Page 6, 27th January 1995

27th January 1995
Page 6
Page 6, 27th January 1995 — Loyal critic's last word

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Organisations: European Union
Locations: Rome


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Loyal critic's last word

I HAD ENJOYED Peter Hebblethwaite's friendship for many years, and, like many others, was much affected by his untimely death last December.

On the day of his funeral his widow Margaret gave me an advance copy of this book. I therefore treat it with great seriousness, as his last words on the papacy in general, and the present papacy in particular.

It is not his most weighty work in this field. His reputation in the long run will rest on his two well-researched and sensitive biographies of John XXIII and Paul VI. The book under review might not unfairly, and with no criticism implied, be labelled a journalistic work, combining, in his characteristic way, gossip, documentary evidence, pointed comment, and deep and committed reflection on the nature of the papacy and its role in the present world.

Although the book is entitled The Next Pope, not much more than a chapter is given to discussion of the papabili, among whom Cardinal Hume is set down here as a "definite non-runner", though Hebblethwaite has expressed different views elsewhere.

The greater part of the work consists of a brief review of the achievements of the popes of the last two centuries, a useful guide to the working of papal conclaves and an estimate of John Paul II's pontificate.

It is this last topic which gripped me most. Here were the author's final thoughts on a subject whose unfolding he had circled the world reporting, and in which so many of his hopes and anxieties were centred. He had been in Rome when this pontificate began and in Poland at the birth of Solidarity.

Though he evidently shares what he describes as a widespread view that the pontificate is "malfunctioning", he is careful to give credit for its achievements. John Paul's moral and intellectual force tower over the pages; his contribution to the demise of communism is undeniable. Hebblethwaite speaks of his "crusading spirit" and his love of a scrap.

He shows how deeply the Pope's attitudes have been influenced by his Polishness. John Paul has made no secret of this: he himself suggested that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that "this Polish Pope, this Slav Pope, should at this very moment reveal the spiritual unity of Europe."

He calls for the "refoundation" of European culture, resenting talk of a European Union which excludes the eastern half of the continent.

In the post-Marxist era, the Pope sees the new enemy to be "liberalism". Though committed to democracy, he sees that a "democracy without values" can turn into totalitarianism. Like Marxism, unfettered capitalism will fail, because it has the wrong understanding of the human person.

The Church, however, John Paul often states, is not a democracy. Hebblethwaite speaks of the "Messianic approach" apparent in the Pope's conviction of the providential nature of his mission, his belief that dissent necessarily spells disloyalty, and his neglect of the processes of collegiality and consultation so painfully worked out at Vatican II.

The author believes that the Pope does not understand the possibility and even the need in the Church of a "loyal opposition".

Criticism of papal statements and actions can be motivated by a deep faith in the Church and a passionate concern that it should help the coming of God's Kingdom.

Peter Hebblethwaite himself was just such a loyal critic. His distinctive contribution to ecclesiastical journalism will be much missed.


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