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His Holiness, by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi

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Among the many books written about Pope John Paul II, the book by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, His Holiness, stands out. That’s because it’s focus is on the role played by the Pope, working along with the Reagan Administration, in causing the fall of communism.

This was a delicate balancing act for John Paul. As Stalin so famously pointed out about a previous pope, he had no military power, only moral and spiritual power. As they recount his first trip as Pope back to Poland

What was talking place now in Warsaw’s Victory Square was a breakthrough to unknown horizons. John Paul II never uttered a word that might lead directly to a confrontation between Church and state, between the party and Christian believers, but everything he said marked the beginning of a grand turnabout for the Church — in Poland, in Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union, in world affairs. Through him the Church was laying claim to a new role, no longer simply asking space for itself. Through him it was demanding respect for human rights as well as for Christian values, respect for every man and woman and for the autonomy of the individual. These demands represented a direct assault on the universal pretensions of Marxist ideology, which by now had become an empty shell in the countries under Soviet influence.

A campaign just by Solidarity, even aided by the Pope, may have gotten no farther than the Hungarians in 1956 or the Czechs in 1968. What was different now was that the West, especially the Reagan Administration in the US, and Margaret Thatcher’s government in Great Britain, had moved away from detente and began to actively push back. John Paul II had similarly moved away from the Ostpolitik of Pope Paul VI. The book details the co-operation in intelligence between the US and the Vatican. It also provides, through Politburo minutes obtained by the authors, the futile attempts by the old men of the Kremlin, and later the unsuccessful attempts of the younger Gorbachev, to get the toothpaste back in the tube.

This book, which was released in 1996, was a five year collaboration between Carl Bernstein (best-known for his work with Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and The Final Days) and Marco Politi, who is both the dean of Vatican journalists working for La Repubblica and then Il Messaggero, and a former Moscow correspondent. Countering a criticism, over how do we know what was really said at private meetings recounted in these exposé books, this book is quite detailed in its sourcing. The authors conducted, and documented, a long series of interviews with the people involved, up to and including President Reagan. The participants are quoted directly, and a Sources section at the back of the book shows who said what.

The book probably would have done better focusing strictly on the East-West struggles, but it was extended to include both a short biography of John Paul II’s early life, plus a critique in the latter part of the book of the theological controversies during John Paul’s long reign (and there were still nine years to go after the book came out.) While I’m interested in having Carl Bernstein as a guide through some of the great political struggles of the late 20th century, I really don’t need him as a theology teacher.

While this isn’t a new book, it is an interesting retrospective on one part of John Paul II’s papacy.

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About Bruce Kratofil

  • Mat

    Nice review. In the quote you’ve typed

    “Through him it was demanding respect for hyman rights”

    Gave me a chuckle. Everybody stand up for the rights of their hymens!

  • Bruce Kratofil

    I should no better than rely on a spell checker.