There's never been anyone like Pope John Paul II, that fierce intellectual with the charisma of a rock star. Old and infirm, slow in speech and step, he nevertheless remains unstoppable. Even his schedule seems superhuman: In the first 17 days of December he gave 25 speeches, long and short, to crowds large and small. But while this public side of him remains astonishing, there's another side, just as surprising, that emerges from his written works. To read a thick sheaf of papal encyclicals and speeches, as I've been doing lately, is to expand and alter one's view of him.
Early in 1979, in his first encyclical, he noted that the Church was preparing for a great jubilee in 2000. He added that in the intervening years he wanted to change the Church by inspiring a new evangelical spirit and renewed ecumenism. After 20 years there's little evidence that those particular hopes have been fulfilled. But something else has happened. John Paul has turned himself into a one-man Church renewal, generating so much energy by his ideas that he and the Church can't be ignored. In the last two decades of the century, this has been one of the great performances on the world stage. As Roman Catholicism finally turns toward the year of bimillennial celebration, the most remarkable fact about that ancient institution is the nature of the man who leads it.
Even if he had done nothing else, global politics would have given him a place in history. When the Soviet empire died, he became the only pope of this millennium who has watched and encouraged the crumbling of the Church's chief worldly enemy. And, unlike many popes, he has made the Vatican bureaucracy his servant rather than his master and manager. He's also the most literary of popes, a sometime poet and playwright for whom the world exists first of all in the form of words.
He must be the most prolific pope ever. He sends out to the world an unceasing torrent of ideas and exhortations, almost instantly available in several languages at www.vatican.va. He will leave a literary record without precedent in the history of religion. Presumably he maintains a platoon of ghost writers, each of them able to hit unerringly the same tone -- solemn, learned, and just slightly tentative.
The words can occasionally be empty sloganeering ("As the family goes, so goes the nation!"), but more often they carry weight and potency. You sense pressure behind the writing, an urgency. The style is often subtle and effective. In one place he speaks of people acting ethically, "according to a free and rightly tuned will." The tuning of the will -- that's a commonplace thought expressed eloquently in uncommon language.
His ideas are sometimes eccentric, an odd quality in a pope. He tends to present Christianity as a series of literary devices, figures of speech. To notice this is not to question his faith but to consider the shape that it takes in his mind. At certain times, reading him is like reading a Protestant literary critic, such as Northrop Frye.
Last July he brought this approach to his discussions of heaven and hell. To the surprise and alarm of many, he casually reconfigured Catholic images of the afterlife. As he spoke about them, on two successive Wednesdays, he managed to make both places sound like poetic imagery rather than "real" sites of divine or satanic reality. He seems to have concluded that, just like the story of Adam and Eve, heaven and hell are metaphors -- or, at most, states of mind.
Heaven is the human being's meeting with God, he said. No surprise there. But he added: "Metaphorically speaking, heaven is understood as the dwelling place of God." Metaphorically speaking? For centuries, heaven has existed in the Christian imagination as a real place. True, philosophers, back to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, have speculated on its metaphorical quality, but who knew that a pope could think and speak this way? But then, John Paul is a philosopher. He loves the rigours of philosophy and sees much of life as a seminar on truth.
A week after the talk about heaven, he had more striking news. Hell, he said, is not a punishment imposed by God, despite what everyone has always said. No, it's just an unwise choice that humans make. The images of hell in scripture, he suggested, are taken too literally. Actually, hell is the condition of those who separate themselves from God, "the pain, frustration and emptiness of life without God." Artists trying to follow scripture have depicted hell as a world of fire controlled by devils with pitchforks. The Pope thinks those are metaphors, every one of them.
The Pope has severely criticized postmodern thought, which he sees as a means of dissolving belief in universal truth. A dominant view has emerged in the humanities: We should not think we are working toward the truth, because it doesn't exist; we are all working toward the selection of truths that will be best suited to our own lives. It's a question of values. You have yours, I have mine, and the political bosses of China have theirs.
The Pope vehemently refutes this view: There is universal human truth, he says, and we should all seek it. Truths, if important, don't differ from place to place. "If something is true, then it must be true for all people and at all times." He's a universalist, obviously.
But at the same time, he shows a distinctly postmodern side. He's the first pope for whom multiculturalism has acquired vivid meaning, and the first who has carefully studied what the universities call comparative religion. He may be the first to see Catholic truth as one truth among many, though clearly the superior one.
Last year, in the encyclical Faith and Reason, he pointed out that people in all human cultures have asked the same questions: "Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going?" He finds those questions in the texts of Hinduism, in Confucius, Lao-Tze, the Buddha and, for that matter, in Homer, Euripides and Sophocles. He insists that Catholics should look to these writings for wisdom. In answering the great questions, he says, "every people has its own native and seminal wisdom."
That's a postmodern idea. The Church has always tried to teach other races, and on its best days has done so with kindness. It has also learned from the ancient pre-Christian philosophers. But learning about spiritual matters from other races is hardly an ancient habit of the Church. John Paul II also insists that Catholics should learn from India about liberating the spirit "from the shackles of time and space." And they should draw on the wisdom of China, Japan and other Asian countries, as well as "the riches of the traditional cultures of Africa, which are for the most part orally transmitted." All of this, while less arresting than the material about heaven and hell, makes surprising reading.
Pope John Paul defends freedom ("There is no morality without freedom"), but it's a fairly selective freedom. During his time as Pope, priests and professors have been rebuked and replaced for heresy. Yet his own words often stray some distance from orthodoxy. Earlier popes would look with grave suspicion on his views about heaven and hell, and would be baffled by his affection for the ideas of heathens, pagans, etc. It may be that he's decided to allow himself liberties he wouldn't grant others. Can it be that heresy is a privilege reserved for the Pope? Is it possible that the words of a pope are by definition heresy-free? Those are among the more compelling and startling of the questions raised by a reading of his words.