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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 3 p.m. ET

Book World Live: Pontiff in Winter

John Cornwell
Tuesday, February 1, 2005; 3:00 PM

Reviewed in Sunday's Book World, "The Pontiff in Winter," examines Pope John Paul II and his legacy. Author John Cornwell relates the extraordinary story of John Paul II's international influence, crediting him with playing a central role in the non-violent demise of Soviet communism. But will the Pope's legacy also leave a negative impact?

Read the review, The Pope and His Legacy, then read the transcript of Cornwell online Tuesday, Feb. 1, at 3 p.m. ET discussing "The Pontiff in Winter," Pope John Paul II and the future of the Catholic church.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday'sBook Worldsection.


Silver Spring, Md.: What are your thoughts on the notion of limiting the amount of time a pope can serve?

John Cornwell: The great English theologian John Henry Newman wrote that it is a mistake for a Pope to reign longer than twenty years because he "does not know facts, hurts people without intending, and becomes a god." There is a great deal of truth in this because of the elevated office of the pope. But the greatest danger is old age and illness itself; the task of being pope is hugely stressful and demanding, leading a Church of a billion people. We perphas expect too much of our popes, and they in turn expect too much of themselves. There is the danger as that they get older that they use the solutions of yesterday to solve the problems of today. I suspect that in future the cardinals of the Church will devise an exit strategy for old and debilitated popes. But it must be done in advance. It can't be left until the pope is too ill and old to make the necessary arrangements.


Washington, D.C.: What is the most surprising thing you learned about John Paul in the course of writing this book?

John Cornwell: I think that it is the extent to which he is capable of contradictions. We all know the great things he did: his battled against communism. And we know some of his failures: his refusal to allow greater collegiality. But there is a middle ground of contradiction. For example, he says wonderful things about women, and yet repeatedly sets up a model of womanhood based on acquiescence and obedience.


Arlington, Va.: I am currently reading "Murder in the Vatican" which is a biography of Pope John Paul I and tells of his highly suspicious death shortly after his elevation to pope. The author clearly draws a clear contrast between the very liberal J.P. I and his ultraconservative successor and implies that far right forces within the church had him eliminated along with many of his allies. Have you read the book or done much research into John Paul I?

John Cornwell: In 1989 I published a book entitled A Thief in the Night, which was republished two years ago. I attempted in that book to combat the rumour that John Paul I was murdered by prelates in the Vatican. I think that this pope, who reigned for only 33 days, was remarkable. He was chosen as a pastoral pope. I do not think he would necessarilly have been a liberal, but he might have returned to the bishops of the world a lot of their power. It is possible however that he was crushed by the burden of the office before he could show his worth. I wonder whether the next pope will again be one like him. I rather hope that he will.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I understand one of the Pope's closest friends is Jewish. How did this friendship evolve and what are their religious discussions like, if that is known?

John Cornwell: As a boy John Paul II lived on a street where there were many Jews. He could speak a bit of Yiddish and he retained friendships from those years. He has a great love of Jews.


Silver Spring, Md.: Hello Mr. Cornwell,

Since Pope John Paul II has appointed most of the current College of Cardinals, don't you think it likely that the next pope will share similar theological views? Also, what you think of the chances of having a non-European pope in the near future?

John Cornwell: We can never overlook the fact that many conservative priests have become quite radical and liberal on being made bishops. Oscar Romero was of this sort. But there is, I agree, some danger that John Paul II has created a Church of prelates after his own model.


Morristown, N.J.: With the Pope's ill health back in the news, one cannot help but wonder about his successor. I've heard whoever is chosen next will be elderly to almost assure a short pontificate, acting as a "transitional" pope after Pope John II's very long run. Cardinal Ratzinger's name has even been mentioned. Who is in the running? Will he most likely be from Italy?

John Cornwell: It is anybody's guess who will be the next Pope. I think the chances are that we will go back to Italian popes for a long time to come. I agree that the pope will probably be quite senior in order that we shall not have a very long pontificate like the present one.


Arlington, Va.: We all know about the priest pedophilia problem in this country. Have there been similar investigations in heavily Catholic European countries such as Spain and Italy? And are their problems as widespread as ours?

John Cornwell: It is my firm belief that there have been scandals throughout the European countries, and we know about some of them. There is however a difference in the US laws of discovery and those in Europe: in other words, it is more easy in the US to bring the guilty to justice.


Arlington, Va.: To schismatics, intellectuals, liberals and the media, Pope John Paul II is an icon of all that's bad with the Catholic Church. To adherents of the faith, The Pope reflects an icon of truth in a world which long ago called the truth a lie and lies truth.

The Catholic Church is the last bastion of truth in this world. The Pope, despite enormous opposition from within and without, personifies the suffering Christ on the cross, seemingly vanquished by Alzheimers and those who would create a mediocrity of the faith. However, Easter Sunday always follows Good Friday. The true faith will win.

The Pope only says the truth: Abortion is evil. Normalization of homosexuality is evil, emrbyonic stem cell research is evil. Euthanasia is evil. Despite all those who would welcome evil in the name of progress, the Pope, is the stumbling block to those who will lead the world to ruin. I'm confident, in the end, the Pope will win.

John Cornwell: Don't you think that you can hold to your firm Catholic beliefs, all of which I agree with incidentally, while at the same time opening the Church to those who are weak and find the ideals difficult. I would defend absolutely the importance of clear Catholic identity; but we have to live with the weaker bretheren and we have to live with those of other faiths, and respect them. This is a difficult circle to square: liberals tend to feel that this pope has not always maintained the right balance.


Silver Spring, Md.: While you must be thrilled with James Carroll's glowing review, I think The Post did a disservice to its readers by assigning Carroll to your book. A reviewer with an arguably anti-(traditional) Catholic axe to grind reviews a book which dovetails with his own biases. Carroll does not have the critical distance to challenge some of the cliches that are ingrained in so many analyses of JPII's legacy, including your own. Take one example, the Liberation Theology controversy, which is far enough in the past that both sides may discuss it without inflaming emotions as much as other more current disputes do. Carroll writes "Rome undercut the home-grown liberation theology movement, which emphasized the rights of the poor over the privileges of the oligarchs." While this undeniably captures one aspect of the movement, it is also a serious distortion which leaves out the moral bankruptcy of many communist liberation theologians. The comment is intended to portray JPII as a theologically rigid Shi'ite Catholic determined to crush dissenters. Another more justified but less popular view is that by suppressing some elements of Liberation Theology, JPII was being entirely consistent with his ponitificate's emphasis on respecting the freedom of persons and acting on the same principles that led him to support Solidarity against an utterly de-humanizing Communist ideology.

Is there some law that biographers of JPII must choose between hagiography (like George Weigel) and regurgitating the same tired old left-wing complaints against the man?

John Cornwell: I find myself agreeing with you on the question of liberation theology: and it is important to note that John Paul came around to supporting its agenda at a later stage. As for the other point you make, and I appreciate it, you may be aware that in many parts of the world my book has been very harshly criticised by traditionalists: I have been called a liar, an apostate, and many other names: mercifully we live in a pluralist publishing environment, so just occasionally I can rejoice in a reviewer who agrees with me. The problem for the US is that you do not have a number of national newspapers where readers can receive on any sunday a variety of viewpoints. All the same, I do think that James Carroll is a very distinguished and informed Catholic writer, and I could hardly castigate the Post for assigning him to my book.


San Diego, Calif.: I am frequently appalled and outraged by the Pope's insistence that condoms are "sinful" when millions are dying of AIDS. Doesn't he realize to what extent such views harm the very people he is meant to be helping to understand the nature of God? This attitude seems in direct contradiction of that goal.

John Cornwell: My book has a whole chapter dealing with this. I agree. while nobody would wish to give out condoms ad lib to the young, there are instances where compassion dictates their use.


Washington, D.C.: Among the lasting positive effects of present Pope's activities, surely one should count his endorsement, or at least express recognition, of the theory of evolution (in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on 10/23/1996). I am not sure it is known widely enough. Its importance may be felt, apart from an apparent attempt to sabotage it by a translator, from acerbically negative reaction of ultrafundamentalists. I am a Catholic and remember that in the first half of last century very few Catholic theologians dared to look at evolution positively.

John Cornwell: I agree with this whole heartedly. This pontificate has been a great supporter of science.


Washington, D.C.: Sorry for the most obvious possible question: Who do you think is the most likely successor to Pope John Paul II?

Is there any chance that this person would have a liberalizing influence within the church, maybe unexpectedly, a la Pope John 23?

John Cornwell: I don't know. It could go either way: towards a liberal or a conservative. I think it important that there is continuity, or the Church could begin to fragment.


Arlington, Va.: Where does this pope stand on the role of women in the church? That strikes me as the important question for the future of the church -- how they can sell themselves to half the population while telling them they aren't worthy of any power in the church?

John Cornwell: The pope considers himself something of a feminist, but there is a great deal of resentment among women over the paedophile scandal and the way in which the pope has quashed discussion of a women priesthood.


Santa Barbara, Calif.: In light of all the troubles -- child molestation by priests, coverup by cardinals, billions of dollars from donations paid in settlements plus hierarchal refusal for financial and administrative accountability-aside from canonical dictum demanding obedience in exchange for Eucharist, why do American Catholics in large numbers support democracy in Baghdad, but refuse to do so here at home for the administration and cleansing of their badly crippled church?

John Cornwell: I agree. Until the Church itself supports the principle of subsidiarity, the notion of making decisions closest to thsoe affected by them the laity will be infantilised.


Boston, Mass.: Do you think there will ever be an American Pope? I can't ever see it happening.

John Cornwell: Sheer numbers in the conclave will be against it. But we can never tell how a conclave will act. After all, who would have guessed a Polish pope.


St. Mary's City, Md.: As a young Catholic it appears that a growing number of my contemporaries (18-25 demographic) have become disenfranchised by the Catholic Church. I know that this demographic generally falls away from the church and renews their relationship with the church as they get older. At this point however it seems as though many young Catholics have a growing distain for the way the church operates. As "The Future of the Catholic Church" how may the Church reach out to this demographic now and for generations to come?

John Cornwell: Your question is of crucial importance. The young are not so interested in the casuistic obsessions with sexology as the celibate elderly Vatican denizens. They are interested in homelessness, and hunger, and poverty. The Church must realise that Christianity, as with all great world religions, was founded on charity. They young will then become interested.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I cannot speak for older generations, but to under-40 Catholics there is no greater spiritual influence in our lives than Pope John Paul II.

It has been said that God sends the world Saints that most contradict the world. In our world where the "culture of death" has so been embraced, JP II has been that Saint this world so desperately needs.

Young people love JPII because he speaks the truth. The youth of this world has been sold an untold number of lies about the "good" in sex, drugs, abortion, homosexuality, workaholic, etc. The youth, thanks to JPII, is finally starting to reject the materialist philosophy of the times.

I was a lukewarm Catholic in my early 20s. By the grace of God I was in Baltimore when JPII spoke in 1996. For the first time in my life I was able to say "This man speaks the truth, this is what I've been looking for." I'm far from perfect, but I haven't been the same person since.

The world, and the media especially, tries to discount the influence of JPII. It may take a generation, but there are many like myself who truly feel the world will be a better place because of his influence. The culture of death will lose, Christ will win, thanks in part to JPII.

John Cornwell: I think that your testimony should stand without any comment from me.


Hollywood, Md.: How can there be any forward movement in the church considering the incredible number of conservative cardinals appointed by the pope?

John Cornwell: Let us hope that these cardinals are human beings, and complex, and have the survival of the Church at heart. Nobody would have guessed that John XXIII would have been such a fire brand


Oklahoma City, Okla.: Under Pope John Paul II the Catholic Church in the U.S. has seen a decrease in seminarians each year and faces a crisis now in supplying priests to parishes. Is this limited to the U.S.? And how has/should the Church approach the situation?

John Cornwell: The problem is worldwide, and greater in Europe than the US. In Britain last year there was only one applicant for the Jesuits.


Kansas City, Mo.: What is your response to those people who believe the Catholic Church is all ceremonies, rituals, chants, etc.? How would you approach someone who believes in Christianity but disfavors the Catholic Church?

John Cornwell: those rituals, which we call liturgy, are a crucial part of our religious life, and very valuable. But throughout the world there are catholics living their faith at work and in all kinds of social action and service


Phoenix Ariz.: What will be this Pope's legacy regarding contraception? Some say he has widened the regrettable gap between the clergy and many faithful catholics by focusing on this issue. They would point to an alleged "Litmus test" for new bishops that they agree wholeheartedly with Humana Vitae, the 1968 enclyclical forbiding contraception that went against the recommendations of the Papal Commission on Birth Control, and is largely not recieved by Catholic churchgoers.

John Cornwell: This is a hugely important issue. What have seen in recent years is a growing gap between teaching and practice. The result of this is that Catholics and the world as a whole will ignore the Church on other issues where it has something important to say. It is crucial that the Church resolves the gap. In the middle ages there was a similar crisis over usury, which took several centuries to resolve. It was done by fairly wise casuistry and by flexibility. We most of are against the contraceptive mentality, but we most of us disagree with the pope that each and every act of contraception is a mortal sin with no exceptions.


Munich, Germany: How does the Pope describe his relationship with God? Does God give him instructions or indictions of his will, directly or indirectly?

John Cornwell: I don't think that the pope believes that he has a hot line to God in a literal way, no: but as Catholics we all believe that the pope, in combination with all the bishops and the faithful will not fall into permanent error.


Washington, D.C.: In your opinion, is the Catholic Church stronger or weaker than in 1978? In what ways? And how much does Pope John Paul II have to do with those changes?

John Cornwell: I do think that the POpe is going to leave the Church weaker than he found it. I believe that he has been an excluding pope and many of the faithful have fallen away, especially those who have been divorced and remarried. He had a huge success against communism; but I think that his attitude towards pluralism and secularism has led to the rejction of a Christian dimension in the new European constitution, and believe that he has discouraged Islam from believing that democracy is a positive environment for the practice of religion.


New York, N.Y.: What does the Pope think of the rise of the conservative Catholics in the U.S.?

John Cornwell: I should think that he is delighted.


Arlington, Va.: The teaser to this forum suggested JPII's legacy might have a negative impact. How in the world might one think that this man's life is anything other than a blessing to mankind and a special gift to Catholics? I know it's become somewhat fashionable to pick on the Catholics but you really cannot say a bad word against this Pope. He's everyone's grandpa!

John Cornwell: If you feel that, I am glad for you. But there are a great man people, bishops, priests, and lay people, who believe that this pope has emphasised Vatican power to the detriment of the local diocesan Church. It is important that we feel that our local bishop is a grandpa too, don't you think.


Arlington, Va.: I read once some where that one of the biggest factors contributing to the fall of the Soviet empire was the election of a Polish pope which enboldened the resistence of the Poles to Soviet domination. Is that too sweeping of a pronouncement or will that be this Pope's greatest legacy?

John Cornwell: Undoubtedly, his greatest achievement was his role in challenging Soviet Communism in Poland in a peaceful manner. We all of us sleep more safely in our beds as a result.


Washington, D.C.: The reviewer, James Carroll might have noted that your earlier books were marketed as having been written by "a lapsed Catholic for more than 20 years." Further, in 1993 you were quoted in a book as saying that human beings are "morally, psychologically and materially better off without a belief in God." Since you are now claiming that you believe in the Church's teaching, I assume that you have had a change of heart.

John Cornwell: These comments you quote are taken from books written many years ago. I began my return to the Church some fourteen years ago after an absense of more than twenty years.


Fairfax, Va.: With regard to your earlier answer: What is a "contraceptive mentality?" What do you mean by that phrase?

Thank you for taking the time to answer so many questions so thoughtfully ...

John Cornwell: Thank you too. A contraceptive mentality, I believe, is an attitude of mind that sees sexuality purely as hedonistic pleasure, utterly separated from its links with reproduction. Not everbody who engages in contraception has this mentality of course.


Washington, D.C.: How does the pope feel about the possibility of bankruptcy for American churches because of damages due victims of lawsuits? Will the federal judges who are placed in charge of Chapter 11 reorganizations become "de facto" archbishops of the Catholic church?

John Cornwell: This question is SO important. It is ironic that a Vatican and papacy that has become over centralised now faces the possibility that dioceses in the US will be managed not by the local bishop, nor by the pope or the Vatican, but by a circuit judge who is not even a Catholic. But I would maintain that the problem started with over centralisation, and the gradual weakening of the diocesan Church to the point where the paedophile scandal was not dealt with locally and decisively. What a terrible and historic irony!


Bethesda, Md.: As a practicing Catholic it always fascinates me that non-Catholics care who the Pope is/will be or what he has to say. My favorite example is the issue of condoms. Many want the Church to approve condoms to fight disease. But, if individuals are not adhereing to what the Church says about sex, fidelity, etc., what would make those same people care about the Church's view of condoms. Any thoughts about what I see as inordinate interest in Catholic theology/practice by non-Catholics?

John Cornwell: It has amused me throughout this pontificate that those who applaud John Paul II most often in the media are not those who are bound the strictures of the Catholic Church as a whole.


Washington, D.C.: Why would the next pope necessarily be Italian? Do you think any candidates from the Middle East or Africa might be chosen?

John Cornwell: Vaticanologists think an Italian might make it because of the way the numbers stack up. But I agree, there is no reason why the conclave won't break out of this. Useful to remember that the cardinals spend a lot of time before the election discussing the problems of the church in the world and asking themselves who might be the best kind of candidate.


Baltimore, Md.: I think, like many Catholics, I tend to have a love/hate relationship with my Church, the hate side mostly stemming from the Vatican's inability to recognize the writing on the wall with 21st century trends. Do you think the next pope will at least open discussions about having women priests continue to leave that topic off the table?

John Cornwell: I honestly think that women priests are too hot to handle, it make take another century. But I hope that the new pope wont' stop the discussion at least.


Austin, Tex.: What about the future of the Church in Europe (very secular) and the U.S. (where evangelical Protestants are important)?

Some say the current Pope has almost "given up" on the first world to concentrate on Africa and Latin America. But that can't be a good plan. Apart from spiritual concerns, a lot of the financial resources are in Europe and North America.... And frankly, neither Europeans nor Americans are, in my estimation, going to go another 30 years without a serious discussion of the role of women, birth control, etc.

John Cornwell: I agree with you one hundred per cent. To simply look to the developing world is not an option.


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