Media Matters

The Question of Motivation

Pundits know everything about the late Pope except one thing.

By 4.6.05

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Have you noticed how much commentary about the passing of Pope John Paul II talks about his leadership without addressing what motivated that leadership?

Pundits of varying reputation rightly credit Karol Wojtyla with leading the spiritual side of the fight against Communism and secular humanism. They cite his charisma, his force of will, and his political acumen.

But by the time they sandwich bits of biographical detail around applause for the late Pope's character, most pundits are flirting with their 800-word limit. Only the consummate professionals probe any deeper.

Charles Krauthammer may represent the best of this breed. He glimpsed undiscovered country by contrasting the champions of life and death:

"It was Stalin who gave us the most famous formulation of that cynical (and today quite fashionable) philosophy known as 'realism' -- the idea that all that ultimately matters in the relations among nations is power: 'The pope? How many divisions does he have?' "

"Stalin could have said that only because he never met John Paul II,"
Krauthammer continued. "We have just lost the man whose life was the ultimate refutation of 'realism.' Within 10 years of his elevation to the papacy, John Paul II had given his answer to Stalin and to the ages: More than you have. More than you can imagine."

Beyond alluding to "the power of faith," however, Krauthammer did not speculate as to what (or, more accurately, who) gave moral force to this bishop of Rome. His column was simply an uptown version of what one Mike Gebert quipped in comments on a popular blog as tribute to Karol Wojtyla and Lech Walesa -- "Final Score for the 20th century: Ordinary Poles, 2; German intellectuals, 0."

The score would have been even more lopsided had Gebert thought to round out his list with Sister M. Faustina Kowalska, the Polish nun whose devotion to Divine Mercy was being celebrated by Catholics when the pope died.

Similarly, while Paul Kengor, writing for National Review Online, found an intriguing peg for his own appreciation of John Paul II in the supernatural event that transformed Fatima, Portugal, in 1916, he didn't get into papal motivation, either.

The relative silence of other pundits on this question forced Father Richard John Neuhaus to pick up the slack. Neuhaus runs his own magazine, but wrote this for the New York Post:

"It is impossible to understand John Paul without understanding that his entire thought and being was grounded in the incarnation, the teaching, the suffering, death, resurrection and promised return of Jesus Christ," Neuhaus wrote, letting the proverbial cat out of the bag.

Some of those Protestants who did not join Neuhaus in crossing the Tiber to Catholicism are silent about papal motivation not because they feel out of their depth, but because to credit Jesus with inspiring the pope would force a re-examination of their own prejudices. Doing that, they might find unwelcome confirmation of what an American Spectator alumnus called the editor of this publication's "cheeky assertion" that "Among Christian
religions, only one is the genuine article, and it's known as Roman
Catholicism."

Protestant failure to address papal motivation can be read as a backhanded compliment to the late pontiff. For example, at least one preacher on the militantly Calvinist edge of the reformed tradition is of the opinion that the pope's death represents a chance for other Christians to "expose Catholic errors," which by his curious lights include "dogmatic denial of the gospel."

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, though not as quick to speak ill of the dead, still faults John Paul II for never confronting "the most pressing issues of evangelical concern."

Consider the unconscious arrogance of that charge, which to avoid ridiculousness must overlook the fact that John Paul II had his hands full shepherding 1.1 billion fractious Catholics, staring down the Soviet Union, mending fences with Jews, and striving for rapprochement between Eastern and Western churches. While doing all of that and maintaining a travel schedule that would shame airline employees, the pope still found time to address other Christians in such seminal documents as the encyclical letter "Ut Unum Sint."

Let it be said for the record that John Paul II was a worthy successor to Peter. His shortcomings were administrative rather than pastoral. To call him a charismatic religious figure with a shrewd sense of Communist weakness and lot of white in his wardrobe is to miss the main thing, which was the relationship with Christ in which he found purpose and consolation.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.