In light of the “long Halloween” of Pope Francis, the reign of John Paul II seems like an enchanted period of stability and orthodoxy in the papacy. In fact, in the Arkum Asylum of Francis’s church, it would seem to be a very bad idea to criticize other popes who seemed to at least hold to some tenets of orthodoxy. However, it is, I believe, precisely the time to criticize those popes whose life and writings prepared the way for Francis. Let’s then take a look at a very weird interview by John Paul II in 1989. Explaining his 1988 encyclical Mulieris Dignitate, John Paul stated, “I believe that the situation of women today perhaps can be defined as being the ‘eternal feminine.’ I am seeking the eternal feminine. Everything that is accidental and animated by situations and circumstances cannot change the eternal, which is essential. In this respect, I expressed what I seek and desire in the document about the dignity of women.” There is an excellent article on Tradition in Action on this interview, but I want to spend a little bit more time on it with close attention to a text from the German Romantic poet J.W. Goethe. On first glance, in this interview, John Paul simply seems to be using a term from Romantic poetry (and the occult!) for what scholastics would call the “essence” of womanhood. John Paul is simply trying to explicate the unchanging essence of womanhood. However, this is not the only time that John Paul has said or done something weirdly occultic, and it deserves a closer look.
As Tradition in Action point out, Goethe does treat the eternal feminine in his magisterial Faust. Near the end of the play the title character ascends into heaven in a Dantesque journey. However, what Faust finds is not necessarily a Christian heaven. There is an appearance of what appears to be the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mater Gloriosa, a Chorus Mysticus and a Doctor Marianus or Mariologist. However, it is quite clear that these characters are not Christian, but rather Christian vehicles of occult ideas:
Come raise yourself to higher spheres!
When he feels you, he follows there.
Penitents, behold elated
The redeeming face;
Grateful, be regenerated
For a life of grace.
That all good minds would grow keen
To serve thee alone;
Holy virgin, mother, queen,
Goddess on thy throne!
What is destructible
Is but a parable;
What fails ineluctably
Here it was seen,
Here it was action;
Lures to perfection.
First of all, we see that it is by man’s own efforts that he travels through the spheres—not the grace of God as in Dante. Secondly, all that is required of Faust is that he loves the Virgin Mary, not as, in Dante, the Virgin Mary as mediatrix of grace whose Immaculate Heart is always twinned with Christ’s. This love of the “goddess on her throne” is undoubtedly the love some sort of literal goddess not the Virgin Mary who is venerated not worshipped. Furthermore, in Faust, there is clearly a pagan understanding of some basic erotic drive that lures the Romantic hero forward. In the play, this erotic drive impels the hero, Faust, to have an affair with a girl that ultimately leads to the death of her child and suicide. How John Paul II, an exceptionally educated and intelligent man, could view this wicked and cruel drive as being a model for an authentic Catholic understanding of womanhood is beyond me.
John Paul II was in the habit of “baptizing” artifacts for cultural consumption, drawing from the works hip hop artists to existentialists, so, upon first glance, John Paul II is applying a forced Christian reading of an irreducibly pagan and Romantic idea. However, it seems ridiculous to suppose that John Paul II did not know that Goethe was using the Blessed Virgin Mary as merely an image of the White goddess, the eternally reoccurring feminine principle of erotic desire. As I hope to further discuss, this interview was just one of many instances of John Paul expression what appears to be a pagan idea. Yet, there are many undeniably authentically Christian statements and actions in John Paul’s life. At the very least, we see a prefiguring of the imprudence that exploded into hysterical confusion under the reign of Pope Francis.