Biographer speaks on pope’s life, philosophy

The pope himself would probably never admit it, but a strong case could be made that John Paul II was the most influential man of the 20th century, papal biographer George Weigel said last Wednesday. Weigel, also a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, said the current pope’s life “embodied the issues everyone addressed in their own way” during the 20th century.

“The 20th century proved that human beings could organize the world without God, but in doing so proved they could only organize it against each other,” Weigel said.

Pope John Paul II provided an alternative vision that will be carried on into the future: “The evil of our times exists in the degradation, indeed the pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each person,” the future pope wrote in February 1968.

This vision was seen especially in three major issues on the human agenda that defined John Paul II’s life and papacy: the fight against communism, the sexual revolution and the debate about the future of public life.

More so than any other issue, John Paul II is known for his heroic stand against communism, especially in Eastern Europe and his homeland of Poland. According to Weigel, John Paul II’s stance on communism was fundamentally about addressing the idea that politics or economics were the engine of world political change. He argued the former is a result of the French Revolution while the latter flows from Marx.

Weigel said the pope’s actions were but one factor that contributed to the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc – economic inadequacies in the Soviet system, increased linkage with the West, the policies of the U.S. and Great Britain and generational change within the Soviet leadership also played crucial roles – but it is no coincidence that within 14 months of the papal visit to Poland the Solidarity movement got started there and that the Soviet Union itself fell bloodlessly within nine years.

The pope’s message to the people of Poland as well as Cuba, another historically Christian country that had fallen to communism, was they had to remember their authentic historical and cultural memories. “You are not who they say you are,” the pope would say. “Let me remind you who you are.”

Pope John Paul II also helped the Church articulate a response to the sexual revolution, which originally the Church had “surrendered” to. “The human wreckage [of the sexual revolution] caused people to have second thoughts, but the Catholic Church had little to offer.”

According to the pope, the instinctive and impersonal nature of the sexual revolution rose no higher than animal sexuality and was unworthy of human beings.

The final issue John Paul II helped shape the world’s consciousness of, according to Weigel, the role of public life. At the start of the 1990s, it seemed that democracy and open markets had triumphed. According to Weigel, the pope was skeptical of any system that organized the world based on a political or economic system.

In terms of a political system, the pope believed “if there was only your truth and my truth, but no the truth, than the only way to settle an argument is for one to triumph over the other,” Weigel said.

Economic models do not work as a moral culture; rather, they must discipline the free market, in the pope’s eyes, or else the market will destroy that which exists in. “In that sense, MTV. . . is the true enemy of the free economy,” Weigel said.

Weigel also said the pope has opened up dialogue between the Church and groups it normally did not encounter, especially Jews. John Paul II argued that the love of Christ requires respect to everyone at the exclusion of no one.

Following his lecture, Weigel answered a handful of questions from the audience. Regarding the pope’s stance on the recent war in Iraq, Weigel said he believes the pope acted as he should have by defending the prerogatives of world leadership.

Ultimately, the decision about war should rest “with those who prudentially make decisions” but those leaders must remember they take a great responsibility before God and history, he argued while noting the Church needed to revise its intellectual theory of just war to make it more relevant to a world of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Finally, Weigel assured audience members the pope was in much better physical health than one might imagine given his outward appearance. He added he believed John Paul II would remain pope until he passed away: “[He does not intend on] buying a condo in Phoenix and working on his mid-irons.”

In conjunction with the lecture, Sawyer Library sponsored a display on the College’s holdings of Weigel’s work, highlighting his writings on the relationship between Catholicism and American democracy.