The most telling experience I've ever heard about him on the question of
Christians and Jews was a story told to me by a friend who had been at the
Second Vatican Council in 1963, '64, '65. Picture St. Peter's Basilica full of
several thousands of bishops--every bishop in the world is there--and the
debate is over Nostra Aetate, the great Vatican document on relationships of
the Catholic Church to other religions, with a special paragraph about the
relationship of the Church to the Jews. It was a very heated debate. The end
result of that document was to affirm two very important things, which in a
sense are offensive, but they needed to be affirmed. One, the Jewish people
living in the time of Jesus and living afterwards, can never be held guilty for
the death of Jesus. An important affirmation. Why? Because for 1500,1800 years,
that was the basis of Christian attacks. Secondly, that document renounced the
idea that Christianity had replaced Judaism as a favorite religion of God's.
Judaism had its own ongoing integrity. Very important. |
Now, in the debate, there were many bishops who did not want those points in
there. And it was going back and forth. And my friend said to me, all of a
sudden down at the far end of the table a man began to speak--a voice that he
had not heard in any debate. In many debates, on many other questions, he had
never heard this voice. He knew that it was a different voice because of the
heavy accent. And the man spoke of the Church's responsibility to change its
relationship to Jews. And my friend said to me, "I lifted up my head. I
thought, "who is this prophet?" And I looked down and it was this young bishop
from Poland. And no one even knew his name. And it was the first intervention
he made at the Council. And it was very important.
That's, I think, the beginning of the large public impact that the Pope has had
on this question. In Krakow he had already begun to change it, but that was the
beginning of his impact on the Church. And the Nostra Aetate document stands as
a monument, a turning point, in its history. Partly, I'd say, because of him.
And so what follows then from his becoming pope isn't surprising.
What are the acts of the Pope regarding reaching out to the Jews that have
been most significant?
Well, when you look at the history of this papacy on the question of
Catholic-Jewish relations, there are a number of moments that are always cited
as definitive. The great Shoah concert at the Vatican; the Pope's visit to the
synagogue in Rome--the first Roman-Catholic Pope ever to enter a synagogue; the
Pope's recognition of the state of Israel; the Pope's clear personal interest
in Jews wherever he travels, wherever he goes.
But underwriting all of that is the clear personal experience and commitment he
brings to the question. It's evident in the passionate statements he has made
about the Shoah, and in the passion he brings to this, his own great
affirmation of "Never again." And I think, as is true of many Christians and
Catholics of his, down to my generation, what was revealed about humanity, but
also about our religion during the Holocaust, is a touchstone of this man's
identity and faith. And I recognize that in him. I claim it as something I have
in common with him. He's a prophet to me on this. How can I be a Catholic after
the Holocaust? It's not an easy question, really. And this Pope suggests the
importance of it, I'd say.
Was there anything else in the Pope's personal biography that you know
about that helps create this sense of personal urgency about the Jews and the
relationship between Jews and Catholics?
I referred earlier to the power it had for me to stand in the house in which he
grew up with Jews, and to understand in his biography that he was unusual in
his time as a friend to Jews. He describes himself in one of his books, the
impact it had on him in 1947 when he returned from Rome, and went back to his
village. And even though I think in the abstract he knew this, he describes the
impact it had on him when he discovered that all of the Jews of the village
were simply gone. The absence of Jews in Poland he feels as a presence, quite
Do you think that Wojtyla led a very quiet life during the
occupation? Do you think there might be any sense in him by not doing enough,
watching an entire population disappear?
What I know of his biography is that he didn't actively engage in active
resistance on behalf of Jews. I can only speculate with anyone as to how that
might leave him feeling. It's quite clear to me, on the other hand, that he
did, in his own embrace of public religion, at that moment during the Nazi
occupation, engage in a very important kind of resistance. So his personal
integrity, his courage, his rejection of everything represented by Nazism is
very clear. What it means to him that he didn't directly participate in the
rescue of Jews, one can only imagine. I wouldn't be surprised if that weren't
part of what drives his passion on the subject even now. But that would be
speculation on my part.
You said to me that John Paul II is the absolute right person to reach out
to the Jews, yet there is this irony that he is unable to carry out this last
crucial step. Talk about that.
Well, first of all, I'd say that the last crucial step in his story on this
subject may be the step he takes when he goes to Jerusalem. So it's maybe
premature. It may have been premature of me to say that to you. I have a dream
of what that trip to Jerusalem might involve. As you know, it's scheduled now
for the end of next March. I can't predict, but I certainly hope that in some
large part it includes a very clear act of identification with the survival of
Jews, which must include for a Catholic in his position a very clear act of
repentance for failures of Christians down through the centuries, both as
enemies of Jews and as passive bystanders when Jews are murdered.
Willy Brandt very powerfully simply fell to his knees at the Warsaw memorial
many years ago, which was the beginning of public acts of repentance in
relation to the Holocaust. We can expect the Pope to fall to his knees. So it
has to in a sense go farther than that. What it can be I can't imagine. But he
does have a strong sense of gesture and authentic expression. His time in
Jerusalem will tell, I'd say.
This apology he makes to the Jews, what was remarkable about it? What was
at stake? What was incomplete and why was it difficult?
We use the word apology in this discussion a lot. I think it may not be the
most useful word, actually. Well, rather than apology, I'd rather see us talk
about change. The paramount issue here is not the behavior of the
Roman-Catholic Church during World War II. The paramount issue is the two
thousand year long tradition of Christian contempt for Jews. That is what must
change. A start has been made towards that change, and we simply must go much
further. That's what's become clear under this pope. That Nostra Aetate
was a beginning, but it wasn't enough. The affirmation that the Jewish
religion continues to have the favor of God was a beginning, but it isn't
How do the absolute and exclusive claims the Christians make, for Jesus Christ
and for the Church, contradict the Church's attempt to respect not only Judaism
but other religions? In other words, what's been revealed in this time, in the
lifetime of this Pope and the Holocaust, certainly, are the limits of Christian
exclusivism, Christian triumphalism, Christian superiority of various kinds,
which gets to be an authority question. How is power exercised? How does
authority deal with dissent? It's a question that surfaces in relationship to
Jews. Why? Because Jews are the original, quintessential dissenters. The
challenge to the Christian story from Jews, from the first generation, has been
taken as a mortal threat by Christians. That's what has to change. So it's far
more complicated than World War II, even though World War II is the epiphany,
the revelation, of this broken structure of Christian contempt for Jews.
John Paul II understands the importance of this change, I believe. He's been
inhibited in his inability to go perhaps even as far with it as he'd like to, I
think mostly because he has an idea of the Church that doesn't admit easily the
idea of change to it, and doesn't admit the idea of failure and of sin. Can the
Church itself be regarded as having sinned? Well, I think until we can say
"yes" to that question, we can't make much more progress on the larger question
of the Church's relationship to the Jews. Because whether you're talking about
the Church's effective neutrality during the Holocaust, or the Church's long
history of the hatred of Jews, either way we're talking about sin. Why can the
Church affirm that? Because the Church is in the world to lift up the idea of a
God who forgives. A Church that can't acknowledge sin, in a sense denies the
existence of a forgiving God. So there are very deep things at stake here - not
just for Jews, not just for Catholics and Jews, but for Catholics, and for
What did the document "We Remember" do, and, did not do, that was so
The document "We Remember: A Reflection On The Shoah," which was published by
the Vatican Commission For Religious Relations with The Jewish People under the
name of Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the head of that Commission, was an act of
repentance for the failure of the Church in relation to Jews. As such, it was
And that's perhaps the first and most basic thing that should be said about it.
It was intended to be an act of repentance. It also, by the way, puts the
institution of the Roman Catholic Church firmly and forever on the record about
the facts of the Holocaust, taking away any possibility that the Church would
ever be able to be recruited by Holocaust-deniers in the future. So, very
The document was a disappointment to many Catholics and Jews because the
implementation of that act of repentance was deeply flawed, ambivalent,
confused. For example, in a clear attempt to distinguish between, as it says,
"the Church as such" and those members of the Church who were guilty of crimes
against the Jews, whether as bystanders during the Holocaust or as
anti-Semites, it seems that this document is exonerating the institutional
Church, which can seem to be an exoneration of the Vatican itself, which can
seem to be an exoneration of Christian unity in relationship to the Jewish
people going back through the years.
The history in the document is quite inadequate. In some cases it's dead wrong.
For example, about World War II the document says, "Many Christians supported
Jews. Some Christians collaborated with the Nazis." That's exactly wrong. It
should say, "Many Christians collaborated with the Nazis. Some Christians
supported Jews." The document uses the passive voice as if there is no moral
agency. "It befell Jews." "Jews were sometimes treated as..." "It came about
that..." There's no moral agency. You wouldn't know from this document that for
three hundred years the Inquisition - the Inquisition's never mentioned - for
three hundred years the Inquisition, an institution of the Church as such,
carried out a ruthless campaign against Jews, Christians who were descended
from Jews, and the whole world that is represented by interaction between
Christians and Jews. The Inquisition is a disaster on this subject. There's no
repenting on the subject of Christian contempt for Jews. Without facing up to
the Inquisition--that's just one example. The history in the document is
The longest footnote is a gratuitous defense of the behavior, the wisdom of the
diplomacy, as it says, of Pius XII. It's too soon for history to render a
judgment on Pius XII, I understand, and critics understand that there are
arguments to be made on both sides of the choices he made during World War II.
But it certainly doesn't serve the cause of Jewish-Catholic understanding or
history for the Vatican in a document like this to be making unnuanced and
sweeping and historically-dubious claims about the behavior and choices of Pius
XII, as it does. So, you know, what seem to be a set of details about this
document, when taken together, overwhelmed the very basic and positive aspects
of the document.
The good news is that once there was a response of criticism and quite negative
analysis, not just from Jewish groups but from within the Church as well, the
Vatican, especially in the person of Cardinal Cassidy, made it very clear that
this process is not over, this is not the last word. The Vatican archives must
be opened as quickly and as efficiently as possible, fully, to get these
questions of World War II resolved by historians. And the Church must do a
much fuller job of acknowledging the history of its contempt for the Jewish
people. And then the repentance will have the ring of truth about it. And then
we can get on to the larger and more difficult and perhaps even more important
questions of how to reconsider now the meaning of the claims the Church makes
for Jesus and for itself--having learned all of this, you could really say, the
What do John Paul II's occasional missteps tell us about the journeys he has
Well, when we're talking about the attitudes of Christians toward Jews, all of
us who are Christians have to understand that our bones are just dipped in the
acid of the contempt for Jews. And it's not a surprise that all of us
continually discover ways in which we're still at the mercy of it, shockingly.
Every Christian every Holy Week hears the slanders about the Jewish people read
from the pulpit.
John Paul II, in October of last year, presided over the canonization of Edith
Stein. The process of canonizing Edith Stein, even though it began, I'm quite
sure, probably before he was Pope, has been near and dear to him, I think for a
lot of good reasons, and I think he brought almost nothing but good intentions
to this. But in that canonization ceremony, he said that he hoped that Edith
Stein would be, as he put it, "a bridge of understanding between the Jewish and
Christian people." Well, that hope betrays a sad lack of understanding for what
this canonization has meant to Jews.
John Paul II expressed the wish that her Feast Day, the day on which she died
in Auschwitz, August 9, would forever now be a day in which Christians would
remember the victims of the Shoah. To which Jews say, "Remember them as what?
As Christians?" If we're going to remember victims of the Shoah, why don't we
join with the worldwide Jewish community and remember them on Yom Hashoa and in
the spring, which has become a sacred day for Jews? Why do Christians have to
have a separate day? Why is Edith Stein held up now as an icon of the
Holocaust, when she's the convert whose life story has to be very problematic
Understand as a young man, I learned about the Holocaust because of Edith
Stein. Like many Catholics, I revere her. I have no trouble imagining her as a
saint. But I understand why this is a terribly conflicted thing for Jews. It
means that how her story is told is very important. In the Vatican, and at the
canonization ceremony, you didn't hear anything about the letter that Edith
Stein wrote to Pius XI in 1933, asking him to intervene for the Jews in Nazi
Germany, a letter that was answered with a papal blessing. You didn't hear that
talked about. In 1938, after Kristalnacht, Edith Stein herself, in her letter,
said, "I wonder if the Pope ever thinks of that request I made of him."
Edith Stein dies, having refused to be treated differently as a baptized Jew,
which can be made, and has been made, kind of evidence that she went to her
death willingly, which is nonsense. She tried to get out, she wanted out. We
don't have to think she went to it willingly to make her a saint. No, what it
means is at the end of her life she was extending the circle of her concern to
all Jews, whether they were baptized or not. And if we're going to remember her
as a saint, we should remember that very few Catholics joined her in that, and
very few bishops joined her in that. The bishops of the Netherlands did,
which is why she was arrested. But almost no other national hierarchy did. So,
there are ways to remember her, and I think that this Pope has not heard
sufficiently the voices who lift up the complexities of Edith Stein's life
Who was Edith Stein? Why was she made a saint and why are many Jews
discomfited by her canonization?
Edith Stein was to Catholics of my generation what Anne Frank was to the
broader culture: the innocent woman, who was taken by the Nazis and murdered.
It happened, as we discovered her story, that she was born a Jew. She became a
Catholic having been an agnostic. She was a brilliant philosophy student in
Germany, and she became a Carmelite nun, a contemplative nun. She entered the
convent in 1933, a few months after Hitler came to power. And all around her,
the movements against Jews began to ignite and take off. Edith Stein was a
resisting woman. She resisted anti-Semitism as a Catholic, and she wrote a
book, an autobiography, that she said herself was specifically designed to
rebut the Nazi anti-Semitic slanders against her people. Life In A Jewish
After Kristalnacht in 1938, the savage Nazi pogrom, she realized that
she was in danger living in the convent in Cologne. She fled across the border
to the Netherlands, from where she was snatched by the S.S. in 1943, and she
died in Auschwitz. Now she's become a saint of the Catholic Church.
There are questions that Jews have a right to ask: what is the meaning of her
conversion? Is conversion now being held up for a model of Jewish behavior? I
don't believe it, and the Church is working hard to say "no" to that. But it's
still a question. Is the Holocaust now being remembered as something that
happened to Christians as well as to Jews? That's another question. It's a good
question. I don't believe that either. I think that the Church has canonized
Edith Stein with the best of intentions, but we're tone-deaf on subjects of our
own religious tradition of anti-Semitism, and the fact that these questions get
raised by this, we need to take much more seriously.
Where does the Pope's devotion to the Virgin Mary come from and how does it
help explain his views about women?
Well, the Pope's devotion to Mary is one thing, but the real revelation of his
views of women to the church is in his attitude towards ordination of women to
the priesthood. It's interesting to imagine the Pope, who is so devoted to Mary
- his crest, his motto are Marian, participate in the Marian cult, he prays to
Mary, he refers to Mary. It's hard to imagine what he would say to Mary if she
presented herself for ordination to the priesthood.
There's a political problem here. The patriarchy of the Roman CatholicChurch is
essential to the kind of power John Paul II is exercising in the Church and
trying to protect for the hierarchy. So anything that threatens that patriarchy
has to be resisted. And that's my own understanding of why the question of
women in the priesthood is so anathema to him.
As you try to imagine Mary living in the Church today, it's of course
self-contradictory, and it's impossible to imagine that it will stand much
longer, I would say, because it's such a basic issue of justice. The largest
irony of this papacy is that John Paul II is an apostle of justice, and the
world legend for that. But he presides over this rank injustice within the
Catholic Church, this violation of rights to equality for women - more than
half the Church's members. Women have a right to be really quite outraged about
it. The energy with which this Pope has fought off every movement for equal
rights among women, among Catholics, including women, is really scandalous, and
it's especially jarring in relationship to his personal devotion to this great
woman, Mary. So it falls into that category of "go figure." I can't understand
What theological reasons does the Pope present for his continued prohibition
of the ordination of women?
As I understand it, the issue of ordaining women to the priesthood--which is
now the symbol of admitting women to full exercise of power and citizenship in
the Catholic Church--the reason it's closed in the mind of the Pope is because
he takes quite literally, in a quite fundamentalist way, the structure of the
church as it's recorded in the New Testament. It's a structure that emphasizes
the authority of the twelve Apostles, all of whom are men. We hear it said
again and again that the Church can't ordain women because Jesus only chose
males. Of course, everyone in the Church, from the Pope down, understands in a
hundred other ways that we aren't to take the proscriptions of the scriptures
literally like that. We understand-- everyone, from the Pope down--how
culture-bound the Church is at various points in its history, and we understand
what it is to let go of narrow cultural notes of identification. So nobody says
that Irish Catholic males can't be ordained to the priesthood because none of
the apostles was an Irish person. I mean, nobody says that. It's only in this
one way that we think so fundamentalistically about the definition of the
Church in the first generation.
By the way, there's a lot of scholarly research that points out that, in fact,
women exercised authority and leadership in the first and second generation of
the Church in ways that go way beyond the imaginations of His Holiness and the
people who don't want to give women power today. Having said all that, I think
it's very important to come back to what is the basic issue here. It's an issue
of justice. Are women fully equal human beings or not? The Catholic Church is
showing a face to women today that the broad culture showed to people of color
a couple of generations ago, and to people of other languages and to Jews a
couple of generations ago. And we've moved away from all those things because
we understand that there are basic issues of justice involved. For the Church
to refuse to ordain women is morally equivalent to if the Church refused to
ordain people of color. It's equally indefensible and it's equally outrageous.
And there should be, in my view, much more - not less anger, rude behavior,
pushing within the Catholic Church on this question.
Why does sexuality seem to carry so much weight in this papacy?
Well, one does wonder why questions having to do with sexuality carry such
weight in the Catholic Church in this papacy. The Church's positions on a whole
range of issues having to do with sexuality is quite unyielding. And one must
wonder about it. It's the one realm within which there's very little nuance.
The Pope is radically opposed to the death penalty, and yet Vatican statements
always acknowledge there are conceivable situations in which a government might
have to put someone to death. The Pope is clearly opposed in principal to war,
and yet the Church is clearly prepared to affirm the necessary use of force at
times. The Church has, in the words of liberation theology, a "preferential
option for the poor." And yet we always want to protect the rights of all
classes of people. But in this one area there's very little nuance. On abortion
of course, there is no give. Abortion is defined with the kind of absolutism
that even the loss of adult human life isn't. And certainly in relationship to
questions that impinge upon the rights of women to make their own choices about
contraception, abortion, even the rights of women to make their own choices in
relationship to the family, and to a function in the workplace, the Church
seems very suspicious, very unhelpful.
John Paul does not share the instinct of his predecessor, John XXIII, who
recognized the women's movement as one of what he called "the hopeful signs of
the times." The women's movement is clearly quite a threat to the present
establishment in the Church. I'd only say also though, that because the Church,
because the hierarchy, has put such emphasis on this question of women's
ordination, practically speaking infallibly about it - if you believe some
Church spokespersons, they have spoken infallibly about it - I think that it's
a wedge in which authority itself will be changed within the Catholic Church. I
would predict that the coming into full equality in the Church will be one of
the things that leads to transformation of the way in which authority is
exercised. And that's the good news in this.
How is the Pope a man of contradictions and how does this affect his
The man is nothing but contradictions, which is why we have such a complicated
relationship to him. The most political Pope in modern history who refuses to
allow a political role for clergy. A man who is a self-declared enemy of
communism, but who's also suspicious of democracy; devoted to Mary, but
suspicious of women as equal partners. The complexities of the Pope are part of
what make him so large, I'd say. His deep intellectual commitment, his serious
capacity as a scholar and as a philosopher, and yet this almost childish
readiness to read, not only his religious faith, but in some ways the world
itself, in a very fundamentalist way. One of the effects of such a set of
paradoxes in a person is that it requires the Church's leading members to make,
in a sense, their own choices about him, which is why we all finds ways both to
accept him and to criticize him.
But for me, perhaps the single largest contradiction is the way in which he has
simultaneously made himself the only priest that the church needs, by
manipulating the mass media and the cult of celebrity so ingeniously - so he
goes everywhere as the priest, and he is the favorite priest that Catholics
around the world have - while simultaneously presiding over the collapse of the
priesthood, the collapse of the very structure of ministry which makes the
sacraments available to people.
The great tragedy of this papacy is that while he has traveled the world and
become such a figure of religious devotion, the local experience of believing
Christians and Catholics has gotten more and more and more impoverished. So
that there are many churches without priests now, many priests working alone.
The very structure through which we have the Eucharist, which is why we're
Catholics, basically, is threatened. The priesthood is collapsing under this
great world priest.
Specifically, how has John Paul II done this?
The priesthood collapses because the structures of the priesthood, rooted in
the Middle Ages, aren't allowed to be changed. There's no question of admitting
married men to be priests, unless they're Anglicans in flight from the
ordination of women. There's no question of ordaining women. There's no
question of opening up the clerical culture--this narrowly-defined, and I'd say
rigidly-defined, culture of clericalism--so that we get out of that idea of the
priesthood as a separate class, mostly a privileged class within the Church,
and begin to return to a much more ancient tradition of the ministry as
service, and the ministry not as an exercise of power but as a service of love.
The priesthood belongs to the Church.
I used to be a priest. I left the priesthood. Lots of my contemporaries did.
There was very little possibility of changing the church once John Paul II
became pope. In some very important ways he has turned the clock back on the
reforms of the Vatican Council. He has protected the clerical culture of the
ministry, this narrow notion of what it is to be a priest. He has ruthlessly
restricted the freedom of priests. One obvious example is his yanking priests
back away from politics. His refusal to accept the fact that in some cultures,
the ministry requires a political commitment, making priests choose between
their political conscience and their vocation within the Church.
His refusal to open up the structures of priests to people who don't fit the
usual mold: obviously married people, but also women. And the broader problem,
that in his time, the Church has tried to restore an outmoded notion of what it
is to be a Catholic. And people recognize that. What we have here is the last
effort of the medieval church to protect itself, to spare itself from the
assault of modernity. In that sense John Paul II is the last of the nineteenth
century popes, even now at the end of the twentieth century. And for that
reason, in that one regard, his papacy has been a tragedy for the church. He
follows in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, both of whom were
headed in a very different direction.
Comment on John Paul II's "culture of death."
The culture of death is a phrase that resonates very, very deeply with me. I
confess it means different things to different people, but this Pope's steady
critique of runaway market capitalism, militarism, dependence on weaponry, the
refusal of the Western world to take the end of the Cold War seriously and
disarm, this Pope's heartfelt, plaintive protests when bombs started to fall -
he speaks very powerfully to me.
There's something very wrong in the world today, when rich people - and by rich
people, I mean the people of the North, the people of Europe, the people of
America - when we have so successfully walled off from our consciences and our
consciousness the experience of the billions of people who are desperate. And I
do believe that this Pope is quite attuned to that terrible tragedy. And that's
what the culture of death is to me. He's protesting the way in which the
affluent West and North has begun to wall itself off from the rest of the
earth. And I believe in a sense it may be his greatest act, this protest of
his. I wish it were more widely listened to.
Why is John Paul II suspicious of Western culture?
John Paul II's suspicion of so much that makes up what we think of as Western
culture is partly the obviously negative aspects of it: suicide, the rampant
use of abortion for birth control, the use of prisons instead of schools as a
way of dealing with the dispossessed - his critique of the negative is
powerful. But one of the problems of course is it's hard to have a sense - and
maybe this is part of the tragedy here - it's hard to have a sense of what this
Pope values in the world, what in the world does he love.
With John XXIII there was no question. John XXIII, the world could look at him
and understand that he was rooted in a sense of the goodness of life, the joy
of it, the thrill it is to be here on the earth. John Paul II seems to be a man
who's deeply suffering, and it's not just in his later years, when the
infirmities of his old age have obviously impacted him. He's a man for whom
suffering seems to be the basic experience of the human condition.
And I do believe in a way there are two kinds of people. There are the people
who experience life that way, for whom Jesus will be on the cross till the end
of the time. But there are other people for whom life is goodness itself. And
it may be with John Paul II that it's this deep-rooted sense of suffering that
is the thing that overwhelms so much of what he's trying to say. And so much of
the truth and power and relevance of his message seems to get overwhelmed by
the apparent misery of the man who's delivering the message. And it's a
poignant thing for a Christian, especially, to see, because we have a long and
complicated ambivalence about suffering. My own feeling is, we would do well
with less of it, and we would do well with less celebration of it. And that's a
piece of my response to this Pope too. It's impossible to look at that face and
not wish the man well.
Would you describe his view of the world as Manichaean?
That may make too much of it. It may be too abstract to think of John Paul II
in theological and philosophical terms, as if the question of whether he's a
Manichaean or a Puritan or a world-hating agnostic--I mean, it may be a simple
question of temperament. And also of personal history. This is a man who has
suffering in his face, but he also has suffering in his life. I wouldn't make
too much of it philosophically. I think, however, the power of his sense of the
power of the darkness in the world, and evil as a real threat is two things.
It's a fair warning of the situation we're all faced with, and we're fools if
we don't listen to that warning. But it's also far short of all that life is
about. Because life is also about rampant goodness, happiness, hope. And we
don't see that much of happiness and hope in this man. Although his goodness
obviously is deep-rooted.
In regard to his writings about faith, what does this man believe? What
makes up his faith?
We were talking before about his contradictions. Maybe another way to talk
about it is: the thing that makes John Paul II so powerful for us Catholics is
that he's so Catholic. By that I mean he does touch all the bases. He's very
pious, and his piety is at the extreme end of Catholic piety. Someone who
venerates someone, a person with the stigmata, after all--that's the extreme
end of Catholic piety, after all. And he's capable of buying into very dubious,
conservative movements, like Opus Dei. And at the other end, he's quite attuned
to contemporary philosophy. He's trained as an existential phenomenologist.
It's authentic. This is a man of authentic intellect. He's actually able to
make you believe that the Catholic Church is big enough to embrace both things
at the same time, in him. It's really quite nice.
I love the Church for the way in which it embraces contradictions. John Paul II
embodies that about the Catholic Church. Most of the rest of us just stand on
one place or the other in the community. He seems to be capable of standing at
all places. Padre Pio, yes, at one end. But there he is, last year in Bologna,
on the platform with Bob Dylan, quite at home. Do you remember what he said?
Bob Dylan sang a couple of songs, and then the Pope went to the microphone and
he said - it was a big gathering of youth, Italian youth, a large crowd--and he
said, "How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?" And then
he said, "There is one road, and it is the road of Jesus Christ." Which is the
perfect moment of John Paul II, his capacity to be at home on the platform with
Bob Dylan, and his impulse to use it as an opportunity to proclaim a very
univocal, and I would say, a little too unnuanced message in this day and age.
I believe that Jesus is my road. But I don't believe there is only one
road. And if you push him, he wouldn't believe that either, I don't believe.
But that's the Pope: Padre Pio, Bob Dylan. Both things. Contemptuous of modern
consumerist celebrity culture, the greatest celebrity of our time. Both things.
It's fantastic, really.
How much do you see the Pope as an innovative intellectual/philosopher?
What distinguishes John Paul II?
I don't think that his intellectual life has been--that he's kept up to it
acutely. He wrote his two dissertations, one was on phenomenology at the
university in Krakow, and the other was on Saint John of the Cross, I believe.
As far as I know, his "intellectual work" since, you wouldn't read him as a
philosopher. I don't say that from any position of superiority, because I'm not
a philosopher either. But I've read several of his books, The Gift of
Mystery - is that the title? And the other I've forgotten the title of. But
I've read them both and I would say they're not the work of a cutting-edge
philosophical theological thinker. But they clearly reflect a man who's
intellectually alive and capable of asking questions, and attuned.
What is it for you that is most compelling about John Paul II?
When I think of John Paul II I don't think of an intellectual or spiritual
resource. I don't read his work for inspiration or nurturing of faith or new
ideas about what it is to be a believer. In fact I think in general he's
committed to the defense of old ideas that have seen their day. What I find
irresistible about him, and what's powerful for me as a Catholic, as a man, is
his story. And the way he is publicly living it out. And the way he does make
it available. He's obviously a private person, but there's a way in which he
has made his own life story the message he's offering the world. Which is why
his largest public act, his participation in non-violent, anti-Communist
resistance at the end of the Cold War, was so powerful, because he put his own
story as a Polish person at the service of that movement. His story as a Polish
person who had become pope, after all. And also it's related to his story as a
Polish person raised during the war years who has sought ways to help the
Church renounce its tradition of anti-Judaism.
So it's his story that carries such weight. And I believe that's what people
respond to when he draws crowds, on the road, wherever he goes. People
recognize in him a man with a story that's really irresistible, and it is. It's
the story for the end of the millennium. It's the story of the end of
something. Maybe it's the end of some of the things that we most value and
don't want to lose when we see him. It's also the story of the end of things
that have passed. He's really a person of the past. He sums up what was great
about what has gotten us this far. He is not someone who evokes the future. And
you could say that's what a pope is for. But the greatest pope of our time,
John XXIII, brief but powerful around the world-- before the age of celebrity
and before the age of travel. Before the age, really, of television. And yet
he touched the world by the simple, loving readiness to go into the future full
of hope. Very different. Very different. I personally long for a John XXIII.
What do you think are the most significant elements of that story?
The elements of his story for a Catholic of my generation are of course his
immediate participation in the church's struggle against Nazi Germany. His
coming out of that clearly scarred by it, but resolutely determined to affirm
his faith in the face of the oppression of Communism. A humane resistance to
Communism, I would say, from what I know of it. Quite a brave one. His
determination through those years to continue his commitment to writing,
thinking, his apparent love of the theater.
I mean there are elements to this story that one doesn't know well, but that
evoke a sense of what this robust man was as a young priest, and it must have
been irresistible. I come of a generation that really looked to young priests
for images of the powerful love of God. I can imagine him being a priest like
that. The best of what that priesthood was.
And then, you know, his coming on the scene as the Polish pope. That's the
story that we're most aware of. Liberating the Church from the parochialism,
the narrow identification of a Church--as we saw especially in Pius XII--of a
Church too identified with a narrow curial culture in Italy, in Rome. So a kind
of explosion of that. The Church having a new sense of itself. Which means now
it's possible to imagine an African pope. It's possible to imagine a
Latin-American pope. His personal arrival on the scene changed the story of the
And then of course his immediate commitment, through his own associations, with
resistance in Poland, to help bring about - and this can't be emphasized enough
- a non-violent end to the Soviet empire. What is the greatest, most unexpected
event of the twentieth century? What a foolish question. But isn't there a good
chance that it is that the Soviet empire was brought down non-violently? And
isn't this man's story part of that? And how could we resist that? That's at
the heart of it, also, for me.
The question of Pius XII haunts our generation of Catholics. And one of the
questions that defenders of Pius XII always put is, "Well what really could he
have done, faced with the challenge of Hitler and the Nazis?" And the answer of
course now is obvious. He could have done what John Paul II did, faced with
Stalin and Soviet communism. He found a real, practical, concrete way to help
resistance that had effects. And after John Paul II, there is no going back and
looking at the ineffectual, and ambivalent, ambiguous behavior of previous
popes, and seeing it ever the same way again. He's changed the story of the
How would you describe his role in destabilizing Communism not only in
Poland, but its affect on neighboring countries?
Well I'm not a political scientist and I'm not a historian, so you know
the story better than I do at this point, I'm sure. But I'm talking about the
story of it. The story of this Pope's participation in the non-violent
overthrow of Soviet communism, is as simple as the story of that electrician
Lech Walesa, unemployed electrician who in the Danzig shipyard decides - out of
what? - to stand up on a platform, at a certain point, and give a speech, and
call for a strike behind the Iron Curtain. You don't strike behind the
Iron Curtain! And Walesa struck, and Solidarity was born--a foolish, mad act.
The one thing that every wise person in the West swore could never happen. You
can never bring this totalitarian system down without a war, without weapons.
Can't happen. Beginning with Walesa and Solidarity, with then crucial
support--as the story goes, as I believe--crucial support from John Paul II, it
happened. It happened.
And it's as simple as the relationship between those two men. And really their
kind of resonance with each other. And had that moment not come in Poland, had
the Pope not been Polish, obviously the story would have been very different,
would have had to be different. The great, if you want to use the word
"miracle," of the twentieth century was that connection, the electricity of
that connection. It seemed fated, it happened only, what--months after this
Pole was elected pope. Was that election itself part of what drove Lech Walesa
to stand up? Maybe so, maybe so. Anyway, it gives you hope. It makes you think
things can happen. The Soviet Union could be brought down without a war.
Does the Pope want to get our attention?
I gathered from you that you have the film of his wagging his finger in the
face of Ernesto Cardenal. That feeling of having the Pope's finger wagging in
your face is familiar to Catholics like me, even though I've never had the
privilege of experiencing it firsthand. But one of the things I realize in a
relationship with a powerful figure like this is that the tension, the conflict
is the point itself, for him. He is not going to--as so many people in his
position would--he is not going to just look the other way when there's
opposition out there. He's going to track it down and get it. And you know what
that does? It forces the opposition to be the Opposition.
I'm 56 years old. I left the Catholic priesthood 25 years ago. I'm passionately
attached to the Catholic Church, and I care about its reform and the furthering
of the values of Vatican II very much. Part of the reason I do is because this
Pope has called me, constantly, to argue with him. To feel the other point of
view on these great questions of faith and Curch discipline. He's invited
people like me back into the argument of the Church. Not a bad thing.
You know, the Church is only a conversation, that's what the Church is. It's a
group of people in conversation with itself. And unfortunately at times it is
an argument. But even if you read the text of the New Testament, this is not a
univocal community with one line. It never has been. It's always been a group
of people who feel passionately about their beliefs, and are looking for the
truth together. And even if this Pope and people who agree with him understand
that they have the right to define the truth, those of us who disagree with
that and who see the truth as ahead of all of us, not defined by anybody, have
no choice but to answer back. Respectfully we hope, but no choice but to answer
Now I know this is not the case for many people who've left the Church. All I
can say is, I recognize even in them, a sense of this phenomenon when this Pope
comes. It's part of what draws the attention of the world to him. And the many
millions of people who've left the Church behind of various Christian
denominations still find something prophetic in him. And when they want to talk
back to him, he's succeeded, I think.
How did you react to the Pope's opposition to liberation theology?
I found the Pope's opposition to liberation theology in a way to be the largest
disappointment. Because of his own experience as an authentic opponent of the
totalitarian system, for him to fail to understand that the people on the
ground, especially in Latin America but not only there, who are opposing the
faceless totalitarianism of the oligarchs and the owners who are keeping the
masses of people dispossessed, that the Church had found a way to side with the
masses of people, for a change. This Pope was needed on the side of the
revolution there, so that, for one thing, as in Eastern Europe, it could be
non-violent, but so that it could be powerful.
And liberation theology is - you know, there are ways it needs to be
criticized, has been properly criticized - but it's a great act of God in
history. And it's a tragedy that this Pope didn't recognize it as such. And I
can only understand his failure to do so because he applied to it too narrowly
the lens of his own fight against Communism, and the way in which liberation
theology, in the fog of this lens, bled over into friendliness with Marxist
communist movements, I think short-circuited his ability to see it for the true
movement on behalf of the poor that it not only was but remains. It's not over,
of course, and I think liberation theology also sharpened itself in opposition
to this Pope, understood that it didn't need his permission to be what it was,
to be what it is.
Another way of looking at the Pope's opposition is the interpretation of sin
by liberation theologians and the Catholic Church...
...Well, one of the failures of religion generally, and it's been true of the
Catholic Church, is to see sin in personal terms only. And when sin is seen in
personal terms, of course what you're doing is supporting the political status
quo. As long as what's wrong with the world is what I've done to it, then it's
my job to feel guilty, it's my job to convert, it's my job, personally,
privately, on my knees, alone, before God, to change. That idea of sin in the
Catholic Church was essentially thrown out with Vatican Council II. Because in
Vatican Council II we began to understand that we aren't in relationship to God
alone. We're in relationship to God as a people. Which always involves us with
politics. So that our goodness is political, but so is our sin. What that boils
down to is, when we confess sin, we should be less concerned with our sins as
if individual acts are what counts, and more concerned with our participation
in what the scriptures call "the sin of the world," which in Paul's language
are the principalities and the powers, which does refer to political
structures. So, yes, my own personal responsibility is to the point, but always
in the context of the community.
So after Vatican II, the theology of sin, if you want, changed. I don't believe
John Paul II ever accepted that or understood it. He still wants us to have a
personal notion of salvation, a personal notion of relationships one-on-one
with God, and a personal notion of sin. But it isn't. It's political by
definition, because we're a communal body. So theologians and activists who
understand that hunger is a result - not just as an act of nature, which is
under the old scheme the way it could be seen - but the result of decisions
made by human beings, which are rooted in injustice, suddenly hunger can be
denounced as sin. And liberation theology's emphasis on that - perhaps to the
Pope, overemphasis - is a way of overcoming a deficit. Liberation theology has
to overemphasize the political character of sin as a way of overcoming a long
overemphasis on the personal character of it. Well John Paul II is solidly on
the personal side of this divide.
What about the Pope is it that makes him so profoundly Catholic?
The Pope is so Catholic in the sense that Catholicism is all about embracing
oppositions and contradictions, and not divorcing them. So he's the most
political pope in modern history, but he won't allow priests to be in politics.
He is devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, she's at the center of his piety, but
he's suspicious of women as equals. He's contemptuous of, especially,
contemporary consumerist culture, and yet he's the master of the consumerist
media, and has become a world celebrity because of it. He's an anti-Communist,
a man who succeeded in helping to bring down Soviet communism, and yet he's
profoundly suspicious of democracy. He's a man of tremendous modern
sensibility, capable of being at home with rock musicians and young people, and
yet he has staked everything on protecting a view of the Church that has its
roots in the Middle Ages. He's a king, and he's trying to protect his kingship,
and yet he's obviously, very clearly, a man who only wants to be at the service
of the world. He's all of these things. He's an intellectual and he's a
fundamentalist. He reminds us, in a way, even as sometimes he makes us confused
and impatient, but he still reminds us of the range we're called to in this
Church, which is why above all we recognize him as a Catholic.
Why is John Paul II so irresistible to the media?
I think what's irresistible about him to the media is his story. There
are the obvious things: his robust masculinity, his having been shot--Ronald
Reagan's power really begins when he gets shot and lives. I think this Pope's
power really begins when he gets shot and lives. He becomes a kind of hero. So
the media really are drawn, recognize in him a figure of tremendous narrative
value. And he understands that. The truth is, as a preacher he's trained to
understand it. It's just a much bigger pulpit. He was the master of the pulpit
as a young man, and he still is. The pulpit is bigger, that's all.
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