washingtonpost.com  > Live Discussions > World

Pope John Paul II: Legacy

Carl Bernstein
Monday, April 4, 2005; 11:30 AM

Pope John Paul II, who died Saturday at 84, rose from an obscure Polish upbringing to become one of the most powerful leaders of the Roman Catholic church. When John Paul was elected the 263rd successor to Saint Peter on Oct. 16, 1978, at age 58, he was the youngest pope in 132 years, the first Polish pope and the first non-Italian pope in 4-1/2 centuries.

In his book, "His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time," journalist Carl Bernstein and co-author Marco Politi -- the dean of Vatican journalists -- chronicle the life of John Paul II and how he used his global pulpit to revolutionize the Catholic church's stance on women, sexuality, politics and world policy.

Bernstein was online Monday, April 4, at 11:30 a.m. ET, to discuss the life and legacy of Pope John Paul II.

Bernstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post staff writer, is also the co-author (with Bob Woodward) of "All the President's Men" and "The Final Days."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


washingtonpost.com: Carl, thank you for joining us online today to talk about John Paul II. Washington Post readers remember you as one of the reporters, along with Bob Woodward, who broke the story of the Watergate break-in. In fact, you penned two books on the topic with Woodward: "All the President's Men" and "The Final Days."

With that history, some of our readers today are surprised that you authored a book about John Paul II. What first interested you in writing a book about the Pope?

Carl Bernstein: I did a cover story for Time magazine in 1992 saying that the Pope and Ronald Reagan had collaborated to keep the solidarity movement alive in Poland after martial law had been declared by the communist government. After that Mikhail Gorbachev wrote a response in La Stampa newspaper that was published on the Oped page of the New York Times saying, "Yes, and without this Pope none of the events in eastern Europe" leading to the collapse of communism would have occurred.

At that point, I realized the story of this pope was far greater than just inspiring and keeping solidarity alive -- or Reagan's relationship with him -- but that this pope was indeed one of the great figures of the last part of the 20th century: there was a great story here that no one had gotten yet. And that story was really about who this man was -- and until you understood that, you couldn't understand his role in the fall of communism and how his spiritual power confounded the Soviets.

I also knew that, not being a Christian, that I would have to find the co-author who really understood Christianity and the Vatican. After an exhaustive search, I found that the right person was Marco Politi, who covered the Vatican for many years for Italian newspapers. So the reporting that followed was centered in the Vatican, Poland, Moscow -- where we were lucky enough to obtain the secret minutes of the Soviet Polit bureau dealing with Poland, solidarity and the Pope -- and, to a lesser extent, Washington.

As I progressed on the book, it became more and more obvious that though he was the best known and most recognizable man in the world, Pope John Paul II was really a subject, at that time, whose life itself -- except for the bare outlines -- was largely unknown and that in the three years that followed of research on his life and his papacy, it became clear that he was both a geo-political genius and that that genius was always informed and enhanced by his great spiritual power and authority, so that he represented an equation perhaps unique in the second half of the 20th century. And indeed, his role in our history makes him perhaps the great figure of the last part of the 20th century and crossing the millennium. Not the least because he made the Catholic church, which was somewhat adrift and moribund when he took over the papacy, a huge and relevant force in the world.


washingtonpost.com: Did you meet with John Paul II when you were writing the book?

Carl Bernstein: No, I traveled with him, got in a few words with him, but his dealings with journalists -- including the Vatican press corps -- were such that when he wanted to have a real discussion with a journalist or even a prospective biographer, it was almost always either someone he knew well from Poland or someone vetted by the Vatican press apparatus... or, in one or two instances, someone with whom he wished to collaborate in his own right.

The few words and exchanges we had during his trips were utterly delightful and journalistically useless.


Atlanta, Ga.: Would it be fair to say that the Pope was very successful politically (as in undermining Communism) but less so in non-political causes such as getting Catholics to agree with his doctrinal stands? Also, any comments on his inability to make any progress on reuniting Christians, specifically with the Eastern (Greek, Russian, etc.) Orthodox and Anglicans?

Carl Bernstein: I'm not sure that the word "success" is the term we're looking for in either instance. He viewed the post-Communist world, particularly in the countries in the former Soviet Union and behind the Iron Curtain, as anything but a "success" in that instead of becoming the cradle of a spiritual rebirth that he had hoped for, they became exemplars of what he saw as the same kind of hedonism and materialism that darkened his view of the United States and much of the West.

Still, he knew that the end of Communist tyranny -- particularly in his own country, Poland -- was a great liberation and he remained hopeful that spiritual principles would become more dominant in the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.

Similarly, spiritual principles and his belief that the perennial theology of the Catholic church and the teachings of the church that he promoted and inherited were the essential elements of the universal Catholic faith; and he intended that those beliefs would be recognized and practiced by Catholics everywhere; and that their practice should be a measure of a Catholic's faithfulness to the teachings of Christ and the church. Obviously, tens if not hundreds of millions of Catholics -- particularly in the West, disagreed, both with his insistence on the infallibility and even interpretation of some of those teachings, especially in the modern world. This was particularly true of questions relating to sex and gender: to abortion, contraception, the question of priestly celibacy and whether priests and nuns could marry. Huge social and economic implications were involved in this debate -- especially in a place like Africa where only the church possesses an infrastructure, for instance, that could perhaps effectively make the distribution and use of condoms available to arrest the terrible epidemic AIDS. He refused. His "culture of life" that he so fervently evangelized for did not have room for a theological interpretation that would permit this.

Most surveys indicate that three quarters of American Catholics ignore the church's teachings on contraception; that many Catholics in the West and third world as well have a far less absolute view than John Paul II of the permissibility of abortion than the Pope and his church, etc. In the U.S., sex scandals involving the abuse of the young, especially boys, by priests left even some of the American bishops, monsignors, concerned that the Pope did not comprehend the magnitude of the problem, that he responded slowly and that his willingness to consider forgiveness and a future ecclesiastical role, however minimal, for some priests was unacceptable.


Stewartstown, Pa.: What parts of John Paul II's legacy do you think will be continued by his successor, and what parts will be changed?

Carl Bernstein: Obviously, the fall of the Communist empire and the end of Communist tyranny in most of the world has been accomplished. This pope was not a modernist; he preached against much of the modernism of the last 300 years, especially what he believed was the scourge of "moral relativism;" and he saw saw much of the future of the Catholic church in the third world, where three-quarters or more of the Catholic faithful reside.

The next pope, I suspect, will see as a primary task presiding over a church and a theology in which all Catholics can feel welcome and comfortable. This will involve an incredibly difficult balancing act, particularly because it is unlikely that a new pope will seek to change the theology that John Paul II so unwaveringly and insistently insisted upon. But there might well be a change in emphasis and particularly a move away from the papal authoritarianism of his pontificate, in which little or no dissent or even debate about some of these theological questions was permitted or questioning the emphasis of his pontificate on some of these questions turning on sex, gender, etc.

Also, I think there is a feeling among cardinals and bishops around the world whom I have talked to, that part of this Pope's greatness is his emphasis on the teachings of Christ as they relate to questions of materialism, duties to the poor, distribution of income and the marginalization of those John Paul II called "the other" -- those who traditionally have been marginalized by race, poverty, geography, tyranny, physical affliction, age. This concern by this pope, so visible at every stage of his pontificate, is every bit as magnificent as his accomplishments in helping to throw off the yoke of communism.

I believe any successor will seek to consolidate and promote that emphasis which, after all, is consistent with the basic teachings (as I understand them) of Christian faith and Christ's exhortations.

John Paul II believed in a seamless philosophy about the "dignity of the human person" that began with conception and extended through the end of life. The obvious difficulty for his successor is going to be in the areas of aspects of that definition that many Catholics and some theologians believe puts too much emphasis on so-called "right to life" issues. Then there is the question of governance of the church and what many bishops regard as a movement away from the "collegiality" and envisioned by the second Vatican council, under Pope John the 23rd.

It has been the good fortune of the Catholic church to have had two great popes in the span of less than half a century -- John the 23rd and John Paul II. Both brought the church in very different ways back into the world as a huge force, political and spiritual. John Paul II will be remembered for, among other things, making it impossible for anti-semitism to ever again figure in the church's policies and practice. The beginning of that process was initiated at Vatican II by John the 23rd. Many of the actions of John Paul II, particularly in the area of insistence on the perennial theology and teachings, came from a deep-seated belief that the liberating spirit of Vatican II had been misinterpreted in the church by some priests and theologians as license to ignore some of those teachings in such a way as to allow Catholics to pick and choose which tenets of their faith they would decide to adhere to and which they would discard or ignore. Hence the phrase and concept "cafeteria Catholics," which John Paul II abhorred and examples of which he saw as all too prevalent in the modern church, particularly in the west.


Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Bernstein,

A bio question about John Paul II: I've been surprised that among the talking heads on all the channels, there have been no distant family members of Karol's--did he have no brothers or sisters? Cousins?


Carl Bernstein: Hello Silver Spring, I'm a graduate of Montgomery Blair High.

The Pope's mother died when he was nine -- probably because of weakness caused in the pregnancy and birth of Karol's older brother, Mundek, who died when Karol was also an adolescent.

There are some who believe that the fervor of John Paul II's views on contraception and abortion might be traceable to the experience of his own mother, who conceived him perhaps with knowledge that his birth might cost her her life.

John Paul II has promoted sainthood for women, in one or two instances -- in similar situations -- who chose to give birth and not terminate pregnancy.

He leaves no immediate family. Mundek was his only sibling.


© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive
Viewpoint: Paid Programming

Sponsored Discussion Archive
This forum offers sponsors a platform to discuss issues, new products, company information and other topics.

Read the Transcripts
Viewpoint: Paid Programming