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Thus came to pass what Weigel calls “the pivot of my life”. In early December, 1995, Neuhaus and he were dining with John Paul II and his close assistant, Monsignor Stanislaw Dziwisz — not for the first time. In his sly way, Neuhaus pointed out the need for a serious, informed biography of the Pope. He knew that in recent months this increasingly united circle of Americans and Poles had been talking about just such a project — and about Weigel as the author. The Holy Father, who was no ingénue when it came to palace politics, said to Neuhaus while looking at Weigel, “You must force him to do it!”

The Polish Pope chose well. Born in 1951 and raised in the confident Catholicism of Baltimore, Maryland, Weigel’s sensibilities as a Catholic are at once traditional and entirely in sympathy with the main thrusts of the Second Vatican Council. This allowed him to see that the liberal vs. conservative framework distorts John Paul II’s churchmanship.

Conservatism looks backward for orientation, while liberal progressivism looks to a utopian future. In his biography of John Paul II and many other writings on his pontificate, Weigel draws attention to the fact that the eyes of faith are directed upward. John Paul II looked up towards Christ crucified and risen, not backwards or forwards. This theological orientation will sometimes mean fighting against those who wish to do away with core doctrines — or moral truth itself. Insofar as the people urging upon us religious subjectivism and moral relativism call themselves “progressives”, this will seem “conservative”. But that’s not accurate. When John Paul II defended human dignity and refused to accept Communism’s dominion over his native land, he led a revolution of conscience, the direction of true progress.

For three decades Weigel has been John Paul II’s most effective apologist, and many of the wonderful stories in Lessons in Hope help us understand why. But this remembrance of the gift of friendship with John Paul II also raises an interesting question. What is the future for the theological and political neo-conservatism that made Wojtyla recognise in Weigel and his First Things friends kindred souls?

Pope Francis has reignited theological battles many of us thought were put to rest by John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We’re back to liberals fighting conservatives. While Weigel may wish to resist that framework, it seems not to have been overcome after all. And the return of old battle lines after 30 years of papal governance by two men of remarkable depth, intellectual nuance, and spiritual integrity raises the possibility that the Council failed in its purpose of renewal. I don’t share this view. But it is becoming more plausible to think so in 2017, and this undermines Pope John Paul II’s enthusiasm for Vatican II and his theological neo-conservatism.

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