And here comes this man in his late fifties, energetic, and, in the context of
popes, young. And absolutely sure of what he has to offer. And it's that
certainty, rather than the thing he's offering, which is most appealing. It is
the sense that here is a man who absolutely knows what he thinks, why he thinks
it, what people should do, why they should do it, who he wants talks to, why he
wants to talk to them, what he intends to do, what the purposes are behind his
...The sense that this man, coming from an obscure and alien tradition, can
speak directly past all the hopes, delusions,beliefs and disillusions and lost
causes and grown-old, grown-skeptical generations--that he can speak right
through to these people, was very powerful indeed. And I think it created both
the possibilities and expectations that were invested in him, and, the
disillusion and disappointment when people realized that what he had to say as
distinct from his way of saying it, what he believed as distinct from the fact
that he did believe it, was very difficult for them to come to terms with.
In the Greek sense of the word, do you see this Pope a tragic figure?
In the classical, theatrical tragic sense. He brought with him---from his
childhood, from his background, from his experiences---certainties, needs,
convictions, determination which were part of his appeal to the Church as a
leader, his appeal to outsiders as the spokesman for a confident Church. But
they are also the reasons why he was unable to hold in that Church those people
who could not agree with his certainties, could not follow him in his
convictions, could not share his background. And unable to share the depth of
his own convictions, they were bound eventually to see him as someone they
could not follow. And so the man whose capacity to lead was what made him very
special becomes the man who cannot be followed.
And that's the tragic side of the man, that there was nothing he could do to be
other than who he was. The notion that he would somehow once elevated to the
Pope understand the complexities of his role, that he would adjust himself to
the needs of the modern world--it was precisely what he could not and would not
do if he were to remain himself. And remaining himself, he remains an
attractive figure, but a tragic one.
Is Wojtyla a man at war with modernity, fighting modernity?
Looked at from the outside, Wojtyla was...a remarkably rounded and cosmopolitan
candidate for the papacy. He was well-read in many languages. He knew modern
continental philosophy, could argue with intellectuals. He was a physical man,
sportive. He read modern literature. He clearly lived in the modern political
world even if he didn't like it. He knew what Communism was, he knew what
politics were about. He seemed very much to be a Pope who could engage his
time. I think many people felt that from many different angles.
I think it's no accident that liberation theologists in Latin America initially
supported his candidacy for the papacy with great enthusiasm. Here was a man
who would understand their fight because he understood oppression. Here was a
man who would understand the needs of the oppressed, who would not step out in
some other-worldly, purely theological concerns. And intellectuals thought,
here was a man that they could talk to because he read books of the kind that
they read, and so forth.
What happened quite quickly and what has become more evident over time is that
they were all in some sense wrong. And for all of these people to be wrong
something rather particular had to have been going on. What was going on was
this was a Pope for whom modernity was not the enemy or something you avoided,
but simply a passing mistake, a mistake to be exposed, to be argued against.
Not to be engaged. You don't engage mistakes. You reveal them, and then you
move on. It's not as though he's become a reactionary old man, you can see this
in his early writings. He regards the modern concern with consumption, with
happiness, secular happiness, modern desire to overcome problems with material
resources, the modern belief that the globe can be united by technical means,
that we can put aside difficulties that face us in private or collective
spheres of existence, if necessary finding scientific solutions to them, but
never having to accept them as permanent, we can always in other words change
what we don't like--all of those teachings of modernity he regards as
profoundly mistaken paths taken long since and leading to Hell. And it's his
duty to fight against them.
Why modernity? Because like other Catholics--but perhaps not like many modern
Western Catholics--he regards the Enlightenment, what we think of as the moment
of the coming of modern secular thought, the belief in the rights of man, in
equality, in democracy and so forth, as the product of another mistake, the
mistake that humankind made in abandoning faith and abandoning God two, three
hundred years ago in the West.
And his task is not, so to speak, to put that mistake to rights. He can't. But
simply to behave as though it hadn't happened. And not to make any compromise
with it. That is his relationship to modernity. No compromise with it.
Understand it, yes. Be a man of his times, yes. But also be a man standing
against his times. A man for whom the times that he lives in are only part of
Eternity is another of his concerns. Eternity in the theological sense, but
also the sort of long span of life of the Catholic Church. He leads a church
which is now two millennia old in his view, and which has no reason to
compromise accidental passing mistakes or whatever they may be. Whether there
are illusions of scientific intervention to solve medical problems, or the
illusions of political solutions to social problems, or the illusion of the
equality between the sexes where he would insist upon difference--those
illusions he dismisses as the mistakes of time, the errors of modernity.
He is in that sense the true heir to Pius IX, the famous nineteenth century
pope who wrote "The Syllabus of Errors." And remember that the last of those
84 errors that Pius IX listed as the sins of modernity, the last of those
errors--and therefore it's the most important because that was supposed to be
imprinted almost completely on the Catholic soul--was the error of engaging
with, compromising with, believing that you had to make some sort of deal with
the modern world. No deals, no errors, no compromises! Stand firm against your
times, against everyone if it has to be. And that is Karol Wojtyla's world
view. It's not the only world view he has. There are other aspects to it. But
in his dealings with those he disagrees with --which is the context in which we
see him, most obviously in antagonism with modernity--that is his position. And
it has never altered, so far as I can judge, from the time he first began to
think about these things as a late teenager.
Describe the Gospel of Life and its emphasis on the "culture of death." How
is he describing the contemporary landscape?
It's very hard I think for people today--secular men and women, Catholics and
non-Catholics--to get a satisfactory grasp of what this Pope, Karol Wojtyla,
means when he talks as he does, frequently writes of the Gospel of Life, in
what seems to us to be a contradictory concern with death. For he seems
simultaneously to be a prophet and defender of life and to be unconcerned with
death in one sense, and obsessed with what he thinks of as the "culture of
death" in our civilization in another. I mean, beyond a certain point these
are theological issues and I don't claim to be a theologian, and I think one
probably one has to be within a certain subsection of Catholic thought to
understand fully the purpose of his particular way of talking of these things.
But some things are very clear.
The first is this: he is a fervent believer in three distinct aspects of
Catholicism, which are not normally associated with one another in the West.
The first is the focus upon the natural, which is a medieval notion, whether it
takes the form of natural law or natural right, or simply the idea that the
birth as we have it is God's gift to us, it is nature. And we have duties to
it. We only live upon it contingently. We cannot exploit it, we cannot destroy
it, and we must not beyond a certain amount, change it. It is not ours to play
with, as it were. Life is something we have borrowed. We don't own it. That is
a very medieval notion deriving from a sense of acute, almost humble modesty
vis à vis the awe of the Almighty. We are but little, passing persons.
And life is much bigger than us, and who would we be to question it in any of
The second is a highly mystical quality to his particular version of
Catholicism. It's a faith, a commitment, and a desire to believe in some sort
of stronger powers than those of mere mortal imagination, invention, science
and so forth. There is a mystical quality to his faith and belief.
...And then thirdly, his--I think it's fair to say--obsession with the cult of
Mary, and everything that that means for him. The cult of woman, the cult of
motherhood, the cult, in this case, of life--or rather--of women the givers of
life, and so forth. You put these together and what you have is a man who is
strikingly taken up with the importance of the way things come into being. The
way the earth came to be. The way we come to be. The way children come to
He is famously--for a Catholic priest, bishop, archbishop, cardinal,
pope---remarkably, interested in sex. And his interest in sex has a lot to do
with his interest in what he sees as the mystery of creation, the mystery of
life, which of course attaches then to his visceral, profound angry opposition
to abortion. Which is not about abortion as a social project. It is about
abortion as a one by one byone multi-millionfold interference with life.
Conversely, as many people have said, he's not terribly troubled in a moral
sense by death--I'll come back to the sense in which he does worry about death.
But in the sense that people do die, that there is the naturalness of death--
death from disease, death from illness, death from old age--he is not troubled
by it in the same way as he is by interference with life.
So many people have said, 'Why is he so concerned with the unborn child, but
not particularly interested in the starving child, or the dying old man, or
people being worked to death in factories in the Third World?' Those are bad
things. But they are not in his view fundamental sins. They are secondary
dramas, consequences of human behavior, of the imperfection of human society.
But interfering with life is interfering with something much more fundamental.
On the other hand, he is obsessed with death in a different way. He believes
that we live in what he calls a 'Civilization of Death.' What does he mean by
this? He doesn't mean that we are in the business of killing one another
indiscriminately or violently or unnecessarily or that it should be possible to
prevent many deaths that happen--although he does certainly say that much of
the violence today is a product of human design, and therefore in that sense we
have created our own Culture of Death--whether it's pornography or television
or the mass media in one kind or another, or the breakup of the families so
that children have no authority figure. I mean, there are a number of ways in
which he says that what we have done is we have created whole civilizations,
whole nations, that have no moral reference points, that have no compass
points, and they flail around helplessly, solving whatever problems they think
they can solve and inclined to see hopelessness all around them.
What he means by death is hopelessness. Because natural death is death. Social
death--the death of culture, the death of hope, the death of the family, the
death of moral commitment, the death of faith, the death of the possibility in
the belief in higher values--these are what he means by a 'Culture of Death.
Life is about absolutes. Death is about the relativity of everything. "Nothing
quite matters," is for him a sign of the mortality of a culture. And the fact
that we can intervene scientifically to save lives or to transform genetic
disadvantage or whatever, is not for him a positive, but a negative. It's
evidence that we have taken on capacities that we can't control, to do things
that we don't understand, interfering with a nature over whom we don't have
Can you make a connection between Karol Wojtyla's death-haunted obsessions
and his autobiography?
Try to imagine the life of a man who, as we've seen, seems to be obsessed with
death, who has lived through what Karol Wojtyla has lived through.
He was born in 1920, shortly after World War I into an impoverished Poland. A
family where, one by one, his closest relatives died around him. His mother
died before he was eight. His only older brother died three years later. His
father died before he turned 20. He was left before his 21st birthday with no
family. At about the time of his father's death, shortly before, World War II
broke out. And he lived in Poland for six years under the worst dictatorship
anyone has ever known. He wasn't Jewish so he wasn't exterminated, but he was
Polish, and being a Pole in Nazi-occupied Poland, was next to being Jewish, the
worst thing you could be.
So he experienced death all around him, not only literal death, bodies in the
streets, children starving, men and women being shot randomly, his own family
dying, but also moral and social death. The end of law, the end of any order,
the end of any system of values, the end of any possibility of imagining a
better future. The death of a public sphere, corresponding in his case with the
death of his private sphere. And then this man lives in post-war Poland for
more than 20 years. Post-war Poland was not Poland under the Nazis, but Poland
under Communist occupation. Under the Russian occupation and under Communist
regime it was a grim, depressed, dishonest, duplicitous, impoverished, gray
There was no public truth. You could only speak the truth privately.
Politicians were distrusted, but of course they were feared because they had
the police. Whatever was said in the media was immediately assumed to be the
opposite of the truth. People were no longer being killed in the streets, but
they walked through the streets in gray, gloomy, hopeless depression in an
increasingly polluted, grim environment. Polluted by soot, polluted by
chemicals, polluted by Communist industrial development, and by the absence of
any environmental control, as well as polluted, so to speak, culturally.
And this man then becomes Pope at the age of 58, towards the end of what for
most people would be their active life. And he has an experience, with one
exception, which is an experience with death in all its forms--personal,
public, political, social, cultural, moral, environmental. What's the one
exception? The Church. His faith. His conviction--starting very young indeed,
insofar as we can tell, starting shortly after his mother's death--his
conviction of the absolute truth, the Gospel of the Catholic Church, of the
word as it has come down through the Church, of the duties, obligations that
the Church imposes on men and on the sense of freedom, and as he would say
life, that comes out of that conviction. The proportions between all that death
and that single, absolutely focused, unwavering insistence upon life and its
distinctive Catholic, priestly, eventually papal form accounts for a large part
of this man's intensity of personality, intensity of vision. And accounts for
the great difficulty that most of us who did not grow up in that world, in
either of those worlds-- the world of death or in his particular world of
life--the difficulty in grasping what he means and what he stands for and who
Pope John Paul II is a man who inherited a whole body of doctrines and
teaching. How did he make these doctrines and teachings his own? How does he
separate himself from his predececessors--for example, on the subject of
John Paul II does not have anything radically new to say on the subject of
women. So, if he seems particularly provocative and obsessive on women, on
women-related questions, on the ordination of female priests, on abortion, on
contraception, on marriage, on divorce, it's for a particular reason. It's not
because he's a pope, per se. Other popes have passed on these rulings, more or
less unchanged. They have softened the implications. They've tended in recent
papacies to downplay them rather than raise them as provocative issues and so
on. Why then has John Paul made this so much his own theme?
In the first place, of course, any pope coming into the papacy when he did at
the end of the Seventies was bound to have to address these matters in a way
that perhaps early popes didn't. The feminist movement in its modern form was
born only a few years before he became pope. The rulings of Vatican II had not
changed anything formally, but it opened up the expectation of change, so
sooner or later a pope was going to either have to make changes, or publicly
say that he would not make changes. You could not simply avoid the subject. The
issue of birth control, the issue of abortion all over the world, the issue of
divorce, women working, ordination of women in the Western world, were issues
for economic, social and scientific reasons not been on the agenda quite the
way they are today, 20 years earlier, let's say.
So to some extent, the timing was distinctive. Nonetheless, he made them his
own. This is a man who had written about sexual matters, family matters, the
place of women before he became Pope. It's not as if he simply inherited a body
of papal doctrine that he had to defend. He was interested in these
matters. These were his subjects--disproportionately you might think,
considering all the other things that a pope has to be concerned with.
So one has to ask oneself, 'Why? Why did he choose, in speech after speech, to
focus on such matters? Why when he went to South America would he refuse to
speak about the crimes of Pinochet, he would refuse to meet the mothers of the
children who had disappeared under the Argentine generals. And yet, he would
give speech after speech about the importance of standing firmly against
abortion, the importance of not compromising, the importance of the family,
significance of the unborn child against contraception and so forth.
Why is the Pope so deeply concerned about women?
The Pope's concern with women, a concern that strikes us perhaps as obsessive,
has two related explanations, I think. The first comes directly from his own
family background. His mother died right before he was ten. He was taken by his
father shortly after his mother's death to a well-known Polish shrine and seems
to have made a childhood decision, which he retained throughout his life, to
devote himself to the cult of Mary, to the cult of the pure ideal woman ever
since. Something he has written about steadily. He has traveled the world
visiting the shrines that the Virgin Mary has been said to make an appearance.
He is obsessed with the dates of those appearances, the anniversaries of those
appearances, whether it's in Indonesia, or in Portugal, or in France. He deeply
believes--in a way that I think is simply difficult for the modern sensibility
to grasp--he deeply believes in the reality of the Virgin Mary.
This makes him peculiarly sensitive to what he thinks of as the misapplication
of the possibility of women's capacities for things to which they are not
adapted. Women should not be men. Women should not not have children. Women
should not not be in the family. Women should be what women always have been
and what indeed was missing in his own personal life. He had no mother growing
up. Idealized in these capacities as mother, as wife, as the bond in the
family, they seemed to him almost to be suffering, if they--women--are put in
other contexts. So he doesn't think of himself as treating women as
second-class beings by saying that women should not be ordained as priests, or
women should not postpone having children to make careers, or women should not
limit the number of children they have to allow for the development of other
sides of themselves, or women should not abort children that they are
expecting, because this is what it is to be a woman.
He doesn't have any notion that there is a higher thing that men do. Men do
their thing and women do theirs. And the crossing-over of roles, of what he
thinks of as the pollution in our culture, pollution in the literal sense,
matter out of place, things in the wrong place, which he associates with
environmental pollution and cultural pollution--that's the first concern. And
while it takes a distinctive form in his concern about women's affairs, it's
not just about women, as we've seen.
John Paul's other characteristic feature which I think plays into this as well,
is that he is what in a different language we might call a believer in
founder's intent. He believes that the Catholic Church should follow both the
teachings and the sayings and the practice of its founders, Jesus Christ,
Peter, and so forth. Jesus didn't ordain women priests. He won't ordain women
priests. He's not interested in the notion that things might be different now
because---and this is an important point to understand about the man---change
over time he accepts. Giving change over time any distinctive moral standing,
saying that there is progress, saying that the present is better than the past,
saying that things are different and better now, or should be different because
we now live in a different time, that he does not accept. Some things are as
they always are and must always be as they have been. The place of women is one
of them. It's one of them because of the importance of women in his life. And
it's one of them because of the importance of his belief in the absolutely
unchanging virtues of the Church as it was founded.
What does John Paul II see in Mary? Who is Mary to him? And how does that
shape his view of what women should and should not do?
I think that Karol Wojtyla's Mary is not peculiar. I mean, there are many
variants on the cult of the Virgin Mary in Catholic faith and in the Western
tradition. His is a very particular one and it relates again to his own
particular youth. He lost his mother. He idealized that lost mother. By the
age of fifteen, he was the head of the Marian Sodality in his hometown. He was
the leading figure in the cult of Mary in a town in Poland where everyone to
some extent shared that cult. So he already was a powerfully committed young
man, committed to the idea that this was a woman who embodied duty,
responsibility, goodness, certainty, all the things that his mother could not
be--because she didn't exist--were invested in her. All the certainties of life
were in her. Mary stood, therefore, via his mother if you like, for all the
qualities of truth, absoluteness, certainty, unchangingness, authority in the
sense of moral authority, that one cannot in fact find in real people because
they are imperfect, but he was able to invest to some extent in his mother, but
totally in the cult of the Virgin Mary.
So his Virgin Mary is not the Virgin Mary of choice, of complexity, of
certainty, the Virgin Mary of paradox that many feminists have found. His is
much more the Virgin Mary of the original decision of the medieval popes to put
Mary at the center of the then slightly unsteady faith, because Mary became for
them, and is for him, the repository of absolute values.
Now transposed onto women, real flesh and blood existing women, what does that
mean? It means that in the realms where they are uniquely capacitated to do
things, in other words where women can do things that men can't, they have
special authority and special responsibility. And this is a deep theme in
Catholic theology of course, that with authority goes responsibility, with
rights goes duty, with capacity goes obligation, and so on. If you can do it,
then you have certain responsibilities towards it.
Well, women can essentially by virtue of being women, can really do only one
thing that men can't do, and that is produce children. And hence his obsession
with that, because that is the distinctively female aspect of human behavior
that he as Pope can address. Women must be true to themselves, and being true
to themselves, however in a smaller way, true to Mary, who was, of course, true
to herself in his image totally, but other women cannot be.
For woman to be true to herself at all for him, she has to begin to be true to
that which is distinctively womanly about her, which means total opposition to
abortion. You cannot choose not to do that thing which is your nature to do.
That's the central thing. With that goes the opposition to contraception.
Secondary, but related, is the opposition to the ordination of women priests.
That is something that women could do, but it's something that men already can
do and a) Jesus didn't make women priests so why should John Paul II, b) why
should women, who have a much more important responsibility take on that
fundamentally secondary responsibility? Mary wasn't ordained. Why should any
other woman wish to be?
There is that sense that it all goes back to these absolute fundamentals, sort
of embodied in original moments. We think a lot of original sin when we talk
about theology and particularly Catholic theology. But I think that the notion
of original perfection, of original purpose, of original intention, of original
capacity, is just as important for him. You mustn't set these aside any more
than sin. And in each woman, he really does see, I think, some small part of
the Virgin Mary or his mother or whatever, traduced if a woman does things that
she shouldn't do. It does make him genuinely angry. This is not an invented or
ideological or political or institutional anger. This is some sort of deeply
felt belief that this is something that must not happen. And that if it kills
him going around the world saying that it mustn't happen, then let it kill him,
but that is what his duty is.
That anger is the violation of some essential category upon which his world
rests and his idealist's sense of who his mother is?
I think that's right. I think one has to think of this man as having
unconsciously chosen to devote his life as a preteenager to the memory of
mother, and consciously chosen to devote his life as a teenager and afterwards
to the cult of the Virgin Mary. Those are related convictions and related
devotions, and this is a man of powerful convictions and of a powerful capacity
to live them out. If you look at his life in Poland as a priest and in the war
and afterwards, he does not compromise with himself. And to say that women
could compromise on the issues that face them would be to compromise with
himself. He won't compromise with himself, and so he won't let women compromise
What qualities distinguish Pope John Paul II from his predecessors?
Previous popes--Italian for the last 500 years--were men of compromise by
definition, with only two or three exceptions within the last 500 years. They
had to compromise in order for the Church to survive with secular powers, local
authorities, with the winds of change, with democracy, with tolerance and so
on. They didn't make any theological compromises, but they sort of shrank the
territory of theology, leaving more and more territory for Caesar, as it were,
out there. They weren't happy with it, but it was a characteristic Italian
compromise with which everyone could live.
John Paul is not Italian. Karol Wojtyla is a Pole. And as a Pole, he does not
compromise with secular authority. The whole history of Polish Catholicism, of
Polish romantic nationalism, of Polish idealism and all its political and
secular forms is a history of non-compromise for good and ill. The tragic
history of Poland is a history of failure to compromise, sometimes when
compromise might have helped, sometimes when you had no choice, but in any
case, a failure to compromise, a refusal to compromise.
On the question of women, John Paul II does not have anything profoundly
different to say from that which has been said by previous popes in our time,
before our time. Two things distinguish it; one that he's had to talk about it
to some extent, because we live in times when he could not avoid it. Two,
because he wants to talk about it. He really wants to say to each and every
individual and particularly each and every individual woman that he speaks to,
'You will, you will not, you must, you must not, this is how it must be. There
can be no backsliding. There can be no compromise. On this I am clear, on this
I am sure. Other popes of the past would have agreed, but they would have said,
'Shhh, no need to say it so loud, no need to say it so often. No need to say it
quite so aggressively. Believe it, think it, but don't shout it." This is a man
who believes and thinks something and seems to feel some profound duty to shout
With regard to his being from Poland, how does that landscape live in
Poland is a very strange place. And a pope coming from Poland inevitably is a
very strange pope. Poles have always thought of themselves as sitting at the
heart of Europe--big country in the center of Europe. And they have always
thought of themselves somehow as completely peripheral to Europe, and obscure
to the rest of the world. They regard themselves as having suffered more than
other countries, as knowing more than other countries, what it's like to lose
your country, to lose your identity, to care for that identity deeply,
subliminally, poetically, romantically, and then to recover the country again,
and there's that sense of being very special in your suffering and in your
experience. And at the same time, the sense that no one else could possibly
Perhaps I can tell you a little story that will illustrate this. I have a
friend who is quite well known, Timothy Garton-Ash, who has written about
Poland and who is married to a Polish woman. And he was once in Washington,
D.C. with his two young children who are bilingual and he had to go off and
give a lecture at an American university. And his older son who was then four
or five, said to him, 'Where are you going, Daddy? And Tim said to him in
English, 'I'm going to the University of Michigan to give a talk to some
students.' And his son said, 'What are you going to talk about?' And Tim said
to him in English, 'I'm going to tell them what's happening in Poland today.'
And his son then said in Polish to him, 'They won't understand.' It seems to me
significant that he would say it to him in Polish, and that it would be
instinctive to say it at all, and I think that this is a clue to the Polish
relationship to the outside world and to this Pope's relationship to the
The world cannot be expected, as Paul said, to understand the complexities of
their history, of their culture, the deep Catholicism, the fact that they are
on the border with a non-Catholic part of the world, Eastern Orthodox, that
they are, as they see it, on the edge of Europe, and somehow under- appreciated
by the rest of Europe, that they're part of the West and yet not part of the
West, and so on. And this Pope who shares all of those sensibilities, he's very
Polish. He surrounded, by the way, in Rome by a Polish curia, a whole group of
men who came with him from Poland to give him advice, with whom he speaks with
in Polish about what he will say, about what he thinks is going on in the
world, and so on. And especially what he thinks about what's going on in
Poland. And as a Polish pope, he doesn't quite expect the world to understand,
but he's going to speak anyway.
So here is this man who believes he has, who has a very special platform, I
don't mean the platform of the Pope, I mean the platform of Polish
experience--suffering, certainty, duty, defending the Church, defending the
faith, and knowing that you'll probably not be able to convince the modern,
unbelieving, compromising Westerners who never experienced what you've
experienced, and so the only way to deal with them, is to be absolutely
uncompromising. You won't be able to convince them, you must simply show them
The central question for John Paul II is faith. Would you agree?
I don't think that there was any doubt that for Karol Wojtyla faith doesn't
just trump anything else. Faith is all there is. Reason, argument, works,
belief even in the sense of a rational exercise of belief, the choice to
believe, is as nothing compared to faith. And that makes him, once again, a
curious, paradoxical figure operating two extremes. On the one hand, he is
enormously attractive because of this. In a world where people don't believe
very strongly about anything, they don't have faith. They don't have absolute
conviction. Here's a man who has absolute faith, absolute conviction,
unquestioned, not open to doubt. He admits the possibility of doubt. He prays
all the time, but he doesn't actually doubt himself at all. We find that very
On the other hand, the particular character of the faith that he has is
virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of humankind. Either because their
personalities don't lend them to it, or their experience doesn't, or the world
in which they live put pressures on them against which faith is not sufficient.
But in his world, faith is necessary and sufficient. Everything else comes
second, comes third, comes tenth. People who have dealt with Karol Wojtyla and
have thought that they were talking to him about ideas, suddenly realized that
ideas were what mattered to them, but for him this was an exercise, like taking
physical exercise, walking in the mountains, or intellectual exercise. Faith
trumps all of that. People have the right to live well. They should live well.
He's a bitter critic of what was once called the 'unacceptable face of
capitalism.' He's a deep believer in the virtues of a more egalitarian society.
But compared to faith, it's as nothing. Given the choice, he wouldn't hesitate
for a minute. He wouldn't even regard it as a choice. They're not even on the
I don't think we've had to deal with a public figure who's had that kind of
faith. Ever in the modern era. There have been many men, women, who have had
that kind of faith, but they've been mystics, monks, nuns, priests, living an
isolated life, maybe writing of what they believe, but the head of a public
institution? No, never.
It is increasingly difficult to have faith today. This Pope seems to make
the leap of faith a little bit easier. Would you agree?
I know there were some who think that an opportunity was lost with Pope John
Paul II. This was a man who had the intellectual and human capacities to
somehow bring faith into the modern world, to make it possible for people to
once again believe in religion because religion seemed to speak to them. I
think that was a profound misunderstanding of everything that he stands for,
because it implies the notion of compromise, the very notion that there is some
sort of middle ground between faith, absolute faith, and modern unbelief, that
he could bridge that middle ground, bring the faith to the unbelievers, bring
certainty to modern doubt. Runs against everything that he believes in.
He believes that compromise is the mistake, not unbelief. Unbelief is a
condition that has to be overcome, but to make a compromise with it is to cheat
it. His position is rather like that of the person who says that, 'The point of
education is not that people should have a happy experience as they grow up,
but that they should learn things.' I'm giving you the analogy from debates
over educational theory.
He's not interested in people having happy experiences on their way to faith.
He's not interested in people finding the middle ground between secular
unbelief and classical Catholic faith. His role as he quite consciously, I
believe, sees it---I have sat in a room with the man on a number of occasions
and I'm quite convinced of it---his role is to take the stand that no one else
today would take. Take the stand that says, 'This is it. This is faith. This is
truth. This is life. This is right. And your choice--to whoever he is
addressing himself--your choice is either to be with me on the side of faith,
truth, life, hope, certainty, or to continue to live in the condition of
uncertainty, unbelief, relativism, doubt. There is no middle ground. I cannot
meet you in the middle, because then I would be losing the very things that I
have which make me attractive in my faith, which make me attractive to you in
the first place. '
When you think of the millions of people who come to his
gatherings--educated and uneducated--who line up for just a short glimpse of
this man, what does this man symbolize to them?
I've often asked myself what it is that people are seeing in him when they are
drawn to him, in the many millions, just to watch him in the flesh, just to see
him pass by, to hear him speak even if they can't even see him. I can't answer
that question as it concerns deeply believing Catholics, because I am not a
Catholic and clearly there is a special place in a certain Catholic sensibility
for the Pope. Although even so, that place was rather different for earlier
popes. I think this pope is something else.
But I can say something about his curious appeal to non-Catholics. I have
students who I teach in university who have lined up hours and days to see the
Pope. And when I ask them why, the answer is a little bit, 'He's famous, he's
special, I want to see him. But it's also, once you unpack it-- 'He is a man
who stands for something, something that is almost mysterious and alien now. He
knows what he thinks. He is a sort of an image of absolute certainty in a world
of uncertainty. He tells us what has to be, what has to be done, what we should
do. He is someone who we can follow.'
I think it is very striking that political leaders today, particularly in our
own culture, America, but to some extent throughout the West, are obsessed with
making sure that their constituencies want what it is that they're going to do
before they do it, or else they don't do it. Triangulating, polling, focus
grouping--i's a curious failure to understand the nature of leadership, which
John Paul clearly understands instinctively. You lead by standing up and
saying, 'I believe in this. Follow me.' Obviously, if what you are saying
isn't very appealing or if you're not very appealing, then it won't work.
But in his case, the combination of his personal charisma, partly his
biography, partly in earlier days his physical capacity to dominate a crowd,
partly the curious, alien, unmodern, unworldly, otherworldly, out-of-time
confidence with which he says, 'This is wrong. This is right. I don't care what
you think. I don't care what you believe. I don't care if you think otherwise.
What you think is not as good as what I think. I'm telling you that this is
right and you must do it. You must have faith, and you must not do the other.
That is wrong.'
That is astoundingly attractive to young people, and everyone has commented on
the disproportionate number of young people who are present at his meetings,
his speeches, his prayer, visits and so on.
Would you say that this is a big Pope who has changed history?
Is this a Pope who has radically changed history? No. In that sense, in a point
I made earlier, that he is a tragic pope, can be reinforced. He has not
succeeded. I can only think of two popes, perhaps three, in the course of the
last 800 years of the papacy, who have changed the history of the papacy, of
the church, and therefore the world. Two of them are
medieval--Gregory VII and Innocent III, long before our time. And one of them
in a quite different way was Pius IX in the middle of the nineteenth century.
All of them were simultaneously radical and rather conservative. Radical in the
energy in which they jerked the Church away from a direction that it was going
in, and conservative in that they had a tendency to jerk it away from the world
as they understood then and put it in an antagonistic relationship to the
secular world of their time.
He has tried to do this. There is no doubt this is a man who sees himself in
this tradition, as one of the great radical popes challenging the world to be
different that what it is. I think he has not succeeded. I don't mean that he
hasn't succeeded in changing the world--there was never any question that he
wasn't going to change the world. But I think he has not succeeded in changing
the Church, and that for him, is failure. And he has not succeeded in changing
the Catholic Church because the social-economic cultural conditions that he
encountered in the world were beyond his capacity either to understand or, as I
have said, compromise, and certainly beyond his capacity to overcome.
What he has succeeded in doing is striking enough in itself--putting down a
marker, saying, 'It is not obvious that abortion is the right thing.' Saying,
'There is something wrong in a world where the family is no longer the center
of gravity of most young people in some countries.' Saying that, 'There are
some values that transcend prosperity, comfort, entertainment.' Saying all
these things is already quite an achievement; saying and getting them heard
worldwide. He is a moral reference point in some ways. The very fact that so
many people dislike what he stands for, would bother to engage it, makes him
very different from the popes of the earlier part of this century or the last
century. Who cared what they thought, basically? We care now what they thought
about Nazism or what they failed to say about Nazism, but at the time who cared
what their pronouncements were?
This is a Pope about whom people have had to care. He's been successful to that
degree. But has he changed the way his church behaves? I don't think so. What
he may have done actually, despite himself, is leave the Church in a very, very
difficult condition indeed, because it is now a Church in direct antagonism
with modernity. That was his quality, his ability to show that modernity needed
to be fought in some ways. We shouldn't just live in the world as a natural
whatever we've done to it. We keep on innovating, keep on inventing, keep on
controlling, keep on 'mucking around,' as he would say, with nature. There is a
case for standing firm against that, but as an institution, the Catholic Church
is now firmly associated with his way of speaking about modernity, and it will
have some trouble, I think, in the aftermath of this Pope coming back and
occupying the center ground that so many people wrongly hoped that he would
What is the legacy of Pope John Paul II?
If we ask what the legacy of this man, this Pope, would be, I think it's
clearly something that perhaps he wouldn't have expected. And that is, his
legacy is the debate. His legacy is angry conversation that he provoked over
faith versus modernity. There will be no legacy of success in defeating
modernity. And there will certainly be no sense in which he will have occupied
the ground between absolute faith and modern unbelief. But he has forced upon
his opponents a conversation that they would never have had with previous
popes. And in terms which were his terms. And he did, to that degree, shape the
conversation at the end of the millennium in a way that no one else has.
After Karol Wojtyla's significant role in ending Communism in Poland, do you
believe that he missed a great opportunity?
Some people believe that Karol Wojtyla had a great opportunity and he missed
it. That having played a very significant role in the Polish opposition in the
ten years before the fall of Communism, as a moral leader, as the man who
shaped the Polish Church's engagement with solidarity and the opposition to
Communism. When Communism fell in Eastern Europe, here was a man who could have
done almost anything and he failed.
Instead, he squandered this huge moral and political capital acquired in the
struggle with Communism in what seemed to many people peripheral obsessions
with abortion, contraception, the sins of consumer society and modernity, and
seem somehow to have marginalized himself having been so central at first. I
can see why one would believe this, but I would draw a slightly different
conclusion. I would do this by analogy. Everyone recalls the role of Winston
Churchill in World War II: British war leader for five years. Without him, it's
a fair question whether the British would have been able to carry on fighting
the way they did. In 1945, Churchill suddenly, against all expectations, is
voted out of office by the British electorate. And from being the great war
leader, is kicked into opposition and it looks as though he has completely been
rejected and abandoned without gratitude by the nation he saved.But in many
ways, Churchill was lucky, because Churchill would have been an awful post-war
leader; full of grand ideas, trying to capitalize on his wartime leadership,
and unable to adapt to the day-to-day political, social, economic, cultural
needs of a post-war society.
Well, I think that is what happened to Karol Wojtyla, except of course, he
became Pope and remained Pope through this period--through the war against
Communism, and after. In the war against Communism all of his qualities worked
to his advantage: absolute confidence, a natural leader, no compromise, clear
moral stand, 'we're right, you're wrong, this is right, that's wrong.
Tremendously important role. After the fall of Communism, when his own society,
Poland, as well as his own Church, the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe as
well as the rest of the world, is faced with much more complicated questions of
how to adapt to post-Cold War world, of how to adapt to the difficulties of
compromising between what used to be a repressed Communist society and is now
an open market, capitalistic society and so forth. All his certainties, his
powerful faith, his refusal to compromise, grew to look more and more like a
kind of unreasonable, unwillingness to understand the needs of people in daily
life. And the virtues of a war pope don't translate very comfortably into those
of a peacetime pope as it were. I think that's what happened.
What is the Pope's vision of modern life?
The Pope's vision of modernity is the image, the reiterated image of the
Culture of Death. It is all of a piece. Things that we think of as quite
separate, he sees as all connected. We think of war, fascism, ethnic cleansing
as connected. But then we might think quite differently about genetic
engineering, abortion, the use of fertilizers. And we might think differently
again about medical intervention to prolong life, we might think very
differently about the emphasis upon painlessness, upon somehow preventing pain.
We might think it's a good thing that so much money should be spent to find
ways to make life less painful, less uncomfortable in so many ways.
He sees all of this as connected. And the connection is the obsession with
ourselves as human beings, with getting what we want at the cost of other
people's lives, at the cost of our own system of values, at the cost of
nature--whether it's the environment, or whether it's the natural order of
things. He believes we are too ready to do whatever we want and whatever we can
to get whatever we want and when we want it. And he would connect, as it were,
consumerism and war in that same way. And what would he replace that with? Not
poverty for its own sake, not an endless piece necessarily, though of course,
that would be desirable, but what he would call choice and commitment.
The Pope is not against choice. What he is against is endless choice, sort of
supermarket of moral possibilities. You can do anything: you can have
euthanasia, you can have guaranteed happiness, you can have anything that you
could want, you can make your body look young, you can stop your body doing
natural things, you can stop other people doing things if you don't like it.
'No, he says, 'you don't have endless choice. You make choices, and then when
you made your choice, you live the consequence. And we must choose life.'
This is his theme. To choose life is to say, 'We will accept nature as we find
it. We will not interfere with it to our own advantage. We will not start on
the slippery slope by medical interventions, which lead to genetic engineering,
which lead to euthanasia, which lead to mass murder, which lead to genocide.'
There is no moral difference for this man between one kind of moral
slippage---helping a terminally ill person kill themselves---and another kind
of moral slippage--forcibly killing hundreds of people for medical reasons or
for racial reasons. There's no accident to his view that the twentieth century
has seen all of these things. We have given ourselves, scientifically, the
capacity to do things that we don't have the moral capacity to control, and our
only hope is to strengthen the moral capacity, to bring it in line with our
physical, scientific, and technical capacities. And you can only become
morally, as he might see it, stronger, if you have faith. If something you
believe in controls and shapes your actions, without that, your actions are out
of control. And he believes that we have lived through a century out of
control, and it's his duty to introduce at least the possibility of moral
control back into our lives.
Looking at his encyclical on life and death, what gets your attention? What
is truthful and what is false?
What I find about all the Pope's writings, but particularly his writings on
life, death, absolute moral choices--and I speak here as a non-Catholic, a
non-believer--what I find so attractive is the moral confidence behind it. It
is the absolute certainty that we must believe in something, and that once we
have chosen to believe, we must act consequentially, not do the things that we
know we mustn't do, and do the things we know we must do, and if there is a
price to be paid for that, we must accept that price. And if it makes us
uncomfortable, we must accept that discomfort. We must do the right thing and
not do the wrong thing. And we must be consistent. I find that extraordinarily
appealing. I would find it appealing in any human being. I find it very
appealing in someone who can be so outspoken and steadfast about it.
What is not convincing to me is the particular set of beliefs around which he
has paved his faith, as it were. It is not convincing to me that there is a
necessary relationship between opposing the death penalty and not ordaining
women priests. Those links only make sense to a particular kind of Catholic
theorist, and not to many of those. And I think he has weakened his most
powerful propositions about the immorality, rampant profiteering, or the
obscenity of modern commercialism, or the vacuousness of popular culture--he
has weakened the force of what he has to say about those by tying it to frankly
much more questionable oppositions about contraception, let's say, or about
abortion. And on the abortion issue, I recognize he has a case, just as I
believe his opponents have a case.
But by tying each one of the areas where he has a case to every other one, so
that you must buy the whole package or else you are backsliding, he has not
only in practice weakened his influence, but made it much harder for many of us
who would admire him in general to follow him in particular.
Summarize these links in his encyclical the Gospel of Life.
It seems to me the final tragic paradox of this Pope is well summed up in the
nature of the encyclical on the Gospel of Life because in that he provides a
shopping list almost of all the crimes and the sins and the errors of our
century. The great crimes---wars, genocide. The lesser sins---abortion, as he
sees it. The errors--consumerism, popular culture, and so forth.
He ties them all together and in doing so makes a very powerful statement about
the uncertainty, the damaged culture that we now live in. But by tying them all
together, he weakens the force that they would each have taken separately. And
in the end, by presenting a shopping basket of mistakes that modernity has
made, he is guilty of the same kind of indiscriminate consumerism that he
accuses us of. He's presented a shelf full of mistakes, errors, crimes and
sins, and said, 'It's all a package. The whole thing. They're all just like
each other. And collectively they are the modern world's.'
We can't accept that. We might wish to accept that, but we couldn't accept it.
The world is more complex than this Pope presents it...The connection that he
makes between everything from modern pop music to genocide--to take the
extremes--that connection is a series of linkages about the absence of values,
indulgence. We indulge ourselves without asking what it means. We do things
without asking what the consequences are. We do a little thing---genetically
altering plants---without realizing that it's a slippery slope to genetically
altering people, to killing people, because they're genetically second rate. He
sees all these connections one, by one, by one. Everything is connected. And
each connection leads inexorably to the higher worse one above it. You have to
break it somewhere, he believes. If you just say, 'Well, contraception does
after all have the advantage of controlling the population, the next thing
you'll be saying is, 'Euthanasia does, after all, have the advantage of getting
rid of useless people.' There is no line to be drawn between the two, so he
would draw the line above all of them.
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