A Celebration of the Thought of John Paul II

edited by Gregory Beabout(St. Louis University Press, 1998; 222 pages, $19.95)

Some books are noteworthy for what they say, and others are noteworthy because of who is saying it. This collection of essays on the thought of Pope John Paul II, subtitled On the Occasion of the Papal Visit to St. Louis, is noteworthy on both accounts.

Taken together, the papers collected in this volume, which were originally presented at the end of January at a conference at St. Louis University, make a worthwhile and accessible survey of the teachings of John Paul II. Moreover, the contributors themselves are an indication of the shift toward dynamic orthodoxy in the intellectual leadership of American Catholicism. That shift is now firmly established and set to endure for at least the next two decades.

Included here are essays by Father Avery Dulles SJ, John Kavanaugh, George Weigel, Helen Alvaré, Jerram Barrs, Janet Smith, Father Robert Sirico, Carl Bernstein, and Gregory Beabout. Most of those names are familiar to readers of this newspaper and influential Catholic monthlies such as Crisis and First Things.

Several of them —Weigel, Alvaré, Smith, and Father Sirico especially come to mind — will remain important voices into the next generation. They represent the 40-something generation of Catholic leaders who will carry Pope John Paul's legacy forward in the early decades of the 21st century. (Even the redoubtable Father Dulles shows no signs of slowing down at 80 years of age.)

Twenty years ago, when Pope John Paul first visited the United States, the intellectual leaders dominating the Catholic scene, and most frequently called upon for comment by the secular media, were often dissenters. Now, these dissenters compete for space with this new generation, which is completely in line with Vatican II, supremely confident, media savvy, and refreshingly representative of the people of God — including both men and women and priests and laity. As the dissenters approach their three-score-and-ten still railing against John Paul II and all his works, they are being succeeded by those who celebrate him.

This celebration of the Holy Father's thought was organized by the “Faculty and Staff for Life” at St. Louis University. The university itself supported the conference. The organizer of the meeting, Gregory Beabout, a philosopher who contributed a thorough and perceptive summary of Fides et Ratioto the volume, bears watching in the future as an outstanding example of a Catholic professor who knows that his academic work takes place in the heart of the Church.

Father Dulles begins with a brief overview of John Paul II's theology, in which he identifies 15 key themes. “John Paul II has written so voluminously on so many topics,” writes the priest, “that it is easy to lose sight of the unity and coherence of his program.”

Father Dulles’ essay provides the shape of that program, which readers ought to keep in mind while focusing on the more specific essays that follow. His first theme is “anthropology,” and the succeeding chapters of the book show how that theme dominates Pope John Paul's teaching. The Holy Father's insistence on a correct understanding of man animates his philosophy, his view of culture, the dignity of life, the importance of freedom, the possibility of knowing the truth, and the fundamental unity of the human race.

These matters are taken up by the other contributors. Weigel's chapter on the importance of culture in John Paul II's interpretation of history sets the context for other chapters that examine his teaching on the family (Smith) and on life (Alvaré). Those three chapters alone provide a good framework for understanding how the Holy Father views the intersection of faith and culture in the right ordering of society.

Carl Bernstein, the former Watergate reporter who wrote a deeply flawed biography of the Holy Father a few years ago, contributes a chapter on the fall of communism. Skillfully edited to exclude the thesis of Bernstein's book — that there was a secret Vatican intelligence alliance with the Reagan White House — the chapter that appears here is in broad agreement with Weigel's overarching point that it was in the arena of culture that communism was decisively defeated.

Only two discordant notes are struck. Barrs, a Protestant, writes with evident admiration for the Pope's ecumenical initiatives. But in highlighting the obstacles to unity, he, perhaps unwittingly, attributes most of the barriers to unity to Catholic insistence on Catholic doctrine. “What is difficult for Protestants, and also for the Orthodox,” writes Barrs, “is John Paul's insistence that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true Church.”

Well yes — if unity requires a pope who does-n't insist on that, then unity will never come. The delicate matter of ecumenical dialogue cannot really get anywhere if it requires Catholics to dilute the teaching of the Church.

A more serious fault lies in Kavanaugh's contribution on John Paul's philosophy. He does point out that the human person, in his choices and in his actions, is at the center of the Pope's philosophy, but there is little illumination beyond that. His paper suffers from too much jargon and too little focus, and puts forward the absurd claim that John Paul is a socialist.

Father Sirico's paper on economics provides the evidence to demolish that notion, and goes on to provide a good assessment of the Holy Father's rich treatment of economic questions, which aims, not at socialism, but at solidarity between free men and women exercising their creativity. In fact, the papers by Father Sirico and Smith both provide a richer analysis of human action than Kavanaugh does in his philosophical chapter.

But leave Barrs and Kavanaugh aside. Beabout is to be congratulated; seven good papers out of nine is a far better ratio than most conferences provide.

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.