"A religious person is the one who holds God and fellow human being in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."

Abraham J. Heschel

Tadeusz Bartoś
"John Paul II - Critical Analysis" - review of the book.
"Jan Pawel II - Analiza Krytyczna" - recenzja

Revd Dr Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski

There are many reasons why I would like to introduce Tadeusz Bartoś’ recent book to the readers of Open Theology.
       It is not a common trend in Poland to engage critically with theology of John Paul II. What elsewhere is take for granted, in Poland is still very new. Therefore it is not very welcome to challenge the legacy of John Paul II, or ask some challenging questions about his distinctive style of administration of the Catholic Church. On the contrary, with some recent exceptions, the Polish theologians and journalists (Catholic and non-believers) have been presenting rather unanimous choir of eulogy and admiration of everything that has came out from the former Polish Pope. To so-called ‘a Western observer’, especially with liberal views, there is nothing surprising to note that John Paul II during his long life became and still is ‘the holy icon’ for the Polish Catholic Church. As ‘the holy icon’, his place was on the altar, at least in his native country. But after many decades of that common veneration, there are some signs of a new approach to John Paul II’s legacy and new voices can be heard. For many this new attitude appears to be modern version of the ancient iconoclastic blasphemy. But Tadeusz Bartoś argues, in may view convincingly, that Polish Catholicism does not need to choose between only two options: either eulogy or blasphemy. In Bartoś’ view there is the third, intelligent way in dealing with the gigantic statue of John Paul II and his legacy.

       One of the values of the book is that the author avoids extremism while approaching such a powerful statue, surrounded by very emotional attachment of many Poles and impressive collection of writings. Bartoś tries to show the problematic ambivalence of John Paul II’s theology and politics and ambivalence is the subject of the book. Bartoś is able to discuss the theology of the Polish Pope without fear, giving up apologetic language and patriotic rhetoric. At the same time he tries to understand the circumstance of John Paul II’s life as a young Polish man (born 1920), actor, lover of literature and romantic poetry, priest, philosopher (e.g. his fascination with Scheller, Husserl and phenomenology) theologian, then bishop of Krakow and ultimately the Pope. Bartoś shows a degree of the respect to the parts of John Paul II’ legacy, but also he presents sober insights into Pope’s theological and philosophical paradigms and their consequences. First, let’s ask: is the author well qualified to fulfil this difficult, academic and public task?
       Until 2007 Tadeusz Bartoś through 20 years was a member of the Dominican Order, he was an academic lecturer in Polish Province of the Order and well-known (for many too liberal) commentator of the religious life in his country. Also he is the author of academic works on Thomas Aquinas as well as many articles in Catholic and secular Polish press (e.g. ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’, ‘Tygodnik Powszechny’, or monthly magazine ‘Znak’). But as he openly confesses in the introduction to his book: I gave up my clerical status in order to write freely about the issues which are important to me. It is not that I am writing as a result of my departure from that status, it is rather that I have gave up it in order to write (p. 10).

 The book has six chapters. First chapter portrays Karol Wojtyła  (the birth name of the Pope) as the last great Romantic, a heroic figure profoundly inspired by the very spirit of Polish romanticism, a lonely man but of a brave heart, ready to act and even die for the values that he believes are the most noble. This man deeply believed in his mission, in his vocation, his destiny and was ready to face the challenge of the modern world. Wojtyła was born near Auschwitz, grew up during the second war and witness its barbarism and devastation, then in the post-war Poland he lived in the dark period of the communist regime. In all these so tragic circumstances, his strong faith in the power of the Cross, very profound devotion to the Virgin Mary helped him to be faithful to his vocation as a Catholic, as a priest and as a chaplain. This biographical facts, in Bartoś’ view, prepared the ground and formed some of the characteristics of the Pope, including his openness to the Jews, his interests in the poor of Africa and Asia, but at the same his self-understanding that he is, like Jesus Christ, the embodiment of ‘the sign that will be opposed by many’ (Lk 2.34), particularly by the Western secularism, liberalism and by the theological academic centres which promote further openness of the Catholic church to the modern world.

 The second chapter focuses on John Paul II’s fascination with ethics, but understood in a particular way, as Bartoś points out. The strong ethical inclination of the bishop’s Wojtyła inspired his reading of the religious (and metaphorical) discourse of the Gospels. In Jesus’ narratives, which are mainly parables and prophetic stories about the kingdom of God, Wojtyła, the professor of ethics found first and foremost ethical message which needed to be transformed into strict moral rules. Bartoś is more specific: Wojtyła caged the spirit of the Gospel’s message or the experience of the divine, in ethical regulations that Catholic should follow in order to imitate Jesus and enter to the kingdom of God (pp. 36-44). This reductionism is, in the view of the author, a serious and dangerous misunderstanding; in its consequences it neglects modern hermeneutical approach to the Holy Scriptures as a very complex narrative, open to many, not just one ‘correct’ or ‘true’ interpretation.

 The third chapter deals with Pope’ vision of theology. The paradigm of John Paul II’s understanding of theology is, as we can, the strong conviction that Christian (Catholic) theology has ‘the descending’ character. It means that as it originates in the sphere of the divine, then it descends gradually towards human beings. Consequently, in for example, in Christology, Christ’ humanity is less significant as the priority lays with his divinity. Similarly, the understanding of the Church would emphasise her divine (holiness, idealism) aspect, while the human, including error, element is overshadowed and marginalised. Finally, this theological vision influences the model of anthropology: the subjective element must be surrounded to the objective norm and the institution. In Bartoś’ view, these characteristics dominated theology of the bishop, then Cardinal Wojtyła and ultimately John Paul II.

 The final two chapters, fourth and fifth seem to show consequences of these theological presuppositions. First, the author discusses, what he calls ‘illusion of dialogue’ which characterise the ecclesiastical administration by John Paul II. While by the world-media the previous Bishop of Rome received enormous attention of ‘the pilgrim-Pope’ visiting many countries, speaking in many languages to almost all nations, shaking hands with the leaders representing the whole spectrum of politics from Pinochet to Castro, the same Pope shown totally different face to his Catholic opponents. According to the Polish author, the inner-church politics were dominated by the spirit of theological suspicion, mistrusts and lack of will to meet with the Catholic theologians who, like for example, the representatives of the theology of liberation from Latin America, did not share the same views as the Pope. This is another aspect of the ambivalence of John Paul II.

 Finally, the author brings in a very controversial theme of the ‘beloved child’ of John Paul II, that is Opus Dei. It is with this esoteric, elitist and right-wing Catholic organisation that the Polish Pope shared many values and openly supported its ethos and activity. Bartoś tries to establish the core-values which, in his view, attracted the Pope to this organisation and the ways in which John Paul II was inspired by its vision of the world, understanding of Catholic faith and, what is the most important, uncompromised adherence to the Catholic Church.

 In a brief conclusion, which aims to encourage the readers to hold to the positive vision of the Catholic Church after John Paul II’s, the author reminds the crucial metaphor of journey, which is the fundament experience of Christian community. In his opinion, the recent historical phase of that journey under the leadership of the Polish Pope is over, therefore the main effort should be directed to life with a new hope and openness to the fresh beginning, in which Bartoś seems to see a sign of God’s assistance.

       This book, although has many values, presents also some shortcomings. First and foremost, it should contain in its title the crucial world: ‘introduction’. It is quite hard to deal with enormous and complex legacy and personality of John Paul II on only 175 pages. Therefore many very insightful remarks of the author are left unfinished, other are only sketched and call for further elaboration. One of those unfinished issue is the role, more significant than Bartoś suggests, of Pope’s private devotion to the Virgin Mary and his Mariological mysticism (Fatima, Lourdes). This ambiguous attachment to the ideal woman, the Mother of Christ played important role in the Pope’s miscomprehension of real women, including the growing number of Catholic women asking for the recognition of their vocation to the priesthood. Virgin Mary profoundly shaped John Paul II’s over-spiritualised vision of women, their role in the Church, their biological and spiritual needs and nature, including sexuality and some related issues such as contraception and abortion. On more intellectual level, for example, Wojtyła’ alliance with phenomenology calls for additional careful study. Phenomenology by its very nature respects strong ‘subjective’ element in the process of achieving the knowledge, while the papal theology shows many signs of ‘objective’ (if not dogmatic) approach. When John Paul II ‘turned against’ young Wojtyła, the phenomenologist? Or maybe John Paul II lived his whole life with this hidden, unsolved tension between his earlier philosophical inclination and later theological responsibility as the chief- shepherd of the Church? Similarly John Paul II’s vision of economical conditions, justice, ethics and politics relations can be a subject of more profound examination. Also, it should be noted that the book does not contain a proper index which would facilitate search through it. However, the great value of the book is that is written from very Polish perspective, so anyone interested in history of modern the Polish Catholicism or Church, may found in it a significant material to illustrated the recent radical change of approaching the issue of the Polish Pope in his native country. But the value unveils also some limitations, as Bartoś seems to be unaware of the recent discussion of John Paul II’s heritage which appeared outside of Poland on occasion of Pope’s death. With some of those commentators Bartoś would find himself in harmony, among others he would have found support and even more examples to his study.

       Bartoś’ book is a significant event in the Polish, not only Catholic, context. Hopefully, this book will give a new stimulation to the younger generation of Polish intellectuals and will open a new stage of the debate around John Paul II in his native country and abroad.          

< Prev   Next >
Visits today: 9
Visits yesterday: 49
Visits total: 76257
Totals Top 10
 33 % Poland
 28 % United States
 16 % Un. Kingdom
 4 % China
 3 % Germany
 2 % Unknown
 2 % Sweden
 < 1.0 % Canada
 < 1.0 % Netherlands
 < 1.0 % France
Copyright © 2007-2011 Open Theology