On October 5, a 75-year-old Pole dressed in the manner of a 16th-century Dominican friar will walk with some difficulty to the great marble rostrum of the United Nations General Assembly, there to address the world, or a goodly part of it. Behind this elderly cleric will be arrayed senior U.N. officials, including Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In the world according to CNN, the Pole in the white soutane, second son of a retired Hapsburg army offcer, will seem a man out of step with the times, while Boutros-Ghali and his colleagues, nattily attired and beaming, will look the very flower of late 20th-century modernity.

The truth of things is rather different. For in one of the great ironies of our day, the septuagenarian Pole, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, will walk onto that stage representing one of the world's most powerful, dynamic, and effective institutions, while the secretary-general and his confreres will represent some- thing that seems hackneyed, ineffective, bureaucratically stifling, and intellectually moribund -- precisely the adjectives that modernity's founding fathers once applied to the Roman Catholic Church.

Indeed, when the pope addresses the General Assembly, much more will be going on than a grand symbolic refutation of the claim that modernization inevitably means radical secularization. For under John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has become far more than an embodiment of stubborn religiosity on the edge of the third millennium.

In public terms -- and in sharp contrast to the sorry record of the U.N. -- the Catholic Church has become the world's foremost institutional defender of basic human rights. U.N. peacekeeping flounders around the world; Vatican peacemaking has been effective from the Beagle Channel to Mozambique.

John Paul II is now widely recognized as the single most influential figure in the nonviolent collapse of European communism; the pope has also been an important influence on the democratization movement that has changed the political landscape of Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America, and parts of East Asia.

Moreover, this recent past is but prologue to a future of considerable possibility. Over one billion human beings of virtually every race and ethnicity are Roman Catholics. The social doctrine of their church is, arguably, the most sophisticated body of moral reasoning about the democratic prospect on offer in the world today. How that teaching shapes those billion lives will have an enormous impact on the social and political contours of the 21 st century.

The pope's U.N. address and subsequent visits to New York, Yonkers, Newark, and Baltimore, coming hard on the heels of a grinding 10-day pilgrimage to Africa, should also put full stop to the rumors of John Paul's imminent demise, which have been assiduously circulated by Roman journalists and various ecclesiastical hangers-on for the past 18 months. Yet in that same period John Paul has published an international bestseller (Crossing the Threshold of Hope), dramatically altered the course of the September 1994 World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, addressed the largest crowd in human history (at Manila, in January 1995), seen his encyclical on abortion and euthanasia featured on the cover of Newsweek, called the Church to prepare for the Great Jubilee of the year 2000 by publicly repenting its sins and errors, and boldly proposed that Orthodox and Protestant Christians help him think through the kind of papacy that makes sense in the third millennium of Christian history. Not a bad year and a half, that. But the tremendous pace of John Paul's recent pastoral and intellectual activity does not explain why the London Independent, no papal apologist, described John Paul early this year as "the only truly global leader left." Why is it that, when he mounts the General Assembly rostrum, this man, far from being a romantic anachronism, will seem to be on the cutting edge of history?

At one level, the answer has to do with the dramatic changes that John Paul II has wrought in the modern exercise of an ancient office. The centralization of authority in the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century created a largely executive papacy, with the pope functioning as something like the CEO of RC, Inc. In varying degrees, mid-20th-century popes chafed under this model of leadership; but with John Paul II, a decisive transformation of the world's oldest institution has taken place.

With the exception of some recalcitrant Italians, no one any longer thinks that the pope's primary respon- sibility is to micromanage the central administrative machinery of the Catholic Church. Using emblematic modern instruments like DC-10s, helicopters, popemobiles, CD-ROMs, the Internet, compact discs, radio, and television, John Paul has revitalized the historic ministry of Peter as the first among the Church's public teachers. The extraordinary volume of his official writings has guaranteed that John Paul's will be remembered as one of the great teaching pontificates. But it is the personal dimension he has brought to this catechesis, through his pilgrimages to every continent, that has caught the imagination of people around the world.

Evangelism, not politicking, is the hallmark of John Paul's relentless travels. The Polish pope takes quite seriously the injunction of Jesus to Peter to "strengthen your brethren," giving that commission global reach. From the favelas of Sao Paolo to the Eskimo hinterland of northwest Canada, from African villages to the canyons of Manhattan, John Paul has been, first and foremost, a pastor.

The pope is no quietist, however; his evangelism is shaped by the conviction that Christian truth has an inescapably public character. As he told an impromptu press conference while flying to Chile and Paraguay in 1987, "I am not the evangelizer of democracy, I am the evangelizer of the Gospel. To the Gospel message, of course, belong all the problems of human rights, and if democracy means human rights it also belongs to the message of the Church."

Is this the partisan politics John Paul has urged Catholic priests to avoid? That charge is frequently mounted from the Catholic left (and also by the lead- ers of repressive regimes). But it misses the fundamental theological point. For John Paul II, commitment to the Gospel demands a defense of the dignity and worth of human life. Indeed, John Paul has been the least political of modern popes, if by political we mean a pope who follows the established canons of diplomacy. When religious freedom and other basic human rights are threatened, John Paul has challenged dictators to their faces, privately or publicly -- as Ferdinand Marcos, Augusto Pinochet, Alfredo Stroessner, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and the brothers Ortega could attest.

Conversely, if by politics we mean the Aristotelian question, How ought we live together? then John Paul's global evangelism has been intensely political. As a man of 20 during the Nazi occupation of Poland, Karol Wojtyla was a leading figure in Krakow's underground Rhapsodic Theater. Performing clandestinely without props or costumes, in shuttered apartments above the streets where Nazi sound trucks blared the news of the latest eastern-front triumphs, Wojtyla learned the power of what the Rhapsodic players called the " living word" to cut through the static of lies and propaganda. It is a lesson John Paul has applied to considerable effect -- in Manila, Warsaw, and Santiago, and in the run-up to last September's Cairo population conference.

The pope's public project has remained remarkably consistent for 17 years, even as changed historical circumstances have shifted the focus and the impact of his message. During the endgame of the Cold War, the issues and the imagery were clear-cut: There was the pope in June 1979, preaching before a million Poles in Warsaw's Victory Square, calling upon the Holy Spirit to " renew the face of the earthof this land!" And the people responded with the spontaneous, rhythmic chant, "We want God, we want God!"

In the post-Cold War period, with his eye fixed on the developed societies of the West, John Paul has been pressing what might be termed a post-modern agenda of cultural reform and renewal. As the son of a nation tlxat preserved itself through its language, literature, music, and religion when its independent political and economic life was snuffed out between 1793 and 1919, John Paul II is convinced of the overarching power of culture. Applied to the circumstances of the developed democracies, this means that only a vibrant, publicly assertive moral culture can discipline and temper democratic polities and market economies so that democracy and the market promote genuine human flourishing.

The initial American reception of this new papal challenge was, perhaps, somewhat chilly; no doubt the message was distorted by a media filter through which every critique of the sexual revolution becomes a repressive assault from the fever swamps. But as concern for the character deficit in American society has mounted, what seemed off-putting to some now looks increasingly prophetic. Americans are discovering, once again, that democrats are made, not born, and that a certain critical mass of virtue is indispensable to the functioning of democracy. Which happens to be precisely what John Paul has been urging.

More broadly, John Paul II embodies the cutting edge of history because he is defining a bold, new, morally challenging humanism in a period often dominated by the pleasure principle and the rough calculus of utility. His university in Krakow, the Jagiellonian, is where Copernicus first detected the flaw in Ptolemy's geocentric view of the universe. Like Copernicus, Karol Wojtyla has identified a central flaw in the prevailing world view of his day: modernity's tendency to degrade the human person, by turning men and women into mere instruments for others" political, economic, or sexual manipulation. Vulgar utilitarianism, the pope is convinced, is at the root of a host of evils. Thus, it is possible to think of Wojtyla as the man who left Krakow for Rome to restore the dignity of the human person as the focal point of modern thought.

A professional philosopher deeply versed in his discipline's classic, medieval, modern, and contemporary expressions, Wojtyla has attempted for some four decades to revivify the humanistic tradition, which he thinks has been profoundly wounded by several hundred years of principled intellectual skepticism -- what the academics call the hermeneutics of suspicion -- and by a 20th century of incomparably dehumanizing brutality. Like Solzhenitsyn, John Paul believes that the political crisis of the 20th century began when European civilization "fell into a rage of self-mutilation" in 1914 and set loose a train of evil events whose effects have only now begun to recede.

But that cataclysm had philosophical and indeed spiritual roots. The political catastrophes of the century-World War I, communism and Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust, the Gulag, 45 years of cold war -- grimly vindicated Chesterton's adage that when men cease to believe in God, they don't believe in nothing, but in anything. The consequences of the hermeneutics of suspicion have been extraordinarily lethal. Launched in the Renaissance on the basis of a new confidence in the human prospect, secularist modernity has paradoxically given birth to a great fear: a fear of man and of the things of which man might be capable.

The spiritual core of John Paul II's project, in both its ecclesiastical and public dimensions, is to conquer that great fear through a new and more securely grounded affrmation of human possibility.

For Karol Wojtyla, Christian believer, the conquest of fear comes through conversion to Christ. Yet John Paul's belief in human dignity is not an affirmation for Catholics or Christians only. The task of constructing a humanism for the 21st century is broad-gauged, ecumenical, and inter- religious. Wojtyla's deep commitment to this enterprise is one of the hallmarks of his pontificate; its conceptual roots lie in his pre-papal career as professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin.

The pope's philosophical work, which established him as a leading figure in the modern school of phe- nomenology, was primarily in the field of ethics; his objective was to display the human person in all his dimensions -- physical, intellectual, psychological, spiritual -- as a free and responsible moral agent. This emphasis on freedom and responsibility, together, is Wojtyla's answer to the biological, cultural, and political-economic determinism of our time. It is also his method for opening up the transcendent horizon of human experience.

For it is in the dynamics of free and responsible moral agency, Wojtyla argues, that the transcendent -- "the extraordinary side of the ordinary," as he once put it -- breaks open for human beings. The "threshold of hope" is not only ahead of us but also above us. And we discover that threshold when we reflect on the inner dynamics of moral action, whose goal is the highest possible realization of the good. Contrary to the solipsistic absolutizing of the self epitomized by the American obsession with "autonomy," Wojtyla the -- philosopher argues that a true humanism, commensurate with what is most noble in the human person, is born in that greatest of human dramas: the struggle to surrender the self that we are to the pursuit of the self that we ought to become.

Putting it in these terms does scant justice to the richness and complexity of Wojtyla's philosophical product, but it perhaps illustrates the fatuity of the charge that the pope's is a pre-modern and narrowly sectarian mind. On the contrary, it is precisely Wojtyla's passion for the life of the mind that has led him into conversation with the philosophers and social scientists whom he invites to his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. (Last year's decidedly ecumenical gathering included Leszek Kolakowski, Edward Shils, Bernard Lewis, Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor, and Bronislaw Geremek.) As both philosopher and pope, Karol Wojtyla accepts that the church ought to open its windows to the modern world. But as Richard John Neuhaus has noted, John Paul also challenges modernity to open its windows to the worlds of which it is a part, which include the realities of transcendent truth and love.

The pope once said that the three greatest surprises of his life were being elected to the papacy, surviving Mehmet Ali Agca's assassination attempt in 1981, and witnessing the collapse of communism without massive bloodshed in 1989. Some will see in these events an incredible string of luck; Karol Wojtyla and many others see the finger of Providence at work.

And in that calm confidence we may find yet another reason for the pope's magnetism: He is a man who knows precisely who he is, what he believes, and what he is about. Vocation -- the notion that God has a distinctive purpose and responsibility in mind for every human life -- is something that Karol Wojtyla has always taken with great seriousness. And his singular vocation would now seem to point toward the Great Jubilee of 2000.

John Paul laid out ambitious plans for the Catholic Church's celebration of the Great Jubilee in a 1994 apostolic letter. Perhaps most provocatively, he called the people of the Church to an "examination of conscience" for "not having shown the true face of God" and thereby contributing to "religious indifference," the "widespread loss of the transcendent sense of the human person," and "grave forms of injustice and exclusion." The pope also urged the church to reflect on the fact, largely unremarked by North American Catholics, that ours is the greatest century of persecution and martyrdom in Christian history. And he reiterated his "fervent wish" to go to Sarajevo, Lebanon, and Jerusalem and to retrace the path of biblical history from Mount Sinai to Damascus. Finally, the year 2000 should be marked, the pope suggested, by "a meeting of all Christians," prepared in "fraternal cooperation with Christians of other denominations and traditions."

The pope has laid great stress on Christian unity in the hope that it just may be possible to heal the 11th-century breach between Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy by the year 2000. Whether Orthodoxy, variegated and fractious, can respond to the pope's initiatives is another question. But John Paul has made it abundantly clear that he sees neither theological nor jurisdictional roadblocks to full communion between the two churches. Were that to be accomplished, it would have the most profound public implications for post- communist Eastern Europe.

Equally, John Paul is committed to a deepening of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, to which he has already devoted considerable attention. His negotiation of full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel broke a crucial psychological barrier, beyond which the pope envisions a richer, more profoundly theological encounter between Jews and Catholics. Even more challenging will be the attempt to find a modus vivendi with activist Islam.

Commenting on the dedication of a new grand mosque in Rome, the pope celebrated the fact that "in Rome, the center of Christianity and the See of Peter's successor, Muslims should have their own place of worship with full respect for their freedom of conscience." But he also noted that "in some Islamic countries similar signs of the recognition of religious freedom are lacking." On the edge of the millennium, John Paul concluded, "the world is waiting for these signs."

At this hinge of history, one hallmark of John Paul's public project will be a vigorous defense of the universality of human rights, a moral claim now under attack from gerontocratic Chinese Communists, Singaporean authoritarians, Islamic activists, and Western deconstructionists. John Paul II is committed to the principle of universality on theological, philosophical, and political grounds. As both Christian believer and philosophical analyst of the "acting person," the pope is fully persuaded that certain basic rights -- foremost among them, the right of religious freedom -- constitute the inalienable moral heritage of all human beings. Moreover, he understands that the denial of universality is rooted in the denial of a universal moral law -- a prescription for a Hobbesian world in which all are at war with all. The public stakes involved in the defense of universality are very high indeed, and John Paul II may be expected to take a large role in that debate.

History has honored only two of the 264 popes with the title "the Great." Like John Paul, Leo I (440-461) and Gregory I (590-604) led a Church confronted by the claims of barbarians: in Leo's case, the Huns; in Gregory's, the Lombards. Leo the Great turned Attila back from Rome; Gregory the Great effected a truce with the invading Lombards and set about converting them to orthodox Christianity. Will history come to think of Karol Wojtyla as John Paul the Great? If it does, the reasons why will have much to do with a third papal intervention in the face of barbarians: the "masters of suspicion" whose radical deconstruction of reason has had such grave public consequences.

George Weigel is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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