July-August 2000

Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.  By George Weigel. HarperCollins. 992 pages. $35.

Achilles had a “heel issue.” Yes, he was a heroic figure. No, we shall not soon, or ever, forget his story. And yet, we wish his were a different story, though doubtless none could tell it so well as Homer.

Weigel tells us the story of a heroic figure: John Paul II. In telling the story he provides us with an illuminating history of Catholicism in the 20th century. Weigel’s biography is carefully researched, robustly written, and very, very long. Its hero, however heroic, is human; but Weigel finds in him no tragic flaw. And so one doubts whether when Karol Wojtyla comes before the judgment seat of God, the Lord Himself will find any such flaw.

But let’s turn from Weigel’s subject to Weigel’s story.

Let no one judge Weigel who has not read Weigel. This reviewer has, at last, done so and been well instructed. We are in Weigel’s debt, and while Weigel is no Homer, it’s our world that he chronicles. But Weigel, like Achilles, has a “heel” issue. Indeed, he has two heel issues — as Mark and Louise Zwick’s “unauthorized” review of Weigel’s “authorized” biography pointedly notes (Houston Catholic Worker, Dec. 1999).

First, Weigel cannot bring himself to admit that nuclear stockpiling is morally unconscionable. It inescapably involves, as Germain Grisez has shown, at least a conditional intention to kill the innocent. The USSR was an evil and murderous empire. But it was home to millions of innocent people, among them the very infirm, children, the unborn, and the living dead of the Gulags. (There is one telling slip: In a lonely footnote on p. 942 Weigel reveals that Lech Walesa had considered buying nuclear weapons for the new Poland but was told that “the Pope would regard any such acquisition as a very bad idea.”)

Second, Weigel cannot bring himself to admit that the Pope isn’t a neoconservative or, at least, ready to become one when he catches up with the Wonders of the West. Weigel can easily enough promote neoconservativism because there’s a kernel of truth in capitalism. But there’s a kernel of truth in socialism as well. Both kernels are fated to remain kernels, because neither real capitalism nor real socialism accept the principle of solidarity (the first test of justice is how we treat the weakest) or the principle of subsidiarity (“grass roots” come before either Holy Mother the State or Holy Mother the Market). Instead of solidarity, these noxious “isms” look first to the interests of the economically strong. Instead of subsidiarity, they look first to their preferred managerial elites. (Again, there is one telling slip: On p. 671 Weigel tells us that the Pope’s 1993 critique of capitalism in Latvia was “seized upon” by incorrigible elements of the Left. But he studiously refrains from giving us any of the text of that address.)

Still, there are few of us who do not suffer from an Achilles’ heel or two. The rest of us must, to be sure, attend to ours before we find ourselves undone.

There are precious few of us who could tell so instructive a story about John Paul II as Weigel does. In many ways, it is a splendid achievement. Buy the book; read all of it; judge for yourself. NOR readers who do so will find in the Pope’s witness to hope an enduring, indeed, amazing grace.

- James G. Hanink



The Usual Suspects: Answering Anti-Catholic Fundamentalists.  By Karl Keating. Ignatius. 195 pages. $12.95.

Karl Keating’s third book, The Usual Suspects, presents 26 stories in which he deals with typical and not-so-typical arguments from anti-Catholics. As for the latter, Keating responds to the belief that the Pope’s blessings precipitate a curse on the recipient and the view that Catholics worship hairballs under their beds. Really!

Keating presents charitable, sane, and biblical replies to the concerns raised by a number of fundamentalist Protestants. The answers Keating gives are extremely practical and useful. While many of the chapters end rather abruptly and thus give the impression of being half-finished, all in all the book will help not only active Catholic apologists, but any Catholic interested in defending his Faith with common sense, historical accuracy, and lasting wisdom.

- Mario Derksen





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