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TV Review: Issues get short shrift in pope documentary

Tuesday, September 28, 1999

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"John Paul II: The Millennial Pope" is a powerful, often beautiful, but deeply flawed look at the man who has provoked the conscience of the world.

The documentary by Helen Whitney is not chronological and omits central events in his life, including the Second Vatican Council. Whitney instead illustrates six themes in the life of Karol Wojtyla, the Pole who became John Paul II. Unfortunately, she rarely allows John Paul to speak for himself and her chosen narrators sometimes tell us far more about themselves than about him. An attempt at amateur psychoanalysis also seriously weakens this film.

The strongest segments are those on Jews, faith and John Paul's idea of the culture of death.

The subject of Jews and Judaism is not incidental but fundamental to this pope. As a child growing up in pre-War Poland, he lost many Jewish friends to the Holocaust. That shaped his thought on civic morality. This documentary is at its best when it shows what Wojtyla witnessed on the streets of Krakow.

Its questions about whether the pope wishes he had done more to rescue Jews are reasonable. But it misses the mark when it presents Wojtyla's decision to enter the seminary as a form of escapism. It is clear from his writings and his biographers' that the priesthood was, for him, a courageous commitment to truth and goodness in a world filled with lies and horror. It put his life far more at risk than it was before.


"John Paul II: The Millennial Pope"

When: Tonight at 9 on PBS "Frontline."


The best segment is on the culture of death, because the producer finally allows John Paul to speak for himself. The segment on Solidarity is also good, but repeats at face value some highly disputed assertions about the then deficit-ridden Vatican that funded the political opposition in Poland.

However, the segment on women is worthless, as one speaker after another maligns him for misogyny.

As an Episcopalian, I have no qualms about saying that I don't believe the pope's arguments against female priests and artificial contraception are strong enough to support doctrine. But I am also aware that John Paul has forcefully endorsed the full equality of women and men as human beings and as citizens. In Latin Catholic machismo cultures and African Islamic and tribal cultures, he has called for women's education and for their full economic and political empowerment.

The segment on Latin American liberation theology is little better. This was a broad movement of Catholics who worked to promote human rights in nations under military dictatorships. It mingled biblical teaching with Marxist historical analysis. Some liberationists advocated "revolutionary violence" against the ruling class.

John Paul criticized what he perceived as dangerous errors in this movement. The goal of Christianity, he insisted, must be reconciliation, not class warfare. But John Paul also adopted some of liberation theology's key principles, particularly its insistence that the church's first responsibility is to the poor and oppressed. And the pope did denounce the military dictators and human rights abuses.

It is fair to ask whether John Paul could have addressed the issue more pastorally and eased, rather than inflamed, conflict with the Catholic left. But the pope did not destroy the liberation movement by closing seminaries in Latin America. He brought it down by encouraging the European revolution against communism, which revealed the hollow promises of Marx.

The final insult is when a commentator asks how history might have changed if the pope had worked with liberationist bishops instead of replacing them. Never mentioned is the fact that, largely due to the sort of dialogue John Paul called for, virtually all of those dictatorships have been replaced by democracies. What different outcome was the narrator hoping for?

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