Not another John Paul II book

  • May 18, 2007
{mosimage}John Paul II: Man of History, by Edward Stourton (Hodder and Stoughton, 344 pages, hardcover, $42.99).

A recent search of uncovered 81 titles listed as biographies of Pope John Paul II. It makes you wonder what a new book would have to say to merit its price. After reading Edward Stourton’s John Paul II: Man of History, you would still be wondering.
Stourton, a British radio and TV journalist, has written a not bad biography of the late pope. It’s just that there seems little necessity for yet another of modern history’s most written about religious leader.

The book would appear to be an orphan — too late for journalism (John Paul died more than two years ago) and far too early for history.

An active Catholic with a lively sense of intellectual curiosity, Stourton wisely opts not to write a chronology of John Paul II’s life but to examine the broad brush strokes. He covers familiar territory quickly and sensitively, from Karol Wojtyla’s birth on May 18, 1920, in the Polish town of Wadowice through his dramatic experience of wartime Poland under Nazi occupation, his rapid rise in the church hierarchy and his election as pope in 1978. He wisely steers clear of the amateur psychologizing of many biographers, though he can’t restrain himself from speculating that the death of his mother at age nine led to his intense devotion to Mary later in life.

{sa 0340908165}Stourton examines the papacy along thematic lines, looking at John Paul’s principle objectives and how they unfolded. Liberation theology, clearly a favourite of Stourton, gets considerable analysis, as does John Paul’s role in the fall of the Berlin wall and the entree of Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries into Western-style capitalism. Stourton admires John Paul’s ongoing battle with materialism, especially his challenges to the United States on its sins in relation to the poor.

Though largely sympathetic to the pope, Stourton is not uncritical. He argues that John Paul often chose unwisely in those he appointed to high curial office, which led to unintended consequences and even failure in some key policy areas. Vatican Secretary of State Angelo Sodano comes in for some withering criticism for putting roadblocks in the path of Orthodox-Catholic rapprochement. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, is no favourite either.

Inexplicably, Stourton gives short shrift to World Youth Day, arguably one of the most impressive legacies of the John Paul papacy. He offers only two paragraphs on the phenomenon and uses the sneering dismissal of British journalist John Cornwall to provide the assessment of the long popular events as Catholic pop festivals.

Either Stourton has not experienced a World Youth Day himself, or he simply is not tuned into the growing legion of young men and women who see themselves as “John Paul II Catholics” — who display a devotion to the church that often surpasses that of their elder brothers and sisters in faith.

Stourton has one other annoying habit. He feels it necessary to descend at times into patronizing displays of journalistic dumbing-down. At one point he sums up Thomas Aquinas as being “most famous for his association with the idea of debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.” He then dismisses Aquinas’ work as “abstruse,” implying it is something no reasonably intelligent person would spend an extra minute thinking about. He doesn’t seem to realize his readers can handle a little more sophistication and a little less posturing.

For John Paul II addicts, Stourton’s book will add an interesting insight or two to their wealth of information available. For the rest, there are many more profitable ways to spend $43.

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