POPE AND CIRCUMSTANCE: The Legacy of Pope John Paul II

Thursday, June 27, 2002

In 1978, the Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected to the papacy of the Catholic Church, taking the name John Paul II. In the twenty-four years since, Pope John Paul II has traveled more widely and held audiences for more people than any other pope in history. But beyond his long service and high profile, how will John Paul II be remembered? Will he be remembered more for his political impact—many say that he played a crucial role in the fall of communism in Eastern Europe—or for his ecclesiastical work? Just how well has John Paul II prepared the Catholic Church for the twenty-first century?

Recorded on Thursday, June 27, 2002

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, Pope and circumstances...

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation and the Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the legacy of John Paul II. Twenty-four years ago the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope. Since then he's traveled more than a million miles visiting more than 120 countries. He's produced more than a dozen encyclicals and he has participated in a major epoch, helping to affect the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. How will John Paul II be remembered? How well did he prepare the Church for the 21st century and what kind of man should succeed him?

Joining us three guests. Rod Dreher is a senior writer for National Review magazine. Father Joseph Fessio is chancellor of Ave Maria University. And Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, is the author most recently of Why I am a Catholic.

Title: Papal Tigers

Peter Robinson: In 452, Pope Leo the Great traveled from Rome up the spine of Italy to Mantua to meet Attila the Hun, persuading Attila to turn back his armies from Rome. George Weigel, who has written a biography of the present Pope: "If the future knows John Paul II as John Paul the Great, it will be because at another moment of peril when barbarisms of various sorts threatened civilization, a heroic figure was called from the Church to meet the barbarian threat and propose an alternative." John Paul the Great, Father?

Father Joseph Fessio: I'll pass this to Garry.

Garry Wills: Well, if you're going to introduce history, it should be good history. Leo went up there with a proposal of a bride and a big bribe and a whole entourage of nobles who were there to buy off Attila. That's the way people dealt with a barbarian then. So the idea that the Pope by his kind of magic aura sent these people reeling, no historian agrees with anymore.

Peter Robinson: But it still makes a nice setup for the quotation that follows…

Garry Wills: Oh and it makes a beautiful picture in the Vatican and part of the whole Vatican myth.

Peter Robinson: Will the future know John Paul II as John Paul the Great?

Garry Wills: I don't think so.

Peter Robinson: Rod?

Rod Dreher: I believe it will.

Peter Robinson: You believe it will. Okay. John Paul II in 1989, one form of barbarism, communism. I quote George Weigel again. John Paul II inspired, "the revolution of conscience that made possible the non-violent revolution of 1989." In other words, Weigel gives John Paul II the central role in the fall of communism. Is he right or claiming too much? Garry?

Garry Wills: I think he's claiming a little too much. He had an important role though.

Peter Robinson: And that alone isn't enough to…

Garry Wills: No, that's very important.

Peter Robinson: …permit him to be called John Paul the Great.

Garry Wills: No, I think what he did with the Church is more important. And I think this scandal has uncovered so much discontent, complaints about lack of accountability, about secrecy, about corruption, that the idea that he had a successful papacy is now fatally damaged. And after all, when he went to Poland, his own country, and he had set out to that point that Poland was the redeemer country, it was the suffering Christ country that the hedonistic West that had followed the Enlightenment would be redeemed by the suffering Churches. He went there and pleaded with them not to legalize abortion. They did it anyway. He said, this people worships me with their lips but not in the depths of their heart. Well, he is a Pope who has been widely disobeyed. Under him the priesthood has evaporated. The nuns have disappeared. The discontent of the laity is very strong. The hierarchy has become corrupt with secrecy and unaccountability. I don't see how he can be considered a successful Pope.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Father, let's hear it.

Father Joseph Fessio: Well I distinguish in a couple--first of all, the U.S. is only seven percent of the Church worldwide so we can't judge the whole Church in…

Peter Robinson: If you add the United States and Western Europe together, what percentage of Catholics do you get? Still under a third, right? Twenty…

Father Joseph Fessio: Oh well under a third.

Peter Robinson: …Twenty-five percent.

Father Joseph Fessio: Yeah.

Peter Robinson: Okay, all right.

Father Joseph Fessio: So we--you know, but our experience of the Church is not necessarily the experience of the whole Church worldwide.

Peter Robinson: Right. The Church is growing fastest in Africa and Latin America.

Father Joseph Fessio: And I would distinguish--I think there's no question about that this present Holy Father has been great in the sense that he's spoken very carefully and profoundly. He's written many documents. He's inspired people. He has a World Youth Day. He's given a face to the Church. There's a lot of non-Catholics see as very attractive. So I think in all those things that have--in terms of a performer or as a spokesman for the Church to the outside world, he's been extraordinary. No question about it. And he's a brilliant mind I think. However, I agree with Garry that in terms of internal ordering of the Church that he's had a long pontificate and so he's had to take responsibility for the kind of clericalism and the secrecy and the fact that so many bishops don't tell the truth. I mean, and bishops have been appointed precisely because they're not divisive.

Peter Robinson: Even Father Fessio is critical of John Paul's performance as a Church administrator. But the Pope explicitly chose not to become an administrator, didn't he?

Title: Curia and Curiouser

Peter Robinson: Weigel and his biography of the Pope--this'll be for you Rod--A Witness to Hope--Weigel makes the point that the Pope made an explicit decision on assuming the papacy, that he would return the Petrine office to what he saw as its original function, that of evangelization, a proclaimer of truth, a pastor. So he's visited over 120 countries around the globe, and moved decisively away from the model of the Pope as chief executive officer of the Roman Catholic Church. He has interested himself relatively little in the workings of the Curia at the Vatican. And he just made an explicit decision to teach and propose and not to involve himself deeply in the workings of appointments of bishops, the religious orders and so forth.

Father Joseph Fessio: He's ordained as priest, prophet and king. It's a very difficult role. It's a difficult task but you can't say I'm going to choose one.

Peter Robinson: Yeah but don't you think two out of three's pretty good?

Father Joseph Fessio: It is pretty good.

Peter Robinson: Priest and prophet, you were saying he's done a good job there.

Father Joseph Fessio: Well on priest I have some reservations too. I think he's more performer than a liturgist.

Peter Robinson: Ah, okay.

Father Joseph Fessio: But by the way with all he's written, not a single doctrine on the liturgy in twenty-three years of papacy.

Peter Robinson: Rod?

Rod Dreher: I think that this is John Paul's great flaw. He has not governed his Church well at all. And we're living right now in America, the result of that. Ultimately the buck stops at his papal throne with these bishops. He did appoint them. I have to laugh whenever I see the media talk about well, you know, he's appointed all these doctrinaire conservatives. That's completely wrong. It's completely wrong. He's apparently signed off on whatever the bishop's conference in the U.S. has sent him to do and he has never--not once that I can think of--actually made any bishop responsible for what he has done, for failing to govern the Church locally for immorality. He wouldn't even accept the resignation of Cardinal Law whose moral authority is completely gone.

Peter Robinson: You have that on good authority? You're confident as a journalist that the reason Cardinal Law has not resigned is that the Pope refused to accept the resignation?

Rod Dreher: Yeah. I think that's--that has been reported and I believe it's completely true because the Pope doesn't want to be seen as bowing to popular will which I think is completely wrong. I think the Pope is a clericalist.

Peter Robinson: So what you have here is the Pope bending over backwards to avoid engaging in direct uses of papal authority, knocking heads together, summoning individual bishops to Rome to dress them down. All of this to appeal to the likes of Dr. Garry Wills who chafes at the authority of the Pope and little good it has done John Paul II, little gratitude he has from you.

Garry Wills: I don't say that he shouldn't exercise his authority. I think he exercises it poorly. Father Fessio says he's appointed doctrinally docile bishops. You know, I think you have to understand him in terms of his Polish roots. He was in a persecuted Church. When that happens you cling to all the symbols. You know, the Elizabethan Jesuits did that. When he became Pope, one of the first things he said was priests get back into your collar, nuns get back into your habits. Well in Poland, that was a brave thing to do. You were defying authority when you did that. And all these symbols of the faith are there. When you went to our Lady of Czestochowa; that was defying the government. On the other hand, when he says things like the Third Secret of Fatima referred to his escape from death, this is a kind of superstitious Polish attitude it seems to me which has little connection with the modern world.

Rod Dreher: Connects to me. I believe in that.

Garry Wills: You believe that that third secret was about him?

Rod Dreher: I think it's possible.

Garry Wills: All right.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Garry Wills: You also believe Juan Diego existed?

Rod Dreher: Yeah.

Garry Wills: Well there's no historical evidence of it.

Rod Dreher: I believe in miracles.

Garry Wills: Okay.

Rod Dreher: That's why I'm a Catholic.

Garry Wills: Okay.

Peter Robinson: I've just got to ask, was Vatican II in any way responsible for the trouble the Church is in today?

Title: How Many Bishops Does It Take to Change a Liturgy?

Peter Robinson: The Second Vatican Council, 1962 to 1965, great council of the Church, bishops summoned from around the world and the effort was to adapt the Church to preach and teach in the modern world. All right. And from the moment the council was concluded, 1965, at least in the Western world, vocations to the priesthood and to religious life dropped right off a cliff. Annulments, that is to say, dissolution of Catholic marriages, in this country in 1965, there were fewer than 350. In 1979, the number of annulments is 27,000. The Pope throughout his pontificate has said to the Church in the United States and in Western Europe, get those annulments in order. It's an outrage. You're clearly granting far too many. 1995, the last year for which I was able to find numbers it's 60,000. So what is going on here? The Pope has said over and over again that he's devoted to the Second Vatican Council, that the Holy Spirit was working in the Second Vatican Council. Put the pieces of this together for me. How can you desc…

Father Joseph Fessio: Well, are you espousing the principle that post hoc ergo propter hoc? That because these things happen after the council, they were caused by the council?

Peter Robinson: I am espousing the principle of the confused laymen. It sure looks suspicious to me. Things are good up until the council takes place and then it drops off a cliff.

Father Joseph Fessio: Now I suggest the first thing the confused laymen should do is read the documents of the council, especially the major ones on the Church and the modern world, on the liturgy and on revelation. They're magnificent documents, they really are. They're very traditional but they're also very open to the future. So now maybe sociologically the council aroused or elicited desires for things, which didn't happen at the council but were--the council was used or abused to have that happen. But I do not lay the blame for any of the confusion on the council itself. The council's a magnificent council.

Peter Robinson: The difficulties of the modern world and the circumstances of modernity and the council is not to be blamed and the Pope has done the best he possibly could in teaching perhaps for future generations, indeed perhaps for coming centuries, continuing to teach the authentic faith.

Father Joseph Fessio: Let me put the puzzle together for you, very briefly.

Peter Robinson: Please.

Father Joseph Fessio: You know…

Peter Robinson: Listen to this closely.

Father Joseph Fessio: I'll have to do this as I say briefly but it's worth four or five shows and a couple of books so maybe Garry can help me write. But all the problems in the Church today have to do with gender, whether it's ordination of women, whether it's celibacy, whether it's homosexuality. Okay. And the Church's teaching in our society is the most beautiful, profound teaching that there is and the problem really began with Humanae Vitae. Once you separate sexual pleasure and intimacy from procreation, you make sexual pleasure a thing in itself. And once you do that, then you cannot justify prohibition against homosexuality, against extramarital, premarital sex or bestiality. That's step one. Step two is when you hire bishops or when you appoint bishops... when you appoint bishops who know that's not being taught in the seminaries but tell Rome everything's okay, you encourage a culture of lying. And so I think the whole thing has come down to the rejection of the Church's teaching on sexual morality.

Peter Robinson: The big moment is Humanae Vitae in 1968? The real hypocrisy, the divide, the chasm between the Church as it is practiced--the faith as it is practiced in the Western world and Rome begins at that moment. Would you grant that?

Garry Wills: I think that's too simple. I think that the council was tremendously important and that the large number of laity are living the council's documents on intellectual freedom, on collegiality, on cooperation. It's doing the things the council wanted and precisely because it's doing that, it would not submit to a silly thing like Humanae Vitae. I agree that the sexual matters are at the root of this. The trouble is because of celibacy, because of a kind of obsessiveness about sex; most normal people find that the hierarchical teaching on sex across a broad range of things is nutty.

Peter Robinson: Garry Wills disagrees with the Church on seemingly every topic. So why is he still a Catholic?

Title: A Test of Wills

Peter Robinson: Garry, there is a Church in which artificial forms of contraception are no problem, there is no practical impediment to divorce and remarriage, in which women are ordained, in which homosexuals are welcomed into the priesthood. And what you need to do is leave the Church of Rome and join the Church of England and write a new book entitled Why I Am an Episcopalian.

Garry Wills: No…

Peter Robinson: Why haven't you?

Garry Wills: They have all their problems too. I'm not saying the Church is a perfect church. The lay people--it's a flawed church. All churches are flawed.

Peter Robinson: My point is that what is it distinctively about Rome to which you still cling?

Garry Wills: It is the papacy. The papacy is a bond of union, a bond of love, feed my sheep. At the most corrupt time of the papacy in the tenth century when it was wholly owned by a corrupt Italian family, out of the energies of papal union, the whole Carthusian movement was born, the whole monastic movement. Rome's power to attract energies and generate energies around the symbol of Peter is extremely great. I go into this in great detail in my book.

Peter Robinson: When Paul VI in 1968 reaffirms the traditional teaching of the Church…

Garry Wills: It wasn't traditional. John Noonan said it was not traditional when he addressed that group.

Father Joseph Fessio: John Noonan's not the Pope.

Garry Wills: No but he's a very good historian.

Father Joseph Fessio: Yeah but he's--he's…

Peter Robinson: Rod put together the pieces of this for me.

Rod Dreher: Well, this is the thing. Garry says rightly that most American Catholics reject Humanae Vitae. They reject the Church's teaching on sexuality…

Peter Robinson: Eighty percent or so.

Garry Wills: Yeah.

Rod Dreher: …but when has it ever been proclaimed to them? As a convert, I had to go out and learn everything the Church taught about sexuality on my own.

Peter Robinson: I was thinking it over. Okay, here we have teaching on contraception, abortion and divorce. In the last twenty years, which is a lot of homilies if you go to church on Sundays, I have heard the teaching proclaimed from the pulpit on those three matters respectively, zero, twice and zero.

Father Joseph Fessio: I've heard that a lot but you know something?

Peter Robinson: What?

Father Joseph Fessio: Everybody knows what the Church's teaching is on those things. I mean, you think there's…

Peter Robinson: Yeah but you know what they don't know? They don't know whether the Church is serious about it.

Peter Robinson: This is the whole point of Humanae Vitae. If you've got priests who don't preach it and bishops who let them not--then what enters into it is a lack of seriousness. There's a gap between the teaching and actual practice and it's okay. And people then are drawn to the position of Dr. Garry Wills. You see you have a lot to refute here, Father.

Peter Robinson: Let me ask our guests to summarize the legacy of John Paul II and to describe the qualities they'd like to see in his successor.

Title: Papa Don't Preach?

Peter Robinson: Clare Booth Luce once said, in fact she said it quite a lot, she was famous for saying it, that "history has time to give each great man only one sentence. Lincoln freed the slaves, Churchill defeated Hitler." If you applied it to Popes, you'd say John XXIII called the Second Council, Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. What sentence will history accord to John Paul II? Garry?

Garry Wills: He was tragically traditional.

Peter Robinson: Father?

Father Joseph Fessio: I'm not a prophet.

Peter Robinson: Rod?

Rod Dreher: He helped bring down communism. He stood up to the culture of death but he was tragically flawed by being clericalist.

Peter Robinson: Okay, next set of questions. The Pope is gone. You gentlemen are now Cardinals meeting in conclave. In fact, it's the day before the conclave is to begin and you're wandering those beautiful halls in the Vatican, enjoying the Roman breezes and trying to figure out what the next Pope ought to look like. Give me a few characteristics.

Rod Dreher: He needs to be willing to govern the Church before anything else. We've had a magnificent teaching pontificate. Now we need someone to actually get the Church in line.

Peter Robinson: You want a master sergeant?

Rod Dreher: I want a master sergeant. I want somebody to knock heads.

Peter Robinson: Somehow I don't think you'll agree. Garry?

Garry Wills: I want a pastor who engages in dialogue with all of the Church.

Peter Robinson: All right, that's almost the opposite of what Rod wants. You want a talker. He wants a doer.

Garry Wills: I want an accountable hierarchian Pope.

Rod Dreher: I do too. I do too.

Peter Robinson: Father?

Father Joseph Fessio: Well, I think we want different results but I think we may want some of the same procedures. And to me, one of the most important tasks a person has as an administrator or a person who governs someone is who he appoints. So if the Pope is open to dialogue and appoints others to help him who are open to dialogue, then you'll have a Church where there is more dialogue and I would like to see the laity much more involved. If we had councils of laity that were--that had access to the documents that the bishops have access to, we wouldn't have all this secrecy. However, where I think we disagree is I think to be on that council you have to accept the paragraphs of the catechism that are on the contentious issues, contraception, homosexuality and ordination of women. If you accept those, you're on the council.

Garry Wills: You've reduced the laymen who can serve to two percent. That's the ones who agree with you on contraception.

Father Joseph Fessio: You're way off on that. I'm sorry.

Peter Robinson: Garry, so what do you want--I am a little confused here. Here's something you have to--maybe the two of you can help me construe the position. You have undoubtedly in your pastoral work; you've encountered the thinking of Garry Wills perhaps. The reason he will not leave Rome for Canterbury is the Pope, the potential for energy for a unifying force and sanctity that Rome provides. But when the Pope says something with which Dr. Wills disagrees--you really are limiting the teaching authority of the Pope right?

Garry Wills: Oh very much. You know, the Pope had very little to do with teaching authority for many centuries. The creed, the canon, the first bishops, the Pope had nothing to do with those.

Peter Robinson: Locate the next Pope on the spectrum from John Paul II to Queen Elizabeth, that is to say, a pure figurehead. She's the head of the Church of England but nobody even expects--they'd be outraged if she voiced any opinions at all on Church doctrine. Where do you want the next Pope to be?

Garry Wills: Well he's always going to be a center of contention and he's always going to be teaching. Sometimes he's going to be wrong but he's going to be a figure of authority, unity and the bond of love.

Peter Robinson: Rod?

Rod Dreher: I want a Pope who values orthodoxy more than unity. Again I think in this crisis, we've seen what valuing unity and no dispute has brought the American Church to. We're living a lie. And either what the Church teaches is true or it isn't. And if it's true then there should be consequences for those who strongly dispute that or who will not teach and stand up for what the Church teaches. I want to see frankly an authoritarian.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Rod Dreher: I do.

Garry Wills: Okay.

Father Joseph Fessio: You know, I don't think it makes much difference. I hope we get a good Pope who has all the qualities that will unite people and so on. But our ability to love Jesus Christ and serve him in the Church is not dependent upon who the next Pope is.

Peter Robinson: Last question, any advice for the next Pope on reforming the Church here in America?

Title: Papal Bully Pulpit

Peter Robinson: The new Pope has now been selected--elected, excuse me, and to your astonishment and delight, he sends a Swiss guard over to your room at the Vatican and he wants a private meeting with you. What do you tell the new Pope must be done concerning the Church and the United States? Father?

Father Joseph Fessio: Read Garry Wills' book and do what you can to stop those kinds of ideas.


Peter Robinson: Garry, you actually want teaching overturned, don't you?

Garry Wills: Sure. Sure.

Peter Robinson: And is that what you'd tell him?

Garry Wills: And it has been in the past and it always should be. People were sent to hell for taking interest on loans. That's a matter of faith and morals and it was wrong and we know it was wrong. The idea that the Pope is always right is simply not historically feasible.

Father Joseph Fessio: That question has been debated over and over again and once again, you're presenting a caricature.

Garry Wills: Well, it's easy to assert.

Father Joseph Fessio: It is, just like you asserted the opposite. So let's both make our assertions and go on.

Rod Dreher: I think the next Pope should require--make a public statement asking for resignation of every single bishop in the United States and reappointing those who are good. I really do.

Father Joseph Fessio: I don't believe in this Pope--papal centralism... I think that's not good. You want to get at certain ends and you're willing to accept a papal monarchy to do it and I'm not willing to do that. I'd rather accept the messiness of what we've got right now. And I want a more pastoral Pope…

Peter Robinson: I thought you said you wanted the Pope to act as king--priest, prophet and king.

Father Joseph Fessio: That doesn't mean asking the resignations of all the bishops. The bishops are not branch offices for the Pope, you know. I mean there is a college here and things must be done in a sense of the apostolic college. You just can't act that way.

Garry Wills: For once I agree with you. He should be a king but not a despot.

Peter Robinson: What structure then does the teaching Church--several times you've used the phrase "the teaching Church" that is the Pope and who else? You don't want the Pope clearly to have the authority to teach on his own.

Garry Wills: No, I want the whole of the people of God to adhere to the creed, to the central saving truths and it has done that. One of the good things about the papacy is that Catholics have, in general, been far more united about the essential truths of the faith, the ones that we pledged ourselves to at baptism, the incarnation, the resurrection, the judgment, life everlasting. All of those things have been served very well by the whole body of the faithful. And sometimes that meant the laity remaining more true than the hierarchy as Newman said about Aryanism. I believe in the spirit guiding the Church. I just don't think that the Church is only the Pope. He's part of it. He's an important part of it.

Father Joseph Fessio: He's the head of the college, which has the authoritative role of proclaiming the truths which Catholics must believe.

Garry Wills: No, that's not true.

Father Joseph Fessio: Well, it is true.

Garry Wills: The teaching authority came very late.

Father Joseph Fessio: No, no. It was…

Garry Wills: The councils called by the eastern emperors that defined incarnation, the relationship of the spirit to the Father and the Son. The Pope had nothing to do with that. In fact…

Father Joseph Fessio: He certainly did have something to do with it. He ratified it.

Garry Wills: …a late addition to the Pope Filioque was put in by Charlemagne over the objections of the Pope. So the idea that the Pope is kind of an oracle of all Catholic truths is simply not true.

Father Joseph Fessio: Well, I don't say he's an oracle separated from the college of which he's the head. But the fact is the Vatican Council, which I believe, you accept, and the doctrine of the Church does say he say he has full, universal power.

Peter Robinson: Last question. George Weigel again, "John Paul II radically recast the papacy for the twenty-first century." Do you buy it?

Rod Dreher: Yeah, I mean look, he's been so visible. He's been to every corner of the earth. He's been a master of the media. I feel sorry for the next guy has to follow the Pope's act. I mean he's been a tremendous evangelist.

Peter Robinson: Garry?

Garry Wills: Well, he has for his period. I don't know for the later period. As I said earlier, if he had died six months ago, that might have been true. I think when he dies now, people are going to go into that conclave scared, scared at what's happened to their Church, scared at the loss of the laity, scared at the loss of accountability. And I think they're going to be very…

Peter Robinson: Because of the scandal in the United States?

Garry Wills: No, because of what that revealed about the whole Church.

Peter Robinson: Father?

Father Joseph Fessio: Well, I don't think any Pope recasts papacy for another century. I mean Popes are, by definition, people who have risen to a certain height because they've got personalities and they've got abilities and skills and so the next papacy will be shaped by the next Pope.

Peter Robinson: Father Fessio, Garry Wills, Rod Dreher, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.