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WITNESS TO HOPE: The Biography of Pope John Paul II by George Weigel Falls Short

Pre-publication publicity promised that George Weigel’s new book, Witness to Hope, would be the definitive biography of Pope John Paul II. It is certainly a very long book (almost 1,000 pages). It is packed not only with details, events, fascinating personal incidents, and even gossip, but also beautiful passages about Karol Wojtyla’s philosophical studies and teaching, his historic confrontation with Communism, his ecumenical perspective, and his impact on the Second Vatican Council.

Weigel writes about the Pope’s travels, how he changed the papacy from the bureaucratic model into a pastoral approach which has attracted millions of people, especially youth, to the Church. The passages about his becoming the first Polish Pope and the response of the Polish people are particularly moving.

The reviewers had hoped against hope that the interviews with the Holy Father and the enormous amount of research involved in the preparation of this book would allow Weigel to understand the Karol Wojtyla and the Pope who come through so clearly in his writings.

Weigel here presents John Paul II as his hero, attempts to analyze all of his life, diplomacy and writings, and credits him with saving civilization through a profound Christian humanism.

Unfortunately, the book is also an apology for neoconservative politics and economics and this bias is the flaw in Weigel’s thesis.

New Papal Statements

It would appear to be no accident that shortly after Witness to Hope appeared, the Pope began to speak in his weekly Wednesday catechesis of the preferential love for the poor as a mandate for all Christians and to unequivocally challenge global market advocates to take the road of solidarity and the common good.

The Holy Father spoke strongly on October 27, 1999: “Always, and in a particular way in her social teaching—from Rerum Novarum to Centesimus Annus—the Church has endeavored to deal with the topic of the poorest of the poor.” In that address he put together in unmistakeable fashion the need for conversion of heart and for structural changes: “The great Jubilee year of 2000 must be experienced as a further occasion for a strong conversion of the heart, so that the Spirit may inspire new witnesses in this direction. Christians, together with all people of good will must, through adequate economic and political programs, contribute to very necessary structural changes, so that humanity may be raised up from the wound of poverty.”

Perhaps the Holy Father was responding to the accusation in book that the social teaching of his encyclicals was “materialistic.” Weigel claimed that Centesimus Annus was a complete break with the language of his previous encyclicals about a just wage and just distribution of the world’s goods, universal destination of the world’s goods.. John Paul II responded on November 3: “May the market agents know that in the process of economic globalization it is not possible to save oneself alone!” The Pope asked for a “new way of looking at wealth in terms of the common good,” stated strongly that it is “not proper to subordinate ethical principles to economy,” that “abusive speculation and exorbitant interest” must be avoided.

How different the Pope’s words than Weigel’s claim in this new biography that the neoliberal economics he and fellow neoconservatives have promoted all over the developing world and the countries coming out from under Communist rule is the ideal incarnation of the Holy Father’s personalism as expressed in Centesimus Annus.

On October 28, John Paul spoke to the well-off: “I cannot fail to note once again that the poor constitute the modern challenge, especially for the well-off of our planet, where millions of people live in inhuman conditions and many are literally dying of hunger. It is not possible to announce God the Father to these brothers and sisters without taking on the responsibility of building a more just society in the name of Christ.”

It would appear to be no accident that when this book appeared Cardinal Francis Stafford, in addressing the Legatus group of business people in Rome, stated strongly that “enlightened self-interest is not enough.”

Could it be that all of this is a response to the new biography, which contradicts John Paul’s social teaching?

Who is John Paul II?

It is clear that, as he has mentioned, Weigel has indeed had extensive input from the Holy Father. His research surprisingly revealed to him a “Christian radical” who cannot be understood in the perspective of “conventional ‘left/right’ categories that have shaped the world media’s coverage of his pontificate” (and, one might add, George Weigel and his fellow neoconseratives’ coverage as well).

Weigel seems to understand what he did not earlier, that those, like John Paul II, who are Christians “so completely convinced of the truth that Christianity bears that this conviction animates literally everything he does” are not, as Weigel here admits, “sectarian,” a word with which he dismissed Dorothy Day and St. Francis of Assisi in his book, Tranquillitas Ordinis, for that very same quality. Weigel actually quotes Wojtyla here speaking the language of Dorothy, Peter Maurin and Francis: “Love of Christ does not distract us from interest in others, but rather invites us to responsibility for them, to the exclusion of no one….”

Weigel’s description of Wojtyla’s Christian radicalism, described here in terms of the Latin word radix or root, which means deeper, down to the root, rather than left or right, echoes Maurin’s Easy Essays. Those who did not understand Dorothy’s radical Christian personalism sometimes said that she was to the right as far as the Church was concerned and to the left in politics. They were wrong—all of her life and action flowed from her great faith. The same criticism has often been made of Pope John Paul II. Weigel assures his readers that there are not two Wojtylas, one a doctrinal conservative and the other a “social-political liberal,” but rather one profound, committed Christian.

Philosophy and Theology

However, while he explores the Pope’s studies in phenomenology and the influence of Max Scheler (limiting the definitions of phenomenology to Michael Novak’s article), Weigel does not do justice to the roots of Christian personalism. He does not seem to be aware of the connection with other great personalist philosophers and theologians, making it sound as if John Paul’s personalism had come out of nowhere (except for other Polish personalists). As Kenneth Schmitz points out in At the Center of the Human Drama: the Philosophical Anthropology of Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II, published by Catholic University Press, the Pope’s analysis is to be “situated within the broad tradition of Christian personalism that has flourished in our own century, largely under French Catholic sponsorship. Schmitz give the examples: “This includes the personalism of Maurice Blondel with its emphasis on action. The spectrum of Catholic personalism also includes the socio-political personalism of Emmanuel Mounier, as well as the metaphysical personalism of Jacques Maritain and the concrete personalism of Gabriel Marcel. But his work also bears a certain affinity with non-Catholic personalism, such as that of the Protestant Paul Ricoeur and the Jew Martin Buber, as well as some aspects of the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. Finally, he is one of a number of Polish personalists…” (p. 35-36).

One wonders how Weigel and his colleagues could take the profound personalist philosophy and anthropology of John Paul II and conclude that it endorses an economics which in practice is completely utilitarian in its treatment of the person, the worker How, in the name of the Pope, could these men promote a global market which includes consistent abuse of workers and speculation and exorbitant interest in financing, giving carte blanche to an economics based on self-interest?

This might be explained by James Hanink’s theory (in his soon to be published work on personalism) that people who are unfamiliar with personalist thought, “in particular as developed in the French circles with which Wojtyla shares so much,” find personalism puzzling. He suggests that those who hear about the incomparable dignity of the human person might not completely understand the context of the Pope’s thought. He points out that this dignity “ought not to suggest a self-congratulating anthro-pocentrism”—because it is always in community and the communion of the Trinity, always against utilitarianism.

In this biography Weigel’s emphasis regarding personalism is on a lengthy criticism of the translation of Wojtyla’s book, The Acting Person, and especially its title. He frequently mentions the Pope’s emphasis on the great dignity of the human person.

His presentation would have been enriched, however. by a key concept which Hanink has identified in Wojtyla’s personalism: that of the “intransitive.” Hanink stresses that “seeing the primacy of the intransitive is crucial in even a bare sketch of his analysis.”

This “intransivitity thesis” tells us that “in acting we change the world around us, but more importantly we change and transcend ourselves.” Wojtyla emphasizes how the intransitive dimension of our actions shapes our characters: “Human actions once performed,” he observes, “do not vanish without trace; they leave their moral value, which constitutes an objective reality intrinsically cohesive with the person, and thus a reality also profoundly subjective” (The Acting Person, p. 149). Hanink points out the irony that “so many suppose that it is in the transitive production of objects that we become free.”

Papal Economics vs. Weigel

A few examples will illustrate the stark differences in the Pope’s approach to economics and production and that presented by Weigel.

Weigel positively describes the Pope’s ideas in the encyclical Laborem Excercens (On Human Work). He even mentions that it has always been John Paul’s favorite encyclical, but sets out to discredit it in any application to the real world: “The encyclical’s brief discussion of the world economic situation is perhaps its least persuasive section.” Weigel states clearly that the Pope is way behind the times, in fact a whole century behind, that he does not understand today’s global economy and computer revolution and that he is wrong to worry about the danger of pollution (p. 421).

It is incomprehensible that in his discussion of Laborem Exercens Weigel fails to mention what John Paul II calls the key criterion for the evaluation of any economic system: “Hence in every case, a just wage is the concrete means of verifying the justice of the economic system… It is not the only means of checking, but it is a particuarly important one and in a sense the key means” (n. 80).

An evaluation of the wages now paid by First World companies in poorer countries (and in sweatshops in the United States), sometimes a few cents an hour and sometimes paid to children, could only conclude that this economy is bankrupt and is to be condemned.

When he criticizes the observations of liberation theology, Weigel neglects to mention that the second Vatican document on liberation theology, the Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, is a mandate for all Christians to work for the “civilization of love.” The document not only emphasizes the need for renewed reflection on “what constitutes the relationship between the supreme commandment of love and the social order considered in all its complexity,” but the necessity of a true civilization of work, where “just work relationships are a “necessary precondition for a system of political community capable of favoring the integral development of every individual.”

The advocate of letting the market determine the common good does not mention that “Wages must enable the worker and his family to have access to a truly human standard of living in the material, social, cultural and spiritual orders. It is the dignity of the person which constitutes the criterion for judging work, not the other way around”(n. 81-86).

Weigel’s insistence that Laborem Exercens does not apply to today’s reality, only to nineteenth century industrial capitalism, is directly contradicted in Centesimus Annus, one of Weigel’s favorite encyclicals, where John Paul quotes from Laborem Exercens: “There are situations in which the rules of the earliest period of capitalism still flourish in conditions of ‘ruthlessness’ in no way inferior to the darkest moments of the first phases of industrialization” (n. 33).

Mocking references to environmental concerns ignore the continued references in John Paul II’s writings about the need for changing lifestyles, in later documents and encyclicals, including Centesiumus Annus: “Creating such conditions calls for a concerted worldwide effort to promote development, an effort which also involves sacrificing the position of income and of power enjoyed by the more developed economies. This may mean making important changes in established life-styles, in order to limit the waste of environmental and human resources, thus enabling every individual and all the peoples of the earth to have a sufficient share of these resources” (n. 52).

Catholic neoconservatives frequently have attacked those who disagree with them on economics, including the Houston Catholic Worker, by calling them socialists or communists. Those who insist that the global market has wreaked havoc on the poor are dismissed as Marxists. Weigel actually sarcastically says in his book that Centesimus Annuswas “a bitter disappointment to Catholic socialists and to advocates of a ‘Catholic third way,’ some of whom invested considerable energy in the 1990’s trying to explain that the encyclical did not say what it plainly said.” He ridicules what he calls this “curious interpretation,” in direct contradiction to the encyclical, which reads: “We have seen that it is unacceptable to say that the defeat of so-called Real Socialism leaves capitalism as the only model of social organization” (n. 34). And again in number 56: “The Western countries…run the risk of seeing this collapse [of ‘Real Socialism’] as a one-sided victory of their own economic system, and thereby failing to make the necessary corrections in that system.”

Weigel neglects to mention CA’s criticisms of the world economic situation: “The Marxist solution has failed, but the realities of marginalization and exploitation remain in the world, especially the Third World, as does the reality of human alienation, especially in the more advanced countries. Against these phenomena the Church raises her voice. Vast multitudes are still living in conditions of great material and moral poverty… There is a risk that a radical capitalistic ideology could spread which refuses even to consider these problems, in the a priori belief that any attempt to solve them [poverty, etc.] is doomed to failure, and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces” (n. 42).

Not Virtuous, Not Free, and Not Democratic

Weigel uses the language of libertarian Fr. Robert Sirico when he insists that the economy he endorses is a “free and virtuous” society on the model of the personalism of Pope John Paul II. Weigel even employs the term “economic personalism,” used by the Acton Institute to describe the neoliberal free market economy and the way it supposedly encourages freedom and democracy. Unfortunately, the economy which has been and continues to be promoted all over the world by George Weigel, Michael Novak, Fr. Sirico and Fr. Richard Neuhaus is anything by personalist or democratic.

The fear of the great personalist Emmanuel Mounier that the word personalism would be misappropriated to mask individualism is realized here.

Neoconservative/neoliberal economics includes the “absolutizing of the economy, the reduction and deterioration of public services, unemployment, destruction of the environment and natural resources, of the growing distance between rich and poor, unfair competition which puts the poor nations in a situation of ever increasing inferiority,” so decried by Pope John Paul II in Ecclesia in America in 1999 (n. 20). It is based on an ideology of “enlightened self-interest” which promises, against all evidence to the contrary, that people seeking their own economic good will ultimately create a common good. Those who insist that the Pope has blessed the neoliberal economy should read Ecclesia in America, where in January of 1999 it is condemned by name as a social sin which cries to heaven.

It is unfortunate, even tragic, that a writer and researcher of Weigel’s skill would present John Paul II’s efforts through the lens of neoconservative economics. He is unable to see, as John Paul is, that while changing hearts and forming consciences is so important, changing unjust structures is also required so that others may have the possibility to live as persons: “There is no gap between love of neighbor and desire for justice. To contrast the two is to distort both love and justice… The evil inequitites and oppression of every kind which afflict millions of men and women today openly contradict Christ’s Gospel and cannot leave the conscience of any Christian indifferent” (Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation)

Pulverizing the Person

Utopian ideologies have been discredited in this century, with much encouragement from John Paul II. Marxism is an example—full of promises, but in practice devastating.

The “invisible hand of the market” is another utopian ideology. Weigel quotes John Paul II as indicating that Marxism “pulverizes” the person. In another section of the book he points out that the Pope also insists that the “pulverization” of the person can occur in other systems as well, anywhere that there is a utilitarian view of the person. What he does not acknowledge is that in actual practice the economics he promotes, in which giant corporations rule while young people throughout the world toil under intolerable conditions in assembly lines, also pulverizes and degrades the person. The maquiladora system is one of the most utilitarian approach to workers that the world has ever known.

At Casa Juan Diego it is easier to see through the ideology which flaws Weigel’s book. The blood of the poor is on our doorsteps and in our hearts, with the immigrants who come to us each day. We are not able to speak of the wonderful economy which might trickle down to help them some day, when the past thirty years have shown that the only drops which have trickled down are those of blood.

“Take Advantage of Cheap Labor”

The very low wages paid by companies from wealthy nations in poor countries are not adaptations to local economies. They are not philanthropy. They are planned and plotted.

Some years ago the authors watched a segment of “Sixty Minutes” showing how President Reagan’s representatives from the U.S. AID agency promoted taking advantage of cheap labor. They spoke on this theme: “You must come down (to Latin America) to take advantage of this cheap labor. The benefits to your company are unimaginable. We have arranged tax-free zones (no help for the local community—these are fenced-in zones), and we will insure that labor leaders are identified and removed, so that you will have no labor organizing problems.”

This is not an economics based on personalism. It was not planned in the hope that it would someday help the poor, as those who fraudently speak of “economic personalism” as applied to the global market would try to convince us. The maquiladoras, our plants developed in this way and now present throughout developing countries, are a symbol of the injustice and oppression of workers so strongly condemned in Laborem Exercens. Of course, the same policies have been adopted by the Clinton administration; it is not a matter of party politics.

Replaces Trilogy

The three encyclicals on Catholic social doctrine of this papacy, Laborem Excercens,Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesiumus Annus form a unity, a great trilogy. Centesimus Annus quotes frequently from the other two encyclicals. In Witness to Hope Weigel rejects this trilogy and substitutes two other encyclicals to include with Centesimus Annus, (Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae) to make a new and different trilogy of Catholic social doctrine. All of these are great encyclicals, but Weigel appears to use this tactic as a subterfuge for ignoring the thrust for justice for and solidarity with workers and the poor in the Pope’s trilogy.

Culture First, but What Culture?

A theme of the book is Pope John Paul II’s approach to economics and to an understanding of life and civilization which is “culture first,” culture before economics. In Centesimus Annus he explains the downfall of Communist countries by their lack of understanding of the importance of subordinating economics to culture, a fascinating commentary.

Catholic neo-conservatives have written extensively about the importance of culture in the writings of John Paul and this book is no exception. However, Weigel and friends take no responsibility for the fact that the economics they promote in the name of the Church destroys cultures, homogenizing them into one commercial, materialistic culture. The bombardment of advertising related to international marketing and the resultant consumerist mentality distracts from and makes irrelevant indigenous popular culture and religiosity. Missionaries who return from countries like the Philippines lament that the preoccupation of poor youth there is not their own culture, but the absolute importance of obtaining a pair of “Guess” jeans.

Weigel completely omits John Paul’s frequent criticisms of consumer society as a structure of sin.

The Pope’s own writings teach that culture is constituted through human praxis—but that this is true only “to the extent that through it people become more human, and not merely acquire more means.”

The destruction of culture by the market is not accidental. Writers who favor the integration of all economics in the global market actually name the existence of distinctive local cultures as a trade barrier and dream of a brand name consumer culture which will represent people’s first loyalties. (Akio Morita, “Toward a New World Economic Order,” TheAtlantic Monthly, June, 1993). The late Roberto C. Goizueta, chairman of the Coca-Cola company, rejoiced that “people around the world are today connected by brand name consumer products as much as by anything else.”

Weigel cannot be unaware that what his revival of Adam Smith and enlightened self-interest in wealth creation has created is instead a consumer monoculture. It is almost as if the new Mystical Body is the Coca Cola culture. The question arises, can this consumer society even be called culture?

Following Gabriel Marcel, John Paul II’s writings present the dramatic challenge of the contemporary situation for the humanum, the question of being and having: “Alongside societies and people who have an overabundance of means there exist societies and people who suffer from a lack of them, from an insufficiency of means. It goes without saying that we should work toward a just distribution of goods. This is a self-evident principle. A departure from the realizaton of this principle is a threat to the humanum. One might ask, however, whether the threat is not greater where an overabundance of means, a superfluity of what people have, obscures who they are and who they ought to be” (Karol Wojtyla, “The Problem of the Constitution of Culture Through Human Praxis,” Person and Community: Selected Essays, translated by Theresa Sandok, OSM (Catholic Thought from Lublin), Peter Lang, 1993.

For Wojtyla, in acting we make our culture, we “form culture in our self-determining actions” (Hanink); but on another level “we always simultaneously ‘make ourselves,’ ‘create’ ourselves.”

Disagreements on Just War

Weigel praises John Paul II without reserve for his prophetic, powerful diplomatic role in the downfall of Communism. While he debunks a conspiracy theory between John Paul II and President Reagan, Weigel seems to put politician Reagan almost on the same ethical footing as the Pope. He insists that both men “were confident that the spoken word of truth could cut through the static of communism’s lies and rouse people from their acquiesence to servitude.” It is ironic that Weigel could equate Reagan’s commitment to truth to John Paul’s when truth commissions have made it clear that the Reagan administration (and several others as well) covered up the truth about American involvement in wars in El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980s (See Robert Jensen, Houston Chronicle, “Outlook” section, Monday, November 15, 1999).

Weigel’s own political and economic views constantly and shamelessly erupt to undermine practical application of the Pope’s consistent ethic of life, which for the Holy Father, includes economics and the terribleness of war. Witness to Hope shows again that George Weigel is not pro life on economics or war.

In a language which might be called “Weigelese,” Weigel delivers a devastating attack on our Holy Father for his diplomatic failure to join forces with George Bush and the U. N. in conducting a major war against Iraq. According to him, the Pope and the Vatican lacked the “rigorous empirical analysis” (he repeats the phrase several times) to present and apply the just war theory to the Gulf War.

Immediately before and during the Gulf War, the Holy Father spoke of the futility of that war and pleaded for peace 56 times, while President Bush used the just war theory to defend the war (William Portier, Communio, Spring 1996, p. 52).

Weigel classes the Holy Father with Jesuit editors of Civiltà Cattolica who, he says, published articles about the war that were so confused conceptually and so misinformed empircally that they were accused of “willful defiance of the facts.” Weigel dismissed John Paul II’s repeated appeals by stating that the Vatican performance in the Gulf War crisis between August 1990 and March 1991 did not meet the high standards set in the previous twelve years of the pontificate.

Weigel’s close association with Elliot Abrams at the Ethics and Public Policy Center makes his analysis of any just war criteria suspect. Abrams, as Assistant Secretary of State of the United States negotiated the death of a large percentage of the tens of thousands who were killed in the war in El Salvador and in Guatemala in the 1980s through U. S. weaponry, advice and training at the School of the Americas. Abrams, one of the people Weigel thanks for assisting him with this book, defended these governments when it became known that they were killing large numbers of civilians.

Other Reviews

Writing on Labor Day in his Archdiocesan newspaper about Witness to Hope, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston mentioned how interesting this new biography will be to many people. He immediately followed this observation with reference to Karol Wojtyla’s work in the mines and related this to how the Holy Father must understand those working for slave wages today in maquiladoras. The point seemed to be that this was a social reality omitted from a book which purports to analyze John Paul II’s teaching in the light of today’s world.

Even Mary Ann Glendon, close associate of Weigel, stated in her review of the book inL’Osservatore Romano that the section on economics would be “controversial.”

When Weigel spoke recently in Chicago about his book, Cardinal Francis George challenged him about completely leaving out John Paul II’s continued harsh critique of consumer culture.

Several reviewers (e.g., Paul Evans in Book: the Magazine for a Reading Life and Eamon Duffy in Commonweal) have come away from the book with a more negative, unsympathetic view of John Paul II than they had before they read it. It is almost as if the book precipitates hostility toward the Pope, rather than the messenger, George Weigel.

Paul Evans presents Dorothy Day, Martin de Porres and John of the Cross as better models than John Paul II, models who understood the Catholic idea that it is in kenosis, emptying out, giving up power, that goodness proves itself. While Weigel repeats several times in his book that John Paul II insists that the Church “proposes, never imposes,” the overall impression given to reviewers like Evans is that of a Pope wielding worldly power.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., writing in America magazine wondered whether Weigel had the “necessary framework and technical vocabulary” to attempt to analyze all of the major writings of the Pope, as he does as a part of the biography. Archbishop Weakland appears not to have been convinced by the book to have a higher opinion of John Paul II than he did before.

Those who want to understand the thought of John Paul II and balance the interpretation in this book would do well to read Ecclesia in America, the Synod report published in January of this year, the second instruction on liberation theology, the encyclicals of this pontificate or the books mentioned in the body of this article. The Holy Father leads us to the Gospel and presents, as Weigel does not, the call to give up power, give up all that we have, to follow Jesus and to receive Him in the poor.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XIX, No. 7, December 1999.