Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Burn the notes, please

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Jun 05, 2005

"No man is a hero to his valet." Or so the old saying goes. But it certainly appears that the late Pope John Paul II was, and is, a hero to his longtime confidential secretary, Archbishop Stanislas Dziwisz.

When Pope Benedict named him as Archbishop of Krakow---- where he had worked, years earlier, as secretary to then-Cardinal Wojtyla-- Archbishop Dziwisz announced that he hoped to serve the Polish archdiocese as "a witness to John Paul II."

If you were in a querulous mood, you must wonder whether it would have been better for the incoming archbishop to say that he planned act as "a witness to Jesus Christ." You might even wonder whether he might have given a bit more credit to Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, who succeeded the late Pope and kept the Krakow cathedra warm for 26 years.

But let's not be unreasonable. Pope John Paul was his hero.

So it's remarkable to learn, now, that Archbishop Dziwisz has ignored-- no, directly countermanded-- a last request from his old boss.

In his last will and spiritual testament, Pope John Paul II wrote, "Let my personal notes be burned. I ask that Father Stanislaw [Dziwisz] see to this…"

That's pretty clear, isn't it? No questions? Nor is there any question about the clarity or consistency of the deceased Pontiff's view on this matter. He wrote that instruction in March 1979, earlier in his pontificate, and never changed it. It is clearly what he wanted.

Yet now Archbishop Dziwisz discloses that he has not, and will not, destroy the notes. "Nothing has been burned," he says. "Nothing is fit for burning."

Does Archbishop Dziwisz mean to save the late Pope's legacy from the damage that could be done by excessive humility? Or is he ignoring a directive that is both prudent and understandable? Is this commendable loyalty, or crass insubordination?


When he called for the destruction of his private papers, Pope John Paul may have been motivated by something more than modesty. He may have realized that the unpublished notes of a deceased Pope can become a source of confusion for the Catholic world.

Which one of us has not scribbled something down, set it aside, and later offered a prayer of thanks that no one ever read what we had written? The private notes of John Paul II may include ideas that the Pope himself would never have made public. Now those ideas could enter general circulation, not because the late Pope wanted it, but because Archbishop Dziwisz wants it.

In Catholic theology, the working papers of a Roman Pontiff carry no teaching authority whatsoever. The Holy Spirit preserves the Pope from error in his formal statements, not in his private musings. For all we know, it may have been the prompting of the Holy Spirit that kept the late Pope from turning his thoughts on a particular topic into a finished product.

Nevertheless the reality is that any thoughts expressed by Pope John Paul II-- however informal, however tentative-- would carry considerable weight with his many ardent admirers. How would you like to be the theologian, the bishop, or even the Roman Pontiff saddled with the task of debunking a theory put forth posthumously by the great John Paul II?

It would be naïve to dismiss the possibility that a Pope as prolific as John Paul produced some potentially dangerous thoughts: some ideas that he set aside as incomplete, poorly expressed, or just plain wrong. If those thoughts were published now, earnest Catholics could be led astray. It would not be the first time that the unpublished works of a deceased Pontiff were revived, after his death, to cause problems for his successor. A now-famous "unpublished encyclical" against racism and anit-Semitism, drafted but never promulgated by Pope Pius XI, is now sometimes cited by critics of Pope Pius XII, who question why the latter did not finish the project. Personally, I suspect Pope John Paul recognized this risk, and that is why he ordered the destruction of his notes. Maybe I am wrong. Maybe there are valuable insights in those notes, which should be preserved for posterity. But who should make that decision? With the death of John Paul II, the charism of papal authority passed to Benedict XVI, and maybe the new Pope could be trusted to decide whether or not to overrule his predecessor's request. But it is Archbishop Dziwisz, not the Pope, who now controls that legacy.

If anyone knew the mind of John Paul II, it was Archbishop Dziwisz, who served at his side for nearly four decades, discussing every project and polishing every statement. You might argue, then, that the archbishop knows which of the Pope's unfinished projects deserve publication, and which should be left undisclosed. You might say that he knows what John Paul himself would have wanted.

But if you said that, you'd be wrong. Because we all know what the late Pope wanted. He wanted the notes burned.

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