BOOK REVIEW : A great Pope with great flaws

POPE JOHN PAUL II: THE BIOGRAPHY Tad Szulc Scribner, pounds 17.99
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The Independent Online
Biographies of the Pope continue to be written - he fascinates, because of his heroic personality. To meet him can be an awe-inspiring experience, particularly if you are a Pole. Though he was a general and his country's prime minister at the time, Wojciech Jaruzelski's knees knocked together, this book reports.

The relationship between Jaruzelski and the Pope is one of Tad Szulc's major themes. Himself of Polish-Jewish extraction, he is very strong on the Polish background. Karol Wojtyla's mother died when he was eight, his brother when he was 11, his father just before he was 21. Pope John Paul II has many characteristics of an orphan: he listens widely, hears few and decides alone.

Wojtyla's election as the first non-Italian Pope for four and a half centuries came at the 1978 conclave after deadlock between the two leading Italian contenders. Cardinal Konig, Archbishop of Vienna, was a king- maker, but had little idea of what sort of king he was making. The Polish romantic poet, Juliusz Slowacki, forecast a Slavic Pope who would not, Italian-style, shrink from battle, but would mount the battlements and face the sword. Karol Wojtyla was familiar with that prophecy.

The first battle was with Communism. Szulc seems, at one point, to suggest that he agrees with those who believe the Pope's return to his homeland in 1979 did little to alter the situation in Poland fundamentally, and that the Polish rebellion which gave birth to Solidarity, the only free trade union in the Eastern bloc, would have occurred in any case. But much else in the book points to the opposite conclusion.

The second battle - with "savage" or "radical" capitalism, as Szulc terms it - is still going on. At one point, American right-wingers were so alarmed at the social doctrine being preached from the Vatican that they went there to protest. They are happier now, but Szulc does not believe that the Pope has softened. Nor, certainly, has he softened in his onslaught against the ethical relativism of the democracies, in which he sees the next great enemy of the human family's future. It looks as hard a battle as that against Communism, but this Pope has the power to make headway where all seems blocked.

These matters are dealt with in the last section of the book, and inevitably Szulc's treatment of them is more scrappy. The same applies to his coverage of the other battle Pope John Paul has been fighting, against the liberal elements in his own church. Szulc does not go deeply into the theological and philosophical arguments, but as a detached observer his sympathies are not with the Pope here. He sees that the key principle of collegiality affirmed by Vatican II, Pope John's reforming council - that the Pope governs with the bishops as the head of a college - has in effect been set aside.

One of Szulc's revelations, though probably overstated, is the extent to which Karol Wojtyla influenced Pope Paul VI's decision to reaffirm in 1968 the ban on contraception. What Szulc fails to point out is that Wojtyla did not attend a single one of the meetings of the papal birth control commission, and so missed the debate which convinced almost all the conservatives on the commission that the traditional stance of the church had to change. It was the decision to set this advice wholly aside that sparked off the crisis of authority in the Catholic Church, not Pope John's council, as unidentified church sources quoted by Szulc try to suggest. There were, of course, distortions after Vatican II, as after any church council, but they were nowhere near as serious as those after Vatican I.

John Paul II is a great Pope with great flaws. Szulc's conclusion seems to be that he has been good for the world but bad for his Church. It remains to be seen whether future historians will agree.

The reviewer is editor of the `Tablet'.