Describing his role in changing world history and reorienting the Catholic Church as it was trying to find its feet after the Second Vatican Council is a difficult and subtle task worth pursuing.
But George Weigel’s book, “The End and the Beginning,” is superficial despite his qualifications. Weigel wrote a New York Times best-selling biography of the pope and is the author of several books on the mixing of Catholicism and politics in the public square. He also is a major theoretician among like-minded U.S. Catholics.
Much of the time, though, he is more of a recording secretary. He recounts what the pope said and did from day to day rather than provide astute analysis of papal activities. Other parts of the book read more like a spiritual tract, using the pope’s own faith as an example of Catholic spiritual values.
Weigel’s attempt to shed light on the Soviet bloc’s war against the pope belabors what has been obvious for decades: The pope was seen by Soviet bloc leaders as a major threat to stability in their countries, requiring strong actions to neutralize him. Even with the use of declassified documents of Soviet bloc secret services, though, he fails to add anything new to the key unanswered issue: Was Mehmet Ali Agca, who seriously wounded the pope in 1981, in the pay of the Soviet Union or one of its surrogates?
In some spots, Weigel shows little understanding of how the institutional church works, such as in his discussion of the child sex abuse scandal. He writes that the failures are more the responsibility of national bishops’ conferences than of the pope.
It is true that Pope John Paul is not responsible for the mushrooming of abuses as the overwhelming majority of the cases happened before his election. At the same time, bishops’ conferences aren’t responsible either and have much less power than the pope to resolve the crisis. A pope can remove a bishop who has covered up abuses. A national bishops’ conference can’t. A pope can tell a bishop what to do in his diocese. A national bishops’ conference can’t. A national bishops’ conference can’t remove an abusive priest from ministry. The pope, through his Vatican agencies, can.
The 2002 prevention program developed by the U.S. bishops, for instance, wasn’t binding on individual bishops until it was negotiated with the Vatican and approved by the pope. Weigel is right in blaming local bishops for not solving problems in their dioceses.
Throughout the book, Weigel paints with too broad a brush, hiding rather than illuminating the complexities of this pope and his times.
Also of interest: “Why He’s a Saint: The Life and Faith of Pope John Paul II and the Case for Canonization” by Slawomir Oder with Saverio Gaeta. Translated by Anthony Shugaar. Rizzoli International (New York, 2010). 200 pp., $22.50.
Bono is a retired CNS staff writer and a former Rome bureau chief.