The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell
November 14, 2004
Religion: The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell
POPE IN WINTER: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy
by John Cornwell
Viking £20 pp310
It is startling to look back over the present papacy, and measure just how far the Roman Catholic Church has fallen. John Cornwell’s The Pope in Winter, with its blunt subtitle, begins with a retrospective. It has to. These days, when the faithful of all religions are regarded with suspicion, and the Catholic Church is mired in scandal, it is easy to forget that this pope’s influence once reached out far beyond the Vatican.
In the beginning, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even atheists admired John Paul. He was the Princess Diana of popes; the People’s Pope. The first non-Italian pontiff in donkey’s years was a charismatic Pole, who had suffered under the Nazis and kept up a constant battle with Poland’s Soviet oppressors. He was a man who made peace seem possible. His emotional sermons, delivered before vast and adoring crowds, made Catholicism look vibrant and glamorous. He firmly supported the Solidarity trade union movement that was to liberate the Polish people and light the fuse of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia.
The image of that white-clad figure, stooping to kiss the tarmac when he arrived in each new country, is now as dated as padded shoulders. These days, people think less of John Paul’s contribution to the ending of the cold war, and more of his dogmatism, narrow-mindedness and sheer wrong-headedness. At what point, Cornwell asks, did he stop being the white hope of the world, and start turning into the stubborn old martinet who won’t allow his priests to fight the spread of Aids with condoms? How did the man who once carried a starving Jewish girl on his back for 3km become the man who betrayed countless young people by supporting priests he knew to be abusers?
He was born Karol Wojtyla in 1920, in Wadowice. His mother died when he was nine. His father, a stern former NCO, was imbued with a typically Polish devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Cornwell vividly describes the bizarre, theatrical flavour of the local worship — for instance, following an open coffin containing an effigy of the dead Virgin before her Assumption into heaven. You don’t need to be Dr Freud to wonder about the effect this had on the motherless boy. Karol adored the Virgin, and he remains convinced that her personal intervention has, on several occasions, saved his life.
During the war, he was knocked down by a truck and came perilously close to death. In 1981, a Turkish assassin, probably working for the Bulgarian government, took a shot at him in St Peter’s Square. John Paul is still certain that the “motherly hand” of Mary kept the bullet away from his vital organs. For Poles of JP2’s generation, Cornwell explains, a love for the Virgin is inextricably bound up with patriotism — remember the gaudy “holy Virgin pen” with which Lech Walesa used to sign papers in the glory days of Solidarity? She was the symbol and figurehead of the Polish revolution. It was a mistake for the faithful to assume, however, that John Paul would support any other revolutions — particularly if they were happening inside the Church, and threatened to erode his traditional power base.
The second half of this book, once the history has been dealt with, addresses the problems of the present, issue by issue. More in sorrow than anger, Cornwell catalogues JP2’s apparent contempt for women, his refusal to listen to his embattled grassroots, his production-line of dodgy saints, his stubborn opposition to contraception and — above everything — his total failure to deal with the sex-abuse scandal that threatens to bankrupt Holy Mother Church, as well as covering her in shame. Cornwell points out that the offenders were not paedophiles molesting infants, but the facts are grim enough: 80% of the victims were boys, aged 13 and up, and their abusers used them cynically, sure that they would get away with treating schools and seminaries as their private gay brothels. Time and again, John Paul has protected (and sometimes promoted) priests who should have been instantly defrocked. The instinct, inside the Vatican, is to cover up. Cornwell’s is to expose, as a matter of urgency.
The spiritual leader of a billion Catholics is now an ailing and confused old man, who may even be suffering from paranoia and psychosis caused by his Parkinson’s disease. In the absence of proper leadership, says Cornwell, his Polish secretary and a handful of “ageing reactionary cardinals” are running the Church. John Paul’s pain-racked, palsied old body is wheeled about on casters, his voice a shadow of its old, booming self. Yet he is still here, clinging to life. Without putting it into so many words, Cornwell warns that unless the poor old soul dies soon, the Catholic Church will disintegrate around him. “John Paul’s successor will inherit a dysfunctional Church fraught with problems . . . A progressive pope, a papal Mikhail Gorbachev, could find himself presiding over a sudden and disastrous schism as conservatives refuse to accept the authenticity of progressive reforms.”
But can a pope retire? Can a retired pope coexist with a current pope? And (if the worst comes to the worst) what is the protocol if a pope loses his mind? Cornwell has a detailed knowledge of the Vatican’s inner workings. He writes with an obvious respect for the Church, but that does not stop him asking some extremely awkward questions. His book is immaculately researched and his conclusions are deeply disturbing. The Pope in Winter should be read by every Roman Catholic, and by every other variety of Christian. We are all connected, whether or not we care to admit it, and if Rome falls, she will bring the whole lot down with her.
Is he on the side of the angels?
Damian Thompson reviews The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell
These days there is an easy way of pigeonholing Catholic commentators: ask them about Pope John Paul II's mental faculties. Conservatives insist that his intellect remains as sharp as ever. Liberals dwell - sometimes gloatingly - on rumours that Parkinson's Disease has enveloped the pontiff in a fog so dense that he scarcely knows where he is.
No one can claim that it does not matter: the 84-year-old Pope is the spiritual and administrative leader of a community of a billion souls. What is less clear is whether his current state of mind is relevant to his place in history; after all, we do not judge Churchill by his embarrassing last days in office. The back cover of The Pope in Winter focuses on its subject's alleged depression, blank episodes and paranoia. This is the peg on which John Cornwell hangs "the case for the prosecution": the first biography of John Paul II to argue that he has done more harm than good.
The book is a hatchet job, and for that reason many Catholics will dismiss its reports of geriatric confusion. Alas, they ring true. George Carey recently revealed that, as long ago as 1997, the Pope had to be reminded who had written one of his own encyclicals. Last year, he forgot the location of the basilica of St John Lateran. "The memory lapse was equivalent to the Queen asking where Windsor Castle is," says Cornwell - a cheap shot, perhaps, but one that hits its target.
The Pope is not senile, but he wanders in and out of lucidity. He is presumably aware of this, so why does he not retire? His answer is that Jesus did not climb down from his cross. As an explanation, that would work better if the Pope were suffering from a purely physical illness, as opposed to one that corrodes the brain. It also supports one of Cornwell's more credible charges: that John Paul is self-important.
"He is by no means as humble as he appears," admits his friend, the philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. There are hints of personal vanity, too: he is the first pope to wear contact lenses.
John Paul has been a guru for half a century. As a priest-academic in 1950s Poland, he won plaudits for his fusion of modern philosophy and medieval dogmatics. John Cornwell is less impressed. "A poorly reconciled mixture of phenomenological ducking and weaving and scholastic goosestepping," he calls it.
Cornwell himself is an odd combination of Cambridge don and sensationalist hack, and that artful line captures the flavour of this biography: it contains a measure of truth but also a journalist's subliminal trick - the word "goosestepping". Later, Cornwell refers to the then Cardinal Wojtyla's innocent friendship with Tymieniecka as a "relationship", emphasises how sexy she is, and labels her husband "complaisant". None of which will surprise Cornwell-watchers: this is a man who, while exonerating Pius XII of Nazi sympathies, nevertheless entitled his book about him Hitler's Pope.
Karol Wojtyla's intellect was forged by tyranny. He spent the war as a forced labourer in a quarry, risking his life by studying for ordination: the Nazis killed 2,500 Polish priests. Cornwell says this explains the Pope's contempt for priests who leave the ministry. That makes sense, as does his suggestion that the success of the millennium of Polish Christianity in 1966 led John Paul to overestimate the significance of the year 2000.
These early pages of The Pope in Winter are sympathetic, but even here there is a suspicion of facts being manipulated. According to Cornwell, John Paul once told a crowd that, when he was a teenager, the Virgin Mary granted him "special interviews", a claim that, if true, might explain his supposed egomania. But I can find no other trace of the story, and John Paul's most authoritative biographer, George Weigel, insists that it is rubbish: what the Pope told the crowd was that he and his fellow students had been granted "audiences" by Mary - ie, that she listened to their prayers. That is not the same thing at all.
Cornwell's record of John Paul II's pontificate is often grotesquely biased. Again and again, traditional Catholic doctrine is presented as some frightful reactionary innovation by this Pope and blamed for problems that would have arisen anyway, such as the decline in Mass attendance. Cornwell even tries to take the shine off John Paul's victory over Communism with a dig at his ally Ronald Reagan. We are told that, in the office of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, there were files on dead children whose murderers were "trained by Reagan's compatriots". How typically snide: Romero was killed before Reagan's election.
So unfair is Cornwell to his subject that, paradoxically, he distracts attention from the Pope's genuine failures. The Church's cover-up of clerical paedophilia was scandalous, and John Paul must bear some responsibility for it. But the actual abuse reached its peak decades ago, during the pontificate of Paul VI. Cornwell blurs the distinction between the cover-up and the original crimes and, true to form, pins much of the blame for the abuse on John Paul's high doctrine of the priest hood and centralising policies. (Throughout the book, he ludicrously overstates the extent of Vatican central isation. If the Pope insists on appointing every bishop in his own mould, why are there so many apologetic liberals among the English hierarchy?)
Far from exposing "the dark face of John Paul II's papacy", The Pope in Winter reveals the degree to which Cornwell's prejudices interfere with his judgment. This is a pity, because A Thief in the Night, his demolition of the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of John Paul I, was a model of impartiality. Something has gone wrong in the 15 years since it was published: Cornwell's liberalism has hardened into groin-kicking intolerance.
As a result, this new book is indeed a record of intellectual decline, but not quite in the way that its author intended.
Damian Thompson is editor-in-chief of the Catholic Herald.
The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell
Cold war in a controlled Church
By Catherine Pepinster
12 November 2004
When Mehmet Ali Agca fired his gun in St Peter's Square on 13 May 1981, it nearly changed the course of history. Acga was just nine feet away from Pope John Paul II, and must have felt certain he would kill his target. But the Pope moved as the shot rang out, and although seriously injured by the bullet that tore through his abdomen, he recovered.
Incidents like this always attract theories, be they conspiracy or cock-up, but this one also inspired belief in divine, or at least near-divine, intervention. For the Pope himself is convinced that Mary, the Mother of God, intervened and saved him, just as predicted in the third secret of Fatima - which, stored away in the Vatican, he read after his recovery.
The reader can sense the incredulity of John Cornwell when reading his account of this moment. It is not, however, the incredulity of an atheist, or a Protestant appalled by Papish tricks, but the disbelief of a particular kind of Catholic: a man who had once lost his faith, found it again, but is appalled by much about the Church that he loves.
Cornwell's ideal is the Catholic Church imagined by the Second Vatican council, when fresh air blew through Rome's musty corridors. The Council promised bishops a greater authority, the laity more say, and brought nuns and monks out of the cloister. Then came John Paul II: the first non-Italian Pope for nearly 500 years, who not only believes in his vocation but, particularly since that bungled assassination, believes in his destiny to save the Church.
Every Pope influences the Church, but John Paul II bestrides it. The length of his papacy - 26 years - has much to do with it, but so has the force of his personality and the authoritarian nature of his leadership. The doors opened by Vatican II may not have clanged shut, but they are creaking on their hinges again.
John Paul is a man of his time, a Pole who suffered under the two tyrannies of Nazism and Communism. First as a cardinal in Poland and later as Pope, his opposition to Communism is widely perceived as crucial to the downfall of such regimes across Eastern Europe.
Yet his demand for religious liberty under the Communists has not been matched by a similar commitment to freedom in the Church. Cornwell highlights the withdrawal of teaching licences from leading theologians and the rejection of even discussion of women's ordination.
The use of contraception, which the Pope saw as equivalent to abortion, was also condemned. It was as if the man who once broke stones in a Polish quarry was intent on breaking the confidence of those he saw as errant in the Church. Cornwell reserves his greatest criticism for two issues: the Church's response to Aids and the sexual abuse crisis. Time and time again, the Church sought to cover up abuse cases, rejecting the complaints of victims and refusing to admit the problem.
According to Cornwell, John Paul was slow to act but had also weakened the power and morale of local bishops so that they failed to take any initiative. The Vatican also held on to its views on Aids, rejecting the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of the disease.
These troubles come at the end of John Paul's pontificate, as the Pope declines in health and, according to Cornwell, is no longer in charge of his Church of a billion souls. John Paul II will certainly go down in history as one of the dominant figures of his age, but as much for his achievements as for the failures, which Cornwell so devastatingly records in an account which is more polemic than biography.
Yet these achievements - the rejection of Soviet atheistic materialism, and disdain for Western greed and hedonism, which keeps so many people in poverty - do not merit the same weight. Whether this papacy will be seen as triumph or disaster, or more likely a mixture of both, will be for history to decide. This account will be useful reading for those who attempt to make that judgement.
Catherine Pepinster is editor of 'The Tablet', the Catholic weekly
Sat 27 Nov 2004
THE POPE IN WINTER: THE DARK FACE OF JOHN PAUL’S LEGACY
BY JOHN CORNWELL
THE AUTUMN YEARS OF A PATRIARCH should find him resting from the daily slog, adopting a philosophical attitude towards encroaching illness and basking in the knowledge of his lasting legacy.
As the 84-year-old pontiff of the world’s one billion Catholics, John Paul II has reached his autumn - indeed, his winter - without playing by the rules. He won’t let up on his punishing schedule and is locked in combat against an ever more debilitating form of Parkinson’s. As for his legacy, it is under constant attack from critics who regard Karol Wojtyla as a dangerous dictator rather than a world spiritual leader.
Among the Pope’s most unforgiving critics is John Cornwell, a Catholic writer and Vatican-watcher whose liberal sensibilities have long been outraged by the ultra-traditionalist stance of the present Pope. In this book, more the chronicle of an extraordinary pontificate than the biography of an extraordinary man, Cornwell depicts the Pope’s 25-year term as a tumultuous, oppressive regime and John Paul II as a sinister player in global power-politics.
If Karol Wojtyla’s papacy truly had a crisis point, it came in early 2000 when the issue of paedophile priests was first raised in the United States, with a lawsuit against the Catholic Church by a former seminarian who had been sexually abused. A succession of high-profile international sex-abuse cases followed, these exposing not only the repeated violation by priests of their charges (students, choirboys or altar boys) but the Church’s slow and confused response to such outrages.
Scandals that could have been stamped out by a leader immediately calling for the rigorous investigation of individual allegations, and the harsh punishment of offending priests, have instead been allowed to malinger, drawing accusations of a systematic cover-up within the Church.
In Africa, John Paul II has repeatedly refused to countenance the use of condoms, even when faced with the spread of HIV-AIDS, thus seemingly abandoning Africans, in their millions, to a lethal epidemic. Elsewhere, he continues his intransigent opposition to birth control of any kind, divorce, homosexuality, IVF treatment, and to married and women priests. Huge swathes of the Catholic community are in this way made to feel excluded.
Cornwell’s analysis of these lowpoints convinces in its measured tone and abundance of facts. There can be no denying that the Church’s mishandling of its sex scandals has made priests, in many people’s eyes, synonymous with paedophiles. (One result of this is the dramatic fall in vocations, with Ireland, once the seedbed of Catholic priesthood, boasting only one vocation last year.) Equally, the advance in Africa of the Protestant evangelical churches cannot fail to be connected to the Catholic Church’s teaching on condom use. And Catholics who cannot meet the Pope’s exacting standards of sexual morality are withdrawing from the church in record numbers, turning a once-thriving community into a shrinking one.
And yet, as even Cornwell acknowledges, John Paul II will go down in history for playing a pivotal role in freeing millions from the yoke of totalitarian rule. This was true not only in his native Poland, where Karol Wojtyla worked covertly and indefatigably to bring down the Soviet-backed regime, but also in Latin America, where he exhorted the people of Haiti, Nicaragua and the Philippines to cast off their oppressive dictators. With his popular appeal (kneeling on the Tarmac to kiss the ground upon arrival, kissing children at al fresco Masses) and his carefully orchestrated globe-trotting visits, John Paul II brought religion to the masses, turning himself into the world’s most recognised figure in the process.
His tireless campaign to cancel Third World debt, rein in the market and temper our civilisation of greed have made him the most visible and influential champion of the poor across the world. And his impassioned interventions against war - whether in the Balkans or in Iraq - have won him the grudging respect of many secularists who would otherwise condemn him out of hand.
John Paul II is, in fact, a tremendously complex human being, a leader of unquestioned abilities whose blind spots have caused him to stumble along the way. Cornwell seeks to reduce this larger-than-life man to a one-dimensional caricature of an autocrat. It doesn’t work. The freedom-fighting champion of the marginalised and dispossessed keeps breaking out of the tight little corner into which Cornwell would paint him.
Certainly, unlike most of the Church’s secular critics, Cornwell knows his business; he has met the Pope several times and maintains excellent contacts with the Vatican - especially with one Vatican prelate, dubbed Monsignor Sotto Voce, who willingly trades curial secrets for a good bottle of wine and a roast suckling pig. But despite the fact that Cornwell’s re-examination of public debates and revelation of private differences shed light on Karol Wojtyla’s thinking and modus vivendi, the strain of trying to shoehorn his subject into a simplistic category shows. This makes it difficult to read The Pope in Winter without wondering about the real story, one that in Cornwell’s acidulous book remains untold.
Saturday 27 November 2004
They knew they were
Reviewed by William Oddie
Blessed Pius IX
Pope Pius IX, to the ‘liberal’ mind, is the archetypal Catholic reactionary. When the present Pope beatified him, it was seen by his own critics inside the Church (a dwindling but, as John Cornwell’s latest anti-papal offensive demonstrates, increasingly ill-tempered band) as the final proof of their now largely discredited claim that the underlying purpose of John Paul’s pontificate has been to reverse the reforms of the second Vatican Council and to ‘restore’ the Church to what the first Vatican Council, the Council of Pio Nono, had made it.
The fretful tone of such attacks is conveyed faithfully enough in Cornwell’s The Pope in Winter, which is subtitled ‘The Dark Face of John Paul’s Papacy’ (though he makes it plain enough that he doesn’t think there is much of a light face). Predictably, Pio Nono is one article of indictment:
An early item of poor judgment and the presumptuous influence of reactionary aides,’ he charges, ‘was the announcement made by the pope …. that Pius IX, Pio Nono, was to be beatified in the autumn of the jubilee year …. He was chiefly famous for calling the First Vatican Council, which declared the dogma of papal infallibility and papal primacy, although he was known for his infamous Syllabus of Errors which denounced democracy, pluralism, workers’ unions and newspapers. A fine exemplar for the 21st century to be sure!’
Such writing (a typical enough specimen of the general level of Cornwell’s analysis throughout) is so crass, and at so many levels, that it is difficult to know where to begin. We are told that Vatican I ‘declared the dogma of papal infallibility and papal primacy’, as though they were the same thing. But papal primacy, from the earliest centuries, had been taken for granted: it was no purpose of the Council to ‘declare’ it. As for papal infallibility, that too was widely believed; Vatican I simply defined it formally. The controversy was whether its definition at the time was ‘opportune’: the implication that the reactionary Pio Nono somehow invented this doctrine ex nihilo and then imposed it, and that this indictment, by extension, applies also to John Paul II, is simply laughable. As for the Syllabus of Errors, not one article of it mentions democracy, workers’ unions or newspapers, and if it rejects ‘pluralism’ (not a concept anyone at the time was familiar with) it is mostly in the sense that any religion which claims to be true rather than a matter of opinion rejects it. Pio Nono was certainly intolerant of other religions, but with few exceptions so, at the time, was nearly everyone else.
Cornwell’s book is an unashamed (though clumsy) hatchet job; Roberto de Mattei’s Blessed Pius IX is unambiguously hagiographical. This has its obvious dis- advantages: a bias in favour of one’s subject ought in theory to cast doubts on the reliability of one’s analysis as much as, say, Cornwell’s obsessive loathing for John Paul II certainly discredits his. Roberto de Mattei, however, is a scholar who declares his sources (Cornwell rarely gives sources — there are no notes — and seems to rely mainly on Vatican tittle-tattle, particularly on a single informant he cutely names ‘Monsignor Sotto Voce’).
Pio Nono emerges from Professor de Mattei’s study (ably translated by a regular Spectator contributor, John Laughland) as a more complex and attractive figure than the received caricature of him as the obscurantist and obdurately pigheaded ‘prisoner of the Vatican’. Not only his opposition to the unification of Italy, but his insistence that the Pope’s temporal powers were necessary to the free exercise of his spiritual authority become not merely defensible but (however mistaken with the benefit of hindsight) perfectly rational when the historical context which formed so many of his attitudes is given its proper weight. The ‘black legend’, according to which he was ‘the enemy of Italy’, in stark contrast to the great heroes of the Risorgimento — Vittorio Emmanuele, Cavour, Garibaldi, Mazzini — becomes entirely comprehensible if we remember the extreme and vindictive secularism of these progressives and ‘liberals’. In 1872 Vittorio Emmanuele signed a law which provided for the expulsion of all religious from their monasteries and convents; 476 houses were confiscated, and 12,669 religious were dispersed. In 1873, the faculties of theology were suppressed in all universities, and seminaries placed under government control; the following year, all priests in Rome were forced into military service.
Under the circumstances, the famous article 80 of the Syllabus — which condemns as an error the proposition (with which, presumably, Cornwell would enthusiastically agree) that ‘the Roman Pontiff may and ought to reconcile himself to, and to agree with, progress, liberalism and modern civilisation’ — seems reasonable enough; it might be added that it is also entirely relevant to our own times: as the present Pope has often said, Christians today are called on to be ‘Signs of Contradiction’. Article 80, in fact, sums up succinctly the real point at issue between the Church and the modern world. Here is the basis, not only of Pio Nono’s kulturkampf with Bismarck and the Risorgimento, but of so many cultural battles down the years — of Chesterton’s struggle against eugenics or Lech Walesa’s against the Polish state, for example, or in our own time of Rocco Buttiglione’s rejection by the European parliament, or the American Catholic bishops’ disapproval of Senator Kerry.
Historically, the problem of the Catholic Church in the 19th century was to protect its own independence from the power of the state, not only in Italy but throughout Europe. The ultimate aim of ultra- montanism, with which Pio Nono is so closely (and mostly polemically) identified today, was to free the Church from national secular control by binding it more closely to a supranational papacy. In this, the movement was largely successful; it can also be argued that it left the Church in a more fit condition for its 20th-century resistance to totalitarianisms of both Left and Right. Pio Nono’s resistance to the Risorgimento was a useful preparatory exercise for John Paul’s more massive achievement in his epic confrontation with communism. Without a strong and supranational papacy could the Soviet bloc have been brought down as soon as it was? Discuss.
in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II
By John Cornwell
Doubleday; 352 pages; $24.95
Published in Britain as “The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II's Papacy”. Penguin/Viking; £20
For God's sake
Dec 9th 2004
From The Economist print edition
JOHN CORNWELL, author of a new life of Pope John Paul II, would have made a fine devil's advocate when the pope's name is one day advanced for sainthood. Unfortunately, he will not be chosen, for John Paul II himself, some two decades ago, scrapped the custom of having a devout Catholic question the virtues of a candidate for beatification or canonisation. The old job of devil's advocate is now, in effect, performed by committee.
Devil's advocates were supposed to be fair-minded, and in the past Mr Cornwell, a prolific writer on Catholic matters, has at times been anything but. As he admits, “Hitler's Pope” (1999), his biography of Pope Pius XII, lacked balance. “I would now argue,” he says, “in the light of the debates and evidence following ‘Hitler's Pope', that Pius XII had so little scope of action that it is impossible to judge the motives for his silence during the war, while Rome was under the heel of Mussolini and later occupied by the Germans.”
Chastened by this experience, Mr Cornwell is now a better biographer. In this life of John Paul II, he celebrates his subject's achievements as well as deploring the mistakes. The pope's heroism is affirmed. As a young would-be priest in occupied Poland, Karol Wojtyla was not intimidated by Nazi efforts to liquidate the Catholic clergy. A priest under Communism, he was again courageous. When the Soviet system imploded, “few would dispute that the inexorable and bloodless process had been initiated by the Polish pope.”
Unfortunately, as Mr Cornwell sees it, the siege mentality that enabled Polish Catholics to survive persecution has carried over into John Paul II's papacy. The pope presents himself as a reformist in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, and indeed he reveals himself as such in many things—in “liturgy, focus on scripture, outreach to the world, compassion for the poor and disenfranchised.” Overall, though, John Paul II is an authoritarian rather than a collegial pope, Mr Cornwell says. He has centralised power in the Vatican where, in his dotage, it is increasingly exercised by reactionary cardinals.
Here the biographer almost gives way to despair. The astonishing feature of John Paul's campaign against condoms has been the lack of public dissent by the bishops, even though many bishops privately disagree with the pope. The same, the author complains, goes for the pope's stands on married clergy, homosexuality and women priests, and for his willingness to meet such sinners as George Bush (whose re-election chances were perhaps boosted) and Tariq Aziz, then Saddam Hussein's deputy (thereby validating a deeply nasty regime). And by resolutely strengthening the centre during his papacy, Mr Cornwell says, John Paul II has demoralised the periphery into sullen silence.
In referring to the “periphery”, Mr Cornwell overreaches himself. He is really interested only in those of the world's 1 billion Catholics who are liberal westerners like himself. John Allen, an admirably objective American journalist, has a broader perspective. The pope, he notes, has to ponder not just how something will play in Peoria, but also in Pretoria, Beijing and São Paulo. Westerners, especially Americans, he notes, often want to do things in their own way, and see opposition from Rome as a form of oppression. But from Rome's point of view it often seems the reverse—it is saving the rest of the church from being involuntarily “Americanised”.
Like John Paul II, members of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, strive to “think in centuries”. They believe that the Catholic church will still be around when Communism and Nazism are footnotes in history books and when George Bush and Tariq Aziz and even John Paul II are forgotten. They accept reform, but usually only after thinking about it long and hard. Mr Cornwell's despair is premature.
The Washington Times
By Julia Duin
Published January 2, 2005
It's not often you get a thoughtful theological book from
a businessman and philanthropist but
Texan Howard E. Butt, Jr. (Who Can You Trust?:
Overcoming Fear and Betrayal, Waterbrook, $13.99, 189
pages), founder of Layman's Leadership Institutes for Christian business
professionals, has produced a solid one. Mr. Butt also founded Laity Lodge, a
riverfront retreat center west of San Antonio.
His nearly 200-page paperback, produced by a rising new Christian publisher, tackles a common problem with believer and nonbeliever alike: how do you piece together your life after someone (or several someones) have betrayed you? Worse, how do you go on when it's God who's done the betraying?
Most Christian titles come up with platitudes when faced with this dilemma; Mr. Butt goes better than that with some useful suggestions. He warns against falling into the same trap as did Adam and Eve -- believing that God is holding out on the believer -- and instead affirming interiorly that God is for, not against His followers. "We cannot see it," he writes, but internally we're the scene of a constant war over whether God is trustworthy and reliable or not."
Doubting God, he explains, leads to a downward spiral of despair. But trusting Him -- and in the Christian's ability to hear Him through intuition as well as Scripture -- leads to hope. Very few evangelical Christian books deal with using intuitive thinking to discern the will of God, and Mr. Butt should be credited with having the guts to do so.
Finally a book about the plight of religious single women. This book by Ruchama King, Seven Blessings, (St. Martin's, $23.95, 258 pages), about older singles in Jerusalem and the matchmakers who try to get them to marry each other, was a delight to read. The author really gets it in terms of how hard it is to find a mate past the witching age of 30, when what's available and what's desirable both take sharp downward turns.
The author spent a year among Jerusalem matchmakers researching her novel, whose central character, Beth, is the target of many earnest efforts to hook her up with a man, any man, "as if her single status were a blight on the Jewish family landscape," she thinks, "conveying something profoundly wrong with her." Finding a man who is religiously passionate, as is she, yet physically desirable, is not easy, plus, her married female friends tend only to pour salt on her wounds. The awful dates she gets matched up with are of little help as well.
Beth's dilemma, which mirrors that of many Christian women as well, does get resolved in a believable way. What's bittersweet about this narrative is how, at the announcement of her engagement, she receives a flood of love and acceptance from her married friends that was denied her as a single. The author's insights into orthodox Jewish life and human nature in general make this novel well worth reading.
The beatified afterlife is not something overly written about in literature, as its delights are supposed to be indescribable. Randy Alcorn's Heaven (Tyndale House, $22.99, 478 pages), written from a Reformed Protestant perspective, tries to map out heaven's details: what its inhabitants will eat, think about and use their leisure time for. The author tackles theological questions such as: Will we drink coffee in heaven (yes); will we have sex (no) and will our pets live again (yes).
The book is almost like an encyclopedia on the after life. Mr. Alcorn has some interesting theories, such the layout of heaven's streets and how heaven is divided into an intermediate heaven, which is where the saved now dwell, and an eternal heaven, which will come into being after the Second Coming.
The intermediate heaven, he says, is like a parallel universe, invisible to earthlings but a true unseen realm that co-exists. So, too, is hell and sometimes humans get glimpses of both. The major point of the book is that heaven will be an exciting, likeable place, not a continuous harp-playing marathon touted on greeting cards or cartoons. Nor will it be like an endless church service, he says, using Bible texts to prove his case that people will lead normal lives there, enjoy laughter, merriment and endless beauty.
The book's faults lie in the author throwing in long quotes from his own novels about heaven, which gives a self-serving impression. The author also imagines heaven will be somewhat like a continuation of the family lives we've known on Earth; a kind of Protestant work ethic kind of heaven. That's a pleasant thought for people lucky enough to have had families or children, but not so pleasant for those who died young, or who never married or had offspring. There's no sense in this book that the scales will be balanced; that the first will be last and the last first; that is, the ones who had it all here will take a back seat up there to the rejected, the homeless, the lonely and the sick.
It was inevitable that someone should, in the declining days of John Paul II's papacy, copy a title from the 1968 movie, "The Lion in Winter," starring Peter O'Toole, to draw out the suspense of how long the ailing pope will live. In The Pontiff in Winter (Doubleday, $24.95, 307 pages), John Cornwell, a papal historian best known for his expose of Pope Pius XII in the recent book "Hitler's Pope," has done part analysis and part mini hatchet job on the current pontiff. He offers an understandable and cogent summation of the first two decades of John Paul's papacy but his main interest here is the past five years in what has become one of the longest papacies in the past two millennia.
At 26 years and holding, John Paul's papacy has given him the time to try to change the world with dozens of visits to Catholics around the globe and a torrent of encyclicals, speeches, commentaries and books. But the book is no paean to the pontiff. The author has a dim assessment of John Paul's ability to understand anything about women, and thereby during his pontificate to make no strides towards ordaining them.
And he berates the pope for failing to reign in the sex abuse crisis among Catholic priests when there were ample warnings of it in the 1980s and 1990s, and portrays the current Vatican as leaderless as the pope's Parkinson's disease becomes worse and worse. The book takes an especially cheap shot at the pontiff by running a photo of him fast asleep in his papal robes during a ceremony in Mexico.
Mr. Cornwell has no patience for church conservatives who have become prominent in the church, thanks to the current pope. Nor do conservatives think much of him, as papal biographer George Weigel calls "The Pope in Winter" a "vile" book. Although that is an overstatement, the book's summation of John Paul as far too "autocratic" for the modern world is an unfair epitaph for a Polish priest who has had many spectacular accomplishments during for the last years of the 20th century and the dawn of the 21st.
Julia Duin is an asistant editor at the national desk of The Washington Times.
The Pope in Winter by John Cornwell
The chief executive of a very peculiar multinational
By Peter Stanford
02 January 2005
Had John Paul II died in the attempt on his life in St Peter's Square in 1981, he would have gone down in history as a potentially great pope who was snatched away from us before he could fulfil his potential, the breath of fresh air from Poland who blew through the musty corridors of God's business address on earth for far too short a time. Instead he survived and so we have seen his pontificate reach maturity. In the process perceptions have changed a great deal. History will now judge John Paul II less a great pope than a paradoxical priest, one minute inspiring and far seeing, the next apparently living in a medieval mind-set.
Catholics in particular have learnt to love and recoil from their leader in equal measure. It is a curious irony that those outside the church tend in the West to have a more straightforward affection for John Paul than his flock. It is perhaps because we have to live with the detail and consequent unpredictability of his papacy. So many of us admire his physical courage, his evident faith, his strength of opinion and his way of embodying the spiritual in a world that often seems to have lost faith in everything but money, power and violence. We applaud when he fearlessly takes an independent and principled line on the world stage.
Yet just as many wince at his refusal to accept that condoms have a role to play in stopping the spread of Aids. We recoil at his condemnation of gay men and women as "intrinsically evil" and we distance ourselves from his suggestion that other churches are not really churches at all.
Much has been written of the early years of John Paul's papacy, but until now few have ventured a detailed analysis of his declining years - and his physical deterioration has been marked of late. Into the vacuum has stepped John Cornwell. Once a trainee priest, he was for a while flavour of the month in the Vatican. His wonderful 1989 book, A Thief in the Night, comprehensively dismissed (best-selling) rumours that Pope John Paul I had been murdered. His biography of Pius XII, the wartime pope, however, put paid to Cornwell's chances of a papal knighthood. Hitler's Pope presented Pius's silence over the Holocaust in a most unflattering light.
The Pope in Winter is equally unflattering about John Paul II. It self-consciously concentrates on the negative and gives little space to the positive. Sometimes Cornwell appears to be imitating Kitty Kelley. His jibe that used condoms were found by workmen in the undergrowth after a papal youth mass sounds suspiciously like a bar-room tale.
Yet this is no hatchet job. It is a serious work with important conclusions for the immediate future of the Catholic Church. Just under half of the book covers what has been well detailed and picked over already: Karol Wojtyla's early life, his church career and his initial years as Pope. Cornwell gives it a pleasing polish before turning to John Paul in the run up to the millennium and beyond. He poses two questions. Is he still in control of the bureaucracy of the church, given the advance of Parkinson's disease? And is his once formidable brain still functioning? The short answers he provides are: "no" and "intermittently".
Cornwell recounts two papal audiences in 2003. The first was with Rowan Williams when John Paul clearly had no memory of who the Archbishop of Canterbury was. The second was with the Irish President, Mary McAleese, when he asked her to remind him of the whereabouts of the Basilica of St John Lateran, second only to St Peter's in the Catholic pecking order. It was as if, Cornwell remarks, the Queen had forgotten the location of Windsor Castle.
Cornwell concedes that John Paul also has good days - the great ceremonies that autumn, those vast public theatricals in which he was centre stage, seemed to energise him - but he argues that the Catholic Church is now run on a day-to-day basis by a coterie of cardinals and bishops in Rome who have usurped the Pope's authority and act in his name.
To his credit, he can find positives in this situation. John Paul has become, Cornwell writes, "a living symbol of the consolations of religion in the face of helplessness and debilitating illness". But for the rest, he paints a depressing picture of the pope, when lucid, being guided by his minders back to the prejudices of his upbringing.
This is the explanation Cornwell favours for the declaration Dominus Jesus of August 2000 where John Paul, once the champion of ecumenical progress, the man whose visit to Canterbury Cathedral in 1982 raised hopes that the divisions of the English Reformation were about to be healed, dismissed out of hand other Christian denominations which did not submit to his authority.
There are, Cornwell charges, those in the Vatican who are using the sick Pope's name as a rubber stamp for their own outlandish views, downplaying, for instance, the paedophile priest scandal as "the work of the Devil" rather than the responsibility of criminal men in dog collars, and misinterpreting scientific research to air theories that the AIDS virus can pass through rubber.
The Pope in Winter is as powerful an argument for a compulsory retirement age for pontiffs as it is possible to imagine. They used to abdicate. There is no reason they shouldn't now. Why should the Catholic Church be the only multinational in the world that dictates its chief executive can only escape the post when it kills him? Those who say, having read John Cornwell's account of the twilight days of John Paul II, that this is God's intention for the church must have a very peculiar idea of God.
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