether he will be one of the more tragic. If so, he will be repeating the pattern of one of the most fascinating and tragic figures of the nineteenth century, a man he very much admires and tries to imitate—Pope Pius IX.

This Issue

December 22, 1994