“A Man Who Believed That Jesus Christ Is the
NEW YORK, 3 APRIL 2005 (ZENIT)
The world may have yet to appreciate John Paul II
for being the “greatest Christian witness” of the 20th
century, says papal biographer George Weigel.
In this interview with ZENIT, Weigel, a senior
fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., and
author of “Witness to Hope:
The Biography of Pope John Paul II,” put the life
of the Pontiff, who died Saturday, in perspective.
Q: What did John Paul II do for the prominence of
the Church in world affairs?
Weigel: The papacy has long claimed a universal
“reach.” John Paul II gave this claim real meaning by becoming a kind of
one-man moral reference point for the entire world. And in doing so, he
reminded the world that “world affairs” are always under the scrutiny of
Contrary to what the foreign policy realists
teach, international politics is not an “amoral” arena; nothing human is
outside the boundaries of moral reason — even politics among nations. I
doubt that the world has quite caught on yet, but that’s what John Paul
II insisted upon.
Q: What were his greatest achievements in the
field of geopolitics? social doctrine? theology? ecclesiology?
Weigel: John Paul II’s pivotal role in the
collapse of European communism
igniting a revolution of conscience that eventually produce the
non-violent political revolution of 1989
was a tremendous achievement.
But we shouldn’t forget the Pope’s role in
helping settled the Beagle Channel dispute between Argentina and Chile —
which threatened to break out into a hot war; nor should we forget his
role in helping prepare the way for democracy in Latin America, and his
support for democratic transitions in the Philippines and South Korea.
John Paul’s defense of the universality of human
rights in his 1995 U.N. address was also a very important contribution
at a time when the idea of “universal human rights” was being denied or
ridiculed by postmodernists, Islamists, the world’s remaining
communists, and East Asian authoritarians.
In social doctrine, “Centesimus Annus,” the
Pope’s 1991 encyclical, gave Catholic social doctrine a new empirical
sensitivity, particularly with regard to economic questions.
Some social-action Catholics had long held out
the possibility of building a “third way” that was neither socialist nor
capitalist; “Centesimus Annus” recognized that a market-centered
economy, properly regulated by law, was in fact this “third way.”
Although, again, I’m not sure that the believers in a mythical “third
way” have accepted the point.
The “theology of the body” seems to me to have
been John Paul II’s most creative theological accomplishment, although
there is a tremendous amount of rich theological material for the Church
to digest in John Paul’s encyclicals, apostolic letters, postsynodal
exhortations and audience addresses.
His theology of divine mercy, for example,
remains to be thoroughly explored, as does his Marian theology and his
teaching that the “Marian profile” in the Church — discipleship — is the
most fundamental reality of the Church, even more constitutive of the
Church than its “Petrine” profile, its structure as an authoritative
As for ecclesiology, I think it’s important that
John Paul “re-balanced” the Church at a time when national conferences
of bishops might have become virtually autonomous “synods” on an
Orthodox model. This, of course, is the precise opposite of what the
Pope’s critics have charged for more than 20 years.
Q: What do you think John Paul II considered to
be the greatest “work undone” of his pontificate?
Weigel: I certainly wouldn’t suggest that I could
speak for the late Pope, but as his biographer, it seems to me that the
great “work undone” in the pontificate involved John Paul’s ecumenical
initiatives, particularly with Orthodoxy.
He really seemed to have believed, in 1978, that
the breach of the second millennium between Rome and the Christian East,
which formally opened in 1054, could be closed by the opening of the
third millennium. It obviously didn’t happen.
Why, I suggest, may have a lot to do with the
fact that Orthodoxy is not in the same theological or psychological
condition as it was in 1054; “not being in communion with the Bishop of
Rome” has become, for many Orthodox, a part of their very
Until that changes, and until Orthodox Christians
feel the passion for being one with Rome at the Eucharistic banquet that
John Paul felt toward the Orthodox, there isn’t going to be a great deal
of progress ecumenically between the Christian East and Rome. This is
all very sad.
But it’s an instance of John Paul perhaps being
too far ahead of history, and what history could bear at the moment.
Q: Has the world been capable of appreciating
this extraordinary pontificate?
Weigel: He’s been appreciated as a man of
culture, a man of great human sympathies, a man of great courage and
integrity and compassion. I wonder, though, if he’s been appreciated for
what he in fact was — the greatest Christian witness of the past
Everything else the Pope accomplished flowed from
that one supreme fact:
This was a man who believed with every fiber of
his being that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every
Q: That John Paul II had a role in bringing down
Communism in Eastern Europe; that he helped to deepen the Church’s
theology on marriage and sexuality; that he brought new pastoral and
intellectual vigor to the Chair of Peter — these are all certainly great
legacies of his pontificate. Yet, after a pontificate of 26 years, the
culture of death has worsened — with abortion, embryonic stem-cell
research, the rise of euthanasia, etc. Is it too much to expect a Pope
to change all that, at least in his lifetime?
Weigel: Yes. And we should always remember, as
John Paul always did, that the Church is not the pope alone.
Failures to reverse the culture of death are the
failures of all the people of the Church who have an opportunity to
build a culture of life — and don’t.
Q: The Holy Spirit inspired the cardinals in 1978
to choose the next pope from Poland. What have been the consequences of
breaking the centuries-old tradition of Italian popes?
Weigel: I hope what that’s done is to create a
wide-open field of candidates in which nationality, ethnicity and race
will count for very little, and the great question to be asked of any
potential pope — Is this a man of God who can inspire others to a
similar depth of faith?
rises to the fore in the cardinals’ deliberations.
Q: For you as a papal biographer, what impressed
you the most about him?
Weigel: His extraordinary energy, and the fact
that he was always looking forward, looking ahead, asking, “What should
we be doing now?”
Yet that energy wasn’t the energy of a frantic or
excitable man: It was a quiet, steady energy that was born of John
Paul’s remarkably rich interior life, his life of prayer.
Q: Now that he is gone, is the world ready to
really listen to the message of John Paul II?
Weigel: Let’s hope. There’s a lot to listen to.