Pope John Paul II Essay - Critical Essays

Pope John Paul II


Pope John Paul II 1920-

(Karol Wojtyla; also wrote under pseudonym Andrzej Jawien) Polish theologian, nonfiction writer, essayist, dramatist, critic, and poet.

The following entry presents an overview of Pope John Paul II's literary career through 1998.

The first non-Italian pope in 455 years and the first Slavic pope ever, Pope John Paul II is internationally renowned as a devoted missionary for peace and the dynamic spiritual and moral leader of nearly one billion Roman Catholics worldwide. Ordained as pontiff in 1978, the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Krakow—also a poet, playwright, and professor—is regarded as a formidable intellectual and radical conservative whose religious perspective is equally informed by Thomism and twentieth-century philosophy, particularly Marxism, existentialism, and phenomenology. A firm proponent of traditional theological strictures against sex out of wedlock, contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women, he has elicited much controversy for his uncompromising stand against the secularization of the church and strong criticism of moral degradation under both communist and capitalist economic systems. As “the strong conscience of the whole Christian world” and “the greatest of our modern popes,” according to the Reverend Billy Graham, John Paul has attracted millions of Catholic and non-Catholic admirers through his warm personal style, his devotion to the cause of social justice and human dignity, and dedication to direct ministration before mass congregations around the world.

Biographical Information

Born Karol Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, John Paul was the younger of two sons raised by devout Catholic parents. His mother, of Lithuanian descent, died when John Paul was nine and his father, a retired army officer, died in 1941. As a child John Paul excelled at school and athletics, developing lifelong passions for skiing, hiking, and canoeing. In 1938 he began studies in literature and philosophy at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he wrote poetry and participated in semiprofessional theater productions as an actor and playwright. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, John Paul worked as a laborer in a quarry and at a chemical factory while continuing his artistic activities. He wrote his first (now lost) play, David, in 1939 and two others, Job and Jeremiah, in 1940. He cofounded the underground Rhapsodic Theater, or “theater of the word,” with Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk and appeared in more than twenty productions during the Second World War. In 1942 John Paul began clandestine studies for the priesthood at a seminary in Krakow. Following his ordination in 1944, he earned a doctorate in theology from Jagiellonian University in 1948 and continued postgraduate study under conservative French theologian Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange at the Pontifical Angelicum University in Rome; he completed a thesis on St. John of the Cross in 1950 and a habilitation thesis on the philosophy of Max Scheler in 1957.

John Paul worked as a university chaplain and professor of moral philosophy at Catholic University in Lublin, Poland, until his appointment as auxiliary bishop of Krakow in 1958. He was elevated to vicar capitular of the archdiocese of Krakow in 1962, archbishop of Krakow in 1964, and bestowed cardinalship by Pope Paul VI in 1967. During the 1960s and 1970s, John Paul participated in the Second Vatican Council and rose to prominence at international bishops synods. He also published several plays, including Sklep Jubüerski (1960; The Jeweler's Shop), and the noted ethical and theological works Milose i odpowiedzialnosc (1960; Love and Responsibility), Osoba i czyn (1969; The Acting Person), and Znaki sprzecznosci (1976; Sign of Contradiction). John Paul served continuously as archbishop of Krakow until his appointment as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church on October 16, 1978. He succeeded Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I, both of whom died only months apart in 1978, to become the 264th pope in Church history and, at age fifty-eight, the youngest of the twentieth century. In 1979 he initiated the first of numerous international pilgrimages with a trip to Latin America. In 1981 John Paul survived a near fatal assassination attempt in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. During the 1980s, he was an important catalyst in the democratic reforms that swept Eastern Europe, particularly the Solidarity movement in his native Poland, and met with numerous world leaders and heads of states. Despite weakened physical health since the early 1990s—it is widely reported that he suffers from Parkinson's disease—John Paul maintains a rigorous travel itinerary and remains an active proponent of world peace. His fluency in multiple languages, including Italian, English, German, French, and Spanish, in addition to Latin and his native tongue, has enabled him to speak directly to a large international audience.

Major Works

John Paul wrote six plays between 1939 and 1964, five of which are contained in The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater (1987), along with several essays on drama. His early dramatic works, Job and Jeremiah, are written in verse and draw upon biblical themes to portray the suffering and martyrdom of the Polish nation during the Second World War; the first is modeled on Greek tragedy, the second on Symbolist theater. Our God's Brother, written during the late 1940s, centers upon the life of Adam Chmielowski (1845-1916), a Polish artist, political dissident, and advocate for the homeless known as Brother Albert whom he greatly admired. Characteristic of John Paul's “inner theater,” this work exhibits a minimum of external dramatic action, focusing instead on the protagonist's spiritual conflicts and philosophical concerns in non-linear progression. His last two dramas, The Jeweler's Shop and The Radiation of Fatherhood (1964), are comprised of long, interrelated monologues and meditations that resemble mystery plays in their archetypal themes and characterizations. The Jeweler's Shop, published under the pseudonym Andrzej Jawien, focuses on the separate relationships of three couples and their struggles with love, alienation, and parenthood.

Easter Vigil and Other Poems (1979) and Collected Poems (1982) contain English translations of his poetry, much of which was published in Catholic periodicals under the Jawien pseudonym. John Paul's overarching ethical, philosophical, and religious principles are put forth in The Acting Person, a culmination of a decade's research and reflection in which he synthesizes elements of Thomism, existentialism, and phenomenology into a complex foundation for moral action. While defending the free will of the individual and maintaining that human experience is essentially understood in terms of action, he rails against Cartesian subjectivism and dismisses the existentialist notion that action itself defines the person. Drawing upon Aristotelian metaphysics, John Paul attempts to establish objective principles of right and wrong action by which the individual acts autonomously to qualitatively improve or degrade his or her life. According to John Paul, the highest order of self-determination and personal fulfillment is achieved through integration with others and participatory activity toward the common good. Sign of Contradiction consists of discourses presented to Pope Paul VI and the Roman Curia during a 1976 Lenten retreat. Drawing upon a wide array of scriptural, literary, and philosophical sources, including the early church fathers, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Martin Heidegger, and Albert Camus, John Paul condemns totalitarianism, Western consumerism, and Third World poverty as primary sources of human suffering in the contemporary world. He also asserts that Jesus did not intend for his disciples to engage in overt political action, reflecting his disavowal of the Liberation Theology movement of Latin America. John Paul presents his views on love, marriage, and sexuality in Love and Responsibility, which derives from his university lectures, and Fruitful and Responsible Love (1979), based on an address delivered at a Milan conference on birth control in 1978. While extolling the sanctity of conjugal love in each, he condemns contraception, premarital and extramarital sex, and divorce. In Love and Responsibility he underscores the importance of transcendent love as a prerequisite for physical communion and warns against the exploitative objectification of one's partner for the sake of carnal gratification. Pleasure and procreation may coexist, he contends, but only among married partners who share a profound loving connection that supercedes the sex act itself.

In addition to his numerous addresses and apostolic letters, John Paul's major theological pronouncements are contained in his papal encyclicals. His first, Redemptor Hominis (1979; The Redeemer of Man), introduces John Paul's characteristic personal tone and international concern for the collective well-being and salvation of humanity, particularly the poor and disenfranchised in communist, capitalist, and Third World countries. In subsequent encyclicals he addressed spiritual aspects of labor (Laborem Exercens, 1981; On Human Work), the prohibition against the ordination of women as priests (Mulieris Dignitatem, 1988; The Dignity and Vocation of Women), the vying ambitions of Marxism and capitalism (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 1988; The Social Concern of the Church), the need for social justice in free market economies (Centesimus Annus, 1991; On the Hundredth Anniversary), the reunification of the Christian church (Ut Unum Sint, 1995; That All May Be One), and reaffirmed Catholic moral tradition against relativism and revisionists (Veritatis Splendor, 1994; The Splendor of Truth). John Paul also offers insight into his religious and historical perspective in “Be Not Afraid!”; (1984), an interview with French journalist André Frossard, and the international bestseller Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994), which consists of John Paul's responses to questions on personal, theological, and metaphysical topics posed by Italian journalist Vittorio Messori.

Critical Reception

John Paul is admired throughout the world for his universal message of hope and numerous diplomatic peace missions. His literary experiments, moral philosophy, and papal writings have earned him recognition as a profound thinker who is equally at home with the modern philosophy and social theories of Scheler, Camus, John-Paul Sartre, and Paul Ricoeur as with the Bible and medieval theology. Though the revered figurehead of the Roman Catholic church, he has generated considerable controversy among both clergy and laity due to his unwavering opposition to abortion, birth control, artificial fertilization, homosexuality, and the ordination of women. His progressive detractors within the church, particularly in Holland and the United States, view his stand on these issues as archaic, sexist, and unnecessarily exclusionary. However, both supporters and critics alike praise his exceptional moral courage and integrity, for which he was honored as Time magazine's “Man of the Year” in 1994. As many critics note, John Paul's experiences under Nazi and communist regimes forged his abiding personal stake in the defense of political freedom and human rights. Commenting on John Paul's “prophetic humanism,” Avery Dulles writes in America, “He is conscious of speaking to a world that is in the throes of crisis—a crisis of dehumanization. Like most prophets, he senses that he is faced with enormous opposition and that his is perhaps a lonely voice. He is not afraid to confront others in his struggle to salvage human dignity.” John Paul has also won respect for his impressive erudition and intellectual rigor. Noting the sophistication of his commentary in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, a book ostensibly intended for a mass audience, Peter Steinfels writes in Commonweal, “it is justifiably satisfying that the current successor of Peter takes it for granted that serious questions demand not just piety and good will but also knowledge and intellectual effort.”

Principal Works

David (drama) 1939

Job (drama) 1940

Jeremiah (drama) 1940

Quaestio de fide apud s. Joannem a Cruce [as Karol Wojtyla; Faith According to St. John of the Cross] (doctoral thesis) 1950

Ocena mozliwoœci zbudowania etyki chrzeœcijañskiej przy zakozeniach systemu Maksa Schelera [as Karol Wojtyla; An Evaluation of the Possibility of Constructing Christian Ethics on the Assumptions of Max Scheler's Philosophical System] (doctoral thesis) 1957

Milose i odpowiedzialnosc: Studium etyczne [as Karol Wojtyla; Love and Responsibility] (philosophy) 1960


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J. M. Cameron (review date 3 May 1979)

SOURCE: “Where the New Pope Stands,” in New York Review of Books, May 3, 1979, pp. 14-20.

[In the following review, Cameron examines John Paul's leadership, social vision, and thought in Sign of Contradiction.]

Interest in the Papacy has increased since the short pontificate of John XXIII. The good nature and charm of John were irresistible. As a personality Paul VI was less expansive; the task of presiding over the consequences of the second Vatican Council was something he did with great ability, but he found it tormenting, and this was evident in the tone of his later speeches, plaintive, passionate, mournful. John Paul I was an instant success: it seemed as...

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Raymond A. Schroth (review date 24 June 1979)

SOURCE: “The Vicars of Christ on Earth,” in New York Times Book Review, June 24, 1979, pp. 11, 44-5.

[In the following review, Schroth discusses John Paul's theological views in Fruitful and Responsible Love and Sign of Contradiction.]

It is almost a plunge into nostalgia now, only nine months after the events themselves, to relive the three months of the three Popes; when the television camera peered benevolently down like the eye of God on the wooden box holding the discolored corpse of the sad, sensitive, loving but not well-loved Giovanni Montini; when Dan Rather struggled to pronounce Castel Gandolfo and announced that the funeral mass was coming to an...

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Andrzej Poltawski (review date 4 April 1980)

SOURCE: “Objectifying the Subjective,” in Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 1980, p. 397.

[In the following review, Poltawski examines John Paul's moral and philosophical perspective in The Acting Person.]

This is the present Pope, Karol Wojtyla's, main philosophical work, in which he tries to give an outline of his philosophical anthropology. The point of departure is man as he is given to himself in and through his actions.

The author's position may be described as phenomenological realism. But this is not the realism criticized by Heidegger for introducing ready-made external things into the sense-bestowing human subjectivity; nor does it...

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Boleslaw Taborski (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “The ‘Inner Theatre’ of Karol Wojtyla,” in Polish Perspectives, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, 1981, pp. 64-70.

[In the following essay, Taborski discusses the style and major themes of John Paul's dramatic works.]

The plays of Karol Wojtyla constitute an unusual, and even in certain respects, unique phenomenon. The reasons for it are certainly far more complex than the fact that this particular playwright became Pope. It would be best (though, perhaps, not now possible), if one could forget about the election to the highest office in the Church of the author of those plays. The fact that these plays have only now been revealed to the world at large is...

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Kenneth Briggs (review date 9 September 1981)

SOURCE: “Rejoinder to the Sexual Revolution,” in New York Times Book Review, September 20, 1981, p. 13.

[In the following review, Briggs discusses John Paul's views on love and sexuality as delineated in Love and Responsibility.]

Pope John Paul II has often spoken about sex and marriage during his nearly three-year reign. The impression left by these utterances, portraying the Pontiff as simply a pillar of traditional Catholic moral theology, does an injustice to the wider scope of his thinking. When he makes public statements, the well-developed conceptual underpinnings for his views unfortunately get left behind.

Moreover, the Pope is often a...

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Jaroslav Pelikan (review date 22 April 1984)

SOURCE: “Conversations With the Pope,” in New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, p. 12.

[In the following review, Pelikan discusses John Paul's theological views in “Be Not Afraid!”;]

When the Pope speaks ex cathedra (literally, from the throne)—“that is, in carrying out his office as the pastor and teacher of all Christians,” as the First Vatican Council explained this phrase in 1870—he is believed to be preserved from any error in matters of faith and morals. But whatever someone's personal or theological views about this ex cathedra infallibility may be, it is in many ways more interesting and certainly more unusual when a pope elects to...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 14 December 1987)

SOURCE: “Praying and Playing,” in The New Republic, December 14, 1987, pp. 47-8.

[In the following review, Baranczak examines the style, central themes, and philosophical underpinnings of John Paul's plays.]

Two of the world's most powerful men were once actors. But only one of them was also smart enough to write his own lines. The appearance in English of The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater reminds us that before he became John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla's extraecclesiastic pastimes included not only philosophy, poetry, acting, skiing, and hiking, but also playwriting. To paraphrase Stalin, how many diversions does the pope have?

To be...

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Richard Viladesau (essay date March 1992)

SOURCE: “Could Jesus Have Ordained Women? Reflections on Mulieris Dignitatem,” in Thought, Vol. 67, No. 264, March, 1992, pp. 5-20.

[In the following essay, Viladesau examines John Paul's historical and anthropological arguments against the ordination of women as delineated in Mulieris Dignitatem. According to Viladesau, Mulieris Dignitatem, “suffers from weaknesses of questionable theological presumptions and faulty logic.”]

A priest of my acquaintance tells a story of his visit to the home of parishioners in rural Ireland. During the conversation the man of the house broached the subject of women in the church and asked why they could not...

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Avery Dulles (essay date 23 October 1993)

SOURCE: “The Prophetic Humanism of John Paul II,” in America, October 23, 1993, pp. 6-11.

[In the following essay, Dulles examines John Paul's humanist view of individual conscience, communalism, political participation, and transcendent order. According to Dulles, “John Paul II evidently sees himself and the church as divinely commissioned to be the advocates of authentic humanity.”]

For some time I have been asking myself whether there is a single rubric under which it might be possible to summarize the message of the present pontificate. I have thought about the Pope's concern for the inner unity of the Catholic Church, the new evangelization, the dialogue...

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Douglas Johnston (review date 6 November 1994)

SOURCE: “Asking the Really Big Questions,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 6, 1994, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following review, Johnston offers favorable analysis of Crossing the Threshold of Hope.]

One wonders what the College of Cardinals though it was getting when it elected Karol Wojtyla the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. That will remain an eternal secret, but there can be little doubt that Pope John Paul II has surprised everyone with his vitality and political shrewdness.

Now he surprises again with this book—the first ever written by a sitting pope for a general audience. Reading what may be the last testament of this...

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Peter Hebblethwaite (review date 11 November 1994)

SOURCE: “Professor in Slippers,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 1994, p. 32.

[In the following review, Hebblethwaite examines John Paul's religious and political views in Crossing the Threshold of Hope.]

Librarians will have problems cataloguing this work. The author appears on the title-page as “His Holiness Pope John Paul II”. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to put it under Messori, Vittorio, ed. Then it would join the celebrated interviewer's other books like The Ratzinger Report—which had their fifteen minutes of fame.

Pope John Paul has been interviewed before. In 1984, André Frossard (author of God Exists,...

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Garry Wills (review date 22 December 1994)

SOURCE: “The Tragic Pope?,” in New York Review of Books, December 22, 1994, pp. 4, 6-7.

[In the following review, Wills discusses John Paul's Christian theology in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. Though noting contradictions and evasions, Wills writes, “It is a relief to see the Pope talk of the truths of faith with the excitement they deserve (whether true or false).”]

Was the Pope subjecting us to a Great Wu routine? It seemed so. Let Orson Welles, always a bit of a Wu himself, explain:

Mister Wu is a classic example [of theatrical hype]—I've played it once myself. All the other actors boil around the stage...

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Paul Gray (essay date 26 December 1994)

SOURCE: “Empire of the Spirit,” in Time, December 26, 1994, pp. 48-57.

[In the following essay, Gray discusses John Paul's significance as an international moral leader.]

People who see him—and countless millions have—do not forget him. His appearances generate an electricity unmatched by anyone else on earth. That explains, for instance, why in rural Kenyan villages thousands of children, plus many cats and roosters and even hotels, are named John Paul. Charisma is the only conceivable reason why a CD featuring him saying the rosary—in Latin—against a background of Bach and Handel is currently ascending the charts in Europe. It also accounts for the dazed...

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Camille Paglia (review date 26 December 1994)

SOURCE: “Pope Fiction,” in New Republic, December 24, 1994, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Paglia offers positive evaluation of Crossing the Threshold of Hope. According to Paglia, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope comes as a stunning display not of Catholic autocracy but of the ideological flexibility and rueful insight of the modern mind.”]

The pope speaks. But Crossing the Threshold of Hope is a peculiar document. Each chapter opens with the journalist Vittorio Messori's questions, sometimes bold and querulous, sometimes obsequious and honorific in the Italian way—“Allow me to play, although respectfully, the gadfly.” The pope...

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Kevin Wildes (essay date 26 December 1994)

SOURCE: “In the Name of the Father,” in New Republic, December 26, 1994, pp. 21-5.

[In the following essay, Wildes examines the importance of phenomenology as the philosophical framework of John Paul's Christian theology and teachings. According to Wildes, “Pope John Paul II has grounded the authority of Karol Wojtyla's modern phenomenology in the ancient authority of God.”]

Since the close of the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has struggled, in public, about how it should move: forward into the modern world or backward to the austere certitude of the past. In 1979, when an obscure Polish cardinal was elected pope, it seemed as if a decision...

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Peter Steinfels (review date 13 January 1995)

SOURCE: “Surprising, Demanding, Impressive,” in Commonweal, January 13, 1995, pp. 21-2.

[In the following review, Steinfels offers positive assessment of Crossing the Threshold of Hope.]

Millions of people scarcely able to understand this book will purchase and peruse it. Other millions who could appreciate and benefit from its insights will spurn it out of hand. The reason is the same in both cases: the author is the pope.

Behind the widespread interest and best-seller status of Crossing the Threshold of Hope is the belief that it will reveal a “real pope” behind the official Vicar of Christ, a down-home Karol Wojtyla who will relax,...

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Leo D. Lefebure (essay date 15 February 1995)

SOURCE: “John Paul II: The Philosopher Pope,” in Christian Century, February 15, 1995, pp. 170-6.

[In the following essay, Lefebure examines John Paul's intellectual development and the philosophical underpinnings of his Christian theology. Lefebure contends that John Paul's rigid demand for Catholic obedience is tempered by his affinity for modern philosophical thought and belief in the sanctity of individual conscience.]

During World War, Karol Wojtyla was a member of the underground Rhapsodic Theater. He was in the middle of performing one of the most patriotic plays in Polish literature when the sound of the Nazi radio interrupted with news of a German victory...

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J. Bryan Hehir (essay date 19 May 1995)

SOURCE: “Get a (Culture of) Life,” in Commonweal, May 19, 1995, pp. 8-9.

[In the following essay, Hehir offers analysis of John Paul's The Gospel of Life encyclical.]

John Paul II's eleventh encyclical, The Gospel of Life (March 25, 1995) is yet another testimony to a central conviction of this papacy, namely, that words and ideas are the crucial determinants of history. The reception accorded the most recent text demonstrates John Paul II's continuing ability to gain a hearing for his ideas, however different they are from prevailing cultural convictions. The New York Times devoted almost a quarter of the front page to a photo and story about...

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John O'Neill (essay date June 1995)

SOURCE: “Intrinsic Evil, Truth, and Authority,” in Religious Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2, June, 1995, pp. 209-19.

[In the following essay, O'Neill examines the argument for intrinsic evil and moral authority in Veritatis Splendor. Though supporting John Paul's view that some acts are intrinsically evil, O'Neill objects to the pope's claim to “epistemological authority.”]

Pope John Paul's recent encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, addresses itself beyond its immediate audience in the Catholic Church to ‘all people of good will’. While my Catholic friends assure me that the Catholic Church is one club that once entered can't be left, I assume myself to...

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Desmond Sullivan (essay date September 1996)

SOURCE: “The Pope and Christian Unity,” in Contemporary Review, Vol. 269, No. 1568, September, 1996, pp. 135-8

[In the following essay, Sullivan examines John Paul's advocacy for reconciliation within the Christian Church. “While proclaiming, fearlessly, his office as successor of Peter,” writes Sullivan, “John Paul II has personally … shattered most of the post-Reformation arguments and obstacles to Christian unity.”]

There was considerable disappointment among many ecumenical Christians that the Pope did not use the occasion of his visit to Germany—where the Reformation began—to make any memorable pronouncement on Christian unity. Yet three letters...

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Jonathan Kwitny (essay date 10 October 1997)

SOURCE: “Neither Capitalist Nor Marxist: Karol Wojtyla's Social Ethics,” in Commonweal, October 10, 1997, pp. 17-21.

[In the following essay, Kwitny examines John Paul's contradictory affinity for Marxist revolution and free market principles as delineated in Catholic Social Ethics. According to Kwitny, John Paul endorses “class-conscious revolution,” though objects to “Marxism's subjugation of the individual human spirit … after the revolution.”]

Romuald Kukolowicz, now in his seventies, is the son of Polish Catholic intellectuals. In 1953, he was working as a clerk. At the time, Poland was firmly part of Stalin's Soviet empire. During World War...

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Michael Sean Winters (essay date 9 February 1998)

SOURCE: “Old Faithful: John Paul v. Modernity,” in New Republic, February 9, 1998, pp. 16, 18.

[In the following essay, Winters discusses John Paul's opposition to Marxism, capitalism, and modern technological societies.]

In a country accustomed to one message and one messenger, the Pope's visit to Cuba is the stuff of high political drama, certainly a more provocative threat to Castro's regime than the Helms-Burton Act. For weeks now, the U.S. press has been buzzing with speculation as to whether the Pope may precipitate the fall of communism in Cuba—finally succeeding where generations of U.S. policy-makers have failed. After all, as Newsweek cheerfully...

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Further Reading


Kwitny, Jonathan. Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II. New York: Henry Holt, 1997, 754 p.

Examines John Paul's life, career, and complex religious, political, and philosophical perspective.

Malinski, Mieczyslaw. Pope John Paul II: The Life of Karol Wojtyla. Translated by P. S. Falla. New York: Seabury Press, 1979, 283 p.

A personal recollection of John Paul's early parish activities, writings, and tenure as archbishop in Krakow.


Czerwinski, E. J. Review of The Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. World Literature...

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