An Elegaic Portrait

Book cover
The Pontiff in Winterby John Cornwell

Doubleday. 336p $24.95


Since the flurry of biographies of Pope John Paul II appeared in the 1990’s, an uneasy deathwatch has set in among Vaticanologists, who have been predicting his imminent death since 1994. The 84-year-old pontiff has not only refused to follow their scenarios; he has actually buried many of his touted successors, and has kept authors of obituaries scrambling to keep them up to date. Even as I write, John Paul has just survived another crisis, involving, this time, a tracheotomy.

By writing of John Paul in the winter of his life, John Cornwell attempts to fill the resultant void. He focuses on the period from the beginning of the 21st century to the present, describing its pluses and minuses and finishing with a critical assessment of his pontificate, as complete and definitive as possible, short of the pope’s departure from this world.

Like other authors, Cornwell distinguishes two major aspects of the current pontificate: John Paul as world figure and as head of a church. He prefers, however, a selective approach in this volume, a portrait rather than a biography, choosing those connections in John Paul II’s life that bring out his character but also, and especially, the contradictions in it.

Picking up where the latest biography (George Weigel’s Witness to Hope) ends, Cornwell looks to the first years of this decade, “a period that includes the Jubilee Year, the papal visits to Jerusalem and former Soviet republics, the 9/11 attacks in America, the War on Terror, the Iraq war, his relations with America, the continuing struggles within the Catholic Church over authority and regard for other religions, and the sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood that has rocked the Church to its foundations.”

Cornwell’s portrait of John Paul begins with a litany of reasons why “his ardent supporters among the faithful seem justified in hailing him Karol the Great.” John Paul is a man of rare depth of soul, a tireless evangelizer who has traveled to the ends of the earth to spread the Gospel, a priest and prophet who has exposed the sterility of Soviet totalitarianism and preached freedom, while presenting an original understanding of Christian humanism and seeing marital sex as an icon of the Trinity. He has promoted Christian unity by working with Eastern Orthodoxy and the churches and communions separated from Rome by the Reformation. Despite illness and old age, he has worked to maintain the unity of the Catholic faith. In short, he seems ready for canonization.

Switching to the “but on the other hand,” Cornwell turns to contradictions in John Paul’s papacy: “But there is a parallel rather than an alternative Catholic version, rarely expressed in public in deference to a taboo that forbids criticism of living and even dead popes. A widespread constituency of Catholics, men and women, clergy and bishops throughout the world, is convinced that John Paul has drawn so tightly on the reins of universal authority that he has undermined the discretion, the authority, the integrity, and the strength of the local diocesan Church. They believe that while appearing triumphant in the world at large, he is leaving his Church in a state of weakness and conflict.”

There is no taboo restraining Cornwell as he spells out this parallel Catholic version, as he sees it and embraces it. At the center is his portrayal of Pope John Paul II as absolutist and authoritarian, a man of “epic self-centeredness,” a one-man show, the one pastor of both the universal and the local church. “Under John Paul the Catholic Church has become the voice of one man in a white robe pronouncing from the Roman pinnacle, rather than a conversation...between the Church universal and the Church local.... Exploiting modern broadcast communications to their fullest extent, his omnipresence and monopoly of the limelight have reduced within his Church all other authority, all other holiness (unless dead), all other comparisons, voices, images, talents, and virtues. The legislator, the single dispenser of blessings, beneficence, and wisdom—there has been no hidden corner of the Church where he was not present, heard, read, and where he was not absolute.”

In jarring contrast to the adulatory “John Paul the Great” of other authors, Cornwell portrays him as “Superman,” because “he has run the papacy as if he were a Superman. But a Superman has no place in a Church of communities that require to be fully themselves in the smallest groups; that flourish and gather strength from their own local resources as well as from the Roman center. Another Superman on the throne of St. Peter can only continue the tragic process of abdication of responsibility, maturity, and local discretion that we have witnessed in the Catholic Church this past quarter of a century.”

As his basis for this assessment, Cornwell treats the life of John Paul from 1920 to 1999 in Part One of his book, and then from the millennium in 2000 to 2004 in the second part. Against this background the author develops “John Paul’s Grand Design,” before concluding with an epilogue: “The Legacy of John Paul II.” His method is historical, and although he treats both the triumph and the conflict in the reign of John Paul II, his epilogue shows clearly that conflict wins out over triumph: “But what will be his [John Paul’s] lasting legacy for the Catholic Church?... Throughout the worldwide Church one finds everywhere vibrant Catholic communities: people working, and dying, for the faith; selfless ministers, sisters, and laity working for the sick and the poor; members of the faithful making the world a better place. The spirit of Vatican II is at work and cannot be quenched.”

After this brief summary of the “triumph,” Cornwell turns to the “conflict” in John Paul II’s reign and shows that for him this is the more telling dimension. “But there are countless millions of Catholics who have fallen away because they have become demoralized and excluded under John Paul II. His major and abiding legacy, I believe, is to be seen and felt in various forms of oppression and exclusion, trust in papal absolutism, and antagonistic divisions. Never have Catholics been so divided; never has there been so much contempt and aggression between Catholics. Never has the local Church suffered so much at the hands of the Vatican and papal center....”

Cornwell’s assessment of John Paul II, Karol the Great, gives way to Karol the Autocrat. The author’s language becomes harsh, exaggerated and sometimes flamboyant. Thus he writes of “countless millions” of Catholics driven away; never have Catholics been so divided; never has there been so much contempt and so on.

But Cornwell’s serious approach can be seen in his chapter on “The Sexual Abuse Scandal,” which provides a good analysis of this dreadful problem, its seriousness, and raises the question of the pope’s responsibility for the scandal. “Inevitably,” Cornwell writes, “the history of this period will note that the crisis erupted during John Paul’s watch, a period in which he presided over an increase in Rome’s authority and a decrease in diocesan authority. He should not escape censure for his failure to see the early signs of the crisis and to act appropriately. This past quarter century, the period of his pontificate, will be remembered above all for the priestly sexual abuse scandal and its far-reaching consequences.”

Many will disagree with Cornell’s prediction and his attribution of responsibility to the pope. It would be foolish to think that we are limited to choosing either Karol the Great or Karol the Autocrat. There are many other biographies of John Paul II that furnish different interpretations of the triumph and conflict in his papacy, and we are still too close in time to the events that extend over 26 years back to his election in 1978. No biography can claim to be the authoritative one. Many parts of Cornwell’s portrait are open to discussion and correction; other parts may help in arriving at a fair and thorough understanding of John Paul’s papacy.

Cornwell finishes his work with a pertinent quotation from Cardinal Newman. Unfortunately, and this is a real flaw throughout his book, he gives no indication of the source for the quote: “John Henry Newman, the nineteenth-century Anglican convert, theologian, and cardinal, gave warning of the dangers of an autocratic, long–lived papacy. ‘It is anomaly,’ he wrote, ‘and bears no good fruit; he becomes a god, has no one to contradict him, does not know facts, and does cruel things without meaning it.’ We can only hope that his successor will be first and foremost a bishop among brother bishops, a judge of final appeal presiding in charity over differences and divisions, and a human being who knows, despite his call to leadership, that he remains a pilgrim with all humanity.”

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