The Peace Prize and the Pope
Jude Wanniski
October 11, 2003


Memo: To Website Fans, Browsers, Clients
From Jude Wanniski
Re A Few Perspectives on John Paul II

My wife Patricia this morning asked if she could write today's website memo and I asked what she had in mind. She said she wanted to write about Pope John Paul II NOT getting the Nobel Peace Prize this week. We both noted that in the Saturday New York Times both Peter Steinfels, the religion editor, and David Brooks, the new Times political columnist, wrote commentaries about the Swedish academy's failure to award the Prize to John Paul. Patricia liked the Steinfels account and so did I, but Brooks gets points from me for his argument that there really should be a special prize for the pope, that his contributions are so much greater than some of the bit players who have received Peace Prize that he should not be lumped in with them. To tell the truth, I've never thought of the pope getting becoming a Nobelist, just for that reason. Instead of Patricia writing the memo, she's happy to have the Steinfels commentary reprinted here. And I will provide a link to the David Brooks column, which I do recommend.

Patricia and I are Roman Catholics, she all her life, I except for 15 years in the middle, when I opted out. In December 1999, when Time was picking a “Man of the Century,” I weighed in with a memo of my top ten. Winston Churchill was No. 1, Albert Einstein was No. 2, and Pope John XXIII was third. Here was my thought: “The Catholic Church needed reform badly and John XXIII delivered with Vatican II. I was tempted to go with John Paul II, who really made the reforms work, and who has been a powerful force for global reconciliation right down to these last days of the century. But Vatican II did break the ice and from a personal standpoint was critical in getting me back into the church.”

New York Times

The Nobel Peace Prize is not awarded posthumously. That is why, with all respect to Shirin Ebadi, the inspiring Iranian defender of women's rights, the failure to give it to Pope John Paul II this year may eventually reflect badly not on the pope but on the prize.

Is there any other leader who has so reshaped the political world for the better and done it peacefully? John Paul helped shatter one empire. For a quarter century, he has been a tribune of the poor, a champion of human rights and a defender of local cultures. He has struggled tirelessly though not always successfully against war.

As one 12-year-old put it in a letter to the pope, "I really admire how you take care of all your responsibilities. I can barely finish my homework."

Hers was one among thousands of letters and drawings that Roman Catholic schoolchildren sent John Paul for the 25th anniversary next week of his election to the papacy. A selection compiled by Richard A. Klein and Virginia D. Klein in (Liguori Publications) makes for one of those bright, cheerful collections of children's remarks where, granted, the charm sometimes threatens to become mere cleverness and the cleverness occasionally congeals into goo. Yet the letters, in their navet, offer a counterpoint to the solemn praise and serious assessments that, even without the Nobel, will decorate the coming celebration.

The children have no end of practical queries. "Do you eat alone or do you eat with other popes?" wonders a fourth grader. Does the Vatican have air-conditioning? What kind of gas does the Popemobile use?

Of course, the coming week's assessments are indeed significant because they are part of a larger discussion about where this global church of 1.1 billion Catholics has been and where it needs to go.

But these assessments will not be easy. To begin with, this pope defies familiar categories. He opposes abortion and also capital punishment. He condemned Communist persecution and also American military interventions. He apologized for the church's treatment of Galileo and Jan Hus and also authorized a new oath of fidelity for contemporary theologians.

Then, too, the papal job description includes being a spiritual model, a theological thinker and arbiter, the highest authority responsible for the church's institutional well-being and finally its chief witness to the world. Each aspect of this formidable assignment deserves separate consideration.

Finally, maintaining the line between assessment and adulation is not easy, especially in the current atmosphere. Consider another anniversary book: "John Paul II: A Light for the World" (Sheed & Ward), edited by Sister Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., with a foreword by Kofi Annan.

It is basically a splendid gift book of photographs that remind one, as words can scarcely do, just how much this pope has done and has been. As a bonus it includes 30 pages of chronologies of the pope's life and travels, lists of the nations he has visited and summaries of his major writings and decrees.

Perhaps it is inevitable that such a celebratory book's brief essays, mostly written by bishops or staff members of their national conference, should silently skirt almost all the debates surrounding John Paul's pontificate.

But that is why it's nice to hear the fresh voice of Keli: "How old do you have to be to become the pope? I'm only 10. I don't think I am old enough yet." Or of Peter, 8: "If I want to be pope, do I have to be Catholic?" Or of Michael, 10, who admits, "I would want to be a pope if I didn't make it into football or any other sports." Or of Natalie, 10: "I wish I could be the pope, but I can't. I'm a girl. Bless you."

No area of John Paul II's leadership has entirely escaped criticism. Even in international affairs, the Vatican's precipitous recognition of Croatia, for example, may have helped spark the Balkan battles.

But in a 25-year papacy such diplomatic missteps have been few, and much about John Paul and his achievements is similarly incontestable. He has been exemplary in building bridges between faiths. The first pope to visit a synagogue and a mosque, he brought together major leaders of world religions to pray for peace at Assisi in 1986 and 2002, and he has led in condemning all enlistment of religion as a support for violence.

Few world leaders have so excelled in communicating through image and gesture: kissing the tarmac in each new country he visits, embracing a child with AIDS, bringing a message of forgiveness to the imprisoned man who tried to kill him, returning the cheers of teenagers, placing a prayer of repentance for Catholic sins against the Jews in the Western Wall. John Paul may have composed encyclicals with his mind but he has spoken parables with his body.

He is universally recognized as a man of deep prayer. And he obviously exults in practicing the heroic, self-sacrificing Christianity he preaches. History teaches, however, that while being a bad man guarantees being a bad pope, being a good man does not guarantee being a good pope.

The pope is recognized, of course, as not only a good man but also a profound thinker. Yet his thought, unlike his character, is far more contested. Particularly contested is his relationship to the landmark event in modern Catholic history, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). His writings, supporters insist, offer the definitive interpretative key for understanding the council and for resolving the many internal tensions it bequeathed the church.

Critics reply that John Paul's views, when lent this pre-eminence and placed alongside major documents the pope has authorized, like the 1983 revised code of church law and the 1992 "Catechism of the Catholic Church" as well as a host of other Vatican decrees, constrict the council's true thrust and perhaps even serve to supplant it.

Most contested of all is John Paul's practical stewardship of the church's internal life the appointments of bishops, cardinals and other high officials; the manner of Vatican oversight; the atrophy of consultative bodies like the synods of bishops; the closing down of debates, particularly about sexual morality or women's roles in the church, either by solemn pronouncement or a simple narrowing of perspectives heard in Rome.

Given all that, how much can be expected from the coming week's assessments? Maybe Caitlin, 11, had the best idea in her letter to the pope:

"Have a great anniversary. Sit back, relax and eat a lot of cake."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company