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The Pope and His Legacy

Reviewed by James Carroll
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page BW03


Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II

By John Cornwell. Doubleday. 336 pp. $24.95



Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession

By John-Peter Pham. Oxford Univ. 368 pp. $28

Some conservative Catholics have longed to see Pope Pius XII named a saint of the Church. If the man who presided over the Church's responses to World War II were canonized, so the hope goes, charges that Catholics had failed during the Holocaust -- or that Catholic anti-Semitism had helped prepare for it -- would be laid to rest once and for all. In the late 1990s, rumors abounded that the Vatican was soon to beatify Pius XII, but in 1999 John Cornwell published Hitler's Pope, a damning biography that detailed, among other lapses, the future pontiff's early role as a Vatican diplomat doing business with and legitimizing the Nazi regime. The book caused a sensation, driving a stake through the pope's reputation. Pius XII's defenders dismissed Cornwell, but when new lists of people being promoted toward sainthood were published after that, Pius XII's name was conspicuously and steadily absent. He isn't mentioned much for sainthood any more. Cornwell, a Catholic writer from Britain, may well have helped his church avoid the historic sacrilege of compounding its failures during the Holocaust with shameless denial by canonizing the man who embodied the shame of the war years.

Now Cornwell has published a book about the present pope, John Paul II -- an altogether different figure from Pius XII. Yet again, with another strong and credible work, Cornwell may broadly influence how a decisively important pontificate is understood. John Paul II has been visibly in physical decline for some years, and his place in history has already begun to be marked out. He has served as pope since 1978, and in that time he has loomed larger, perhaps, than any other figure on the world stage.

Cornwell does a good, clear job of relating the extraordinary story of Pope John Paul II's international influence, drawing on previously published works. John Paul II's biographers, including Cornwell, uniformly credit him with a central role in the era's great drama: the nonviolent demise of Soviet communism. The blocks of that story are firmly in place: Karol Wojtyla's Polish origins; his fierce opposition to totalitarianism, beginning in the Nazi period; his rejection of detente-era accommodation with Moscow; the 1981 assassination attempt, rumored to be ordered by the KGB; his personal (and perhaps financial) sponsorship of Lech Walesa's anticommunist Solidarity movement; his at least implicit collaboration with President Reagan in giving the calcified Kremlin empire a last, shattering shove. It was Mikhail Gorbachev who decisively -- and heroically -- repudiated violence at the crucial moment of the Cold War endgame, but he was able to do that only because the democratic resistance that challenged him from within, embodied centrally in Poland's Solidarity, had resolutely embraced nonviolence from the start. And nothing made that more possible than the moral witness -- and stern insistence -- of the Polish pope.

Having established, against the prevailing realpolitik of the era, that nonviolence could have such political force, John Paul II remained a fervent opponent of every form of war -- which, in the end, made him Washington's critic, too. The pope opposed the Gulf War in 1991, the 2001 attack on Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The significance of this consistent papal rejection of coercive violence as an instrument of political power is not sufficiently understood, and certainly not in Washington. John Paul II is a prophet of the late-20th-century epiphany: that the nonviolent alternative to war is no longer a moralist's dream but a profoundly practical option and, indeed, humanity's only realistic hope.

The conventional assessment of John Paul II contrasts the pope's liberalizing work outside Catholicism with his profoundly anti-liberal governance of the Church itself. Thus his support of pro-democracy movements against totalitarian regimes stands in stark relief to the rigid authoritarianism with which he has squelched not only theological dissent but also the regional autonomy of bishops (which, in part, accounts for the bishops' grievous failure to act against priestly abuse of children). John Paul II's global promotion of human rights is seen against his rejection, say, of the demands of Catholic women for equality (which contributes to the astounding collapse of the Church's moral authority on all matters having to do with sex). The profound shift implied in his respect for Judaism's covenant with God as complete and permanent seems impossible to square with his reassertions of pope-centered Catholicism as the only fully authentic religion (which sets back all efforts at interreligious reconciliation). John Paul II, one of whose numerous books is entitled Sign of Contradiction, has embraced contradiction as a self-identifying note, and many commentators, myself included, have often picked up the theme.

But such "balancing," finally, is sterile, and Cornwell's summary of this pope's significance avoids it. It is not enough to say that John Paul II has been a force for good outside the Church, even if he has stifled an overdue renewal within it. Cornwell writes with a clear sense of the unprecedented emergency that grips all forms of religion in the post-Sept. 11 era, and in that light, he dissects the record of John Paul II's pontificate with an informed, dispassionate and fully convincing authority. Cornwell respects Karol Wojtyla's heroic integrity. Cornwell loves the Church. Yet one cannot read this finally unambiguous assessment of the pope's legacy without understanding how profoundly negative -- for both the world and the Church -- the ultimate impact of John Paul II's long reign may yet prove to be.

The rise of intolerant religious fundamentalism as a new sponsor of political violence is a major 21st-century threat. The problem is obvious in extremist strains of Islam, but Christianity, too, is faced with it. Roman Catholic rejection of pluralism, feminism, clerical reform, religious self-criticism, historically minded theology and the application of scientific method to sacred texts would all exacerbate dangerous trends in world Christianity at the worst possible time. That is especially so in the nations of the southern hemisphere, where Catholicism sees its future and where proselytizing evangelical belief -- Protestant and Catholic alike -- is spreading rapidly. In Latin America, long a Catholic preserve, Rome undercut the home-grown liberation theology movement, which emphasized the rights of the poor over the privileges of the oligarchs, only to find itself competing with imported Protestant missionaries. Ironically, John Paul II, in his determination to restore the medieval European Catholicism into which he was born, became an inadvertent avatar of a new Catholic fundamentalism. The great question now is whether his defensive, pre-Enlightenment view of the faith will maintain a permanent grip on the Catholic imagination. He has been an apostle of peace, yet the last contradiction of his papacy may be how, if this narrow aspect of his legacy takes hold, he will have helped to undermine peace -- not through political purpose, but through deeply felt religious conviction.

How will the next pope resolve such contradictions? Catholic progressives have one set of hopes, and traditionalists quite another. How will a new pope earn the confidence of women? What will he do about a structure of ministry discredited by the priestly sex abuse scandal and doomed in any case by the paucity of new vocations? How will he restore the moral authority of a hierarchy his own office has undercut? How will the cardinals decide among themselves whom to elect?

John-Peter Pham's new Heirs of the Fisherman takes readers, as the subtitle puts it, "Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession." Pham's long and detailed account of the historical intricacies of one pope succeeding another, going back two millennia, makes clear what a profoundly human institution the papacy is. The story has its wicked aspects -- those Renaissance popes -- but it also makes clear that the remarkable continuity of Roman Catholicism, ultimately uncorrupted even by its own corruptions, is rooted in what must be reckoned as the papacy's own adaptive genius.

Pham, a former Vatican insider who is now a professor at James Madison University, has written a lucid and useful book. He reports on the cardinals considered to be John Paul II's likely successors (mentioning three Italians, a Nigerian and an Austrian), but he also notes that fully half of the voting cardinals hail from developing nations where reactionary Catholicism thrives. Yet, as Pham also shows, the mortal challenges facing the next pope transcend the liberal-conservative divide. Sex, war, global degradation, the rich-poor divide, the meaning of faith in an age increasingly split between mindless devotion and bitter cynicism: All of this will define the pontificate of the man elected to succeed John Paul II, the pope who helped the world to change while commanding the Roman Catholic Church to do no such thing. •

James Carroll is the author of "Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews," as well as "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War" and several other books. His 10th novel, "Secret Father," has just appeared in paperback.

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