April 2002

The Third Secret: The CIA, Solidarity and the KGB’s Plot to Kill the Pope.  By Nigel West. HarperCollins. 260 pages. $15.95.

In his guidebook for Christian living, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, the Jesuit Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658) insists that if the faithful are to have a positive influence in world affairs, they must “know when to be evasive…it is the way the prudent avoid difficulties.” Prudently evasive is exactly how Nigel West describes John Paul II’s role in helping bring down Communism in Eastern Europe. Although much attention is paid to the struggles between Washington and Moscow, this volume opens by admitting that, “Dominating the scene is the first Slavic Pontiff, one of the most truly extraordinary figures of the century, a man of mystical beliefs who played a hitherto undisclosed role in a series of events which was to lead to the collapse of Communism in Europe.” In order to disclose the role played by this Pontiff in leading his fellow Poles and other Eastern Europeans back to basic human freedom and the chance to unearth their Christian culture, West first brings us back to May 13, 1917, and the apparitions at Fatima.

On that day the Virgin Mary appeared to Jacinta and Francisco Marto, and to their cousin Lucia de Jesus Santos. Mary entrusted three secrets to Lucia, the first involving a glimpse of Hell and the foretelling of the early deaths of Jacinta and Francisco. The second secret called for the Christian conversion of the Soviet Union, which Lucia revealed to the Vatican upon the Nazi invasion of Russia. Lucia did not disclose the third secret until 1943, however, and even then with great trepidation. John XXIII was the first to read it in 1957; John Paul II read it within the first year of his pontificate, of course not knowing then that on the anniversary of the Fatima messages, May 13, 1981, he would be struck by three bullets from an assassin. This third secret foretold how a “Bishop dressed in white” would pass through a veritable graveyard on his way to a hilltop Cross, where he is fired upon while leading others in prayer. Shot in the right hand and arm as well as, most significantly, just a fraction of an inch from his abdominal artery, John Paul’s last word as he was rushed into surgery was “Madonna,” summarizing how he would understand Mary’s role on that fateful day: One hand fired, and another guided the bullet.

It is this first hand, Mehmet Ali Agca’s, which receives the most attention in the pages that follow. West traces how Agca originally came to Rome to assassinate Lech Walesa, who was in town to meet with the Pope. Agca demurred, however, insisting that he had not enough experience detonating bombs. Why should a Turkish college student of history and economics, an uncommitted theist with no extreme religious leanings, be so interested in destroying not only the leader of Poland’s Solidarity movement, but the leader of the Catholic Church? The author clearly links Agca with other Moscow-backed assassins hired to commit acts of terror and wreak havoc in politically sensitive areas around the world.

Such activity did not go undetected by the West’s intelligence agencies. The author quotes an interview with the head of the French Intelligence Agency, Comte Alexander de Marenches, who warned John Paul that his life was in danger just months into his pontificate because the latter understood “all too well how these peoples’ minds work. There is nothing the Communists hate more than someone who understands their methods.” American intelligence officials, such as William Casey and Generals Alexander Haig and Vernon Walters, are also presented as men whose Catholicism helped “to eliminate the fuzziness found among too many politicians” and whose faith enabled them to pursue the issue of the Soviets’ role in John Paul’s assassination attempt when other State Department officials were content to conclude that Agca worked entirely alone.

The remainder of the book deals with the events surrounding what West calls “The Kremlin’s Vietnam” — the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By supplying the mujahedin with a top-of-the-line arsenal, President Reagan knew it would only be a matter of time before the financially beleaguered Soviets would capitulate and begin to rethink their role in the world. Accordingly, West ends by examining the Solidarity movement in Poland, especially the obviously orchestrated murder of Fr. Jerzy Popieluszko, and by affirming how both John Paul’s actions from Rome — as well as the symbol of hope his pontificate became for so many — initiated the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.

A military historian and the current European editor of the Washington-based Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, Nigel West is no stranger to reporting international tales of skullduggery and clandestine operations. His writing displays a refreshing respect for the lives of believers and the powerful role faith can play in world affairs. Intriguing and revealing, this book recounts a powerful example of the Church’s universal role in combating injustice and all that seeks to squelch truth and the human spirit.

- David Vincent Meconi



Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence.  By Michael Medved and Diane Medved. HarperCollins. 324 pages. $13.

First published a few years ago, this gem of a book is available in paperback. It’s a great aid to parents who struggle to protect their children from the worst effects of our decadent and violent culture.

Michael Medved is a radio talk-show host and former film critic; his wife Diane is a clinical psychologist. They have three children, so their interest in saving childhood is not merely academic.

Their criticism of the current culture will ring true to nearly anyone old enough to remember a popular culture less degraded than today’s. But they add depth in several key areas.

Violence, sex, and general tastelessness are not the only problems with television, the Medveds note. Another is that TV’s rapidly changing images promote impatience and an “alarming decline in…attention span.” Even the highly praised Sesame Street “encourages restlessness in its very young viewers” and turns them “toward quick-paced video…as sources of enjoyment.” Television also promotes self-pity, the Medveds say, since viewers cannot have all the possessions, glamour, and excitement that TV parades before them. And it encourages superficiality, especially by its emphasis on physical beauty.

TV, the Medveds conclude, “is the enemy of every youngster’s childhood. And yet parents pay good money to place the enemy in their family’s midst, and then they plop their little ones down in front of it, directly in harm’s way.”

They also have much to say about films, books, and magazines that assault children’s innocence. They deal with what passes for “music” these days, violence in video games, and pornography on the Internet. While they believe that children should develop computer skills, and that computers are not as bad as TV, they urge parents to limit use of both “because they pull children away from face-to-face interactions with their families and friends and substitute a phony world on a screen.”

They also criticize today’s schools, noting that “neither sex nor antidrug education works.” They decry the kind of propaganda that led one little girl to throw away her dolls because “her teacher showed the class that the world was so bad — and so crowded — that nobody should have children.”

The best part of the book is the final third, wherein the Medveds suggest how to protect children’s sense of security, their sense of wonder, and their optimism.

Security for children, they say, “means parents right there for them.” A father may think he enhances his family’s security by working long hours to make more money, but “Dad provides more security by just being home every night.”

Children are “natural conservatives” who take comfort in family traditions and religious ritual. When the Medved children were lonely in their new Seattle home, the Sabbath ritual of their Jewish faith helped them through a difficult time. The Medveds encourage daily prayer, and they recommend the commandment Jews are supposed to remember upon awaking in the morning: “Rise up like a lion for the service of the Lord!”

They suggest encouraging children’s sense of wonder by reading them old-fashioned stories and books such as Aesop’s Fables, The Golden Book of 365 Stories, and A Child’s Garden of Verses.

They recommend avoiding battery-operated toys, which promote passivity and lead to lonely play. “We’re becoming a solo culture,” they lament, “sadly free of tea parties, teddy-bear picnics, and kid-staged extemporaneous dramatics.”

The Medveds’ promotion of patriotism needs a qualifier. They justly praise the virtues of America, but they do not really acknowledge the seamier side of American history or the injustices the U.S. has inflicted on many poor nations (incursions, invasions, overthrow of governments, “structural readjustment,” population control). “Encourage patriotism,” the Medveds say. “Fly the flag. Sing patriotic songs in your home.” I would add the words of Carl Schurz, an Army general of the 1800s: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

The Medveds’ most radical suggestion is one of their best: Either drastically reduce your family’s TV-watching, or get rid of the TV altogether. Their family’s own solution is to have a TV set, but no antenna or cable, so that the set can be used only for “selected and approved videos.” They allow their children to watch only six hours of videos each week.

For families who cannot quit TV entirely, they recommend other limits: Ban TV sets in bedrooms, then in the kitchen. “Once you’ve confined your TV to only one room, consider making it harder to watch. Cover it with a tablecloth, and top that with a potted plant….”

That suggestion, like many others in this splendid book, promises greater happiness for children — and parents as well.

- Mary Meehan



Newman’s Challenge.  By Stanley L. Jaki. Eerdmans. 321 pages. $20.

Orthodox Catholics owe a debt of gratitude to Fr. Stanley Jaki. While the majority of the Catholic intellectual establishment has gone liberal, he can be trusted to give the truth about things Catholic. One of these is the work of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Was he the guiding spirit who had prepared the Church to open herself up to the modern world, a view pushed by the liberal establishment? Did the Cardinal really have doubts about the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope when that teaching was declared at Vatican I? Did Newman really place the power of conscience over that of the Pope, thus preparing the way for those who would resist the Pope’s encyclical against contraception in the name of conscience? Did the great convert really declare that the hierarchy should consult the laity on doctrinal and moral matters? Did Newman as author of the Grammar of Assent really subvert the views of St. Thomas Aquinas about the nature of faith, thereby supplanting the old scholastic method with phenomenology? Can Newman as author of The Development of Christian Doctrine really be seen as a kind of theological Darwinian who introduced the possibility of outright doctrinal change? Can Newman, who had his difficulties with certain members of the hierarchy, be seen as the patron saint of intellectuals today who dissent from the teachings of the Church?

To all of these questions Fr. Jaki answers with a resounding NO. In his answer, Fr. Jaki makes extensive use not only of Newman’s published works, but also of the Letters and Diaries, a collection of Newman’s unpublished writings, which fills over 30 volumes and saw the light of day around the time that Vatican II closed. Anyone familiar with the published works of Newman would not need the previously unpublished ones to correct the spin that the liberals have put upon his heritage. The strict orthodoxy of Newman is there for all honest readers to see. But, as Fr. Jaki notes, Letters and Diaries seems to be the means that Providence has supplied to scholars by which they might more easily correct the distortions generated by the other type.

While the expertise of Fr. Jaki in taking the spin off the way liberal intellectuals have treated Newman is impressive, even more impressive is the incisive way he lays out the basic issue between Newman and his would-be adapters. The issue is that Newman believes in the supernatural, and his adapters don’t really. Since Fr. Jaki also believes in the supernatural, he is a religious realist who would be perfectly at home teaching a catechism class to seventh graders. He would teach them that angels are pure spirits, that the stain of Original Sin is washed away in the waters of Baptism, that miracles really happen, and that all souls will end up in either Heaven or Hell. So when Fr. Jaki displays the thought of Newman, he portrays it as a believer speaking of another believer. He shows us that Newman himself would also be perfectly at home teaching seventh graders their catechism. Real Catholic theologians can do this. Liberal ones can’t. To prove this, all one has to do is to read any of the evasive booklets designed by the liberal establishment for the instruction of seventh graders.

Fr. Jaki is concrete enough to satisfy those who wish to get into the details of scholarship about Newman over the past thirty-five years, and he is far-sighted enough to provide an example of one of Newman’s great principles, namely, that a Catholic gives his assent to realities, not mere notions.

- Richard Geraghty





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