John Paul II in America

Over the past four years, Pope John Paul II has developed what is arguably the most sophisticated moral, philosophical, and theological analysis of democracy on offer in the world today. In a triptych of encyclicals — Centesimus annus (1991), Veritatis splendor (1993), and Evangelium vitae (1995) — the Holy Father has both secured the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the “first freedom,” which is religious freedom, and sketched the public implications of that teaching for the free society.

John Paul’s proposal seems to be based on a judgment that the large institutional questions are, essentially, settled. If, under the conditions of modernity, you want a society that protects basic human rights while advancing the common good amidst widespread prosperity, you choose democracy over various authoritarian or totalitarian alternatives and a market-based economy over state-driven development.

The really interesting and urgent questions, the pope suggests, are in the order of morality and culture: how does a free people develop and sustain the habits of mind and heart — the virtues, in an older vocabulary — that channel the energies of free politics and economics so that they serve the ends of genuine human flourishing? How does freedom find its fulfillment in goodness?

In short, building the culture of freedom focuses the Holy Father’s public interests on the threshold of the third millennium. And that was the theme that linked John Paul’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on October 5 to his pastoral exhortations and homilies in Newark, New York, Brooklyn, and Baltimore, in the three remarkable days that followed.

The Moral Leader of the World

Much had happened since John Paul first addressed the UN in October 1979. The defining struggle of the post World War II period had been resolved in favor of the forces of freedom; communism had collapsed, as had apartheid and certain forms of caudillism in Iberia and its former colonies; the democratic revolution had left a profound imprint on Latin America, east central Europe, and parts of East Asia.

Yet for all that historic change, much remained the same. Some Third World countries seemed poised to drop off the edge of history into an abyss of anarchy and human degradation. Ideologues of various hues were denying the universality of basic human rights on the ground that there was no universal human nature. The dangers posed by what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the “permissive cornucopia” plagued the developed world. The U.N. was a morass of corruption, inefficiency, and ineptitude. Thus John Paul had a lot to take account of in morally parsing the world’s circumstances, six years after the end of the Cold War.

Perhaps to the surprise of some, the Holy Father’s U.N. address was not a tour of the hot spots, but rather a horizon- setting reflection on the enormous moral and cultural churning that has taken place because of the “extraordinary global acceleration of [the human] quest for freedom,” which the pope described as “one of the great dynamics of human history.” John Paul left no doubt that he welcomes, indeed celebrates, this global movement, which is “truly one of the distinguishing marks of our time.” As she had done during the communist crack-up, the Church would continue to stand firmly on the side of those “men and women of conviction and courage” who risked their lives and fortunes in order to secure, in justice and freedom, “a fuller share in the life of society.”

But understanding this phenomenon and its implications, the pope suggested, requires that we dig deeper than politics and economics; and in proposing such a fundamental moral analysis, John Paul began with an unambiguous defense of the universality of human rights, which he called the “inner structure” of the worldwide quest for freedom. The global character of the appeal to basic human rights is, the pope argued, more than a demographic or political curiosity. Rather, it provides crucial empirical evidence for the claim that these basic human rights “reflect the objective and inviolable demands of a universal moral law.”

Moreover, the pope continued, the global defense of the rights of man “tells us something important” about the human condition at the end of a century of existential despair: namely, that “we do not live in an irrational or meaningless world.” On the contrary, “there is a moral logic … built into human life … which makes possible dialogue between individuals and peoples.” This “universal moral law written on the human heart” could, the pope continued, provide a “kind of grammar” to discipline the dialogue through which a “century of coercion” might be followed by a “century of persuasion.”

The Holy Father’s vigorous defense of the basic rights of human person was a sharp rejection of the claims of the radical multiculturalists. And yet this defense of universality was immediately followed by a suggestive reflection on what the pope termed the rights of nations.” Here, John Paul showed himself once again the great defender of pluralism against the various monisms — secularist, nationalist, ethnic, ideological, religious — that would coercively reduce the human condition to a brutally bland uniformity.

Here, too, the pope reaffirmed his belief in the priority of culture over politics and economics, noting that, in the Polish circumstance, it was language, religion, and national culture that permitted Poland, the nation, to survive the dismemberment of Poland, the state. The pope even managed to get a brief intellectual tease into his formal text, reminding his audience that the Church, in the person of Pawel Wlodkowic, head of the Academy of Krakow, had defended the rights of what were then deemed inferior nations and cultures during the Fifteeth century Council of Constance — which is to say, five hundred years before the U.N. had taken up the topic. But in this context of the “rights of nations,” the papal suggestion that will likely have the most enduring impact on the politics of the twenty-first century was John Paul’s tacit endorsement of federalist and confederalist arrangements, as distinguished from flat-out national sovereignty, as means for managing pluralism in situations like the Balkans.

The pope then returned to the question of the moral structure of freedom, urging that freedom has an “inner `logic’ which distinguishes it and ennobles it: freedom is ordered to the truth, and is fulfilled in man’s quest for truth and in man’s living in the truth.” That freedom must be tethered to moral truth to prevent its decay into license was, of course, one of the most urgently argued themes of Centesimus annus. And the reference to “living in the truth” was a welcome papal tribute to the former dissidents of east central Europe, for whom that phrase encapsulated their morally grounded resistance to communism.

The principal threat to that kind of truth-based living today came, the pope argued, from utilitarianism — a “doctrine which defines morality not in terms of what is good but of what is advantageous.” This was an unambiguous challenge to the notion that the pleasure principle — the aggrandizement of the imperial autonomous Self — could provide a secure moral-cultural foundation for developed democracies. The pope also located the source of aggressive nationalism, of the sort that has made a bedlam of the Balkans and the Trans-Caucasus, in a crudely utilitarian approach to politics.

Taking a stand against utilitarianism and its reduction of human beings to manipulable objects would, the pope continued, require change in the economic approaches of both developed and developing countries. Picking up a theme first adumbrated in the 1987 encyclical, Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul urged Third World countries to replace “unjust, corrupt, or authoritarian forms of government with participatory and democratic ones.” At the same time, the pope suggested, the developed world’s approach to the Third World ought to be inspired by an ethic of solidarity that seeks to unleash in underdeveloped countries “the creativity which is a distinguishing mark of the human person and the true source of the wealth of nations in today’s world.” These clauses, an extension of the teaching of Centesimus annus, would seem to ratify the magisterium’s turn away from the curious materialism that had sometimes characterized Catholic social doctrine in its formative years.

The pope then turned his attention to his hosts at the U.N. The Holy See has been perhaps the world’s most consistent defender of the United Nations since its founding. Yet John Paul is no naif about the actual functioning of the organization. The Holy Father knows full well that the U.N. bureaucracy and its functional agencies (like the World Health Organization) are shot through with corruption. Then there was the attempt by the international lifestyle Left, aided and abetted by the U.N. bureaucracy, to hijack the 1994 U.N. population conference at Cairo, the 1995 Copenhagen “Social Summit,” and the recent Beijing world conference on women. As the head of a resistance movement that had largely frustrated these attempts to declare the sexual revolution, Hollywood/Stockholm style, a matter of basic human rights, the pope knew to whom he was talking at Tuttle Bay. And as one who believes that his own peacemaking efforts in the Balkans have, at times, been obstructed by the U.N., John Paul knows all about the organization’s deficiencies in fulfilling its charter’s basic mandate: to “save mankind from the scourge of war.”

Thus the pope’s call to the U.N. to “rise … above the cold status of an administrative institution and to become a moral center where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being, as it were, a ‘family of nations,'” should be taken as a polite demur on Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s grandiose plans to turn the U.N. into a world government, and a gentle suggestion that the U.N. might turn itself into something more useful and more achievable — a forum in which the world can intelligibly debate the moral core of the cultural, social, political, and economic issues whose resolution will determine the shape of the twenty-first century.

The extensive coda to the pope’s U.N. address was a remarkable affirmation of faith at the end of a terrible century. Reflecting on the irony and tragedy of late modernity — a period that began “with a self-confident assertion” of man’s “coming of age” and “autonomy” and yet is ending with man “fearful of himself, fearful of what he might be capable of, fearful for the future” — the pope nonetheless returned, resolutely, to what has become the antiphon of his pontificate: “Be not afraid!”

In other contexts, this might seem a pious ejaculation, an expression of shallow optimism. Yet the Holy Father quickly distinguished optimism and religious hope. Optimism is “a naive confidence that the future will necessarily be better than the past.” Hope, however, is not an attitude but a theological virtue, built on faith and “nurtured in that inner sanctuary of conscience where ‘man is alone with God,'” as Gaudium et spes put it.

The Holy Father grounded his humanism in Christology — a surprise for those used to U.N. interventions by the Holy See that carefully avoid the “J-word.” “My hope and trust,” the pope affirmed, “are centered on Jesus Christ, the two thousandth anniversary of whose birth will be celebrated at the coming of the new millennium.” But Christian hope, the pope immediately continued, is nonsectarian by reason of its source and nature: “Jesus Christ is for us God made man, and made a part of the history of humanity. Precisely for this reason, Christian hope for the world and its future extends to every human person.” The Holy Father thereby affirmed the religious ground of religious tolerance and defined the theological rationale for the Church’s commitment to the works of mercy and to the task of creating the pluralism of dialogue out of the cacophony of plurality in the free society.

The answer to the fear that has paralyzed the human imagination in the twentieth century is thus to “build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty.” The soul of this civilization of love, the pope declared, is “the culture of freedom: the freedom of individuals and the freedoms of nations, lived in self-giving solidarity and responsibility.” And in building the civilization of love, the Holy Father finished, “we shall see that the tears of this century have prepared the ground for a new springtime of the human spirit.”

At which point, as the applause rolled through the General Assembly hall and not a few tears of gratitude were shed, there and around the world, it became clear that the world had just been listening to its moral and spiritual leader.

The Hospitable Society

At his Mass for the dioceses of New Jersey, celebrated in rain-soaked Giants Stadium on the evening of October 5, John Paul focused this comprehensive moral vision of “living in the truth” through the prismatic image of America as a “hospitable society.”

Reporters eager to recruit the pope as an ally in the great crusade against the evils of Gingrichism rather missed the significance of this trope, which the pope deliberately adopted from the classic rhetoric of the pro-life movement. In those circles, as in the papal homily in the Meadowlands, the “hospitable society” image illustrates two points. First, the abortion license, by peremptorily contracting the boundaries of the community of those for whom we assume a common responsibility, inverts the trajectory of American history. Second, the abortion license, in addition to its lethal effects on the unborn and its degrading impact on women and men, has serious public consequences for the character of American law and American society. It was also no accident that the Holy Father, through the “hospitable society” image, linked the abortion issue to the rising tide of pro-euthanasia agitation around the country and to the moral imperative of solidarity with the severely handicapped and all those whom society might find, in utilitarian terms, “burdensome.”

To be sure, the “hospitable society” is also one that lives in solidarity with the poor and with new Americans. But the efforts to interpret this image as ammunition in the war against welfare and immigration reform seemed strained. Hard as it may be for some reporters, commentators (like Father Richard McBrien and former governor Mario Cuomo), and Catholic Charities activists to understand, compassion for the poor and the newly arrived is not a monopoly of liberals. Compassion is a classic Christian virtue, and all Christians are obliged to live in solidarity with the least of the Lord’s bretheren.

The question John Paul II has consistently pressed is, how do we give effect to that compassion? According to John Paul, the sharp critic of the “Social Assistance State,” we don’t do it by programs that create and perpetuate welfare dependency. Rather, we do it by efforts to empower the poor to participate in economic, social, and political life. And that those efforts might well be directed through the mediating institutions of civil society, rather than through the mega-structures of the state, close readers of Centesimus annus need not doubt.

John Paul does not think the Church has technical solutions to issues of welfare and immigration reform. He calls Americans to generosity of heart and spirit. He bids us to face down our fear of “the other.” He summons us to keep alive the classic American tradition of hospitality to the stranger. But he does not seem to think it the Church’s proper role to design legislation. It is a modesty that some of his brethren might well emulate.

The Holy Father gave particularly eloquent expression to his Christological humanism and its moral challenge to America at Baltimore’s Camden Yards on the morning of October 8. “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the pope preached, “is not a private opinion, a remote spiritual ideal, or a mere program for personal growth.” Rather, “the Gospel is the power that can transform the world,” because in the Gospel we meet “the living person of Jesus Christ … who reveals the deepest meaning of our humanity and the noble destiny to which the whole human family is called.”

Still, the pope continued, some Christians remain afraid, to the point of being frustrated by the evil that God seems to permit, and by the poverty of our capacity to confront everything that dehumanizes man. But there can be no Christianity without the cross. Thus the answer to what may seem the burdensomeness of our dependence upon God is to recognize that

There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not now bear with us. And on the far side of every cross we find the newness of life in the Holy Spirit, that new life which will reach its fulfillment in the resurrection.

And that, the pope affirmed, is what Christians most urgently need to teach the world.

As for America, its challenge today is “to find freedom’s fulfillment in the truth.” And that can only be done, the Holy Father suggested, if this vibrantly if diversely religious nation takes up, once again, a question eloquently posed at a moment of great crisis in American history:

One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure.” President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community. The basic question before a democratic society is, “How ought we to live together?” In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? Can the biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate? Would not doing so mean that America’s founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contributions of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy? Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom — freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.

During the course of his pontificate, John Paul II has developed a deeper appreciation for what he described, at Newark airport, as “the extraordinary human epic that is the United States of America.” In a way that is frankly unusual for a European intellectual, the Holy Father has grasped the distinctive moral-philosophical character of the American Founding, which he carefully distinguishes from the Jacobin laicism of the French Revolution.

At the same time, the Holy Father has intuited a critique first raised by John Courtney Murray (Wojtyla’s fellow-drafter of Dignitatis humanae, Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom) forty years ago. The collapse of mainline Protestantism and the rise of the secularist academy have left a hollowness at the heart of American democracy, which takes psychological form in cultural commitments to the autonomy of the self-constituting Self and public form in the notion of American democracy as a merely procedural republic. The pope does not seem to regard this hollowness as the inevitable outcome of an ill-founded experiment. Rather, in the texts and between the lines of the Camden Yards and Giants Stadium homilies, we may discern a papal suggestion that America’s moral and cultural crisis might begin to be resolved by an encounter with the “truth about man” and the truths about human communities identified by the contemporary social doctrine of the Catholic Church. This truth is, as the pope insists, not a sectarian preserve, but a body of truths accessible to all men and women of good will.

Put more simply but no less truly, John Paul II likes America and likes Americans. His praise for the “impressive array of witnesses” that God has raised up in the United States was no mere courtesy, but a recognition of the heroic virtue that Catholicism in America still calls forth. His critique of the less admirable sides of our contemporary culture and his admonition to strengthen the vitality of the Church at every level of its American life came from the heart of a friend. For only a friend could conclude his Baltimore homily in these terms:

Catholics of America, always be guided by the truth—by the truth about God who created and redeemed us, and by the truth about the human person, made in the image and likeness of God and destined for a glorious fulfillment in the kingdom to come. Always be convincing witnesses to the truth. “Stir into a flame the gift of God” (2 Timothy 1:6) that has been bestowed upon you in baptism. Light your nation — light the world — with the power of that flame! Amen.

The Hermeneutics of a Papal Visit

Press coverage of the Holy Father’s 1995 visit was more extensive and far friendlier than during the pope’s last U.S. tour in 1987, or in 1993, during Denver’s World Youth Day. Indeed, the self-criticism of the media for its insufficiencies at Denver (launched by the New York Times‘s Peter Steinfels and the Washington Post‘s E. J. Dionne, Jr.) helped create circumstances for improved reporting of this year’s papal pilgrimage. Credit on this front should also be given to Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw, whose four-part series in 1994 argued that the American press had largely missed the John Paul II story because of its obsessions with sex and church politics. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul’s 1994 best-seller, also made a difference, by introducing Wojtyla the man, the Christian believer, and the philosopher to a far wider audience.

The usual suspects were, of course, trotted out to raise the usual complaints. Thus Father Andrew Greeley announced before the visit that the whole thing was meaningless, a circumstance that did not prevent him from acting as a network commentator. Sister Maureen Fiedler told more than one reporter that the pope was, in effect, a misogynist who didn’t listen to women; but the impact of this carping was blunted by the Holy Father’s vigorous defense of women’s rights in the run-up to the Beijing conference in September. Happily, the egregious Frances Kissling of the bogus Catholics for a Free Choice got much less print-space and air-time in October than during previous papal news cycles; one can only assume, and hope, that her paymasters are displeased.

A lot of the press did fall into pack-think in the matter of John Paul’s alleged sharp critique of the Republican Contract With America — and this despite the fact that the words “welfare reform,” much less “Contract With America,” never passed the pope’s lips. So there is considerable work to do in getting even the sharper reporters and op-ed columnists to grasp the ways in which John Paul’s social doctrine radically challenges the autonomy-logic of the left while fitting no prepackaged American partisan categories. The press also failed to examine the ways in which the Clinton administration, aided by U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Raymond Flynn, tried to manipulate both the president’s access to the pope and the pope’s remarks in what amounted to a crude attempt to recruit John Paul as a chaplain to the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. It might also have been interesting to discover why President Clinton’s October 5 press conference on Bosnia began at the precise moment the pope began his address to the U.N. — thus knocking the first fifteen minutes of the Holy Father’s address off of CNN. Inept scheduling? Or something worse?

But all in all, the coverage of the visit was about as good as might reasonably have been expected, given the prevailing media shibboleths. The Wall Street Journal continued to demonstrate its editorial writers’ insight into John Paul’s message and its op-ed editors’ appreciation for what the Holy Father brings to public discourse. The New York Times ran lengthy excerpts and in some instances, full texts, of the pope’s speeches and homilies (thus providing, within its own pages, evidence for those willing to challenge some Times’s reporters’ “Wojtyla vs. Gingrich” hermeneutic of the visit). There were even some breakthroughs: the Baltimore Sun, no papal apologist, got it precisely right by declaring that, in the Giants Stadium homily, the Holy Father intended to reposition abortion as a civil rights issue.

Toward the Third Millennium

The Great Jubilee of 2000 is never far from John Paul’s mind these days, and that horizon of expectation shaped the message the Holy Father brought to the U.N. and the U.S. To the world, and to the statesmen, bureaucrats, politicoes, and thugs gathered before him in the General Assembly, John Paul urged a great public dialogue about the culture of freedom whose vitality is essential if the twentieth century’s rejection of political bondage is not to give birth to a tragedy: the forging of new chains to shackle the human spirit. In his General Assembly address, the pope seemed deeply moved by the horrors of the twentieth century — as well he might, given his own experience of Nazi and communist tyranny and his acute awareness of the persecutions under which the Church suffers and bleeds today. Yet this remarkable human being, who has looked so many times into the heart of our modern darkness, retains his faith in man: precisely because of his faith in God, and in the Christ who has redeemed our liberties from our passions. At the end of a century in which religion was supposed to have withered away, the bishop of Rome speaks to and for humanity like no one else on the face of the earth. It is a wonder, and an utterly unmerited blessing.

As for the Church in America, John Paul came, not to scold, but to encourage. He came to encourage all of those who want to move beyond Catholic Lite through a renewal of Catholic education built around the Catechism of the Catholic Church; to encourage a new commitment to evangelization and an intensification of charity; to encourage in all of us “a vigorous response to the Christian vocation to holiness and service.” To an America gravely worried and deeply divided over the character-deficit in our society, John Paul also brought the encouragement of a friend who suspects that there is considerable moral vitality left in the American experiment. And this time, because his words of challenge were heard within an ongoing American dialogue, I suspect that they have a much greater chance of being heard — and even acted upon.


  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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