Pope’s biographer offers his thoughts on the Jubilee, Catholic univer sities and the man who he says has a “remarkable capacity to keep the focus on Christ.”
Q: You have made Pope John Paul II a priority in your career.Why is it so important that university students know more about him?
A: I think what Pope John Paul II teaches us is that we all have a unique, distinctive role in the great cosmic drama of creation and redemption, and our task during our youth is to discern what that role is. We should reflect upon our abilities, our interests, etc., with an eye toward answering “What am I supposed to do that no one else can do?” I am deeply grateful to the Holy Father for deepening my own sense of the vocational quality, the vocational drama of the human condition. And obviously, I’m very grateful to him for entering into a vocational dialogue about his life with me.
Q: We’ve been hearing about the Jubilee Year for quite a while, especially the past few years. Do you think it has been the success that John Paul II envisioned it would be throughout his pontificate?
A: Success, in this instance, is not measured by how many tens of millions of people come to Rome or how many people watch the Jubilee on television. It’s measured by conversion. It’s measured by the intensity of people’s spiritual response to this remarkable moment in human history. I think if you look at the intensification of prayer and the intensification of the reception of the sacrament of reconciliation that has taken place all over the world during the Jubilee Year (especially in Rome where the Circus Maximus was turned into the world’s biggest open-air confessional for a week), this is what the pope would mean by success. I think that was evident during his visit to the Holy Land. I was in Jerusalem that week working for NBC and one of the things that I kept trying to say in the television commentary was that the pope was not coming to the Holy Land to say, “Look at me.” He was coming to the Holy Land to say, “Look at Jesus Christ, because that’s who this is all about.” I think his remarkable, dramatic capacity to keep the focus on Christ, has been the key to the spiritual success of the Jubilee.
Q: Considering John Paul II’s influence on culture and life within Catholic universities, how do you think he would view Catholic Studies programs, such as ours at St.Thomas?
A: I don’t know how he would view it. I can tell you how I view it. I think these are wonderful efforts to do what can only be done in American higher education today on religiously serious campuses, specifically on Catholic campuses. Catholic Studies programs give young people not only information and skills, but also a world vision, grounded in philosophy and theology, of what makes a person a civilized human being. Most of American higher education institutions today – from the most prestigious schools to the most humble community colleges – are, in my judgement, producing barbarians. They are not producing young men and women who are the genuine possessors and heirs of a culture.
I think it’s a great sign of hope for the future that Catholic Studies programs intend to produce an integrated view of the humanities and sciences, philosophy, theology and the arts. I’m also very impressed with how rapidly the program has grown at St. Thomas.
Q: How are the characteristics of the Catholic university different from when you attended university?
A: I went to university during the 1960s, so I think we can begin by saying things are calmer now. The ’60s were a very, very agitated time in our culture. I find students today refreshingly serious. I find students at Catholic universities to be very much interested in learning about the Church, about the faith and about Christian culture. Most of these students have had, unfortunately, a very poor religious education. But I think they know that, and they want to dig into the riches of their tradition. In that sense the question has really changed during the last 25 or 30 years. In the white heat and cultural meltdown of the ’60s, the question often was: “How little do I have to do and believe in order to still stay within the boundaries of the Church?” That’s ultimately a very boring question. I think the question on campuses today is: “How much of this rich, complex, venerable, ancient tradition have I made my own?” That’s much more interesting.
Q:The Catholic Studies program at St.Thomas places emphasis on the influence of religion on culture.What cultural changes have you seen as a result of John Paul II’s pontificate?
A: The pope has made it clear that the Church carries into the world a coherent, comprehensive and compelling proposal for how we should understand the human condition in the 21st century. That proposal is founded, in its public aspects, on the dignity of the human person made manifest in God’s revelation in the Hebrew Bible and most dramatically in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I think that we are heading into a period in which the Catholic understanding of the inalienable dignity and value of every human life is going to be profoundly challenged. It was challenged in the 20th century by political systems. It will be challenged in the 21st century by the biotechnology revolution. This struggle will be even more difficult because, whereas with Nazism and communism one was confronted with unmitigated evils, the biotech revolution is a complex mixture of good and potential evil or catastrophe.
If the only criterion guiding the application of the new genetic knowledge is utility, then we’re heading directly into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We have to remember Huxley’s Brave New World is not 1984; it’s not brutal, it’s happy. Everybody’s happy except they’re dehumanized. It’s a happy dystopia. That prospect is possible within the foreseeable future if the only criterion in guiding the application of the new genetic knowledge is utility.
I must say we are not off to a good start on this debate in the United States. The debate over embryonic stem cell research was conducted almost entirely in utilitarian terms. Indeed, the abortion debate is the great litmus test in this political culture right now, and has been dominated by utilitarian criteria for 25 years. This is all bad news. Now, the only institution with a coherent, comprehensive and compelling counterproposal is the Catholic Church. Therefore we are exactly where John Courtney Murray in the late 1950s suggested we might be on the edge of the 21st century – with the Catholic community as the bearer of the understanding of freedom tied to moral truth. This is an enormous challenge for the Church in the United States in the years ahead.
Q: Will today’s students have the Church in their lives?
A: I hope so. I think there is a tremendous openness to the transcendent in our culture. During the last 50 years we learned that a world without windows and doors is stifling. A transcendencefree world is ultimately an unfree world. I think the reaction to that stifling atmosphere of modern secularism has been a real thirst for the experienceof the transcendent. Now this takes all sorts of odd forms in American culture. Go into any big bookstore today and you have shelf after shelf of New Age publications. We should see that as an evangelical opportunity. This is our equivalent of St. Paul going to Athens in Acts, going to the altar of the unknown god and saying, “Let me tell you about what you claim to believe in but also don’t think you know.” He wrote a metaphor of theChurch’s situation in the modern world that Pope John Paul II has emphasized for years. I mean, we are on the Aeropagus, we are on the Mars Hill and I think there are many indications that the unknown god is being sought and we can help direct people to the proper end of that search.
Q: For many university students John Paul II is the only pope we’ve ever known. It is likely that there will be another pope in the not-sodistant future.How do you think our generation will react to a new pope?
A: I think we’re all going to feel a tremendous sense of loss and deprivation. Although, I think in the midst of that we should also feel a great sense of gratitude. Ithas been a privilege to live at the same time as this man who, more than any other person in our time, has made manifest, both in his own life and in his thought, thetruth of the Christian claim. He is, amidst all of that, a wonderful human being. This is something for which we should be grateful all the rest of our lives. We’re going to have to get on with the jobs that he’s left undone. I’m giving a lecture in Australia titled,“The Work the Pope Has Left For the Rest of Us To Do.” I will certainly live the rest of my life in the large shadow cast by this giant figure. He’s given us tremendous resources to work with and that, too, is something for which we should bevery grateful.
Q: What will be the challenges for our generation as young, Catholic adults in the United States?
A: The biggest challenge is going to be to take back our culture. A culture that identifies the meaning of freedom with Frank Sinatra’s theme song, “I Did It My Way,” is in deep trouble. You cannot sustain a free society on the basis of, “I did it my way.” We have to remind Americans again that democracy requires a critical mass of people committed to doing it not “my way” but the right way. Freedom is always tehered to moral truth.Then we have to show people that this liberating freedom, that the freedom of “I did it my way,” is imprisonment. It’s the tyranny of solipsism. It’s the tyranny of locking yourself into the bright, well-lit room of your own psyche for the rest of your life. This is not a very attractive place to live. So I think that job No.1 in the future is to reclaim the notion that there are self-evident moral truths at the foundation of our public life and that the vitality of those truths in our culture, in our law, is essential to the future of America as a free society. Good luck.