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Pope St John Paul II: His style grew out of the times in which he lived (©BETTMANN via GETTY IMAGES)


George Weigel, a consummate story-teller, wrote Witness to Hope, the definitive and widely read biography of John Paul II. Needless to say, how the Polish Pope found his Boswell is a story unto itself, which Weigel tells with his usual elan in Lesson In Hope, a delightful series of linked, autobiographical vignettes. They tell of the providential circumstances and chance meetings that led Weigel to become not just the Pope’s biographer, but the English-speaking Catholic most intimately associated with John Paul II’s pontificate.

A small circle of intellectuals associated with First Things, the magazine I now edit, played a crucial role. In the late 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor, Michael Novak, Peter Berger, Avery Dulles, and Weigel himself emerged as leading religious neo-conservatives. Most had been allied with theological liberals and active in progressive political causes in the 1960s. But in the 1970s, they began to have doubts. Over time they went from left to right, forging alliances with conservatives.

This cohort, however, was sceptical about a conservative mentality that won’t face up to present realities. They had no sympathy for Latin Mass Lefebrism or conservative Spenglerian gloom. This put the neo in neo-conservative. They followed John Henry Newman. Liberalism in theology shipwrecks the faith.  But expressions of apostolic teaching develop, and repeating old formulae is no guarantee of effective witness in our historical moment. The same goes for politics. The First Things crowd fought the excesses of the 1960s in order to defend the best achievements of liberalism in the modern era. To be truly liberal sometimes requires one to be conservative.

This neo-conservative approach aligned this small group of American Catholics with John Paul II. In the 1950s, he had embarked on the ambitious intellectual project of adapting modern philosophy to serve the Church’s proclamation. At Vatican II, he was among the Young Turks who had no patience for stodgy scholasticism and played a role in drafting Gaudium et Spes. When he arrived at the conclave that would elect him, viewed in mid-20th-century terms Cardinal Wojtyla’s profile was not theologically (or politically) “conservative”. Soon, however, he appointed Joseph Ratzinger as theologian-in-charge and censured liberation theologians. The Polish Pope had no time for Western intellectuals who soft-pedalled Communism’s crimes or dreamed of a “third way” fusion of socialism and capitalism. He rejected the sexual revolution and denounced “the culture of death”. Under his leadership, the public witness of the Church stood against progressive pieties in faith, culture and politics.

This combination of optimism about Catholicism’s role in the modern world and trenchant resistance to the perversions of modernity made John Paul II a neo-conservative of sorts. So, it was not surprising that in the late 1980s and early 1990s John Paul II’s shadow cabinet of mostly Polish advisers and intimates sought out the small band of American Catholic neo-conservatives and invited them into their innermost circle.

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