The Polish Pope and his Boswell

George Weigel's Lessons in Hope tells the story of the "pivot" of his life: his relationship with John Paul II. But what is the future for the Polish Pope's style of conservatism?

R.R. Reno

Pope St John Paul II: His style grew out of the times in which he lived (©BETTMANN via GETTY IMAGES)

George Weigel, a consummate story-teller, wrote Witness to Hope, the definitive and widely read biography of John Paul II. Needless to say, how the Polish Pope found his Boswell is a story unto itself, which Weigel tells with his usual elan in Lesson In Hope, a delightful series of linked, autobiographical vignettes. They tell of the providential circumstances and chance meetings that led Weigel to become not just the Pope’s biographer, but the English-speaking Catholic most intimately associated with John Paul II’s pontificate.

A small circle of intellectuals associated with First Things, the magazine I now edit, played a crucial role. In the late 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor, Michael Novak, Peter Berger, Avery Dulles, and Weigel himself emerged as leading religious neo-conservatives. Most had been allied with theological liberals and active in progressive political causes in the 1960s. But in the 1970s, they began to have doubts. Over time they went from left to right, forging alliances with conservatives.

This cohort, however, was sceptical about a conservative mentality that won’t face up to present realities. They had no sympathy for Latin Mass Lefebrism or conservative Spenglerian gloom. This put the neo in neo-conservative. They followed John Henry Newman. Liberalism in theology shipwrecks the faith.  But expressions of apostolic teaching develop, and repeating old formulae is no guarantee of effective witness in our historical moment. The same goes for politics. The First Things crowd fought the excesses of the 1960s in order to defend the best achievements of liberalism in the modern era. To be truly liberal sometimes requires one to be conservative.

This neo-conservative approach aligned this small group of American Catholics with John Paul II. In the 1950s, he had embarked on the ambitious intellectual project of adapting modern philosophy to serve the Church’s proclamation. At Vatican II, he was among the Young Turks who had no patience for stodgy scholasticism and played a role in drafting Gaudium et Spes. When he arrived at the conclave that would elect him, viewed in mid-20th-century terms Cardinal Wojtyla’s profile was not theologically (or politically) “conservative”. Soon, however, he appointed Joseph Ratzinger as theologian-in-charge and censured liberation theologians. The Polish Pope had no time for Western intellectuals who soft-pedalled Communism’s crimes or dreamed of a “third way” fusion of socialism and capitalism. He rejected the sexual revolution and denounced “the culture of death”. Under his leadership, the public witness of the Church stood against progressive pieties in faith, culture and politics.

This combination of optimism about Catholicism’s role in the modern world and trenchant resistance to the perversions of modernity made John Paul II a neo-conservative of sorts. So, it was not surprising that in the late 1980s and early 1990s John Paul II’s shadow cabinet of mostly Polish advisers and intimates sought out the small band of American Catholic neo-conservatives and invited them into their innermost circle.

Thus came to pass what Weigel calls “the pivot of my life”. In early December, 1995, Neuhaus and he were dining with John Paul II and his close assistant, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz — not for the first time. In his sly way, Neuhaus pointed out the need for a serious, informed biography of the Pope. He knew that in recent months this increasingly united circle of Americans and Poles had been talking about just such a project — and about Weigel as the author. The Holy Father, who was no ingénue when it came to palace politics, said to Neuhaus while looking at Weigel, “You must force him to do it!”

The Polish Pope chose well. Born in 1951 and raised in the confident Catholicism of Baltimore, Maryland, Weigel’s sensibilities as a Catholic are at once traditional and entirely in sympathy with the main thrusts of the Second Vatican Council. This allowed him to see that the liberal vs. conservative framework distorts John Paul II’s churchmanship.

Conservatism looks backward for orientation, while liberal progressivism looks to a utopian future. In his biography of John Paul II and many other writings on his pontificate, Weigel draws attention to the fact that the eyes of faith are directed upward. John Paul II looked up towards Christ crucified and risen, not backwards or forwards. This theological orientation will sometimes mean fighting against those who wish to do away with core doctrines — or moral truth itself. Insofar as the people urging upon us religious subjectivism and moral relativism call themselves “progressives”, this will seem “conservative”. But that’s not accurate. When John Paul II defended human dignity and refused to accept Communism’s dominion over his native land, he led a revolution of conscience, the direction of true progress.

For three decades Weigel has been John Paul II’s most effective apologist, and many of the wonderful stories in Lessons in Hope help us understand why. But this remembrance of the gift of friendship with John Paul II also raises an interesting question. What is the future for the theological and political neo-conservatism that made Wojtyla recognise in Weigel and his First Things friends kindred souls?

Pope Francis has reignited theological battles many of us thought were put to rest by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We’re back to liberals fighting conservatives. While Weigel may wish to resist that framework, it seems not to have been overcome after all. And the return of old battle lines after 30 years of papal governance by two men of remarkable depth, intellectual nuance, and spiritual integrity raises the possibility that the Council failed in its purpose of renewal. I don’t share this view. But it is becoming more plausible to think so in 2017, and this undermines Pope John Paul II’s enthusiasm for Vatican II and his theological neo-conservatism.

Political neo-conservatism is also under stress. John Paul II’s social witness was shaped by a distinctive historical moment. In the final years of the Soviet empire, human rights played a central role in undermining the Communist regimes, and after 1989 the formerly subjugated nations in Eastern Europe largely embraced liberalisation. At its best, this was anchored in a moral seriousness about the integrity of conscience and an admirable loyalty to national traditions. The post-Soviet historical moment was transformative, even revolutionary, but in the service of timeless truths and healthy commitments.

There’s something very American about this combination, for we tend to think of our country as engaged in an ongoing revolution in the service of our creed of liberty and equality, as the rhetoric of George W. Bush after September 11 manifested so clearly. That’s perhaps why John Paul II was always more popular in the United States than in Western Europe. But these days even we are having second thoughts. Human rights have become a weapon used by progressives to demolish moral authority insofar as it bears upon sex, marriage, and family life, and a utopian globalism threatens to dissolve natural forms of solidarity. Here, too, the salience of the old framework of liberal vs. conservative is returning, making the neo-conservatism that promises to save liberalism from its excesses seem less plausible.

This does not mean John Paul II is passé. His great encyclicals limn the truths of the faith and they will be read and reread. Moreover, his witness was to Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But he had a distinctive theological and political style that grew out of the distinctive course of his life and the times in which he lived. I’m calling that style neo-conservative: a Church unequivocally Catholic and confident of its role and place in the modern world, an optimistic, liberalising witness rooted in timeless truths. This style attracted George Weigel and his circle of friends. It attracted me as well. It still does. But I’ll admit to wondering whether I can sustain the “modern” and “liberal” elements in the same ways I thought I could when John Paul II was Pope.

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