The Biography That Might Have Been

A week after Tad Szulc’s biography of Pope John Paul II appeared in the bookstores, David Shaw, the media critic of the Los Angeles Times, wrote a remarkable four-part series arguing that the American press — obsessed with issues of sexual morality and incapable of understanding the Church in terms other than those drawn from political conflict and partisanship — had largely missed one of the great stories of the twentieth century: the dramatic saga of Karol Jozef Wojtyla, former day-laborer, quondam poet and playwright, avid skier, world-class philosopher, and for the past sixteen years Bishop of Rome.

Shaw’s series was the latest piece of evidence that the managers, molders, and, yes, manipulators of American opinion may, at long last, be taking the Holy Father much more seriously, and on his own terms.

This welcome trend seems to have begun in Denver in August 1993, when the hundreds of thousands of participants in World Youth Day showed America a vibrant Catholicism in which notably unalienated men and women were gathered around the Vicar of Christ and on fire with the love of the Lord. Then came Veritatis splendor; and the pope’s vigorous defense of objective moral norms as a reaffirmation of human dignity and a secure foundation for democratic equality came like a bracing tonic to a culture reeling from the effects of “doing it my way.” Shortly thereafter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church — an initiative the Holy Father had encouraged and defended against its many detractors — was a runaway bestseller and this astonishment was soon followed by the remarkable sight of the pope’s own book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, perched atop the New York Times bestseller list for nine weeks. Concurrently, John Paul dominated the world stage during the Cairo conference on population and development: defending the sanctity of marriage and the family, insisting on the dignity and equality of women, and thwarting the designs of population-controllers and lifestyle libertines eager to export the sexual revolution and aborton-on-demand to the developing world. At the end of the annus mirabilis of 1994, Time finally got the message and celebrated John Paul II, not merely as its “Man of the Year,” but as the only world leader of genuine stature on the edge of the 21st century.

Many had hoped that Tad Szulc’s book (Pope John Paul II: The Biography, recently published by Scribner) would deepen and extend this new (and long overdue) appreciation of John Paul II as a remarkable human being, a historic figure of epic proportions, and the most consequential pope in centuries. One comes away from Szulc’s volume convinced that its author admires, even reveres, his subject, to whom he expresses gratitude for the “extraordinary access” the Holy Father gave him during the preparation of the book. What is closest to Tad Szulc’s heart — John Paul’s outreach to the Jewish people and the State of Israel — is a story he tells well. What Szulc knows from personal experience — the life of a small Polish city during the inter-war years — he describes with sympathy and insight. What he can grasp as a man conversant with Polish literature — the special character of Wojtyla’s poetry and plays — he writes about sensibly.

But in virtually every other respect, Tad Szulc seems poorly equipped to write a serious biography, much less “the biography,” of John Paul II. Szulc exhibits little understanding (and much misunderstanding) of Catholicism: its doctrine, its liturgy, its organizational and legal structure, its twentieth-century history. His “acknowledgements” and bibliography include dozens of names of those who have demonstrated considerable hostility to John Paul II, and some of John Paul’s thoughtful defenders are notable for their absence from Szulc’s detailed list of sources. Any responsible biographer takes serious account of his subject’s critics, of course. But Szulc’s ready acceptance of the standard caricature of the Holy Father as socially progressive and theologically reactionary demonstrates a crippling incapacity to discriminate in weighing evidence, a lack of critical distance from the biographer’s own presuppositions, and, indeed, a basic ignorance about key dimensions of the life of Szulc’s subject.

All of which makes for a book that can only be described as a very great disappointment, indeed.

One does not have to be a professional philosopher or theologian to write the biography of a man who is both. But it helps to know something about these disciplines. Tad Szulc, alas, lacks even a beginner’s grasp of matters philosophical and theological. And his floundering at the shallow end of this particular pool leaves him unprepared to grasp, much less seriously engage, the self-understanding of John Paul as successor of Peter, the distinctive role of the Petrine ministry in the Church, or the innovative intellectual project in which Karol Wojtyla has been engaged (as scholar and pastor) for over forty years.

Thus Szulc, at the beginning of his book, confuses Augustine with Aquinas, and then wholly misapplies the Aristotelian/Thomistic concept of God as “Prime Mover” to the Pelagian controversy. Jacques Maritain’s seminal study, Integral Humanism, was written, according to Szulc, “to urge greater humanism in the Church.” The ressourcement theology of the 1940s and 1950s, dedicated to a recovery and reappropriation of the Patristic theological witness, is reduced to a proposal for “a greater involvement of priests with the people in their parishes and dioceses.” Phenomenology, the contemporary philosophical method to which Wojtyla has made original contributions, is dismissed as “a vaguely defined school. . . based on the study of physical and spiritual phenomena and experiences in human existence that has also led to existentialism.” Harvey Cox, a “leading American theologian,” is trotted out to defend the tattered, hoary claim that a struggle between “monarchic” and “democratic” models of Catholicism is the best “definition of the crisis wracking the Church in the second half of the twentieth century.”

So it comes as no surprise that Szulc interprets the stirring antiphons of John Paul II’s magnificent inaugural homily on 22 October 1978 — “Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!” — as a re-assertion of authoritarianism rather than a bold evangelical proclamation and a ringing defense of religious freedom. Tone-deafness of this magnitude does not make for serious biography; what we have instead is Peter Hebblethwaitism absent the late Briton’s personal animus against Wojtyla.

Thus for reasons of ignorance rather than malice, Tad Szulc completely misses one of the great accomplishments of John Paul’s papacy: his re-orientation of the Catholic intellectual encounter with modernity. Eschewing both the bunker strategy of the pre-modern know-nothings and the eager acquiescence of the hyper-moderns, Karol Wojtyla has been a leader in that small band of formidable Catholic intellectuals who, for some four decades, have used modern critical methods to scout the intellectual terrain on the far side of modernity. Now, as the pope who hosts summer seminars that include atheists and agnostics, John Paul II is seeking to articulate the classic affirmations of the Creed and of Christian morality in a language and conceptuality that challenges those he terms (in Threshold) the “masters of suspicion:” those epigones of the Enlightenment who deny the very possibility of human beings grasping and articulating the truth of things.

Missing Wojtyla’s root philosophical-theological conviction, that the reality created through the Logos is an intelligible reality, Tad Szulc also misses the Holy Father’s most pressing ecclesial concern, which has to do, not with some putative “crisis of authority,” but rather with a crisis of faith: a crisis of faith in God, to be sure, but also a crisis of faith in man and in the future of the human prospect. Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Karol Wojtyla has long pondered the meaning of modernity’s forgetting God — which for the pope, as for the great Russian chronicler, is a phenomenon with incalculable public consequences. Thus when John Paul II reads the bloody history of the twentieth century through this distinctive lens, he sees in the carnage of our times unmistakable evidence of what happens when a genuine humanism that affirms the dignity and value of every human person is replaced by hubris masquerading as humanism. And what happens, of course, is that men and women are reduced to being the objects of others’ manipulative (and often lethal) power, in the service of racial, ethnic, ideological, or class ends.

The pope’s first encyclical, Redemptor hominis, powerfully proclaimed an alternative vision of human possibility: a Christologically-informed humanism in which “Christ, the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling.” Here is the Christian claim confidently proposed as the antithesis of that “alienation” which faith is alleged to visit upon us. (Indeed, one can see retrospectively that Redemptor hominis presaged the Christological-humanistic thrust of the entire pontificate.) But for Tad Szulc, Redemptor hominis is merely “theological conservatism.”

In parsing the collapse of European communism, Szulc quite rightly wants to assign considerable credit to John Paul II. But Szulc’s interpretation of the dynamics and events leading up to the Revolution of 1989 in east central Europe undercuts that intention even as it contradicts (probably unwittingly) the pope’s own analysis of this history in Centesimus annus. Beginning with the (correct) premise that the pope’s diplomacy has not been taken as seriously as it should have been by most analysts of the 1980s, Szulc nevertheless ends up buttressing the argument that communism wasn’t really defeated; rather, it collapsed because its “internal contradictions” rendered it hopelessly uncompetitive in a world of microchips, cyberspace, and the digital revolution.

Szulc’s Polish sources are especially suspect here. Indeed, in Szulc’s entire analysis of Polish history from the late 1960s on, knowledgeable students will detect the fine hand of Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski at work. Rakowski, former editor of the “liberal” communist journal Polityka, was, as it happens, the last communist prime minister of Poland; he was also one of the country’s most unsavory — some would add, unscrupulous — political intellectuals in the decades immediately before and after the Solidarity revolution of 1980. It goes without saying that Mr. Rakowski has a vested interest (now, largely vengeful) in putting a certain “spin” on the communist crack-up; yet Szulc treats him as a privileged witness whose recollections and analyses are to be taken at face value, and indeed taken as definitive.

On this reading of things, and as the workers’ revolt at the Gdansk Shipyards in 1970 allegedly demonstrated, communism in Poland was already crumbling when the archbishop of Krakow was elected pope in October 1978. “Polish political dynamics,” Szulc writes, “did not really require an external stimulant” such as the pope’s election and June 1979 visit to his homeland; these only “played a part in accelerating the march of events, at least in terms of the national psychology.” Throughout the 1980s, John Paul II usefully, even skillfully, mediated Poland’s lengthy transition from totalitarianism to democracy. It was good that he was where he was; things went smoother than otherwise might have been expected. But John Paul cannot be regarded as an initiator of these dramatic events; that is what “superficial commentators” hold.

Alas for Szulc’s claim, those “superficial commentators” who attribute an indispensable, initiating role to John Paul II in the events that led up to the Revolution of 1989 include virtually everyone who took an active part in the Solidarity resistance: which is to say, the people who have a rather different view of what happened in the 1980s than Mieczyslaw Rakowski and others eager to re-arrange the historical record in order to salvage what honor may be left to them.

The Rakowski/Szulc analysis of “1989” is, at bottom, banal. It reduces the great human drama of the anti-communist resistance to the inexorable working-out of historical forces, primarily economic. It is, in short, a vulgarized Marxist analysis of the collapse of Marxism. Which is not, one might say, without its ironic piquancy. But what do we learn from it?

It seems retrospectively clear that the economic and technological incapacities of Marxist-Leninist societies would have led, at some indeterminate point in time, to the crumbling of the communist project. Far from being “the future,” communism’s gross materialism made it ultimately incapable of matching the performance of free societies whose creativity, imagination, and flexibility gave them a decisive competitive advantage. All of that can be granted, at a certain level of historical abstraction. And yet granting it tells us virtually nothing about the Revolution of 1989 as a distinctive historical event.

The how, the why, and the when of the Solidarity revolution (and its parallel movements in other Warsaw Pact countries) is only explicable in terms of a moral revolution — a revolution of the spirit in which men and women freely chose, against great odds and at no small risk, to affirm certain truths about themselves and about the human condition, not the least of which was their fundamental right to religious freedom. That revolution of the spirit, in turn, established the conditions for the possibility of re-creating civil society, which is precisely what communism had tried to destroy by its repressions, its mendacity, its falsification of history, and its debasement of law. Absent the foundation of civil society, workers’ revolts against communism in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had failed in 1953, 1956, 1968, and 1970. But the rudimentary civil society that was painstakingly rebuilt in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s proved capable of sustaining the non-violent revolution that swept communism away, and without World War III.

And if you ask the people who made that revolution, “When did it start?”, they all answer, virtually without exception, “When John Paul II came to Poland in June 1979.” Yes, of course, there were many other dynamics in play. Yes, there were antecedents. But that, the June 1979 pilgrimage, was the decisive clarifying event; those were the days in which people were galvanized to “live in the truth,” as they put it — to live “as if” they were free. To re-read John Paul’s sermons, addresses, and lectures during those eight days is to experience the astonishing power of the preached word to move men and women to conversion, and thereby bend the course of history. Szulc lists the Polish edition of those allocutions in his bibliography; but they seem to have made no impact on his analysis of the events of the 1980s, for which they were the proximate trigger.

Szulc is also properly complimentary about the pope’s diplomatic skills. But he is pedestrian and unimaginative in his analysis of the Ostpolitik of the Holy See during the 1980s. At one level, of course, little changed when John Paul II succeeded Paul VI after the brief interregnum of John Paul I: the negotiations with communist states launched by Pope Paul and conducted by then-Archbishop Agostino Casaroli continued, and attempts to create a bit more living space for the Church in communist societies went forward. But in another, and more crucial, respect, everything changed in the Ostpolitik after 16 October 1978.

As he made unmistakably clear in Centesimus annus, John Paul II had never regarded the Yalta bifurcation of Europe into “East” and “West” as a fait accompli: regrettable, to be sure, but unavoidable in 1945 and permanent for the foreseeable future. To Wojtyla, however, the post-war arrangement in Europe (meaning, in practice, the subjugation of the historic nations of east central Europe as outer provinces of the Soviet empire) was a moral outrage and the basic cause of the threat of war that had hung over the continent since V-E Day. Peace could not be built on any foundation other than freedom and justice. Thus from the very beginning of his pontificate, as in his response to the Polish government’s telegram of congratulations on his election (whose punch-line Szulc characteristically misreads), Wojtyla’s Ostpolitik had a distinctively evangelical edge of moral challenge to it. The Casaroli negotiating track was amplified by a new, assertive papal defense of basic human rights, with special reference to religious freedom. Local Church leaders were expected to take similar stands in their own situations. Those who would resist knew that they had a vocal, tough-minded, and unflappable defender in Rome. And behaviors changed accordingly (witness the transformation of Prague’s Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek from a pussycat into the grand old lion of the Velvet Revolution).

The Ostpolitik of John Paul II was not simply the Ostpolitik of Paul VI with a Polish accent. Szulc’s suggestion that it was is another indication of how poorly he has understood his man.

Tad Szulc’s insistence that John Paul stands equidistant from communism and “excessive capitalism,” invoking plagues on both houses, badly misses the originality of the Holy Father’s social thought. In Centesimus annus, John Paul effected a re-orientation of Catholic social doctrine, away from the old question of economic and political structures and toward the new, “post-modern” question of a free society’s moral culture. Szulc seems wholly unaware that John Paul has explicitly rejected a “Catholic third way” between socialism and the market economy or free economy. Rather, the Holy Father’s creative contribution to the evolving tradition of Catholic social thought has been to push beyond structural arguments (which he seems to think are settled) and ask the deeper, more probing questions: How shall we build a moral culture capable of disciplining and channelling the energies of the free economy and the democratic polity? How does the free economy avoid sinking into a cesspool of self-indulgence — which, among other things, would mean the end of the free economy? How do we challenge the flat majoritarianism and proceduralism of so much contemporary democratic theory? How shall we reconnect democratic practice to certain self-evident moral truths about the human person?

To Tad Szulc, a man of the Left, John Paul II is a “progressive” in economic matters: meaning, one supposes, that Szulc thinks of the Holy Father as some sort of democratic socialist. But this obscures more than it illuminates (it also tacitly attributes a host of political-economic views to a man who insists that his address to the worlds of politics and economics is religious and moral, not technical, in character). Thus Szulc is oblivious to the Holy Father’s emphasis on the “right of economic initiative” in Sollicitudo rei socialis and his celebration of the creativity of entrepreneurship in Centesimus annus, even as he wholly ignores the pope’s sharp criticism of the stultifying effects of the Nanny State in the latter encyclical. Szulc’s own gauchiste predispositions get him into similar difficulties in his pathetically ill-informed discussions of liberation theology; thus he criticizes John Paul II’s performance at Puebla, Mexico in 1979 for having “left many of the bishops. . . with the impression that he preferred that the Theology of Liberation. . . be abandoned in favor of a more traditional Church ‘Option for the Poor.”‘ (As some of Szulc’s and Wojtyla’s elementary school classmates would have said of such a blooper, “Oy, vey!“)

The “social progressive/theological conservative” optic also distorts, and badly, Tad Szulc’s reading of John Paul’s efforts to energize Roman Catholicism for its entrance into the third millennium of Christian history. Thus Szulc insists on referring to the pope’s call for a “new evangelization” as a “crusade” aimed at reimposing an “iron discipline” on dissident theologians; and in doing so, Szulc misses what has been perhaps the greatest accomplishment of John Paul’s papacy, namely, his transformation of the role of the pope from CEO of Roman Catholic Church, Inc. into global evangelist. Redemptoris missio, the Holy Father’s 1990 encyclical on Christian mission (and one of the greatest of teaching documents in a pontificate notable for great teaching documents) is simply absent from Szulc’s book; so is Christifideles laici, the 1988 apostolic exhortation on the laity.

Szulc also has a very weak understanding of John Paul’s Marian piety, treating it as more a psychological phenomenon — Wojtyla turning to the Black Madonna after his mother’s premature death, and to Our Lady of Fatima after Agca’s bullets missed killing him by millimeters — than a deep theological conviction. So Szulc is in no position to assess the long-term (and quite possibly dramatic) impact of John Paul’s appropriation of elements of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Mariology, in which the “Marian Church” is prior to, and in some sense makes possible, the “Petrine Church.” Szulc is also curiously inattentive to the pope’s intense focus on the coming of the third millennium, a theme that seems likely to dominate the next five years of the pontificate.

But Szulc is at his clumsiest when he tries to deal with John Paul’s address to sexual morality and the life issues of abortion and euthanasia. Here is an area where an elementary understanding of the function of authority in the Church would have spared Szulc some serious misrepresentations of his subject. Szulc cannot seem to grasp the fact that John Paul, as pope, is the custodian of a body of religious and moral convictions. He is not an autocrat laying down the law on the basis of his own private conclusions about theology and morality. He is Peter among us, interpreting the authentic tradition of the Church. That tradition can develop over time; but as John Henry Newman taught us, authentic development is always in essential continuity with what has gone before.

The tenets of the Apostles’ Creed are not subject to addition or subtraction through a process of negotiation; they are subject to a deeper appropriation and a more comprehensive understanding through serious scholarship, prayer, and reflection on the lived experience of the Church. Tad Szulc calls the Holy Father’s affirmation of a credal baseline for Christianity “theological rigidity.” The truth of the matter is that John Paul has been the exponent of a dynamic orthodoxy, a new Christian humanism, that will be seriously debated long after the agitations of Matthew Fox, John Dominic Crossan, and Jean-Bertrand Aristide (all of whom are cited in the bibliography) have been forgotten.

On the life issues, Szulc is both ill-informed and misleading. As on matters of doctrine, he seems to think that the Holy Father’s position on abortion is a matter of the personal convictions of Karol Wojtyla, rather than a non-negotiable assertion of Christian morality (as John Paul has made unmistakably clear, yet again, in Evangelium vitae). Szulc seems wholly innocent of the public dimensions of the abortion controversy, and ignores the implications for a law-governed society of a constitutionally-warranted right to lethal violence for private ends. He badly misrepresents Vatican strategy and tactics at last September’s Cairo conference on population and development, and seems unaware of the striking diplomatic success of the Holy See in challenging the lifestyle left’s attempt to hijack the Cairo conference. David Shaw’s series in the L.A. Times — hardly a pro-life propaganda sheet — documented just how badly the prestige press missed the “Church and Cairo” story; Tad Szulc’s discussion of Cairo seems to be based solely on the reporting that Shaw, a Pulitzer prize-winning critic, deplores.

Pope John Paul II: The Biography is badly edited and, in some respects, shoddily reported. It is riddled with factual errors that range from the relatively minor (cardinals don’t receive “titular sees,” but rather titular churches, in Rome) and amusing (Cardinal Tisserant, whom Szulc describes as presiding over Wojtyla’s election, died six years before the 1978 conclave), to the sloppy (Wojtyla didn’t receive a doctorate at age twenty-two; the Carmel at Auschwitz wasn’t a “shrine;” Tadeusz Kosciuszko became a hero of the American Revolution before, not “after losing his own country”) and the ridiculous (Cardinal Wyszynski’s insistence on communist recognition of the Church’s public functions was not a “legally unsound” violation of the “widely accepted principle of the separation of church and state” — whatever that meant in a communist constitution!). The photographs are oddly chosen; almost half the book is about John Paul’s pontificate, but the last photograph is dated 1969, nine years before his election as pope. All in all, one has the impression of a book rushed to print.

No one reading the author’s preface can doubt that Tad Szulc took up his task with much good will, worked hard, and finished his labors deeply impressed with his subject. But Szulc has not even come close to the standard he assigns himself: “to capture the essence of the persona of Karol Wojtyla of Krakow and John Paul II of the Holy See.” He has fallen, hard, for the cartoon character of John-Paul-the-clerical-autocrat at precisely the moment when others of his journalistic brethren are beginning to abandon it as hopelessly inadequate. He has offered an essentially reform-communist interpretation of the Revolution of 1989, thereby demeaning the role of the pope whose accomplishments in that sphere he wants to celebrate. He has written movingly about the pope’s intense spiritual life; but there is little in Szulc’s portrait to suggest that he has begun to grasp the “essence of the persona” of a man whose most defining characteristic is the intensity of his Christian faith.

God seems not to be finished with Karol Wojtyla, though. And, in due course, God may even provide this wonderful man, this great Christian witness, this proud son of Poland who is the first citizen of the world, with a biographer worthy of him.


  • 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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