Posted October 13, 2003
Bigger Than The Nobelby David Brooks
New York Times
I can’t imagine he cares, but Pope John Paul II, who has been a more profound influence on more people than any other living human being, is never going to win the Nobel Peace Prize. For years, prize watchers have felt that the Norwegian committee would have no choice but to give him the award, even if he does have unfashionable views on abortion. And this, oddsmakers predicted, was his year. His health is fragile, and his fervent opposition to the war in Iraq would have pleased the impeccably liberal committee.
But I like to think the members of the committee understood the central truth, that they could not give the prize to John Paul. He is too big and complex for their award. The project he is engaged in — still engaged in — defies their categories.
Instructed by faith, trained by the hard history of Central Europe, the young Karol Wojtyla came to believe that “the evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness in each person.” The Nazis tried to reduce individuals to their racial makeup, the Marxists to their class status.
John Paul II dedicated his life to the defense of the whole and the individual dignity of each person. At the core of each individual, he believes, is the moral need to seek truth.
The “fundamental error of socialism,” he writes, “is anthropological.” It tries to pare down human beings into something narrower and more degraded than they really are. It tries to crush among other things, their search for God.
So when John Paul II went to Poland and Cuba early in his papacy, he told the crowds, “You are not who they say you are.” The result was a cultural revolution. One young Polish student, quoted in George Weigel’s biography, “Witness to Hope,” heard the teaching and realized, “Now what I wanted to do was to live without being a liar.”
The Pope has tried to defend the dignity of personhood in all spheres, and this has meant that he does not conform to ordinary political categories.
While respecting private property, he has been suspicious of the utilitarian calculus of capitalism, and embraced welfare state policies that put him far to the left.
Defending the dignity of life from the moment of conception to the moment of death, he has fought abortion, euthanasia and the scientific refashioning of human nature, putting himself on the side of conservatives.
His main achievement has been to remind us —— Catholics and even us non-Catholics —— that you can't pare people down. We do this all the time without realizing it. When we write for newspapers, or talk in public, we generally speak as if democracy and freedom are ends in themselves. We give our heroes prizes for curing diseases and clearing land mines.
Those things, grand as they are, are insufficient, the pope is always insisting. Democracy is just a system. Freedom is just an opportunity to do good or bad. The essence of life is not long life, but true life.
The pope is always taking us out of our secular comfort zone and dragging us toward ultimate issues. You can't talk about politics, economics, science, philosophy or war, he argues, while conveniently averting your eyes from God and ultimate truth.
In its statement lauding this year's winner, Shirin Ebadi, the Norwegian Nobel Committee celebrates her commitment to dialogue and democracy. But where the authors of that statement stop thinking is where the pope picks up.
Dialogues toward what truth? Democracy for what? He understands we will never persuade a radical Islamist to give up his absolute grip on what he sees as God's truth if all we are offering is a tepid dialogue on the need to get along. We need to show him truth with tolerance. This is the challenge of the increasingly religious 21st century, and the pope, a philosopher more than an activist, is far out ahead.
Shirin Ebadi is obviously a courageous person, doing vitally important work. Nothing takes away from her heroism. But when history looks back on our era, Pope John Paul II will be recognized as the giant of the age, as the one individual who did the most to place democracy and freedom at the service of the highest human goals.