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George Weigel Talks About His New Biography of Pope John Paul II (4362)

09/14/2010 Comments (2)

George Weigel had unprecedented access to the papacy when he wrote Witness to Hope, his biography of Pope John Paul II. Then, for the sequel, he mined the extensive archives of Soviet-bloc spy agencies that were released in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, released today by Doubleday Religion, examines John Paul’s struggle against communism from his early days as a Polish bishop to his election as Pope and his orchestration of a nonviolent conclusion to the Cold War; it then skips to the high points and challenges of John Paul II’s last six years, with special attention to the Great Jubilee of 2000, his struggle to deal with the U.S. clergy abuse crisis of 2002, and the onset of Parkinson’s disease that imprisoned his body — even as it drew him closer to the cross and the path of “salvific suffering.”

Weigel spoke with Register correspondent Joan Frawley Desmond about the book.


You published your bestselling biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, in 1999, more than a decade ago. Summarize some of the fresh and deepened insights regarding his pontificate that you distilled in The End and the Beginning.

The End and the Beginning offers an extensive account of the last six years of John Paul II’s life and pontificate, years not covered in Witness to Hope. In the new book, I am also able to retell the story of Karol Wojtyla’s 40-year struggle with communism in much greater detail thanks to the recent availability of communist secret police and government documents — and there are some remarkable stories to tell. Finally, The End and the Beginning includes a comprehensive assessment of John Paul II, man and Pope, which was not possible in 1999. 


Describe your relationship with the Pope. 
Although I had been writing about John Paul II since his election to the papacy, and I think he knew of me as one of those who were interpreting him to an American audience, I had my first serious conversation with John Paul II shortly after the 1992 publication of my book The Final Revolution, which was the first study of the collapse of communism to stress the crucial roles played by the Church and the Pope in the revolution of 1989. I think John Paul was far less interested in my analysis of his role than in my claim that moral power — the power of aroused consciences — had been decisive in shaping “1989.” Our conversation deepened over the following years, and of course I spent dozens of hours with him while I was researching Witness to Hope. Happily, the relationship continued after that, and the many conversations and meals I shared with John Paul between 1999 and 2005 help, I hope, to give a richer human texture to The End and the Beginning.

It’s worth noting for the record that neither Witness to Hope nor The End and the Beginning is an authorized biography; no one had any vetting rights over anything, and no one in the Vatican, including the Pope, saw a word of Witness to Hope until I handed the Pope a copy of the book in September 1999. Our conversation over the years was both very friendly and completely adult: There were joys to share, disagreements to explore, problems and dilemmas to consider.


What is the value of time for a biographer, even one who knew the flesh-and-blood man he is writing about?

Obviously time gives one some emotional distance on the person about whom one is writing. But in my case, the most important “time factor” was the fact that I came into possession, after the Pope’s death and through the courtesy of Polish academic colleagues, of a cache of remarkable materials from the files of the Polish secret police and communist-era foreign ministry, the East German Stasi, the KGB, the Hungarian secret police, and the White House, none of which had been previously available. Those materials allowed me to explore the communist war against John Paul II in considerable (and dramatic) detail; some have said that the first third of The End and the Beginning reads like an espionage novel. And I expect there’s something to that.


The End and the Beginning conveys the impression that Soviet-bloc spy agencies devoted considerable resources to monitoring the Church, both in Eastern Europe and the Vatican. Why did they fear the Church?

From the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution on, the Soviet Union considered the Catholic Church its most serious ideological opponent, and thus did everything possible to destroy it, impede its work, blackmail its leaders, and foul its public reputation. To take one example: No small part of the “black legend” of Pius XII’s alleged Nazi sympathies and indifference to the fate of European Jewry was launched by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in an attempt to ease the communist takeover of east central Europe in the aftermath of World War II. In the case of John Paul II, of course, the threat was even greater, because, as KGB Chairman Yuri Andropov understood shortly after the Pope’s election, a Polish pope with John Paul II’s convictions and skills not only threatened the Soviet position in Poland (and thus the Warsaw Pact) but also the Soviet position in such Soviet “republics” as Lithuania and Ukraine. Andropov was, of course, right, although the Pope’s power was not of the sort that Andropov ever understood — another issue I explore in the book.


Tell us something that surprised you about these records from the KGB and other spy agencies.

Anyone who knew anything about how this deadly game was played knew, of course, that Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies were spending serious efforts to undermine the Catholic Church. I suppose what most surprised me was the sheer magnitude of the effort, which involved millions of man-hours and billions of dollars. I was also unaware of the degree to which Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies attempted to manipulate the Second Vatican Council for their purposes — and how unaware of this assault the Vatican seemed to be (and continued to be until 1978).


How were these spy agencies able to infiltrate Catholic institutions, and what were the motivations of the collaborators that reported on the Church?

There were any number of recruitment or blackmail techniques, which I describe in the book. As for the motivations of collaborators, I think one has to distinguish between various levels of contacts with the secret police. Some were relatively innocent. Others were motivated by ambition, intraclerical intrigues, venality and other forms of corruption. I should emphasize, however, that there is no evidence that any of this nastiness had the slightest effect on John Paul II’s conduct of the papacy.


John Paul II sought to transform the Holy See’s policy of Ostpolitik by creating the foundation for the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet empire. Yet he appointed Cardinal [Agostino] Casaroli, a strong advocate of Ostpolitik, as his secretary of state. Why did he do that, and what does that decision reflect about his approach to foreign policy? Other examples?

I have long argued that the appointment of Casaroli, architect of the Ostpolitik of Paul VI, as John Paul II’s secretary of state, was an extremely shrewd move on John Paul’s part. With Casaroli as principal Vatican diplomatic agent, no communist government could accuse John Paul of reneging on Paul VI’s agreements or dramatically changing the Vatican’s policy line. Meanwhile, John Paul II himself went around and over the heads of governments with moral appeals to oppressed peoples around the world, calling them to live in the truth, which was his basic weapon against communism. It was a classic good cop-bad cop strategy.


What was John Paul II’s primary accomplishment during the final years of his pontificate?
I would say the Great Jubilee of 2000 and the manner in which he lived his last months, a kind of public dying that constituted what I call in the book his “last encyclical.”


Catholics that love and honor John Paul II were dismayed by his handling of the U.S. clergy sex-abuse crisis. How did you research this issue, and did any of your findings surprise you?

I had, of course, discussed a lot of this in The Courage to Be Catholic and then again in God’s Choice, and in the new book I try to bring this all together in a long-range view.

The first thing to be said here is that John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood. When he came to the papacy in 1978, the Catholic priesthood was in severe crisis throughout the world. He changed that, dramatically, by lifting up and embodying a heroic model of priestly self-sacrifice, by his constant personal attention to priests, and by his reform of seminaries (mandated by the apostolic exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis).

As I indicated in The Courage to Be Catholic, John Paul II (and indeed much of the rest of the Vatican) was about four months behind the real-time curve of the “Long Lent” of 2002. In April of that year, the Pope was only learning things he should have been told about by his nunciature in Washington in early January. So what could seem like indifference or inattention was in fact a very bad line of communication between Washington and Rome. Finally informed of what was in fact happening, the Pope acted, decisively. 


The End and the Beginning suggests that his difficulty dealing with the crisis reflected a disinclination to accept allegations against priests, in part, because Soviet-era regimes unjustly raised similar allegations against priests.

I don’t want to get into speculations about papal psychology, but the fact that charges of sexual impropriety were a standard communist tactic against the Catholic clergy had to have been part of the “filter” through which John Paul II “heard” the stories of abuse that came to the surface in 2002.


You note that Poles were with the Pope during his final hours. How would you describe these bonds between countrymen? What constrained his relationships with non-Poles?

I don’t think it was so much a question of constraint with others as it was the inability or unwillingness of the rest of the Vatican to change its inbred ways. The election of a non-Italian pope was a great shock to the system, and the shock waves endured for more than a quarter century.

As for those around the Pope when he died, well, I rather imagine we’d all like to be surrounded by those to whom we are closest when we begin the final journey to the Father’s house.


What was the impact of a highly visible Pope struggling with all the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease? Offscreen, how did it affect the workings of the Vatican?

Evangelically, the Pope’s witness during his holy death (and throughout his years of physical struggle) was a priceless gift to the Church and the world: his last priestly invitation to believers and nonbelievers alike to enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

Bureaucratically, things slowed down, undoubtedly. But John Paul II remained the master of the scene until the very end.


In your reappraisal of his pontificate, his spiritual paternity and his deeply mystical spirituality are especially distinctive qualities.

In the book, I try to figure out why this man was so compelling a figure to people who did not share his convictions and commitments. And I decided it had something to do with his remarkable capacity to embody the key traits of fatherhood (strength and mercy) in a world bereft of true fathers. That he also communicated, through that paternity, the reality of a transcendent order in which we participate and which breaks into our mundane reality at surprising moments of grace simply added to the attraction of the man.


What about the broader goals of his pontificate? Within the Church and beyond it?

In sum: His goal for the Church was for Catholicism to rediscover its essence as an evangelical movement in history, the bride of the Lamb inviting the world to the Supper of the Lamb.

As for the world, he was the great defender of universal human rights in our time and proposed that “rights” understood according to the natural moral law could be a kind of grammar by which a fractured world could engage in real conversation.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

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