An Unholy Alliance

HE IS THE FIRST POPE TO SEE HIS OWN life story. turned into a movie, the first to publish an international best seller, the first to answer questions from working journalists. Now, in the last phase of his pontificate, comes the parade of biographies: one last year, one just published and at least two more scheduled to appear as the millennium approaches. John Paul II, this is your life, your life, your life, your life.

"His Holiness: John Patti II and the Hidden History of Our Time" (582 pages. Doubleday $27.50) is a collaboration between journalists Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, and Marco Politi, a veteran Vaticanisto who writes for the Italian daily La Repubblica. The style is the you-are-there documentary simulation perfected by Bernstein and Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men," the kind of dramatic recreation that describes not only what happened but also what the pope (who wasn't interviewed) and other principals thought and felt.

The "hidden history," it turns out, is essentially an elaboration of a much disputed cover story Bernstein wrote for Time magazine in February 1992. In it, Bernstein purported to uncover a "Holy Alliance" in which the Vatican and the Reagan administration had "conspired to assist Poland's Solidarity movement and hasten the demise of Communism" in the late 1980s. Now, as then, Bernstein's thesis is as hyperventilated as his prose. "Holy Alliance" is much too robust a metaphor for the diplomatic duet that took place between the United States and the Vatican. The pope and the president did not always agree on policy toward communist Poland--especially the economic blockade of the pope's motherland--and the last word has yet to be written on who played what role in funneling money and materials to Solidarity's underground organization.

But this is a book about the man, Karol Wojtyla, who became the first Polish pope--and one of the most dominant figures of his era. His early life is charmingly retold (like all the pope's biographers, the authors rely on a book by a Polish priest, Adam Boniecki, that minutely records Wojtyla's life from birth), and Politi's inside knowledge of the Vatican gives the papal years the ring of plausibility. But books that aspire to virtual reality cannot afford so many mistakes in small, supposedly knowing details. For example, the Roman Catholic Church is not an absolute monarchy, though the Vatican State is. Nor does the pope's favorite Latin motto, "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam," mean "To the Glory of God."

There are plenty of more serious misunderstandings. American bishops are nowhere near the liberal opposition the authors make them out to be. As important as geopolitics have been to this pontificate, John Paul's major legacy is the theological interpretations he has given to the faith entrusted to his care. The authors provide no theological analysis of his major encyclicals, and no explanation of the concept they freely bandy about-phenomenology-which is an intuititve, philosophical method that Wojtyla has written about with considerable distinction. There is also an exceedingly tendentious section on his relations with a female Polish-born philosopher, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, who helped the then Cardinal Wojtyla revise his most difficult philosophical book, "The Acting Person." In what can best be described as an act of reportorial prurience, the authors repeatedly question Tymieniecka, her husband and others about whether the cardinal and "the small, pixyish blonde" were sexually attracted to each other. He wasn't; she says she wasn't.

Indeed, if there is a thread that rims through "His Holiness," it is Wojtyla's "tormented relationship to womankind." The authors suggest a psychological link between this pope's pronounced devotion to the Madonna and the early loss of his own mother. They are also intrigued by his close but non-sexual relationships with girls, some of them Jewish, in his adolescence. All this leads in the closing chapter ("The Angry Pope") to a wildly one-sided account of the 1994 U. N. Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo. Once again we are given a reconstructed scene, this time between the pope and the Pakistani gynecologist Nails Sadik, the conference's general secretary, who is the sole source for what she-and the authors-describe as a fit of pique by John Paul II. "He doesn't like women," Sadik complains after leaving the papal palace. Why? Because the pope is opposed to abortion, an act the church has repeatedly condemned for nearly 2,000 years. Bernstein and Politi contend that John Paul is handicapped by a personal and cultural "bias"; he's an aging absolute monarch "surround[ing] the church with barbed wire." The image is from Auschwitz. With attitude like this, who needs a second source?

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