The Enduring Power of John Paul II’s Example

George Weigel on the second volume of his papal biography

George Weigel, author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (HarperCollins, 1999), has just published another volume on the same subject, The End and the Beginning (Doubleday, 2010). He recently spoke to CWR about it.

Your biography of Pope John Paul II brought the account of his life and ministry to the threshold of the third Christian millennium. Does your new book contain evidence that the late Pontiff’s hopes for a New Evangelization are being fulfilled in the 21st century?

George Weigel: In The End and the Beginning, I offer a comprehensive analysis of the accomplishments of the pontificate of John Paul II, including his efforts to define, promote, and advance the New Evangelization. I think you can see positive results of those efforts on many fronts: in renewal movements and new Catholic communities; among seminarians and religious in formation today, and among younger priests and religious; in a new generation of Catholic intellectuals; in the vitality of our best parishes, and in the extraordinary number of people who are baptized or enter into full communion with the Church every year; in those bishops who have discovered a “John Paul II voice” and are taking the Church’s proposal forcefully into the public square. Of course, I’m speaking largely of the United States here; the New Evangelization hasn’t gotten much traction yet in “Old Europe.”

In 2002 stories about the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy received massive media coverage in the United States. Although most of the incidents were decades old, the scandal raised serious questions about Church governance. During his long pontificate, could John Paul II have done more to address the root causes of such clerical abuse? 

Weigel: As I hope I showed in Witness to Hope, and as I made a special effort to show in The End and the Beginning, John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood, a point completely ignored by the mainstream media and largely ignored by the Catholic media. He was, as Cardinal William Baum once put it, the “greatest vocations director in history,” and the kind of men he attracted to the demands of the Catholic priesthood through the power of his own example are men who will carry out his reform far into the future—and are very, very unlikely to be abusers of anyone. No one who reads [his post-synodal apostolic exhortation] Pastores Dabo Vobis or understands the effect it was already having on American seminaries in the 1990s can doubt that the reform of the priesthood in the United States was well underway years before the Long Lent of 2002. That this was not the case in, say, Ireland, is also true, but the fault there, as in many other circumstances where clerical corruptions have come to light, is primarily to be laid to the account of local bishops who were incompetent, malfeasant, or willfully obtuse.

In your opinion, are the bishops appointed by John Paul II and a generation of priests who were trained during his pontificate helping to resolve the post-conciliar crisis in the Catholic Church? 

Weigel: Frankly, I’m more confident about the priests than about the bishops, although there are many good bishops who are modeling their episcopal ministry after that of Karol Wojtyla. But one has to give John Paul (as with any pope) mixed marks on the appointment of bishops. He did the best he could, I think, with the process as it has evolved. But it’s the process that needs to be re-examined, particularly in terms of the criteria used by the nuncios and the Congregation for Bishops to identify and assess potential candidates for the episcopate. The new criteria I outlined in 2002 in The Courage To Be Catholic, which centered on a man’s evangelical effectiveness, still seem to me the appropriate ones.

I’m a bit more sanguine about the John Paul II generation of priests, for the reasons I mentioned a moment ago. But where we can see genuine change, powerfully influenced by the late Pope, in “resolving the post-conciliar crisis,” is in theology. The silly season is over; you’d never know it by reading the program of the Catholic Theological Society of America, of course, but that sad fact is a reflection of the archaic tenure system. A younger generation of theologians is being formed in the magisterium of John Paul II and in light of that magisterium’s determination to put the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition into vigorous conversation with the claims of late modernity. The days of pre-emptive surrender to the culture are over, even if they haven’t figured that out in certain theology departments yet.

In Witness to Hope you mentioned that the founder of the Legionaries of Christ was instrumental in obtaining permission for the Pope to visit anti-clerical Mexico in 1979. John Paul II became a great supporter of that congregation and declined to investigate credible accusations against Fr. Marcial Maciel Degollado. Has that omission become an obstacle to the process of beatification for the late Pope? 

Weigel: The obstacles to a full investigation of the charges against Maciel did not come, to my knowledge, from the papal apartment. As I state in The End and the Beginning, John Paul II was clearly deceived by Maciel, as were many, many other people, including many other very smart people. But that deception did not involve, to my knowledge, venality or willful ignorance on John Paul II’s part. So the fact that John Paul II was deceived by Maciel does not bear on the question of his heroic virtue.

Did Pope John Paul II succeed in internationalizing the Roman Curia? What effect did those efforts have on the governance of the Universal Church?

Weigel: He was successful in internationalizing the Curia during his most vigorous years, but in the last half-decade of his life the Curia became increasingly Italianate, both in terms of personnel and style, largely, I think, because of the influence of Cardinal Angelo Sodano. The real problem with the Roman Curia is its present structure, and a future pope will have to address that. John Paul II tried to complete the curial reforms of Paul VI, but a more thoroughgoing look at the whole post-conciliar structure of the Curia is imperative in the next pontificate.

Perhaps most strikingly, John Paul II (with the aid of Joaquin Navarro-Valls) reformed and professionalized the Vatican Press Office, which was an enormous help in getting the Pope’s message out, despite the usual difficulties posed by an often-uncomprehending media. Alas, this pattern did not hold into the present pontificate, which has suffered badly from a well-meaning, but truly inept, communications apparatus.

Karol Wojtyla was a professor at a Catholic university for more than 20 years. How has his theology of the body affected Catholic teaching on human sexuality and marriage? Why is it that his apostolic constitution on Catholic higher education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, has been so widely ignored, especially in the United States?

Weigel: The theology of the body has had a marked effect on both intellectual and pastoral life throughout the United States, and will continue to do so as a new generation of scholars, clergy, and pastoral counselors “translate” this often-dense and challenging material into a language appropriate for marriage preparation, catechesis, preaching, etc.

I don’t agree that Ex Corde Ecclesiae has been ignored. It has been and continues to be debated vigorously. The mandatum is being sought by faculty in unexpected places. And the places that ignore Ex Corde Ecclesiae have clearly branded themselves as less-than-fully Catholic, if their boards of directors, alumni, and local bishops would please take notice. 

Please explain the Pope’s reasons for establishing World Youth Day in 1984. Do you think that this movement will continue to inspire young people during future pontificates? 

Weigel: Karol Wojtyla did not buy the notion, widespread among the world episcopate, that the Church’s evangelical and moral proposal was of no interest to modern and post-modern young people, a judgment based on his own extensive experience in ministry to the young and university chaplaincy work. So he decided to test that conviction by creating World Youth Days, which were successful beyond anyone’s imagining—except, perhaps, his. I think these events have now established themselves as part of the regular rhythm of global Catholic life, and I expect them to continue. World Youth Day 2011, in Madrid, will be an important test of whether there can be effective pushback against the increasingly aggressive secularist atmosphere of Europe.

Did the “Pilgrim Pope” cover any new ground in his international pastoral visits in the 21st century?

Weigel: The most significant ground he covered was the old ground of the Holy Land, where his epic pilgrimage during the Great Jubilee of 2000 left an indelible impress on Catholic-Jewish relations. Of his 21st-century pilgrimages, I would also cite as particularly important his pilgrimage to Ukraine (where he spoke of Ukraine’s “European vocation”), and his forays into historically Islamic and Orthodox lands. In human terms, his 2004 pilgrimage to Lourdes, where he memorably described himself as a “sick man among the sick,” will live long in many memories as a witness to the inviolable dignity of human life in every and any condition.

In your opinion, which of the 14 encyclicals by Pope John Paul II has or have been the most influential? Would you answer that question differently from a non-Western perspective? 

Weigel: From a non-Western perspective, Redemptoris Missio, with its frank recognition of the general failure of Christian mission in Asia in the first two millennia, and its commitment to take up that task with greater vigor in the third millennium, probably looms largest. When China finally opens itself fully to the outside world, it will become the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the Western hemisphere in the 16th century. Redemptoris Missio may then be seen as having prepared the way.

In the West, I would name Redemptor Hominis (for its Christian anthropology), Veritatis Splendor (for its reclamation of moral theology), Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae (for their analysis of the requisites of the free and virtuous society), and Fides et Ratio (for its challenge to the idiocies of post-modernism) as among the encyclicals with real influence, now and likely in the future. But the entire corpus of John Paul’s magisterium is important, and will be debated and pondered in the Church and in the world for centuries.

When he was debilitated by illness and old age, did John Paul II ever seriously consider resignation? 

Weigel: I discuss this at length in The End and the Beginning. The short answer is “No,” not in the sense that the media meant “resignation.” There were, as there were during the pontificate of Paul VI, discussions among senior churchmen about how to handle the case of an incapacitated or otherwise impeded pope.

Can you tell CWR readers something about the process for the beatification of John Paul II? Is a miraculous cure attributed to his intercession being investigated?

Weigel: There are numerous miraculous cures, attributed to John Paul II, under investigation. The most touching thing I discovered in the postulator’s office was the fact that letters arrive there from all over the world, simply addressed to “Pope John Paul II, Heaven.” That tells us something about the popular judgment on the man and his heroic virtue.

The Polish Pope, the first non-Italian in centuries, was succeeded by another from Europe, a Bavarian. Could the next conclave elect a cardinal from some other continent?

Weigel: The conclave can, of course, do anything it wishes or deems to be the will of the Holy Spirit. In practical terms, I would be surprised if the next pope was from the Third World, but then, I’ve been surprised before.

Michael J. Miller translated The Legacy of John Paul II: Images and Memories for Ignatius Press. This article appears in the October 2010 issue of CWR.


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About Michael J. Miller 125 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.