A Papal Publishing Event

october 31, 1994 :: Newsweek, by David Gates

It will now be the job of theologians and analysts of the papal teaching,” writes Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in his introduction to Pope John Paul lI’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope (244 pages. Knopf $20), “to face the problem of classifying a text that has no precedent.” But laypeople may also be mystified by this series of written responses to questions Messori had originally composed for a TV interview the pope canceled. Who is the book for, and how did these dense, deeply felt but rambling observations, which blend theology, evangelizing and personal reminiscence, become a “publishing event”? The book appeared simultaneously in 35 countries last week; 1.25 million copies materialized Thursday in stores all over the United States. U.S. rights alone may have fetched as much as $9 million-a deal made before the pope. 74, recuperating from hip surgery, canceled a North American tour that would have coincided with fait publication. Messori’s questions cut to the core of both perennial Christian doctrine and current the controversies: from the divinity of Jesus to abortion. After picking away at possible answers for months in his spare time, the pope gave his manuscript to Messori and authorized him to do with it “what you think is appropriate.” Though the publisher understandably claims the pope “speaks to people of all faiths,” Muslims, Jews, even Protestants may find his calls for “dialogue” empty when they read the fine print. Struggling agnostics may bail out when the pope answers the question of God’s existence by recommending the study of Aquinas. And even the hearts of believers may sink when Messori asks why a loving God had to sacrifice his own son and the pope responds, “Let’s begin by looking at the history of European thought after Descartes.” He means the very question springs from an alienating rationalism; as the 19th century apologist Cardinal Newman noted, it’s “as absurd some to argue men, as to torture them, the into believing.” But the pope’s lofty tone is ill-suited to this anguished doctrinal question.

Yet if the pope is just addressing the faithful, he says little that’s new about his own thought or church teachings.

True, the church must say the book same things and meditate on the same truths again and again. “The bathers, the great Scholastics, the theologian of the ensuing centuries,” the pope writes” did nothing other than return, always with renewed wonder, to the heritage they had received, in order to grow in a deeper understanding of it.” Willing readers may find renewed wonder in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” but they’ll have to do more than their share of the work.

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