George Weigel on John Paul II's Impact

«A Man Who Believed That Jesus Christ Is the Answer»

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NEW YORK, APRIL 3, 2005 ( The world may have yet to appreciate John Paul II for being the «greatest Christian witness» of the 20th century, says papal biographer George Weigel.

In this interview with ZENIT, Weigel, a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, in Washington, D.C., and author of «Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II,» put the life of the Pontiff, who died Saturday, in perspective.

Q: What did John Paul II do for the prominence of the Church in world affairs?

Weigel: The papacy has long claimed a universal «reach.» John Paul II gave this claim real meaning by becoming a kind of one-man moral reference point for the entire world. And in doing so, he reminded the world that «world affairs» are always under the scrutiny of moral judgment.

Contrary to what the foreign policy realists teach, international politics is not an «amoral» arena; nothing human is outside the boundaries of moral reason — even politics among nations. I doubt that the world has quite caught on yet, but that’s what John Paul II insisted upon.

Q: What were his greatest achievements in the field of geopolitics? social doctrine? theology? ecclesiology?

Weigel: John Paul II’s pivotal role in the collapse of European communism — igniting a revolution of conscience that eventually produce the non-violent political revolution of 1989 — was a tremendous achievement.

But we shouldn’t forget the Pope’s role in helping settled the Beagle Channel dispute between Argentina and Chile –which threatened to break out into a hot war; nor should we forget his role in helping prepare the way for democracy in Latin America, and his support for democratic transitions in the Philippines and South Korea.

John Paul’s defense of the universality of human rights in his 1995 U.N. address was also a very important contribution at a time when the idea of «universal human rights» was being denied or ridiculed by postmodernists, Islamists, the world’s remaining communists, and East Asian authoritarians.

In social doctrine, «Centesimus Annus,» the Pope’s 1991 encyclical, gave Catholic social doctrine a new empirical sensitivity, particularly with regard to economic questions.

Some social-action Catholics had long held out the possibility of building a «third way» that was neither socialist nor capitalist; «Centesimus Annus» recognized that a market-centered economy, properly regulated by law, was in fact this «third way.» Although, again, I’m not sure that the believers in a mythical «third way» have accepted the point.

The «theology of the body» seems to me to have been John Paul II’s most creative theological accomplishment, although there is a tremendous amount of rich theological material for the Church to digest in John Paul’s encyclicals, apostolic letters, postsynodal exhortations and audience addresses.

His theology of divine mercy, for example, remains to be thoroughly explored, as does his Marian theology and his teaching that the «Marian profile» in the Church — discipleship — is the most fundamental reality of the Church, even more constitutive of the Church than its «Petrine» profile, its structure as an authoritative community.

As for ecclesiology, I think it’s important that John Paul «re-balanced» the Church at a time when national conferences of bishops might have become virtually autonomous «synods» on an Orthodox model. This, of course, is the precise opposite of what the Pope’s critics have charged for more than 20 years.

Q: What do you think John Paul II considered to be the greatest «work undone» of his pontificate?

Weigel: I certainly wouldn’t suggest that I could speak for the late Pope, but as his biographer, it seems to me that the great «work undone» in the pontificate involved John Paul’s ecumenical initiatives, particularly with Orthodoxy.

He really seemed to have believed, in 1978, that the breach of the second millennium between Rome and the Christian East, which formally opened in 1054, could be closed by the opening of the third millennium. It obviously didn’t happen.

Why, I suggest, may have a lot to do with the fact that Orthodoxy is not in the same theological or psychological condition as it was in 1054; «not being in communion with the Bishop of Rome» has become, for many Orthodox, a part of their very self-definition.

Until that changes, and until Orthodox Christians feel the passion for being one with Rome at the Eucharistic banquet that John Paul felt toward the Orthodox, there isn’t going to be a great deal of progress ecumenically between the Christian East and Rome. This is all very sad.

But it’s an instance of John Paul perhaps being too far ahead of history, and what history could bear at the moment.

Q: Has the world been capable of appreciating this extraordinary pontificate?

Weigel: He’s been appreciated as a man of culture, a man of great human sympathies, a man of great courage and integrity and compassion. I wonder, though, if he’s been appreciated for what he in fact was — the greatest Christian witness of the past century?

Everything else the Pope accomplished flowed from that one supreme fact: This was a man who believed with every fiber of his being that Jesus Christ is the answer to the question that is every human life.

Q: That John Paul II had a role in bringing down Communism in Eastern Europe; that he helped to deepen the Church’s theology on marriage and sexuality; that he brought new pastoral and intellectual vigor to the Chair of Peter — these are all certainly great legacies of his pontificate. Yet, after a pontificate of 26 years, the culture of death has worsened — with abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, the rise of euthanasia, etc. Is it too much to expect a Pope to change all that, at least in his lifetime?

Weigel: Yes. And we should always remember, as John Paul always did, that the Church is not the pope alone.

Failures to reverse the culture of death are the failures of all the people of the Church who have an opportunity to build a culture of life — and don’t.

Q: The Holy Spirit inspired the cardinals in 1978 to choose the next pope from Poland. What have been the consequences of breaking the centuries-old tradition of Italian popes?

Weigel: I hope what that’s done is to create a wide-open field of candidates in which nationality, ethnicity and race will count for very little, and the great question to be asked of any potential pope — Is this a man of God who can inspire others to a similar depth of faith? — rises to the fore in the cardinals’ deliberations.

Q: For you as a papal biographer, what impressed you the most about him?

Weigel: His extraordinary energy, and the fact that he was always looking forward, looking ahead, asking, «What should we be doing now?»

Yet that energy wasn’t the energy of a frantic or excitable man: It was a quiet, steady energy that was born of John Paul’s remarkably rich interior life, his life of prayer.

Q: Now that he is gone, is the world ready to really listen to the message of John Paul II?

Weigel: Let’s hope. There’s a lot to listen to.

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