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Devasting! Fascinating! But too bitter by half
on April 5, 2005
If you are looking for a gauzy, sweet biography of Pope John Paul II in these days since his death on April 2, please look elsewhere. If you are interested in a frank and sometimes brutal look at his life and policies, read on!
In "The Pontiff in Winter," John Cornwell (author of "Hitler's Pope") casts his gimlet eye on Karol Woytila, the man who became Pope John Paul II, from his early years through the decline of his health and (Cornwell argues) papacy in the first years of the 21st century.
"The Pontiff in Winter" combines biography, history and analysis -- in more or less equal parts -- as it seeks to understand the Pope as a person, and the value of his teaching to the Church and mankind. Cornwell is absolutely unsentimental about his subject, giving praise where due, but zeroing in with devastating effect on the Pope's weakness and missteps. The multi-faceted man who emerges is both repelling and attractive: intelligent though not brilliant; a victim of totalitarians yet autocratic; an actor (even a bit of a prima donna) whose public, smiling persona masks a desire to be center stage; a man of true and extreme piety with a weakness for its more outlandish manifestations.
Cornwell sees John Paul as a man embodying maddening contradictions. A wily and successful fighter for freedom in his native Poland, John Paul II did not trust others (e.g., Archbishop Oscar Romero) to do the same. Claiming to support Vatican II, he gutted its central push to decentralize the papacy and increase collegiality among bishops. Advancing the Church's relations with Jews and Muslims, he nevertheless undercut that pose by denying the status of "Church" to non-Catholic religious bodies like the Anglicans. The seeming champion of women's dignity, he attempted to shut down discussion of the divisive topic of female ordination.
The book's extremely negative tone is its main weakness. Cornwell seems to take the Pope's faults personally. Still, there are very few places where the limitations of papal pronouncements can be aired with such erudition and passion. In the current atmosphere, in which dissent from Church teaching is equated with disloyalty, Cornwell's voice is truly prophetic, leading the mind to consider perspectives that are worth considering.