In the autumn of 1991, I was in Italy for a conference on economics and religion in Foligno, a beautiful town south of Florence. One morning I was driven to Rome where, as I often did, I was staying overnight with the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. At dinner, a phone call came for me, for which I had to leave the table. It was the Vatican, and I was being invited for dinner with the Holy Father the very next evening. I should enter at the Bronze Door next to the Basilica, and the Swiss Guards would show me up. Back at the table, everyone was excited, no one more than I was, although I did my best to look suave and cool.
In a way, the background of the Pope’s invitation to dinner was, it seemed, the publication of my book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism in 1982. That book made two points that seemed to many others around the world, not only myself, useful to those who helped Pope John Paul II in the drafting of his historic encyclical of 1991, Centesimus Annus—the “hundredth year” after the first of all social encyclicals in 1891. The first point grew from my experience as a grandson of immigrants to the United States from Central Europe (the villages of the Tatra Mountains in northern Slovakia). What they found in the United States was not only “capitalism” the economic system, but simultaneously the political system that protected their individual rights and the cultural system that strengthened the rights and duties of the free public exercise of multiple religious traditions under the protection of law. The United States also allowed for each people of the world to sound distinctive notes in the one national cultural symphony: English, German, Irish, Latin, Slavic, Jewish, etc. The tripartite definition of this free system—economic, political, and cultural—showed up very clearly in paragraph 42 of Centesimus Annus. (More on that encyclical later.)
My second political thesis was that the most under-reported fact of the 20th century was the death of socialism as a plausible idea for the future. In practice, it did not work. More than that, its underlying theories made it impossible for socialism to work. The best hope of the poor in the world was not socialism. The actual history of my own family and millions of other poor families showed Marxism to be the opiate of intellectuals and students. The much despised “capitalism,” combined with a polity of law and rights and a culture of spirit, routinely turned workers into middle-class families, with positive attitudes toward personal initiative and personal responsibility.
Two of the closest colleagues who expressed gratitude for my work (without necessarily agreeing with all of it) were John Paul II’s own immensely talented papal secretary, Monsignor (later Archbishop, and in 2006 Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow) Stanislaw Dziwisz, and the philosopher and Italian political leader Rocco Buttiglione.
After I arrived for dinner, during the very long climb up the three flights of stairs, accompanied by a serious Swiss Guard, my lungs were burning with the strain, but my tall, young guard was not even red in the face. I was ushered into the reception room where Monsignor Dziwisz met me. “Welcome, welcome,” he said, “we know who our friends are.” He told me Rocco was to be a guest, too, and should arrive shortly.
In about 1985, Rocco had raised very difficult questions for me (especially about the “common good”) when I first lectured on capitalism and democracy at the Catholic University of Milan, but over the years as he read more of my work he had come to grasp the good parts of it better than I did, and fixed them into his own vision. Later, become good friends, we were making plans to begin a summer program to bring Eastern European and American students together to study economics and democracy, preferably in the West. So it was great to learn that Rocco would be a guest, too. Rocco arrived, and then the Pope silently entered, with his trademark smile, slightly ironic, and in a white papal soutane.
A bishop from Poland who worked in the Vatican and whose English was fluent also joined us, so we were five. I was so awestruck I hardly said a word for a while. One thing I noticed is that Monsignor Dziwisz wanted to keep the conversation light, and instigated some bantering between Rocco and the Pope. Rocco was a professor at two Roman universities as well as the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein, but the Pope had come to know him well in Krakow, where Rocco had gone to study the famous Polish phenomenologists. There Rocco learned Polish passably well, and became a good friend of Wojtyla, a fellow philosopher.
When Cardinal Wojtyla was then elected Pope John Paul II, he invited Rocco to come back to Italy with him as a close intellectual friend. In the autumn of 1978, the election of a man from behind the Iron Curtain to become the new Pope was a startling choice. It sent shockwaves throughout the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. The Communists immediately started laying plans to try to limit Pope Wojtyla’s influence, to undermine him, and if necessary to wipe him off the chessboard of European political leadership.
They feared Wojtyla, but they did not fear him enough. Wojtyla was a lot more clever than they, and nearly always moved before they did, a step ahead of them on the chessboard. By natural talent a warm-hearted and eloquent communicator, an actor who enjoyed being in crowds large or small, a skier, a poet, and a very brave man, Karol Wojtyla seized the imagination of the world almost immediately. He was young, vital, vigorous, and very handsome, with a flair for dramatic action and swift repartee.
When I had first seen him in Washington, D.C., on his first papal visit to the White House, standing alongside President Jimmy Carter, I was struck by the Pope’s naturalness and ease. It was a beaming Carter who seemed a little stiff.
Then, later, the Pope stood on the balcony of the priests’ house at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue, just east of Connecticut Avenue. My wife, Karen, had brought my excited mother with us, and we stood right below him, across the street. The happy crowd all around us filled to overflowing the street below him, and began to shout very loudly: “JOHN PAUL II, WE love YOU! JOHN PAUL II, WE love YOU!” After a little while, the Pope held up his arms to ask for a pause. He smiled and then shouted into the microphone: “JOHN PAUL II—I love YOU!” Laughing, clapping, and with not a little weeping, the crowd picked up as before. I was glad my mother and my wife were at my side, drinking in and enjoying every moment of it.
SOME MONTHS LATER, the Pope flew to the New World again, this time to Canada, to consecrate a new Eastern Catholic basilica, near Toronto. William Baroody, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, belonged to the Maronite Rite, one of the Eastern Catholic Churches, and took me with him for the occasion. Our host was Stephen Roman, the Slovak immigrant who was called “the richest man in Canada.” Steve had bought cheap a lot of farmland to the west, under which some time later the largest uranium deposits in the world were found. From then on, wags said, Steve dealt only with heads of state.
Steve Roman belonged to the Byzantine Catholic Rite. It was typical of Pope John Paul II’s larger ambitions, even from the first, that he undertook this long trip across the Atlantic Ocean to consecrate a small Eastern Catholic basilica. All through history, unlike many other of the Eastern Rite churches, including the Greek Orthodox of Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox of Moscow, the Byzantines and the Maronites and some others stood tall in a long and faithful communion with the Bishop of Rome. The Pope took the view that 1,000 years of separation between Rome and Constantinople/Moscow was enough. He wanted, before he was done, to end it. In that, he didn’t quite succeed, but he made lots of valiant attempts and took many initiatives and made many visitations to Eastern patriarchs. It was a terribly annoyed Wojtyla (I have always imagined) who after his death protested to St. Peter that he had not been given a few more years to achieve the required unity of the Church of Christ.
On that occasion, with a fairly cold Toronto wind blowing our scarves about our faces along the whole reception line, the vigorous young Pope at last approached our small group. He lingered for some time with Roman and Baroody, and then looked at me closely and seemed trying to recall something as he briefly held my hand. Slightly younger than he, I had attended two sessions of the Second Vatican Council, at which Wojtyla of Krakow had emerged as a coming star, especially for his leadership on the 1965 document on religious liberty.
True, my report on the second session, The Open Church, became fairly well known among the world’s bishops. A Polish friend of mine assured me that the Pope knew of me from that time. Then, too, as I shall explain below, the Pope had been sent an early copy of the illegal Polish translation of my The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism being handed around in Poland in samizdat. Still, I always got the feeling that the Pope was a bit uneasy with my left-wing past. He asked some of his friends who knew me well some questions about me, they reported. One, from Philadelphia, gave him a very clear and clean recommendation.
SO THERE I WAS seated at dinner with the man who had seized my imagination ever since the day of his election, and of whose emergence toward the end of the Council as the favored spokesman of the Central European bishops I had taken note. It thrilled me that he was a Slav, as my family had been. Moreover, it was said (I believe apocryphally) that the Pope’s mother was Slovak. One thing is certain: both his southern Poland and our northern Slovakia were for some centuries thought of as one people (a tough mountain people), and actually organized as part of the one Polish nation for around 300 years.
On this point, some years after this dinner, the Pope in fact told George Weigel, his great biographer: “Michael Novak says he is Slovak. But he is actually Polish.” Coming from him, I took this as a great compliment. Later I wrote him a letter that said: “By the Magisterium I may be Polish, but by family, genetics, and geography I am Slovak.” A few weeks later I ran into a map on the castle for which my ancestors had labored for centuries, which showed clearly that the 11 northern counties of which we were a part did belong to Poland for three centuries. So I had to write again: “Darn infallibility! You are right again, and I was wrong.” But all this was years later.
I remember saying very little at this first dinner in 1991. Rocco and Monsignor Dziwisz kept the banter going. Much later, at yet another dinner, the Pope did ask me what I recommended to help the millions of poor whom he had just seen in Latin America. I don’t recall his being terribly convinced by my three points, telegraphically put forth. They were raising universal education from the third grade (on average) to the 12th grade, and focusing it on initiative and enterprise; changing the law to make the formation of micro-enterprises quick, cheap, and easy; and introducing new small and local banks (like the U.S. farm credit bureaus) that specialize in making loans to poor people on farms and in new businesses.
I remember fondly how much like a dinner at my grandmother’s our dinner was. A hot chicken broth and, then, in a nod toward Italian cuisine, a small antipasto of a white-buttered spaghetti, followed by lightly roasted pork with little round potatoes and cabbage. Dessert, as I recall, was fruit. The wine was an inexpensive local white wine, probably Frascati, from out near Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s retreat from the summer heat of Rome.
I also remember resolving that if I ever came back to dinner, I would come armed, like Dziwisz and Rocco, with some good jokes or funny stories, which the Pope seemed to love. Most of the time his blue eyes twinkled merrily like those of St. Nicholas of old. But when I congratulated him on his part in the unexpected “miracle” of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, he looked at me with a certain pity. He waved his hand as if my ignorance was too much for him. “Getting rid of that Mickey-Mouse system was no miracle. It was a matter of time. It was built to fail.” (I cannot swear from this distance that the Pope actually used the words “Mickey-Mouse”—we may at that point have been speaking in Italian—but he said something remarkably close to that.)
Then, after dinner, just before we took our leave, the Pope took my hand a moment and looked me directly in the eyes. “Monsignor Dziwisz showed me your article for this week in Tygodnik Powszechny” (the Krakow Catholic weekly). My theme in that article had been the remarkable change in the Pope’s thought since his encyclical Laborem Exercens, in which he had written that labor is superior to capital because labor is always persons, and capital is inferior since it is always composed of things. In his 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, by contrast, he was writing that the causes of the wealth of nations were knowledge, science, practical insight—and he called such habits “human capital.” In any case, after mentioning my article in Tygodnik Powszechny, the Pope said kindly, in a slightly accented voice, “You understand my thought pritty gut.” I replied that I had planned the article to appear just as I was to meet him. He recognized the irony with a smile. He well knew that when I was writing the article, I had had no idea of ever seeing the Pope at dinner.
Wow! What an exhilarating evening. I could hardly breathe, and felt I was walking on air. I thanked Rocco profusely, as he drove me to the embassy after dinner before heading to his home on the other side of Rome, in case he had had something to do with the invitation. Rocco kept me guessing. He neither denied nor claimed responsibility for it. Rocco always loved keeping a wisp of mystery and behind-the-scenes maneuvering about him. He enjoyed pretending to the realism of Machiavelli, and affected the habit of playing three-corner billiards—it would be only after the third bounce that you could see what he had been up to all along.
Incidentally, I should add that before that dinner with the Pope, a great Polish lay thinker had appeared at my office in Washington. He told me he was on his way to a cancer center in New York, but felt he had to see me. His name was Miroslaw Dzielski, an editor in Krakow who was known to many as “the Polish Hayek.” He told me that he was the one responsible for getting The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism translated into Polish in 1984-85. He told me of the long fight that was waged back and forth among the four great “regions” of Solidarnosc, the socialist labor union founded by Lech Walesa. Some did not want to publish a book linking the verboten word “capitalism” to democracy. They thought it far too risky to the fate of Solidarnosc to publish such a title in an illegal samizdat under the union’s own imprimatur. The “ayes,” he said, carried it by one vote. Some years later, when I visited with him in his cabinet office in the Walesa government, the youngish Aleksander Hall corroborated the story, admitting proudly that he had cast that vote, to swing the “seacoast” delegation to “aye.”
Not many weeks after that vote, a young Pole materialized suddenly at my door in the American Enterprise Institute. He looked over his shoulder as he spoke, and was hesitant even to enter the room completely, keeping the door open. He lowered his head humbly and told me that he came from Solidarnosc to ask my permission to publish the Polish translation of Spirit. I smiled broadly but said that I would need to charge royalties. His face fell, and he began to stammer that that was not possible—until I told him what the royalties were: “One copy for the Pope, and one for me.” He broke into a large grin and extended his hand thankfully.
“The first will be easy,” he said. “The second will take a lot longer.”
Still later I learned from Vaclav Havel that he and four or five of his best friends from Prague used to meet at his home in the mountains every month or so to discuss that book chapter by chapter. Some used the Polish translation, some the English.
I never did learn whether the Pope got a copy.
The Man of Prayer
FOUR OR FIVE TIMES, sometimes with my wife at my side, I was also invited to attend Mass with the Pope in his miniature chapel. Crowded in, there was barely place for 16 people. When one entered the chapel some moments before Mass, the Pope had already been at prayer for a long time. He knelt bowed over on his prie-dieu so rapt in prayer that his demeanor produced in all of us a kind of awe. The Pope seemed caught up in a world far deeper and more holy than ours. It was not that he seemed devout. Rather, he seemed transported out of himself. One could feel it in the air. I have never felt such a presence.
Over the years I heard several different cardinals, some of whom were not among his admirers, say how moved they also were by his posture at prayer. The Pope seemed not to be in this world at all. Some spoke of him as “our mystic Pope.” They did not say this with particular respect, nor with disrespect either; they were reporting what they saw. They wondered at it.
Almost always when I was at Mass, Monsignor (later Archbishop) Dziwisz asked me to be the lector. I remember trying to read in a steady, linear voice, while praying that the Holy Spirit would gently inflect this flow by the quiet power of the words read—none of me in the reading, only the Holy Spirit. This is probably self-deception, but that is what I prayed for. One felt obliged to be decreased in the presence of a Pope who was so deeply immersed in God, as if only God and he were present. One did not want to interrupt that silence.
On one such occasion, my beautiful and soft-spoken wife, Karen, was carrying in her arm a bronze corpus of Jesus dying on the cross. She had cast it herself, and wanted to present the piece to John Paul II, whom she had always loved from a distance. Seeing the heavy bronze as we came out from Mass, Monsignor Dziwisz led us to the rear of the line that was forming around the large table in the center of the ample room outside the chapel. All the other participants he encouraged to go first. “So you will have more time with the Pope,” he whispered to Karen.
When the Holy Father reached us he took in the beauty and gentleness of Karen, and reached out for the heavy bronze on her arm. He immediately pointed to its heavily arched back. Slowly he said, “Exactly at the point of death.” Karen was touched that he grasped so instantaneously the point of what she was striving for. Just as quickly she fired back to him, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” the title of his most recent book, which she had loved. He burst into an appreciative grin, and it was clear that she had gone straight to his heart. Many times thereafter, whenever the Pope spotted Karen in a group, even in those later days when his face had fallen into a kind of mask that his steadily advancing disease would no longer enable him to control, the sight of her caused him to relax and break into a smile and a pleased nod. I saw this happen more than once.
At another time, for example, the Pope welcomed all our Liechtenstein and Krakow alumni and faculty of the Summer Institute Tertio Millennio (On the Third Millennium) to a private audience. It was the very first day of the new millennium, January 1, 2000. Just over a hundred of us gathered in the high Clementine Hall, marvelously painted and cleanly laid out, where a small dais and papal chair had been set up down front. We were milling about in a semicircle, excited and a bit in awe at the paintings on the walls and the high ornate ceiling. We were more excited still about the soon-expected entrance of the Pope, and we hoped he would stay for at least a few moments. We had practiced a Christmas song for him, in Polish, as a surprise. Meanwhile, there was plenty to chat about as we waited. Karen and I sidled toward the rear of the group, so the younger people could be up front. We didn’t know it at the time, but the door near us on the right was the one through which the Pope actually would enter, instead of the main door to the left.
Then Karen saw him first, when the door opened, a few steps down the hall. When he reached the door, the first face he recognized was Karen’s, and once again his drooping mask broke into a lively smile as he nodded to her warmly. Then he walked to the front, said a few jolly words, and our Polish leader, Father Mattias Zieba, O.P., whom the Pope treated almost as a son, told him we had a surprise. Our choir leader stepped forward, and we sang our Polish song of Christmas greeting. (About half those present were Polish, and carried our uncertain Polish vowels along safely to port.) The Pope joined in the song and beamed with pleasure. He said a few kindly words of welcome and gratitude for all the time we were putting into his social thought every summer. (“I wish some of the bishops would study as you do,” he once wrote us in a letter while we were in Krakow.)
Then he invited everyone in the room to come up singly for a blessing. Scott and Erica Walter, who had recently been married, came forward in their formal wedding attire. Then Catherine and Michael Pakaluk approached, with their youngest son in his arms and her next child, in his eighth month, bulging out beneath her navy blue maternity dress, and the kindly Pope blessed the couple and their babe in arms. Then with a great smile he made a blessing over the child in the womb. Some of us smiled and some shed tears. The Pope laughed with Father Mattias, and spoke with Father Richard John Neuhaus, then George Weigel for some time, smiling the while and joshing with them. They were our most distinguished faculty members, and already well known to him. He blessed every single one of us.
It was a heckuva way to begin the millennium!
Incidentally, too, the front page of L’Osservatore Romano that day carried a photograph of the first person to pass through the great Jubilee Doors of St. Peter, after 25 years of closure—and the handsome young man striding through in the photo was a seminarian from the North American College in Rome, also one of our students.
The night before, the Pope had also sent us special tickets to be in St. Peter’s Square for the concert and prayers and expectation of the New Year and New Millennium. The night air was chill. We had driven in good time (about an hour) across the countryside from our rooms at the University of Dallas’s Rome campus near Castel Gandolfo. But in the incredible tangle of Rome traffic, in which no one lets anybody else pass, while all sit immobile and blow horns, and no one yields, our trip home took a bone-wearying four hours. Our hearts were exultant.
Leading Up to Centesimus Annus
EVERYBODY IN THE WORLD knew that there would be a papal encyclical in 1991 to mark the 100th anniversary of Pope Leo XIII’s justly famous Rerum Novarum (On the New Things of Our Time). There had already been encyclicals on the 40th (Pius XI) and 80th anniversaries (Paul VI). At the American Enterprise Institute, indeed, I had been running monthly seminars on just this point since at least 1981, to ask the question (from many points of view, not only religious), “If you were asked to give advice, what would you recommend should be in the coming encyclical?”
It’s just as well we started thinking about it early. For in late 1990 and early 1991, I encountered several front-page newspaper articles in Europe, supposedly based on interviews with those busily drafting the upcoming document. These screaming articles announced that with this new letter the Pope would take his place decisively as the foremost leader of the social democratic left, with Willy Brandt, François Mitterrand, Neil Kinnock, and others. This new letter would put “capitalism” and “free markets” to rest once and for all. In social democratic Europe, both terms “capitalism” and “free markets” were nearly always uttered as terms of opprobrium. Some newspapers also reported that there were at least two, maybe three, drafting groups, and all were tending in the same direction. An American monsignor, who claimed to have visited in Rome and been shown the drafts, warned a conference at Notre Dame (with me in the room) that “people like Novak” would be cut off at the knees.
But there was another drama afoot that journalists involved in the prepublication leaks were not aware of. In 1987, the Pope had issued his second encyclical on the social question, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (In Solicitude for Social Reality Today). As the Associated Press announced this new text in its first reports, the new encyclical had as its main theme the moral equivalence of the two systems that then menaced Europe, the Eastern Bloc’s communism and the West’s capitalism. This report left me sick at heart. I could hardly wait to get the original text in my hands.
True enough, there was a passage in the encyclical that seemed to justify such reports. “Each of the two blocs,” the Pope wrote, “harbors in its own way a tendency toward imperialism, as it is usually called, or toward forms of neo-colonialism.” And again: “The Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude toward both liberal capitalism and Marxist collectivism.” Yet it was impossible to believe that this Pope from Krakow, where he had suffered keenly under Communist oppression, could see no difference between Krakow, say, and Columbus, Ohio—let alone Florence, Aix-en-Provence, and present-day Coventry. In fact, the complex and well-argued text thoroughly undermined the prevailing early interpretation. Alas, however, the bright, usually fair, and acerbic columnist of the New York Times, William Safire, had hammered that early interpretation home, bitterly accusing the Pope of a despicable doctrine of moral equivalence as between East and West.
Slowly I worked on a close textual examination, which showed rather devastatingly how the encyclical’s praise of “enterprise” and “economic initiative” as a fundamental human right of the person went beyond any other papal document. The letter also went decisively in the direction of the kind of capitalism that Americans have experienced in small town after small town from sea to sea, and even in big booming cities. The encyclical also made a sophisticated argument against the many Communist arguments (well known to this Pope) against democracy and those vital civil societies (uncontrolled by the state) that are its lifeblood. The Pope laid out his case point after point, in fact, as a manifesto in favor of a liberal society, articulated against the rival totalitarian alternative. The style, alas, was Italianate, without the bluntness of English. But even so, the meaning is unmistakable.
THEN IT SO HAPPENED that just at that time, the first President Bush was scheduled to travel to Rome for a visit to the Vatican and an audience with the Pope. At the time I didn’t know this, but Secretary of State James Baker asked the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican to request a reliable interpretation of the encyclical, with which the president might accurately inform himself. The American ambassador brought the matter up with Cardinal Ratzinger, then prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (“The Holy Office”), and after some reflection, the cardinal recommended my article for the president’s reading.
In any case, it was obvious in 1991 that the Pope was rather distressed by the awful misreading, especially in America, of what he had had reason to think would be a widely applauded document. Those who knew the Pope personally, such as Mr. Edward Piszek of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and his neighbor and friend, James Michener (author of many successful novels including Poland, on the country and the fascinating history from which this Pope sprang), knew well the Pope’s deep love for America and all it meant for Poland. The Pope was also upset at the facile anti-Americanism so commonly expressed in certain organs of the Vatican, which repeatedly buckled under the pressure of European “political correctness.”
Thus, the Pope resolved in 1991 to take under his personal care a final revision of the drafts he had been sent, with which he was notably unhappy. He also sent an emissary to America to go over the main points of the final draft with a number of Catholic thinkers who had some feeling for American intellectual opinion. For this task there were a number of priests and lay people in Rome who knew the work of the drafting committees thoroughly, and also understood where and why the Pope was unhappy. This emissary was instructed not to show the final revision (which was secret), but to convey its main points orally, especially those points that might be unwittingly controversial (in the way that errant passage in Sollicitudo had been). I do not know how many other people were consulted, but I do know the emissary had two long conversations with me.
After I had heard the emissary through, never interrupting him, I told him that essentially I liked the document very much—it was a big step beyond anything in the past—but I thought there were at least three points that could evoke a huge backlash in America. I mentioned them briefly, and just as briefly gave him new language as I thought it ought to be. My points were in clarification, for an American audience, of points it seemed the Pope wanted to make; yet in these three places the final words (as rendered to me) came out in ambivalent and possibly inflammatory language. The person asking my opinion was super-bright; there was no need for pen and paper. I deliberately limited my remarks to three, in my mind the most crucial three.
In 1991, the Pope also saw to it that the first distribution of the final draft would be much more thoughtfully carried out. Someone near him ordered that three separate sources send me the document two days before publication. My task was then to copy it immediately to two other knowledgeable lay writers closer to the Pope than I was. We planned simultaneously to have articles in the hands of three key American publications ready for print as soon as the embargo on the texts had expired. The only problem was that two of the official sources charged with getting me an advance copy failed to cooperate with their instructions. I got a call from the emissary to see if I was as pleased as he hoped I would be that all three of my suggestions were incorporated into the final text. I told him that the actual text had still not arrived on my desk. He was quite upset, but calmly told me to telephone the third source, whom he knew already had the text. I phoned and asked the person to read three specific passages to me. There my three points were. Perfect!
Within an hour or two, the document was in my hands, and then copies on the way to my associates. The next morning we beat the whole world to press.
Years later, the leftish British writer on the Vatican, Peter Hebblethwaite, formerly a Jesuit, asked me at a party in London how “that” had happened. He insisted to me that he had been sure the final draft was as he wanted it. He had seen two drafts that had him excited, and how they failed to get by the Pope he could not understand. He seemed to have been drinking at the party for some time, so I was more than usually careful. “I’m just an American,” I said, or something like that, “and I don’t know quite how these things are done in the Vatican.” To myself, I was thinking, “I’ll bet it was much more fun for me to write about the final draft than it was for you.” But I kept on my mask of innocence.
Centesimus Annus—the Hundredth Year—turned out to be a huge hit in America and in the Third World (but not among Marxist-leaning liberation theologians). A papal document on contemporary social questions deserves plenty of criticism and examination. There are a vast number of contingent judgments to make, several steps removed from any biblical texts. But they are intended to be redolent with the wisdom of the Gospels, and to stand as serious attempts to interpret the present time in an evangelical light—even the highly contingent and complex year “1989,” as interpreted in Centesimus Annus, chapter 3. Yet even devout Catholics of good will may well disagree over the meanings of key words and the interpretation of particular events. Just the same, the dozen or so important social encyclicals of the last 100 years make a sobering impression on most who read them, even those who came to mock.
For instance, such passages as Rerum Novarum’s long list of reasons why socialism must fail read far better today than the rosy hopes placed in socialism by many Western intellectual eminences. They read a lot better, in retrospect, than the paeans to socialism penned by major writers from John Stuart Mill to Jean-Paul Sartre to Antonio Gramsci. In addition, all the popes over many long decades made a consistent defense of both labor and private property—labor and capital both—which mattered a great deal in Europe’s political upheavals after World War II.
I HAVE MANY OTHER precious memories of John Paul II. Among these are the great struggle of conscience I faced when in 2003 the Pope did all he could to avert the second war in Iraq, whereas my own conscience told me that, while everything might go wrong, still, this war was indispensable to getting an example of a working democracy in the Middle East, to inspire those other Middle Eastern nations that had so far been utterly resistant to democracy.
I hated to take a position different from that of the Pope, which might mean I would lose his friendship, one of my most precious treasures. I reread the Catechism on just war (#2309), which made clear that such a decision is a prudential one, which persons of good will might measure differently, and above all a decision to be made by political leaders.
In the following years, there was no diminution in the friendship and support shown me by the Pope, Archbishop Dziwisz, and Vatican press secretary Joaquin Navarro-Valls (who was, in fact, of great assistance to me). I was glad that the Pope opposed the war, and thus blocked any hint of a war between the world’s two largest religious bodies. I was also glad that President Bush maintained the honor of the UN by following through on its formal threats to Saddam Hussein and by working so mightily over the next few years in nourishing the bright coals of democracy among Arab nations.
Another vivid memory is of being invited by President Bush to fly with his party to pay homage to John Paul II lying in state in St. Peter’s Basilica after his death, and then sitting in attendance at the dramatic funeral. At one point, a sudden breeze turned the pages of the open book of the Gospel highly visible on the central lectern. Then, as the varnished wood casket was lifted to be carried into St. Peter’s, the wind blew the clouds away, and for the first time that day, a beam of sunlight fell directly upon the casket and the pallbearers. The contrast between the early grayness and the sudden rays of the sun is vividly caught in photos taken before and after the ray of sun broke through. (I tracked down these photographs myself several months later, after a couple of hours of searching the archives at L’Osservatore Romano.) I am not saying this was an act of God; natural causes could explain it. But these signs expressed what we felt when we shouted with the great throng, “Santo Subito! Call him a saint soon!”
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