The trouble with “Karol”


“Karol: A Man Who Became Pope,” which aired on the Hallmark channel this past August, is a beautiful film about the pre-papal life of the man the world knew as John Paul II. Piotr Adamczyk does a marvelous job as Karol Wojtyla; the brutalities of the Nazi occupation of Poland and the skullduggeries of Poland’s communists are powerfully conveyed. At the end, when Karol becomes pope, viewers can only conclude that this was a life in which grace built on remarkable natural gifts to produce a compelling witness to the power of truth and love in human affairs.

Which is precisely the conclusion one should draw from the early life of Karol Wojtyla. The problem is that “Karol” fictionalizes — and in some cases falsifies — the late pope’s pre-papal life.

I counted five historical errors or falsifications in the first four minutes of the film. There is no room here to list, in numbing detail, the dozens of things the filmmakers got wrong. It is important, however, to flag several major distortions and falsifications, before the mythologists completely take over the late pope’s story.

The personal drama of the first half of “Karol” includes the resolution of the young man’s relationship with “Hania,” in real life the Polish actress Halina Krolikiewicz Kwiatkowska (who was helpful to me when I was preparing Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II). Karol is portrayed as torn between the priesthood and his love for “Hania;” there is a wrenching moment when, during World War II, Hania blunders into a church and finds Karol in a cassock. “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asks; “I’m sorry,” he answers (as she cries on his shoulder), in what is clearly intended to be the film’s emotional hinge.

None of this is true. Karol Wojtyla and Halina Krolikiewicz were good friends, but there is no indication that they were planning marriage; moreover, the real-world Halina was very much part of Karol Wojtyla’s discussions with his friends about his vocation (as any reader of Witness to Hope would have known). The filmmakers want viewers to think that Hania, who doesn’t marry for seven years, was virtually crushed by Karol’s decision; in fact, the real-world Halina married shortly after the war and Father Karol Wojtyla baptized her first child in November 1946.

It gets worse. “Hania” moves to America where she is miraculously cured from a lethal disease through the intercession of Padre Pio, to whom her former boyfriend, now a bishop, had spoken of her illness. But this incident, in reality, involved someone else entirely — Dr. Wanda Poltowska, whom Bishop Wojtyla met in the late 1950s, not during the war (which Dr. Poltowska spent in a concentration camp).

And still worse: “Father Tomasz Zaleski,” who, before he’s shot by the Nazis, is portrayed as Karol’s close boyhood friend and, later, spiritual adviser, is a complete invention. Young Karol Wojtyla did have a spiritual director, Father Kazimierz Figliewicz, but Figliewicz was not his contemporary and was not shot by the Germans. The film does manage to credit the lay mystic Jan Tyranowski as an important influence on Wojtyla. The portrait of Tyranowski is all wrong, though (he’s depicted as a kind of wild-haired Slavic spiritualist, which is risibly false), and his meeting with Wojtyla is re-created as a kind of divine accident; Karol runs into a house to avoid the Gestapo and bumps into…the man who introduces him to St. John of the Cross! In fact, the pastor of Karol’s Kraków parish asked Tyranowski to take charge of the local youth ministry, and Tyranowski deliberately recruited Wojtyla.

The filmmakers also invent a member of a Wojtyla youth group who is really working for the SB, the secret police. This is not only a total fabrication; it’s an insult to the men and women who were, in fact, Karol Wojtyla’s closest lay friends, and whose networks were certainly not penetrated by Polish intelligence.

Legitimate artistic license cannot mean fiction that distorts the truth about a person; Karol Wojtyla’s story is dramatic enough without fictional add-ons. The makers of “Karol” didn’t understand that. Others pondering similar films should do better.


COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  

Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash