From the Winter 2006 Edition of the Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter: George Weigel is a senior fellow at the Center for Ethics and Public Policy and the author or editor of 18 books, including: The Courage to be Catholic: Letters to a Young Catholic; and the definitive papal biography, Witness to Hope: The Biography of John Paul II. His latest work, entitled God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, has just been published by Harper Collins. Mr. Weigel visited the College in October.
Q. How does one go about becoming the official biographer of a pope?
A. I had been in conversation with John Paul II for three or four years. I had been writing about him from virtually the beginning of his pontificate. In 1995, it occurred to me that it was ridiculous that there wasn’t a decent book that was reliable in telling his remarkable story.
Q. Could you describe the timeline of the book?
A. I first proposed the idea to the Pope’s press secretary around May of 1995. About six or seven months later, I was at dinner with the Holy Father, and the topic of a biography came up. He had apparently been aware of the conversation from the previous months, and he indicated that he thought it would be a good idea if I were to take it on. Three years after that, I had a book.
Q. Could you characterize the cooperation you received from the Pope and the Vatican as you did the research for the book?
A. The Pope was tremendous in his cooperation. Some in the Vatican and back in Poland were less forthcoming with me, but for the most part I received invaluable amounts of help. One of the most cooperative individuals was then-Cardinal Ratzinger, whom I had known long before I had known John Paul II.
Q. Did you learn anything about John Paul II that you weren’t expecting?
A. Oh yes. I knew the War had been a crucial experience of his life, but I didn’t know any of the details or the depth of it. Also, I had not reckoned with how important his father was. I think his father was one of the most important influences in his life.
Q. Besides the obvious fact he was the first non-Italian pontiff in over four hundred years, what other factors went in to making John Paul II so extraordinary?
A. He was not in any way a vain man, but I think he knew what he knew. And he knew in October 1978 [when he was elected] that he knew how to be a bishop and that he was not going to be repackaged or remade by the traditional managers of the Pope. He was going to do this his way. And that included this kind of enormous public witnessing of the Faith that manifested itself in the Pope’s precedent-shattering global pilgrimages.
Q. In your latest book, God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, you spend the first one hundred pages on the final days of John Paul II. Why?
A. How would you describe the conclave to elect the new Pope without describing the momentous history that led up to it? It really was a seamless transition.
Q. Do you think John Paul II’s pontificate had an impact on Catholic higher education?
A. Very much so. Actually, I am more optimistic about the future of Catholic higher education in America than I was ten or fifteen years ago.
Q. What makes you so optimistic?
A. I believe there are two important factors that color my optimism. First, the Catholic deconstruction that took place in this country in the 1960s and 1970s has turned out to be rather sterile. Those who rejected Humanae Vitae didn’t really replace themselves into the next generation. The second major factor is that no one could have predicted the enormous renaissance of young Catholic vitality under the impact of John Paul II. If you put the two together, you begin to get the kind of reform—genuine reform—that is pushing the numbers back in the right direction.
Q. So there’s a future for Catholic higher education?
A. Absolutely. But we shouldn’t be satisfied with the gains we’ve made so far. The goal of Catholic liberal education is to educate young men and women who are going to take responsibility for their own lives, their families, the Church, and the country. The problems are still formidable, but I think there has definitely been a turn.