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.
A particularly striking example is John Paul II's teaching on men and women, sex and marriage. Wojtyla's first book was on the ethics of married life, and it celebrated human sexuality as a gift of God for the sanctification of husband and wife. Decades later, John Paul proposed what Weigel calls "one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries," as he addressed the challenges of the sexual revolution and feminism. He argued that the distinct roles of men and women are consistent with their equal dignity, and that marriage, with "the self-giving love of sexual communion," can be the experience "that begins to make God comprehensible to human beings." The pope's argument cuts through the stale debate between liberationists and traditionalists, and makes a distinctive contribution not merely to Catholic thought, but to thought simply.
And that is a sign of the third aspect of John Paul II's achievement: his intellectual significance. Early on, Wojtyla came to the view that the crisis of the modern world was first of all a crisis of ideas. Never believing it was enough simply to lament a falling away of faith or to assume that the formulations of the past were unproblematically adequate, Wojtyla sought from the beginning to discover a metaphysical foundation for modern humanism and democracy. His early philosophical work, Person and Act, was an attempt to put an Aristotelian-Thomistic "philosophy of being" together with a "psychology of consciousness" derived from such thinkers as Max Scheler--to figure out the relation between the objective truth of things and the subjective and personal experience of that truth.
Wojtyla's effort to tie together freedom and truth, and indeed to argue the identity of the true and the good, is a deep and difficult project. It was intended to be, as Weigel says, "accessible to everyone no matter what his or her religious disposition." One has to stop for a moment to recognize just how significant this is. A major player on the world stage and the administrative leader of the world's largest organized religion set himself the profound philosophical task of defending, for believers and non-believers alike, the intelligibility of the world against the radical skepticism and moral relativism of the age.
In the end, however, one returns to what was most simple and most evident about John Paul II: his courage--physical, moral, and intellectual. Aristotle claims that courage is the first of the virtues, because it makes possible all the others. John Paul II demanded that we "learn not to be afraid," that we "rediscover a spirit of hope and a spirit of trust." He grounded that hope and trust on his faith that man "is not alone" but lives with the abiding presence of God. His life invites us to admire human excellence--and to reflect on the question of whether or not such excellence depends on a conviction, like John Paul II's, that man is not, in some fundamental sense, alone.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard. This piece is adapted from the essay, "The Man of our Age," a review of George Weigel's Witness to Hope , from the October 18, 1999 issue.