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John Paul II, 1920-2005

The first modern pope was a radical thinker who tried to anchor modernity in truth, liberty, and respect for human dignity.

2:00 PM, Apr 2, 2005 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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WHAT A MAN! What a life! As a man, John Paul II demonstrated a remarkable combination of deep piety and intellectual curiosity, of moral courage and human kindness. But what made John Paul II an extraordinary historical figure--one of the giants of the last half of the 20th century--was his central role in three distinct realms: in politics, religion, and ideas; in the life of the world, the life of his Church, and the life of the mind. To be a major figure in any of these is rare. To be central in all three areas is unique. No political leader did more than John Paul II to bring an end to the Cold War. No religious figure had more impact in the 20th century than John Paul II had on the Roman Catholic Church. And few thinkers confronted the philosophical crisis of modern humanism more directly than Wojtyla.

On October 16, 1978, Karol Wojtyla became, at age 58, the 264th bishop of Rome, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years. In June 1979, he returned to Poland for the first time as pope. In his magisterial biography, Witness to Hope, George Weigel convincingly argues that this marked a decisive moment, the beginning of the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The pope helped bring down the evil empire not because of some grand strategic insight (though he was certainly capable of canny political strategy), but because he launched an authentic and deep challenge to the lies that made Communist rule possible.

Weigel reports the reaction of one 25-year-old Polish physics student, for whom the pope's visit seemed to make the whole "artificial world" of the Communists collapse: "We might have to live and die under communism. But now what I want to do is to live without being a liar." Even the liberal intellectual Adam Michnik was struck by the pope's ability, in June 1979, to appeal to the consciences of both believers and non-believers. The creation of Solidarity followed a year and a half later, and the Polish regime never recovered. After just a decade more, the Iron Curtain collapsed. Since Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, no one has repeated Stalin's mocking question about how many divisions the pope has.

Weigel makes the case that John Paul II's political impact came about precisely because he did not primarily seek to be political, or to think or speak politically. He merely insisted on calling "good and evil by name." Western liberalism, with its technological might and its ability to spread a kind of skepticism that helps undermine totalitarianism, played an important part in winning the Cold War. But the liberal assault on communism could not have succeeded without the accompanying Christian assault. The insistence on the truth was needed to strengthen and deepen the natural desire for liberty. The categories of good and evil were needed to ground the contrast between freedom and oppression. The message "Be not afraid!" with which he began his papal ministry was the message he transmitted to his countrymen and millions of others throughout the world.

Faith was, of course, at the center of John Paul II's being, and the revitalization of Christian faith was at the heart of his efforts, first as a priest, then bishop, then pope. In this respect, too, John Paul II's papacy was surely the most consequential in centuries. John Paul II was bold in his efforts to reshape the Church as a more effective teacher and evangelizer. He was a radical who sought change based on a return to the Church's roots. He did this by seeking above all to secure and build on the legacy of Vatican II, the council at which the Catholic Church, came to grips with modernity.

As a bishop, Karol Wojtyla played a major part in that council, and as pope, John Paul II continued to view Vatican II as fundamental. Throughout his pontificate, the pope sternly rejected "progressive" attempts to use Vatican II to water down the Church's distinctive teachings. But at the same time he vehemently rejected "reactionary" attempts to undo Vatican II and return the Church to its nineteenth-century disdain for modernity.

The result is a man whose vision and actions confounded journalistic attempts to label him liberal or conservative. An early American magazine story, relating John Paul II's extensive, televised travels and the huge crowds gathering in locations around the world for his visits, dubbed him the first "postmodern pope." But he was in fact the first modern pope, and he stands as an astonishing figure: a radical thinker who used the throne of one of the oldest institutions on earth to try to anchor modernity in truth, liberty, and respect for human dignity.