What Would JPII Do?

George Weigel Offers Insight Into Pontiff's Thought

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, APRIL 14, 2011 (Zenit.org).- What would Pope John Paul the Great make of some of the world's problems today, and his own beatification?

To obtain a few insights, I asked John Paul II's biographer, George Weigel. Author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II," the most comprehensive study of the soon-to-be beatified Pope, Weigel recently published its sequel, "The End and the Beginning," which tells the dramatic story of John Paul II's battles with communism as well as the late Pontiff's final years.

Weigel believes that with regard to Europe's ever-increasing spiritual and moral malaise, John Paul II would be doing "just what he tried to do for decades, and what Benedict XVI has tried to do since 2005 -- rouse Europe from its spiritual torpor, which is killing it."

To offer further insight into what he might have said today, Weigel suggests looking at one of John Paul II's last major statements on the continent: his 2003 apostolic exhortation "Ecclesia in Europa" (the Church in Europe). Weigel summarizes the text as an analysis of Europe's crisis of cultural morale rooted in the Continent's "abandonment of the God of the Bible."

In "The End and the Beginning," Weigel writes that the apostolic exhortation offers a "penetrating analysis of contemporary Europe's crisis of cultural morale" and the most "developed exposition" of the 21st-century implications of Catholic social teaching since his 1991 encyclical "Centesimus Annus."

Moreover, the papal biographer says that "Ecclesia in Europa" "stands as John Paul II's last gift to the world Church of his distinctive reading of the cultural, social, economic, and political signs of the times in the developed world."

Almost 10 years on, and that profound analysis remains just as relevant today. In a passage from it quoted in Weigel's book, John Paul II wrote of Europe's "growing need for hope, a hope that will enable us to give meaning to life and history and to continue on our way together." That need, the Pontiff wrote, has grown out of a "kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history."

Europe's diagnosis

In "Ecclesia in Europa," John Paul II observed an "inner emptiness that grips many people," a widespread "existential fragmentation [in which] a feeling of loneliness is present," a weakening of the family and a "selfishness that closes individuals and groups in upon themselves." He also noted "a growing lack of concern for ethics and an obsessive concern for personal interests and privileges [leading to] the diminished number of births."

And despite the fall of communism just over a decade earlier, he lamented that Europeans hadn't found an expected new freedom but rather an existential angst: "One of the roots of the hopelessness that assails many people today is their inability [to] allow themselves to be forgiven," he wrote, "an inability often resulting from the isolation of those who, by living as if God did not exist, have no one from whom they can seek forgiveness."

But he stressed it was through "the biblical conception of man" that Europe had once drawn "the best of its humanistic culture, found inspiration for its artistic and intellectual creations, created systems of law and, not least, advanced the dignity of the person as the subject of inalienable rights." It was the Church, as the bearer of the Gospel, "that helped spread and consolidate these values which have made European culture universal."

At the end of the apostolic exhortation, John Paul II naturally closes on a hopeful note, but not without qualification. He suggests that Europe is not guaranteed a future, but must choose to have a future. "That would mean choosing to have children," writes Weigel, reflecting on the document's final passage. "That would mean choosing a firmer foundation for Europe's human rights commitments than pragmatism or utilitarianism. That would mean, above all, a Europe reclaiming the spiritual and moral patrimony of its biblical and Christian heritage, a crucial and irreducible part of Europe being Europe."

Economic crisis, war

On the global economic crisis, and in particular the vast fiscal deficits affecting the U.S. and Europe, Weigel believes John Paul would have clear insights into some of the causes. "He would quickly grasp the demographic character of the fiscal crisis in Europe: When you stop creating the human future through self-induced infertility, bad things are likely to happen," he said. "I like to think he would hope the U.S. could show a way forward for developed societies, all of whom are grappling with the fact that the welfare state as we have known it is simply unaffordable if it remains a preserve of the state."

What would John Paul II have made of the Arab Spring? Would he, for example, have supported the military action in Libya, ostensibly based on humanitarian grounds? Weigel responds by stressing that John Paul II "did not understand his role as Pope as that of global referee, determining when the use of armed force was legitimate; that was the responsibility of statesmen, as he understood things."

But he added: "I think he would be saddened by a maniac like Qaddafi, as he was saddened by other maniacs, including Saddam Hussein. He did speak to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) in 1992 about the 'duty' of 'humanitarian intervention' in cases of impending or actual genocide, but without specifying on whom that duty fell, or how it was to be met."

Weigel stressed that Benedict XVI has also said similar things, "without making the analysis of 'who' and 'how' any more precise." But he believes this is "a major hole in the Church's thinking that badly needs filling," and he added that "saying that 'war doesn't solve anything,' as the bishops of Libya recently said, is not a serious analysis of anything."

John Paul II's beatification on May 1 promises to be a great celebration, fitting for someone whom the Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini this week described as a "giant man and Pope." John Paul II beatified more Catholics than any other pontiff in history (1,340) – principally to offer the faithful role models whom they could follow. But what would he make of his own elevation to the altars?

"Karol Wojtyla spent his entire adult life conforming himself to the will of God as that manifested itself through the Church," Weigel said. "He didn't want to be a bishop, but he accepted the task; he didn't want to be pope, but he accepted that. I expect that, with that characteristic twinkle in his eye, he'll accept what is being done to him on May 1."

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org