Sense and Nonsense: On First Reading the Holy Father’s New Book

The Holy Father’s new book is available throughout the world — Urbe et Orbe. He is the only man on earth today who has an immediate worldwide audience, and about whom no one can be indifferent. The idea of the Pope of Rome writing a bestseller is such a delight. How are we to keep this man’s ideas under wraps when suddenly he is in all the bookshops and featured in book reviews? We should have a warning on the book’s cover: “This book is dangerous to doubters”; or perhaps: “Warning — not to be read without prescription from your professor.”

Well, of course, books come and go in popularity, though some remain — we still read St. Augustine’s Confessions. I suspect we shall long read this book of John Paul II. In the early weeks after publication, the book was competing for top sales with a book about Nicole Simpson at the bookstores. We cannot help but think that the pope would have had many earnest things to say to Nicole and O.J. Simpson, had they only asked him. No doubt he knows of this case and would be the first to think about the saving of O.J.’s soul — the most important thing about him. But this book is not just for the English- speaking world, however much that world might need what the Holy Father has to tell it. I have a friend who did a review of the Norwegian edition for the Oslo paper, Afenpost.

John Paul II at the very beginning of his Pontificate did a long interview with the French journalist, Andre Frossard, entitled precisely “Be Not Afraid,” the same theme as the questions that the Italian journalist, Vittorio Messori, put to the pope in this book. No doubt there is something especially charming about this independently-posed, question-answer format, particularly in the case of this Holy Father. In effect, he says to the journalist, “Tell me what you want to consider.” He does not want to be asked easy or irrelevant questions. The Holy Father prefers to be asked difficult ones, questions to which everyone thinks Catholicism has no intelligent response. Nor does he give superficial or simplistic answers. This pope quotes Descartes, Emanuel Levinas, Pascal, Hegel, Franz Kafka, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Gospel of John. No man in public life is as intellectually alert and informed as the Holy Father: he navigates easily through Scripture, the Councils, ancient and modern philosophy, current events, and his long remembered discussions with beloved Polish friends and students. He even recalls that Hans Urs von Balthasar, the great theologian, did not think that anyone was actually in hell — a position to which the pope responds with much more precision and accuracy than von Balthasar’s more liberal position.

I recall chatting with several of my Jesuit friends one morning, after I had read about 50 pages of the book. I told them of an interview that appeared in the Turin journal La Stampa. The Polish interviewer had asked John Paul II about a passage in the diaries of Paul VI where he remarked that the decision-making and exalted position of the papacy made it a most lonely position. The journalist, Jas Gawronski, asked the Holy Father whether he also felt this loneliness. John Paul II replied,

No, I really do not, but perhaps I have a different temperament, and I always have close friends around me. Nor do I make decisions alone, but I work collegially with the bishops and the curia. When the bishops come ad limina, I always try to meet them a few times to celebrate Mass together; I also invite them for lunch, and it is a valuable occasion for exchanging experiences, for talking and discussing. It is the privilege of collegiality.

Gawronski then asked the Holy Father if he kept a diary. The pope answered, with some obvious amusement, “No, I have other things to think about and to do.” I thought when I read that passage of that famous, probably apocryphal, quip of one of the Renaissance popes, who, on his elevation, remarked, “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” In a very different way, we cannot help but think that John Paul II enjoys the papacy precisely because God has given it to him. He is not to be afraid, but he is free to have close friends, to talk over lunch with bishops from all over the world, and to attend to the thousand other things that he does, except to write a diary. Actually, this new book is kind of a diary, if not an autobiography of John Paul II, if we read between the lines. “You will remember that my first encyclical on the Redeemer of man (Redemptor hominis) appeared a few months after my election on October 16, 1978,” he told Messori. “This means that I was actually carrying its contents within me. I had only to `copy’ from memory and experience what I had already been living on the threshold of the papacy.” There is something even more than autobiographical in these lines, I think, something that makes us wonder about providence, about the will of God.

“After reading the beginning of this book,” I remarked to my friends, “I think I know why people, especially certain bishops, Jesuits, Catholic intellectuals, feminists, much of the liberal press, and I do not know who all, do not like this Holy Father.” Naturally, my friends wanted to know why my sudden conclusion. It is simply that this pope not only does his ceremonial job as pope, his administrative job, but he also believes in the truth of Catholicism. And even more unsettling, he believes it in such a way that he can explain it with lucid clarity to the most serious protestors. There is no “argument” out there against the truth of Catholicism on. which this man has not reflected. He can refute any issue better than the doubters can formulate their own position. John Paul II is a loyal son of Thomas Aquinas. He is not conservative. He is not liberal. He is as willing to respond to conservatives and liberals as he is to Buddhists, positivists, or animists. He himself is somewhere else in the coherence and unity of the whole. He not merely lives amid the highest things, he can define and clarify their essential outlines. “Christianity is not only a religion of knowledge, of contemplation. It is a religion of God’s action and of man’s action.”

Why would this intellectual brilliance annoy anyone? Why would it surprise anyone that the pope can explain the coherence and truth of the faith with its intellectual presuppositions in a logical, clear, and convincing manner? Though I, myself, cannot answer for certain, I would propose that it has something to do with pride. I tend to think that many critics of the Holy Father, to put it bluntly, have no souls. They choose not to be moved by the good when it strikes them in the face. What is wrong with the Holy Father is that he is a supremely good man. What is infuriating about the Holy Father is that he is an extremely smart, intelligent, eloquent, and gen tle man, with far greater depth of reading, reflection, and analysis than those who satisfy their contrary souls by calling him a “conservative” or a “Polish cleric,” rather than confront the depth of his ideas. What angers feminist critics about the Holy Father is that he knows and loves women, their children, their spiritual, intellectual, and material needs — real women know this.

But I am making it sound like the Holy Father ought to be judged solely on the grounds of his intellectual acumen. Clearly, as we can see, when he talks about his prayer, he is a holy man. He must also be judged, however, by his intellectual profundity, as this is very much a part of his character. In the modern world, no one has made a better and more moving case for truth itself than has John Paul II in Veritatis splendor. But John Paul is everything we might want in a good and wise man, in a divinely chosen pope. We are probably the most fortunate generation ever when it comes to the integrity and genius of the papacy.

Though the papacy places John Paul II at a certain distance from his flock, his presence is such that he treats everyone he meets as if that person were the only one in the world. That is, in fact, what that person is to the pope during that brief moment which may be the only time in history when they meet one another face-to-face before the Parousia. Some friends of mine have a large photo of themselves at a Wednesday audience in the Papal Hall; in the photo are the wife, the husband, and their two little boys, about three and ten at the time. The Holy Father is talking directly to the older boy, while shaking his hand; the parents and other son, in his mother’s arms, are happily looking on. The entire concentration of the Holy Father at that moment is evidently given to the boy who gazes intently upon him. There are other friends who also have photos of themselves at that one brief moment in their lives when they meet this Holy Father. It is always the same: a gentle smile on the pope’s face; full attention, as if that is the only person in the world; as if to say that we are all just ourselves before the Lord, and before this man who represents Him.

One of the things that struck me about this book, as I touched on earlier, was the sense of the providential life of this wonderful man: he reflects on his boyhood in Wadowice; he remembers when he was a young priest, those couples he met, his fellow clerics; he recalls when he was a young bishop at the Council, and the great Jesuit Cardinal Henri de Lubac told him he was on the right path, and to keep developing his ideas; he remembers the day he was shot — he recalls that it was the anniversary (May 13) of the first of several of Mary’s appearances at Fatima. He remembers praying to Mary as a boy. Again and again, he recalls the rich young man in the Bible who wanted to know what “good” he must do to be saved. He frankly prefers the young and delights in their questions; he praises them, and seeks them out. He does not care if you are Muslim or Jewish, Protestant or Hindu, a philosopher, a worker, or a young mother — he wants to know what you think. But in turn he wants you to listen to him when he thoughtfully reflects on your question. He is the Church’s greatest missionary.

A couple of years after John Paul II was made pope, I edited a book of his talks to university faculties and students, entitled The Whole Truth about Man. I thought at the time that that title, taken from a common theme of his in the talks, epitomized John Paul II. He is the one (I sometimes think the only one) who tells us the whole truth about man; who leaves nothing out of the account, as so many other religious and philosophic people are wont to do today. It was obvious even then that this man could go beyond university faculties, the media, and politicians, right to the hearts of the youth in the university. This quality made him dangerous. The media pundits, who have been so hostile to his presence, find that this man can use the media better than they. In addition to this finesse, he has something to say that no one else will tell us, too often not even our bishops. Why are so many bishops, even the ones he has appointed, so afraid to follow him? Are they, unlike the pope, afraid? As I said before, you cannot help but love a man like this man; and the experience of our time tells us you have only one choice — you must either love him or hate him. Christ told us, however, that this would be true about his closest followers. I have no doubt that John Paul II is the sign of contradiction in the modern world.

What I found particularly moving about this book was that John Paul II takes the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist, and Socrates, the philosopher, seriously. He acknowledges the truth of what they are. He even says to Socrates that, though he is very different from Christ, his famous trial and death bore “certain similarities with the sacrifice of the Cross.” John Paul II responds with basic theological and philosophical points to those who do not believe or who do not understand. His answer to the philosopher, the Jew, the Muslim, and the Buddhist, is always framed in the context of their view of a god or a world in which ultimate things, including God Himself, cannot be near to us, cannot, as in the case of Christ, take on our very flesh.

When we read the pope’s book, we realize how untrue it is to imply that the Roman Church is somehow isolated in the past, or in esoteric doctrine, or in moral rigidities. One should not read this book if he wants to confirm his belief in the narrowness of Catholicism. He will find before him the broadest, most insightful, most gentle of words about the Word made flesh. This is a book of decision, a dangerous book for the modern world. It must be treated gingerly. To the many, especially Catholics, who place their reputations on the fact that they have lived and argued about the untruths of some or all of Catholicism, in its deepest meaning in the sacraments, morals, and dogmas — the very positions that the pope has again and again affirmed calmly, brilliantly — this book will be a scandal. But the Church is founded on a Rock, the Rock of Peter, against which the Gates of Hell will not prevail.

Russell Shaw recently recounted a conversation with a Roman curial bureaucrat who already lives in the world of the “next pope,” who unsurprisingly turns out to be a parody of the ideologies of the 60s. Naturally, this mythical “next pope,” who is already in place in the minds of many liberal Catholics, is an Occamist whose power can make contradictories true. This “next pope” nixes all the actions and doctrines of John Paul II. His first act, it is speculated, will be to ordain women, followed by canceling the Catechism, the Code, Veritatis splendor, Humanæ vitæ, Centesimus annus, and Crossing the Threshold of Hope. The Catholic World Report (N. 94) recounts more or less the same view of a Jesuit official in Rome, who, in a public interview, talks as if he is already governed by a mythical “next pope,” rather than this one.

These and similar musings, of course, are the solace of those who will not believe the remarkable consistency and coherence of what John Paul II has done in our time to re-establish Catholicism. He has quite literally re-presented to us all of our faith, with the philosophy it presupposes, precisely in the context of all the philosophies, ideologies, and religions of our time. Carefully, eloquently, insightfully, he shows why Catholicism remains precisely the whole truth of God and man. As to the truth of our faith, John Paul II says to each of us, as he says to himself, in words addressed sometimes to Mary, sometimes to Joseph, sometimes to Peter himself: “Be not afraid . . . Fear not.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...