Best known for his exposés of the Watergate scandal (All the President’s Men, 1974; The Final Days, 1976), written in collaboration with fellow Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, which brought the presidency of Richard Nixon to an ignominious end in 1973, Carl Bernstein is nothing if not ambitious. In His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time, Bernstein shifts his attention to the world stage, to the life of Pope John Paul II—the man who played a pivotal role, along with Ronald Reagan, in bringing an end to the Cold War—by any estimate the most important geopolitical event of the latter half of the twentieth century. Given the scope of this undertaking, Bernstein has wisely wedded his investigative skills with those of Italian journalist Marco Politi, a veteran correspondent who has covered Vatican politics for almost two decades. Politi brings to this project an astonishing array of Vatican sources, perhaps as many as one-quarter of the more than three hundred interviews conducted by the authors between 1993 and 1996 in preparation for this book. While Bernstein and Politi have, to judge by their bibliography, consulted most of the major and a good many minor works on the life and papacy of Karol Wojtyla, it is this formidable body of interviews which forms the primary source material. The result is a vivid if not always penetrating account of Wojtyla’s career as Polish patriot, Catholic church leader, theologian, and global diplomat—an account which at times threatens to overspill the bounds of historical biography to become epic docudrama.
His Holiness is organized chronologically, though never rigidly so. Early chapters dwell at some length upon the young Wojtyla’s childhood in provincial Wadowice; his studies at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow; his clandestine entry into the priesthood; his involvement in the underground Rapsodic Theater of Mieczyslaw Kotlarczyk and in dissident intellectual circles during the Nazi and, later, Soviet occupations; his rapid rise in the Polish church hierarchy; his introduction to church politics at the highest level as one of the Polish delegates to the Second Vatican Council; and his elevation to the papacy after the unexpected death of John Paul I in 1978.
While Bernstein and Politi’s treatment of the pre-papal years of Wojtyla’s life is full of fascinating anecdote and much high drama (especially in part 3, entitled “Conclave,” which deals with all those behind-the- scenes machinations employed in the making of a pope), the only truly substantive addition involves Wojtyla’s collaboration on the standard English edition of his most important, if not best known, philosophical work, The Acting Person (1979). Anna- Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish American émigrée of aristocratic lineage, and a trained philosopher, ran across the original Polish edition of The Acting Person (Osoba I Czyn, 1967) in the course of her research in 1972. Thrilled to discover a philosopher whose work dovetailed in many respects with her own, she established contact with Cardinal Wojtyla in Krakow by the spring of 1973. Wojtyla appears to have been delighted to find that his work was not wholly ignored in the West, but he was well aware that the Polish edition of the book was seriously flawed. He himself had undertaken sole responsibility for the editing of the book, and the result was an “almost impenetrably dense” work of intimidating length. In Tymieniecka’s view, the book was important in its ambitious attempt to develop a comprehensive philosophical-anthropology: a philosophy of the “person” which might stand against the predominant trend (then and now) toward Marxist, structuralist, and poststructuralist attacks upon the integrity of the acting subject.
Convinced that the book deserved a wider reading public in the West, Tymieniecka persuaded Wojtyla to revise the work for publication in an English-language edition. Wojtyla and Tymieniecka embarked upon a four-year period of intense philosophical dialogue that culminated in a global revision of the original work and, with Wojtyla’s blessings, Tymieniecka was credited with coauthorship. Nevertheless, after Wojtyla was elevated to the papacy in 1978, according to Williams’ testimony, the pope’s Vatican handlers began to express their disapproval that this collaboration should become widely known and “sought to disavow [the book] in Catholic circles.” The official reason given was that the shift toward phenomenology and away from orthodox Thomism (the traditional method of Catholic theology) was one which the Vatican did not wish to encourage. Yet could such a shift have been dangerous enough to require suppression of the book?
Such an attempt was apparently made, but Wojtyla had already signed over world rights to the English version to Tymieniecka and “proclaimed it the definitive’ and authorized edition.” Politi and Bernstein, following Williams’ lead, suggest by implication that the real reason for the Vatican’s disavowal of the book had less to do with philosophical issues than with the story behind the collaboration. For it seems that Wojtyla and Tymieniecka developed far more than a professional relationship; they established an enduring friendship. The authors document this friendship meticulously, and though the account has raised some eyebrows, it is difficult to see why. True, Wojtyla and Tymieniecka are said to have met frequently, both in the United States and in Poland, to have taken long philosophical walks together in the woods, and even to have gone swimming together in a lake near Tymieniecka’s summer home in Vermont. Yet Politi and Bernstein are careful to show that these were always chaperoned outings with not even a hint of impropriety. Although such revelations are bound to disturb those who have sought to protect the pope from anything that could be used to cast aspersions upon his virtue, the Vatican clearly overreacted in this case.
The truth is that Bernstein and Politi have done Wojtyla a great service, for the story of his collaboration with Tymieniecka is the best proof on record of the pope’s respect for women. That he was able to accept her as an intellectual equal, to learn from her and to publicly acknowledge his debt to her, demonstrates that he is far from being the reactionary antifeminist that he is often said to be. According to Tymieniecka, Wojtyla “was an incomparable philosophical partner.”
The most important revelations in His Holiness appear in the latter half of the book dealing with John Paul’s policy on Poland and with his efforts to thwart the advance of liberation theology in Latin America. Here Politi and Bernstein have benefited enormously by the recent release of Politburo documents unavailable prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. They have supplemented the information gleaned from those documents with dozens of interviews with the key political players in Moscow, Warsaw, and Washington, D.C., as well as with Vatican insiders such as Secretary of State Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. The resulting scenario is quite dramatic.
During his tenure as the archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla had walked a fine line between support for the dissident Committee for the Defense of the Workers (KOR) and a long established policy ofOstpolitik, that is, a...
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