George Weigel: The Pope's Biographer Assesses His Legacy





George Weigel in the WSJ:

[Mr. Weigel is a senior fellow and director of the Catholic Studies program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II," (HarperCollins, 1999) and "The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God," just out from Basic Books.]

... In a 1968 letter to the French Jesuit theologian, Henri de Lubac, then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla suggested that "a degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person" was at the root of the 20th century's grim record: two World Wars, Auschwitz and the Gulag, a Cold War threatening global disaster, oceans of blood and mountains of corpses. How had a century begun with such high hopes for the human future produced mankind's greatest catastrophes? Because, Karol Wojtyla proposed, Western humanism had gone off the rails, collapsing into forms of self-absorption, and then self-doubt, so severe that men and women had begun to wonder whether there was any truth at all to be found in the world, or in themselves.

This profound crisis of culture, this crisis in the very idea of the human, had manifested itself in the serial crises that had marched across the surface of contemporary history, leaving carnage in their wake. But unlike some truly "conservative" critics of late modernity, Wojtyla's counter-proposal was not rollback: rather, it was a truer, nobler humanism, built on the foundation of the biblical conviction that God had made the human creature in His image and likeness, with intelligence and free will, a creature capable of knowing the good and freely choosing it. That, John Paul II insisted in a vast number of variations on one great theme, was the true measure of man--the human capacity, in cooperation with God's grace, for heroic virtue.

Here was an idea with consequences, and the Pope applied it to effect across a broad spectrum of issues.

One variant form of debased humanism was the notion that "history" is driven by the politics of willfulness (the Jacobin heresy) or by economics (the Marxist heresy). During his epic pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979, at a moment when "history" seemed frozen and Europe permanently divided into hostile camps, John Paul II demonstrated that "history" worked differently, because human beings aren't just the by-products of politics or economics. He gave back to his people their authentic history and culture--their identity; and in doing so, he gave them tools of resistance that communist truncheons could not reach. Fourteen months after teaching that great lesson in dignity, the Pope watched and guided the emergence of Solidarity. And then the entire world began to see the communist tide recede, like the slow retreat of a plague.

After the Cold War, when more than a few analysts and politicians were in a state of barely restrained euphoria, imagining a golden age of inevitable progress for the cause of political and economic freedom, John Paul II saw more deeply and clearly. He quickly decoded new threats to what he had called, in that 1968 letter to Father de Lubac, the "inviolable mystery of the human person," and so he spent much of the 1990s explaining that freedom untethered from moral truth risks self-destruction.

For if there is only your truth and my truth and neither one of us recognizes a transcendent moral standard (call it "the truth") by which to settle our differences, then either you will impose your power on me or I will impose my power on you; Nietszche, great, mad prophet of the 20th century, got at least that right. Freedom uncoupled from truth, John Paul taught, leads to chaos and thence to new forms of tyranny. For, in the face of chaos (or fear), raw power will inexorably replace persuasion, compromise, and agreement as the coin of the political realm. The false humanism of freedom misconstrued as "I did it my way" inevitably leads to freedom's decay, and then to freedom's self-cannibalization. This was not the soured warning of an antimodern scold; this was the sage counsel of a man who had given his life to freedom's cause from 1939 on.

Thus the key to the freedom project in the 21st century, John Paul urged, lay in the realm of culture: in vibrant public moral cultures capable of disciplining and directing the tremendous energies--economic, political, aesthetic, and, yes, sexual--set loose in free societies. A vibrant public moral culture is essential for democracy and the market, for only such a culture can inculcate and affirm the virtues necessary to make freedom work. Democracy and the free economy, he taught in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, are goods; but they are not machines that can cheerfully run by themselves. Building the free society certainly involves getting the institutions right; beyond that, however, freedom's future depends on men and women of virtue, capable of knowing, and choosing, the genuinely good....


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