I was disappointed to see that James Carroll was the Washington Post Book World‘s pick to review John Cornwell’s new quasi-biography of John Paul II. A detailed read of the review did not let me up.
Carroll begins by commending Cornwell’s last major book, Hitler’s Pope, and asserting that its publication “may well have helped his church avoid the historic sacrilege of compounding its failures during the Holocaust with shameless denial by canonizing the man who embodied the shame of the war years.”
He calls Cornwell’s overview of the life and papacy of John Paul “another strong and credible work” that may “broadly influence how a decisively important pontificate is understood” and begins to chalk out the outlines of the current pope’s legacy:
The blocks of that story are firmly in place: Karol Wojtyla’s Polish origins; his fierce opposition to totalitarianism, beginning in the Nazi period; his rejection of detente-era accommodation with Moscow; the 1981 assassination attempt, rumored to be ordered by the KGB; his personal (and perhaps financial) sponsorship of Lech Walesa’s anticommunist Solidarity movement; his at least implicit collaboration with President Reagan in giving the calcified Kremlin empire a last, shattering shove.
Carroll also engages in useful speculation about the lessons that John Paul took from the Cold War:
Having established, against the prevailing realpolitik of the era, that nonviolence could have such political force, John Paul II remained a fervent opponent of every form of war — which, in the end, made him Washington’s critic, too. The pope opposed the Gulf War in 1991, the 2001 attack on Afghanistan after September 11 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
I think Carroll is correct to say that the significance of John Paul’s “rejection of coercive violence as an instrument of political power is not sufficiently understood,” but the reviewer doesn’t get it either.
Lately, popes have seen it as part of their role to deplore all forms of violence, but not even the current pontiff has objected to every armed conflict equally. His objections to Afghanistan were muted; to Iraq, angry. John Paul’s “at least implicit collaboration” with Reagan came with the real possibility of armed hostilities.
When Carroll turns to the Polish pope’s theological legacy, he really lets his ex-priest credentials show. The “conventional assessment” of the current pope (i.e., Carroll’s assessment) contrasts John Paul’s “liberalizing work outside Catholicism with his profoundly anti-liberal governance of the Church itself.”
In fact, the pope has “squelched not only theological dissent but also the regional autonomy of bishops,” which — Carroll explains in parentheses — partially “accounts for the bishops’ grievous failure to act against priestly abuse of children.”
Carroll writes of Cornwell’s book that “one cannot read this finally unambiguous assessment of the pope’s legacy without understanding how profoundly negative — for both the world and the Church — the ultimate impact of John Paul II’s long reign may yet prove to be.”
Picking up on the post-9/11 “religion is bad” critique, Carroll worries about the “rise of intolerant religious fundamentalism as a new sponsor of political violence.” This problem is most “obvious” in violent variants of Islam “but Christianity, too, is faced with it.”
He warns that “Roman Catholic rejection of pluralism, feminism, clerical reform, religious self-criticism, historically minded theology and the application of scientific method to sacred texts would all exacerbate dangerous trends in world Christianity at the worst possible time.”
There’s so much in this review that one cannot hope to unpack it all without appearing an obsessive. From the opening shot at Pius XII and the pontiff’s “conservative Catholic” fans to his closing dig at John Paul — “the pope who helped the world to change while commanding the Roman Catholic Church to do no such thing” — it is entirely polemical. Everything about the review screams, “I am right, and anyone who believes otherwise is wicked or stupid or in league with the terrorists.”