Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1997
Volume 8, Number 2

Seeking the Measure of John Paul II

A Review of Tad Szulc, Pope John Paul II: The Biography. New York: Scribner, 1995; and Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time. New York: Doubleday, 1996

John W. Carlson
Professor of Philosophy

Signs abound that the pontificate of John Paul II, begun in 1978, is--or is thought by many to be--fixed in its essential dimensions. Our Sunday Visitor Press recently published in a single volume the (complete?) set of John Paul's encyclicals, from Redemptor Hominis [The Redeemer of Man] (1979) to Ut Unum Sint [That They May Be One] (1995). And major writers--such as the authors of the works considered here, as well as others with works on the way--are attempting to take the measure of the man. Tad Szulc, Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi all bring impressive credentials to their work. Szulc is a retired New York Times correspondent and author of several books on geopolitics; during the course of his research he gained the confidence of the John Paul and was given unprecedented access to the Vatican's inner workings. For his part, Bernstein--the investigative reporter and famous co-author of All the President's Men--has a wealth of diplomatic contacts. And Politi, not as well known to American readers, has for nearly two decades covered Vatican affairs for Roman newspapers.

These two lengthy books (542 and 582 pages, respectively) are similar in structure; they cover events from Karol Wojtyla's boyhood in Wadowice (near Krakow), Poland through his papal travels in the 1990's. Both books are based on a wealth of documents and interviews (often overlapping) with significant personages in their subject's life. Further, both give fascinating accounts of such events as Bishop Wojtyla's influence on Pope Paul VI's "birth control" encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968), the Vatican conclave at which John Paul was elected, and interactions between the new pope and world leaders--especially in Eastern Europe and the then Soviet Union. Finally, both recount episodes which reflect John Paul's desire (largely unfulfilled) to quell internal church dissent on matters of doctrine and discipline.

Szulc does a remarkable job of reconstructing Wojtyla's early years--as student, young actor and playwright, seminarian, priest, teacher and scholar of philosophy, and bishop of Krakow. Well over half of his book (compared with less than a third of Bernstein and Politi's) is devoted to events prior to the papacy. Szulc is convinced--rightly, in this reviewer's judgment--that the effort is worthwhile: for John Paul's "Polishness . . . is the essential trait of his personality, an often disorienting blend of conservatism and modernity" (15).

The study by Bernstein and Politi is more comprehensive, and it offers more detail, regarding the papal years. This is true of both geopolitical and ecclesial dimensions. Concerning the latter, the reader is given brief but insightful accounts of Evangelium Vitae [The Gospel of Life] (1995), and the above-mentioned Ut Unum Sint--both of which appeared after Szulc's book was in production. Bernstein and Politi also shed light (129-47) on the collaboration between Bishop Wojtyla/ Pope John Paul II and the Polish-American scholar Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka in producing an English version of Wojtyla's major philosophical work, The Acting Person (1979; the Polish version was published in 1969). However, their story, in this reviewer's opinion, is not enhanced by their speculation as to whether Tymieniecka was sexually attracted to her bishop-collaborator.

As suggested by the above, Bernstein and Politi are journalistically adventuresome. And their subtitle "John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time" is significant. While both books discuss the pope's role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the second repeats the story (originally purveyed by Bernstein in Time magazine in 1992) of a secret "Holy Alliance" between John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan (13; 355-61). In the only clear point of conflict between the two biographies, Szulc rejects the idea of such an alliance as a "myth . . . spawned in Washington" (379).

On other matters too, Bernstein and Politi strain credulity.

Like Szulc, they offer glimpses of John Paul and his cohorts attempting to control dissident and/or otherwise difficult individuals and groups--including the Society of Jesus. But they have been called on at least one point. They report that after Jesuit General Pedro Arrupe suffered a stroke in 1981, the American Jesuit Vincent O'Keefe was named Vicar General of the order; they then say that the latter, in a memo to Jesuit provincials throughout the world, "gave advance notice of a general congregation to elect Arrupe's successor"--a move that the pope, through the Vatican Secretary of State, promptly countermanded (421-22). But in November 1996 Father O'Keefe wrote in America magazine, "This is simply not true. Pope John Paul II had instructed the Jesuits not to convoke such a congregation, and I followed that instruction."

Also dubious is the report of a private 1994 conversation between the pope and Nafis Sadik, a Pakistani woman and Undersecretary of the United Nations Conference on Population and Development. The lengthy account (519-24) is replete with quotations, although it is based only on one party's notes following the conversation. It is not surprising to read that Dr. Sadik and John Paul disagreed on methods of population control. But consider the following reported exchange (521): [Sadik] "Women are quite willing to practice natural methods and abstain . . . But they can't abstain without the cooperation of their partners." [John Paul] "Don't you think that the irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women?" Could this, one wonders, have come from the mouth of the religious leader who at the very time was writing, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope (Knopf, 1994), "Often the woman is the victim of male selfishness...the man, who has contributed to the conception of new life, does not want to be burdened with it . . . The only honest stance, in these cases, is that of radical solidarity with the woman" (206-7; italics in the original)?

Both Pope John Paul II and His Holiness portray the John Paul of the 1990's as an angry man, increasingly distressed by his inability to control the Catholic faithful and prone to railing against the evils of the contemporary world. Readers of some of the pope's recent encyclicals and addresses will recognize the truth in this portrayal. But it is only a partial truth, as witnessed by the above-noted 1994 volume on hope, as well as by certain contemporary developments: for example, diplomatic initiatives toward religious freedom in Fidel Castro's Cuba, which John Paul is scheduled to visit in 1998; and plans being formulated to celebrate the new millennium, which the pope envisions as a golden age of unity and evangelization for Christianity.

None of this detracts from the achievements of these two well-researched and handsomely produced biographies. But it does indicate the risk in seeking the measure of a person while he or she lives--especially if that person's position carries tenure for life and if that person has the vision, stamina, and will of a Karol Wojtyla.