WITNESS TO HOPE

The Biography of Pope John Paul II

By George Weigel

Cliff Street. 992 pp. $35

Reviewed by Andrew Nagorski

Karol Wojtyla always loved to ski, and he wasn't about to give up the sport when he was named a cardinal at the age of 47. Once, when he was skiing in the Tatra Mountains near Poland's border with Czechoslovakia, a border policeman stopped him and demanded his identity papers. "You moron," the policeman said, "do you realize whose identity papers you've stolen? This is going to put you away for a long time." Wojtyla attempted to set him straight, but the policeman would have none of it. "A skiing cardinal?" he shot back. "Do you think I'm crazy?"

The policeman presumably felt sheepish about his blunder later, but he certainly deserves absolution. As Roman Catholic theologian George Weigel demonstrates again and again in this magnificent biography, John Paul II is an extraordinary figure who has defied expectations all his life. More than two decades after he became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever, it's easy to forget that a skiing cardinal was no more imaginable to most people than a relentlessly peripatetic pope who, as Weigel informs us, has traveled nearly three times the distance from the earth to the moon to spread his message.

He's a pope who defies easy categorization. "This most visible man may also be the least understood figure in the twentieth century," Weigel argues. "Certainly the judgments about the man and his accomplishments have been, to put it gently, contradictory." Weigel is convinced that the conventional verdict on John Paul -- a champion of freedom when it came to liberating his countrymen and others from communist oppression, yet an authoritarian, often retrograde leader of his church -- is plain wrong. Nothing infuriates him more than the casual contempt of many Catholic intellectuals for a man he believes may one day be called "John Paul the Great."

Witness to Hope is not an authorized biography, Weigel insists, since the pope didn't seek any rights of approval of its contents. But John Paul did grant the author unusual access -- regular talks with him, and answers to written questions. It's not hard to see why the pope was willing to do this. Weigel wrote an earlier book extolling the pope's role in bringing about the collapse of communism. More significantly, Weigel shares the pope's views on a broad range of issues facing Catholicism today. His book is based on the premise that his main task was to get "inside" the pope's perspective on the human condition and his faith, explaining why the seeming contradictions in his performance aren't contradictions at all.

Wojtyla's views were shaped in a Poland that underwent the dual torment of Nazi occupation and Soviet "liberation." It was also a Poland that had enjoyed only a short period of independence between the two world wars, following more than a century when its neighbors had wiped it off the map. Weigel is at his best in providing quick sketches of Polish history and culture and their influence on the man who would become pope. The 19th-century Polish poet Cyprian Norwid wrote, "A man is born on this planet to give testimony to truth." Which takes as a given that truth is something clearly identifiable and certainly not a matter of relative judgment. This is the belief that the pope has always lived by. The natural corollary, also shared by the pope, is that evil is just as definite. As he pointed out, "I participated in the great experience of my contemporaries -- humiliation at the hands of evil."

Early on, in his second doctoral thesis, Wojtyla focused on the theme that Christ's truth is liberating, the key to individual freedom. The young philosopher priest, in Weigel's summation, maintained that "if the choice was not between good and evil, but only between personal preferences, then all choices were ultimately indifferent and real choice no longer existed." But as Wojtyla rose within the Polish church, he didn't translate those core beliefs directly into political terms; as Weigel notes, he was largely uninterested in what passed for politics. His was the world of faith and culture, with religion at the heart of a culture of truth and justice that, by its very existence, challenged the lies of the communist state.

Initially, this led Poland's leaders to totally misread Wojtyla as someone who could be easily manipulated. In the early 1960s, party ideologist Zenon Kliszko vetoed seven candidates the church put forward to be bishops. "I'm waiting for Wojtyla," Kliszko said, "and I'll continue to veto names until I get him." He got him all right. In 1964, Wojtyla was installed as archbishop of Krakow. But the authorities soon would regret their decision. The archbishop's exhortations to his countrymen, and especially to dissident intellectuals, to "live in truth" were more subversive than any political manifesto. It was a contagious idea picked up and expanded upon by activists like Adam Michnik in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia: Live "as if" you were free, refusing to play along with the lies of the system, and create an alternative culture -- seminars, literature and an underground press that simply bypassed the censors.

Once he was elected pope, Wojtyla kept pressing his human-rights agenda, which always insisted first of all on religious freedom. By then, the communist hardliners began to recognize what they were up against. In 1979, when the pope was planning his historic first visit to his homeland, Leonid Brezhnev warned the Polish comrades that he would "only cause trouble." He was right, although the pope never launched frontal attacks on the country's political leadership. But by talking about morality, justice and Europe's "spiritual genealogy," he was undermining them and the Yalta division of the continent at every turn. No conspiracy here, as Weigel observes, just the challenge of his firm convictions based on faith. And an implicit rebuttal to those in the West, including many American bishops, who believed the defining issue of the Cold War was arms control, not human rights.

The unifying element in John Paul's role as the challenger of a communist system that trampled on those rights and his stance on the more controversial issues of sexuality, Weigel maintains, is his opposition to the "pulverization" of the individual. When utilitarianism -- "what is useful to me" -- guides actions instead of morality, the pope argues, people are demeaned, treated as objects, and it's a small step from there to saying they are disposable. Weigel insists that the pope's warnings about a "sexuality apart from ethical references" amounts to a radical defense of women, in particular, and the advocacy of a responsible, giving sexuality in the context of the family. His adamant opposition to abortion, sterilization and contraception all flow from those fundamental beliefs.

While clearly approving of the pope's teachings, Weigel isn't happy with everything. He is irritated by the pope's appeals for peace during the Gulf War, seeing this as a missed opportunity to elaborate on the concept of a just war. Although he praises the pope's impressive efforts to forge Catholic-Jewish reconciliation, he correctly points out that many of John Paul's other ecumenical projects have failed to produce the desired results. But he's quick to add that, as in the case of relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, the fault often lay more on the other side, which had no interest in achieving a breakthrough.

Weigel's account has some shortcomings of its own. In his eagerness to prove that the pope has never advocated a "third way" between communism and capitalism, he downplays John Paul's warnings about the moral dangers faced by societies obsessed with what Havel, who shares his misgivings, calls "the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption." Occasionally, Weigel gets bogged down in the minutiae of elaborate church ceremonies, or finds it difficult to succinctly explain the more convoluted controversies like the tensions between the Vatican and the Jesuits. And in a volume of this size, a thorough discussion of celibacy is strangely missing.

But this is mostly nitpicking. Weigel's biography of John Paul is a tremendous achievement. Readers can agree or disagree with the pope's positions. They can agree or disagree with Weigel's frankly admiring presentation of his thinking; he readily admits that he doesn't expect to win over the pope's determined critics. But it would be hard for any fair-minded reader to dispute Weigel's assertion that "it is a very obscure corner of this planet that has not been in some way touched by the life of this pope and by his proposals for humanity's future." Or to claim that anyone else has come close to presenting John Paul's vision as a coherent, fully consistent body of beliefs as powerfully and effectively as he has.

Andrew Nagorski is Berlin bureau chief for Newsweek and author of "The Birth of Freedom: Shaping Lives and Societies in the New Eastern Europe."