Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 1990

November 1990

Portrait of John Paul II

By Andre Frossard

Publisher: Ignatius

Pages: 175

Price: $9.95

Review Author: Bryant Burroughs

The arresting figure of John Paul II illuminates the late 20th-century landscape. His pontificate represents one of those few riveting moments in which the movement of the Hand of God is discerned as clearly as the movement of one’s own hand.

Here is a Pope, whose suffering eyes reflect the pain of an adulthood lived under two totalitarian powers, leading a Church that perhaps best flourishes under the tyrant’s terror. Here is a Pope, whose subtle and sophisticated intellect is yoked to orthodox Christian teaching, directing a Church with a billion adherents that is threatened from within by “subtle minds with questionable motives.”

Andre Frossard presents a very personal portrait of John Paul. The French journalist was as surprised at his selection by the Pope for collaboration as was Karol Wojtyla to become John Paul II. The invitation whispered by the papal secretary, “Be at the Bronze Door at a quarter to seven tomorrow morning,” followed a brief audience with the Pope, and produced a meaningful friendship. Frossard presents a series of vignettes, none of which comprises more than a few pages, but which together form an engaging portrait of John Paul. A couple of examples:

On the Pope’s evangelism: “For decades our pastoral theology has been built on the notion that we have basically lost our first Faith. The work of John Paul II…proved the opposite to be the case, and every one of his addresses to the peoples of the world possessed the singular ability to bring out again, more or less intact, that religious sense modern life has ostensibly deleted from rational minds.”

On his humility: “It is his humility that makes him so openhearted, so kindly disposed precisely toward the humble and toward children. Whenever he enters the large audience chamber at the Vatican, he stops to greet people in the top rows all the way in the back, the ones in the least desirable places farthest from the throne.”

In his encyclicals and actions John Paul has refused to endorse capitalism or Communism, and has reminded each system of its many shortcomings. Both systems reject God and embrace Mammon, and view men and women as beings for whom material needs transcend all else. Capitalism tempts its citizens with what C.S. Lewis termed the “evil enchantment of worldiness” — and the false security of material affluence becomes, in Pascal’s words, “veils which hide God.” Communism challenges Church teaching that it is Christian faith, not the leviathan state, that is to shape the contours of human life.

Against the secular thinking of both East and West has stood this successor to St. Peter, whose power is dependent upon neither armed divisions nor democratic vote. He has patiently and eloquently critiqued both the adherents of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, and these competitors are now in disarray. Communism is crumbling in Eastern Europe and even Mother Russia. Capitalism, withered and weighted down by its own promises, is unable to prevent the West’s deterioration into a chaos in which right and wrong mean little.

John Paul has restored intellectual legitimacy to Christianity in an age in which religion is considered an anachronism. He is also a powerful refutation of the fundamentalist prejudice that “Catholics neither know truth nor live holy lives.” This notion is supported by tales of medieval popes who were masters of mistresses, murder, and Machiavellian politics. But this Pope is no Borgian ghost; he marries brilliant and unflagging orthodox Christian teaching to a holy way of life. Not surprisingly, his pontificate has marked the greatest period of conversions among intellectuals since Oxford in the 1840s. The latest of the latter-day converts is American Lutheranism’s most prominent theologian, Richard John Neuhaus.

Frossard’s book demonstrates that John Paul is that rare human being whose attractive qualities increase as one draws closer.

The End of the Cold War: European Unity, Socialism, and the Shift in Global Power

By Bogdan Denitch

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press

Pages: 123

Price: $10.95

Review Author:

The common wisdom in America is that not only is Communism dying but socialism as an idea — even democratic socialism — is in profound crisis. Bogdan Denitch, who teaches political sociology at the City University of New York, retorts, “I cannot remember one period of the history of [democratic] socialism when it was not in crisis.” Democratic socialists have always been sketchy in theory and pragmatic in practice. No great new crisis there. Organizationally and electorally, they’re actually thriving today. No crisis there.

A self-described “left-wing social democrat,” Denitch sees the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War as great opportunities for democratic socialism. Why? Because a unified Europe will likely be characterized by social democratic values, as is western Europe today. While Denitch is too starry-eyed about social democratic prospects in eastern Europe in the short run, he has a case.

Denitch sees a significant difference between Anglo-American (Thatcherite/ Reaganite) political economy and that of continental Europe. While the capitalist temper dominates Protestant Britain and America, continental Europe is largely Catholic, and Catholics have been and are decidedly less enthusiastic about raw capitalism than are Anglo-American Protestants. (Even Germany’s “conservative” Helmut Kohl is no Maggie Thatcher.) Although Denitch doesn’t go into great detail, he sees numerous affinities between Catholicism and democratic socialism — from official Vatican teaching on down to the day-to-day practices of European Catholic parties and trade unions.

The salient fact about the European social democratic consensus is that it works, both politically and economically. A united Europe will be an economic powerhouse more than rivaling Horatio Alger America. And even in Britain the Labor Party is on the verge of returning to power. Those who are swooning about the triumph of Adam Smith need to sober up.

Dictionary of Christianity in America

By Daniel G. Reid, et al

Publisher: InterVarsity

Pages: 1,305

Price: $39.95

Review Author:

If you’re a Protestant interested in learning about the ins and outs of Catholicism in America, there’s no need to rush out and get this dictionary. But if you’re a Catholic with a desire or need to probe the intricacies of American Protestantism, this book is well worth having.

The dictionary is published by a respected evangelical Protestant house, and the editors are to be commended for including Catholic themes and personalities in their 2,400 entries. But the varieties of Protestantism often get disproportionately greater attention than does Catholicism. For example, the Lutheran churches and tradition get 15 1/2 columns plus a full-page chart, while the much larger Roman Catholic Church gets only 6 1/2 columns.

Numerous minor Protestant figures from the U.S. and abroad receive treatment, but the seminal Harvard Catholic historian, Christopher Dawson, is absent. Notable living theologians such as the Protestants Carl F.H. Henry and Langdon Gilkey have entries, but not the Catholic Avery Dulles, though his father John Foster, a Presbyterian, is favored with a column.

But this is not to quibble, only to note that not even fine books can always do everything well.

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