Church: Pope John Paul II
>> = Important Articles; ** = Major Articles
[Comment by Kwing Hung: Although Protestants do not agree fully with some doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church, they are still part of the universal church of Christ.]
The death of Pope John Paul II brings one of the Roman Catholic Church’s longest papal reigns to an end and closes the last chapter on one of the most significant lives of our times. By any measure, John Paul II was one of the most influential figures on the world scene, leading over a billion Roman Catholics worldwide and exercising a significant influence on world affairs during some of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century.
Inevitably, his death raises fundamental questions about how evangelical Christians should understand the papacy itself, as well as those who hold the papal office. Given the low level of theological knowledge and the high emotionalism of the era, many evangelicals appear confused when confronted with an event like the death of a pope. Furthermore, evangelicals are more likely to have been aware of this pope in contrast with those who held the office in the past. In this age of mass communications and media, John Paul II has been one of the most publicized, televised, and celebrated public figures of our age.
For evangelicals, the crucial question comes with the institution of the papacy itself. After all, the Reformation of the 16th century required a rejection of papal power and authority, and the Reformers soon came to understand the papacy as an unbiblical office that inevitably compromised the authority and sufficiency of scripture. Over time, the heirs of the Reformers came to understand that the papacy is a fundamentally unbiblical office that posits an earthly monarch as the earthly head of the church. Furthermore, this office is then invested with claims to spiritual and temporal power that are combined with claims of apostolic succession and serve as foundational pillars for the comprehensive claims of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Protestant rejection of the papacy was no small matter, though some liberal Protestants and careless evangelicals seem to have forgotten why. Beyond this, the papacy is inextricably linked to the structure of Catholic theology and the superstructure of truth claims, practices, and doctrines that constitute Catholicism. Evangelical Christians simply cannot accept the legitimacy of the papacy and must resist and reject claims of papal authority. To do otherwise would be to compromise biblical truth and reverse the Reformation. With the death of John Paul II, evangelicals are confronted with a sensitive question: Can we recognize genuine virtues in a man who for over a quarter of a century held an office we must expressly reject?
We should be unembarrassed and unhesitant to declare our admiration for John Paul II’s courageous stand against Communism, his bold defense of human dignity and human life, and his robust and substantial defense of truth in the face of postmodernism. In many of the great battles of our day, evangelicals found John Paul II to be a key ally. This was especially true with the crucial issues of abortion and euthanasia. With bold strokes and a clear voice, this pope defended human life from the moment of conception until natural death. In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (1995), he argued for an implacable opposition to what he called the “culture of death”—an age that would increasingly embrace death rather than life and forfeit human dignity on the altar of human autonomy and individual rights.
In Veritatis Splendor (1993), John Paul argued that the modern concept of freedom as unrestrained human liberty would lead to the destruction of Christian ethics and the undermining of all authority. In this powerful statement, the pope defended the very nature of truth against postmodern denials and a culture increasingly attracted to moral relativism.
The legacy of this pope cannot be separated from the facts of his life. Born May 18, 1920 in Wadowice, just south of Krakow in Poland, Karol Wojtyla would come to adulthood in the context of Communist oppression. Throughout his life, he would identify himself as a Pole and a Slav, and the twists and turns of his biography would become a focus of world attention.
Trained as an actor, Karol Wojtyla would later decide to enter the priesthood, following a calling that brought great respect in his native Poland. With remarkable speed, Father Wojtyla moved into the hierarchy of the church. He was consecrated a bishop in 1958—just 12 years after entering the priesthood. In 1964, he was installed as Archbishop of Krakow, and just three years later he was created a cardinal by Pope Paul VI.
Long before he became a cardinal of the church, Karol Wojtyla had attracted the attention of the Vatican. He had studied in Rome and had developed a reputation in the academic circles of the church. Theologically, he was seen as a progressive, and he took an active part in the Second Vatican Council, called into session by Pope John XXIII.
When Pope Paul VI died at Castel Gandolfo on August 6, 1978, Cardinal Wojtyla was already discussed as a potential successor. Nevertheless, when the College of Cardinals elected Albino Luciani on August 25, 1978, it looked as if Cardinal Wojtyla had lost his chance to become pope.
All this changed on September 28, 1978, when Cardinal Luciani—now Pope John Paul I—died in his sleep during the night, barely a month after his election as pope.
The election of Karol Wojtyla as pope came on October 16, 1978, and he immediately announced that he would take the name “John Paul II” as a way of honoring his immediate predecessor. Nevertheless, it was clear that this new pope would take the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church firmly in hand.
In his early years, this Polish pope was known by millions of persons around the globe, primarily as a man who opposed Communist tyranny with personal courage and the weight of his papal office. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope since 1522, and the historical importance of his election became clear as he used the full influence of his papal office to encourage the Solidarity movement in his native Poland.
Along with President Ronald W. Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II saw Communism as an assault upon human dignity and the human spirit. Like Ronald Reagan, John Paul II grew in international stature after surviving an assassination attempt. In the case of John Paul II, the 1981 assassination attempt that nearly took his life was organized by the Bulgarian secret police, presumably under orders from the KGB in the Soviet Union.
Evangelical Christians should honor the courage of this man and his historic role in bringing Communist tyranny to an end—at least within the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. Added to this, we should honor his defense of human dignity and his eloquent and influential witness against abortion and the Culture of Death.
Even so, we must also recognize that John Paul II also represented the most troubling aspects of Roman Catholicism. He defended and continued the theological directions set loose at the Second Vatican Council. Even as he consolidated authority in the Vatican and disciplined wayward priests and theologians, he never confronted the most pressing issues of evangelical concern.
Even in his most recent book, released in the United States just days before his death, John Paul II continued to define the work of Christ as that which is added to human effort. Like the church he served, John Paul II rejected justification by faith. Beyond this, he rejected the biblical doctrine of hell, embraced inclusivism, and promoted an extreme form of Marian devotion, referring to Mary as “Co-Redemptrix,” “Mediatrix,” and “Mother of all Graces.”
In the end, evangelicals should be thankful for the personal virtues Pope John Paul II demonstrated, and for his advocacy on behalf of life, liberty, and human dignity. Yet we cannot ignore the institution of the papacy itself, nor the complex of doctrines, truth claims, and false doctrines that John Paul II taught, defended, and promulgated. As Roman Catholics mourn the passing of the pope, we should take care to respond with both compassion and conviction, fulfilling our own responsibility to take the measure of this man and his legacy.
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
John Paul II was beloved by Protestants, too, because he was the world’s greatest defender of orthodox, Bible-based Christianity.
EVANGELICAL PROTESTANTS loved Pope John Paul II. Many felt more in harmony with him than with the leaders of their own denomination. I attend an Episcopal church and I certainly preferred the Pope. He was the world’s greatest defender of orthodox, Bible-based Christianity. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and possibly a majority of its bishops are among the great diluters of classical Christianity.
The truth is evangelicals could admire the Pope without wanting to convert to Catholicism. Sure, important differences remained between Protestants and Catholics, but John Paul II made them seem small. He was pro-life, pro-family, anti-totalitarian, and quite a lot more that conservative evangelicals identified with. Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist leader, once told a Catholic friend that Pope John Paul II was a “Pope who really knows how to pope.” I suspect what Land meant in using “pope” as a verb was that John Paul was bold and unswerving in proclaiming salvation through belief in Jesus Christ. He did this all over the world, despite declining health and personal risk.
During John Paul’s 27 years as Pope, evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics grew closer together in America’s culture wars. There was a kind of “ecumenism of the trenches,” said scholar Timothy George. They agreed on the need to protect—or in some cases, to revive—traditional values and to insist on a place for people of faith, particularly Christians, in public life.
After the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in 1973, Catholics provided most of the energy and the troops for the pro-life movement. But by the late 1970s and early 1980s, conservative Protestants were joining in large numbers. They not only were welcomed, but they felt comfortable being allied with Catholics in the era of Pope John Paul II.
Three more things about the Holy Father were especially appealing to Protestant evangelicals: his courage, his anti-communism, and his appeal to young people. He visited Poland, his native country, a year after becoming Pope and his appearances attracted roughly one-third of the population. That’s not a third of the Catholic population but a third of Poland’s entire population. His message was, “Be not afraid.”
He wasn’t. Communist agents in Bulgaria, no doubt with the approval of the KGB in the Soviet Union, recruited a Turk to assassinate the Pope. The attack failed in more ways than one. Pope John Paul II wasn’t killed, and neither was he deterred. He continued traveling the word with the vigorous message of undiluted Christianity. His message trumped communism’s and he was a bigger man than communism’s leaders as well.
Along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, he vanquished Soviet communism. Shortly after his trip to Poland, Solidarity was founded. Chances are, without Pope John Paul II, the labor federation would not have thrived. Its members, indeed dissenters of all kinds, found sanctuary and a place to gather in Catholic churches. Solidarity took on the Communist leaders of Poland and prevailed, and its influence was felt all over eastern Europe.
In more than one sense, Pope John Paul II and Reagan were alike, though you might not have guessed it when Reagan dozed off while visiting the Pope in the Vatican. They were men who reached greatness in their later years and, oddly enough, had an amazing attraction to young people. The Pope held youth gatherings all over the world and the turnout was extraordinary. And in the political realm, Reagan instilled conservative principles in millions of young Americans.
So among the mourners for Pope John Paul II there will be many evangelicals. Catholics have lost a great and wonderful leader. And so have evangelicals.
[Kwing Hung: well said!]
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.
The first modern pope was a radical thinker who tried to anchor modernity in truth, liberty, and respect for human dignity.
WHAT A MAN! What a life! As a man, John Paul II demonstrated a remarkable combination of deep piety and intellectual curiosity, of moral courage and human kindness. But what made John Paul II an extraordinary historical figure—one of the giants of the last half of the 20th century—was his central role in three distinct realms: in politics, religion, and ideas; in the life of the world, the life of his Church, and the life of the mind. To be a major figure in any of these is rare. To be central in all three areas is unique. No political leader did more than John Paul II to bring an end to the Cold War. No religious figure had more impact in the 20th century than John Paul II had on the Roman Catholic Church. And few thinkers confronted the philosophical crisis of modern humanism more directly than Wojtyla.
On October 16, 1978, Karol Wojtyla became, at age 58, the 264th bishop of Rome, the first non-Italian pontiff in 455 years. In June 1979, he returned to Poland for the first time as pope. In his magisterial biography, Witness to Hope, George Weigel convincingly argues that this marked a decisive moment, the beginning of the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The pope helped bring down the evil empire not because of some grand strategic insight (though he was certainly capable of canny political strategy), but because he launched an authentic and deep challenge to the lies that made Communist rule possible.
Weigel reports the reaction of one 25-year-old Polish physics student, for whom the pope’s visit seemed to make the whole “artificial world” of the Communists collapse: “We might have to live and die under communism. But now what I want to do is to live without being a liar.” Even the liberal intellectual Adam Michnik was struck by the pope’s ability, in June 1979, to appeal to the consciences of both believers and non-believers. The creation of Solidarity followed a year and a half later, and the Polish regime never recovered. After just a decade more, the Iron Curtain collapsed. Since Karol Wojtyla became John Paul II, no one has repeated Stalin’s mocking question about how many divisions the pope has.
Weigel makes the case that John Paul II’s political impact came about precisely because he did not primarily seek to be political, or to think or speak politically. He merely insisted on calling “good and evil by name.” Western liberalism, with its technological might and its ability to spread a kind of skepticism that helps undermine totalitarianism, played an important part in winning the Cold War. But the liberal assault on communism could not have succeeded without the accompanying Christian assault. The insistence on the truth was needed to strengthen and deepen the natural desire for liberty. The categories of good and evil were needed to ground the contrast between freedom and oppression. The message “Be not afraid!” with which he began his papal ministry was the message he transmitted to his countrymen and millions of others throughout the world.
Faith was, of course, at the center of John Paul II’s being, and the revitalization of Christian faith was at the heart of his efforts, first as a priest, then bishop, then pope. In this respect, too, John Paul II’s papacy was surely the most consequential in centuries. John Paul II was bold in his efforts to reshape the Church as a more effective teacher and evangelizer. He was a radical who sought change based on a return to the Church’s roots. He did this by seeking above all to secure and build on the legacy of Vatican II, the council at which the Catholic Church, came to grips with modernity.
As a bishop, Karol Wojtyla played a major part in that council, and as pope, John Paul II continued to view Vatican II as fundamental. Throughout his pontificate, the pope sternly rejected “progressive” attempts to use Vatican II to water down the Church’s distinctive teachings. But at the same time he vehemently rejected “reactionary” attempts to undo Vatican II and return the Church to its nineteenth-century disdain for modernity.
The result is a man whose vision and actions confounded journalistic attempts to label him liberal or conservative. An early American magazine story, relating John Paul II’s extensive, televised travels and the huge crowds gathering in locations around the world for his visits, dubbed him the first “postmodern pope.” But he was in fact the first modern pope, and he stands as an astonishing figure: a radical thinker who used the throne of one of the oldest institutions on earth to try to anchor modernity in truth, liberty, and respect for human dignity.
A particularly striking example is John Paul II’s teaching on men and women, sex and marriage. Wojtyla’s first book was on the ethics of married life, and it celebrated human sexuality as a gift of God for the sanctification of husband and wife. Decades later, John Paul proposed what Weigel calls “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries,” as he addressed the challenges of the sexual revolution and feminism. He argued that the distinct roles of men and women are consistent with their equal dignity, and that marriage, with “the self-giving love of sexual communion,” can be the experience “that begins to make God comprehensible to human beings.” The pope’s argument cuts through the stale debate between liberationists and traditionalists, and makes a distinctive contribution not merely to Catholic thought, but to thought simply.
And that is a sign of the third aspect of John Paul II’s achievement: his intellectual significance. Early on, Wojtyla came to the view that the crisis of the modern world was first of all a crisis of ideas. Never believing it was enough simply to lament a falling away of faith or to assume that the formulations of the past were unproblematically adequate, Wojtyla sought from the beginning to discover a metaphysical foundation for modern humanism and democracy. His early philosophical work, Person and Act, was an attempt to put an Aristotelian-Thomistic “philosophy of being” together with a “psychology of consciousness” derived from such thinkers as Max Scheler—to figure out the relation between the objective truth of things and the subjective and personal experience of that truth.
Wojtyla’s effort to tie together freedom and truth, and indeed to argue the identity of the true and the good, is a deep and difficult project. It was intended to be, as Weigel says, “accessible to everyone no matter what his or her religious disposition.” One has to stop for a moment to recognize just how significant this is. A major player on the world stage and the administrative leader of the world’s largest organized religion set himself the profound philosophical task of defending, for believers and non-believers alike, the intelligibility of the world against the radical skepticism and moral relativism of the age.
In the end, however, one returns to what was most simple and most evident about John Paul II: his courage—physical, moral, and intellectual. Aristotle claims that courage is the first of the virtues, because it makes possible all the others. John Paul II demanded that we “learn not to be afraid,” that we “rediscover a spirit of hope and a spirit of trust.” He grounded that hope and trust on his faith that man “is not alone” but lives with the abiding presence of God. His life invites us to admire human excellence—and to reflect on the question of whether or not such excellence depends on a conviction, like John Paul II’s, that man is not, in some fundamental sense, alone.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard. This piece is adapted from the essay, “The Man of our Age,” a review of George Weigel’s Witness to Hope , from the October 18, 1999 issue.
Q&A by Kathryn Jean Lopez
Pope John Paul II died Saturday night, Rome time, at age 84. Official papal biographer George Weigel (author of Witness to Hope) spoke to NRO’s editor Kathryn Lopez about the man and his papacy and his place in history.
National Review Online: What’s Pope John Paul’s greatest legacy?
George Weigel: He was the great Christian witness of the last quarter of the 20th century, the man who took the Christian proposal to more of the world than anyone else. His pivotal role in the collapse of European Communism will be remembered by many; I hope they remember that he helped bring down the Wall as a pastor and teacher, not as a politician.
NRO: We know he’s played a big role in the history of the world, how about more parochially — in Catholic history?
Weigel: This was the most intellectually consequential pontificate since the Council of Trent. The Church will be digesting the teaching of John Paul II for at least a century, and possibly longer. In addition to that, and at a more personal level, John Paul inspired literally tens of millions of Catholics to live lives of radical Christian conviction. That will extend his influence far into the future.
NRO: Had Karol Wojtyla never become pope, would he have played a significant role in history regardless?
Weigel: In some respects. He would certainly have been remembered in Poland as a major figure in that country’s 20th- century history. And eventually, aspects of his thought — like his revolutionary “theology of the body” — would have gotten out to the West and would have begun to have an influence.
NRO: If there was one of his writings you’d think he’d recommend we all read (or reread; Catholics and non-Catholics alike), what do you think it would be and why?
Weigel: I think Crossing the Threshold of Hope” is a remarkable window into John Paul II’s mind and heart; it bears reading and rereading, by everyone.
NRO: What has Pope John Paul II taught us about suffering and death, through his example?
Weigel: He reminded Christians by his example that the Christian way is always the Way of the Cross. He reminded everyone that there is no such thing as a disposable human being.
NRO: Do you have a favorite PJPII story you’ll be remembering him by?
Weigel: I suppose I’ll remember for a long time the night I gave him Witness to Hope. At the end of dinner, as he was saying good-bye, he gave me a huge embrace and held me, without saying a word, for what seemed like a couple of minutes. I’ll also remember him greeting 150 of my students from the summer program in Cracow at which I teach alongside Father Richard Neuhaus and Michael Novak. We’d expected a five-minute minute meeting; the Pope insisted on meeting every student individually, for almost an hour. It was typical of the man.
— George Weigel, senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II and, most recently, Letters to a Young Catholic.
It’s been less than a year since Ronald Reagan “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God,” and now John Paul II has joined him. Only Margaret Thatcher remains of the remarkable triumvirate that led the West to victory in the Cold War.
President Reagan and the pope shared strong convictions about communism. As the pontiff’s official biographer, George Weigel, points out, both believed communism was a moral evil, not simply bad economics. Both remained confident that free peoples could overcome the communist challenge — that victory over communism was possible.
Throughout his long life, whether as a young layman, a priest, or a bishop, whether as Karol Wojtyla or John Paul II, the pope spoke firmly for freedom and against tyranny, taking as his text Christ’s words, “Be not afraid.”
In the late 1940s and early 1950s — when actor Ronald Reagan was fighting the communists in Hollywood — Fr. Wojtyla persistently rebutted efforts by Poland’s Stalinist rulers to reinvent the country’s history and culture. He visited student dormitories preaching the existence of God and the spiritual character of the human person.
In the 1960s — when Gov. Reagan was putting down radical-inspired violence on California’s campuses — Bishop Wojtyla reminded Poles that in their thousand-year history they often had “to break through to freedom from the underground.”
In the 1970s — when presidential candidate Reagan persisted in calling the Soviet Union “evil” and an empire — Cardinal Wojtyla reached out to Polish dissident intellectuals as part of his effort to forge, in the words of George Weigel, “a chain of cultural resistance” to the communist regime. In April 1974, he traveled to Czechoslovakia, where, surrounded by Czech secret police, he attended the funeral of Cardinal Stepn Trochta, who had spent 10 years in communist prisons.
Wherever he went and wherever he was, the Polish cardinal fearlessly challenged what Vaclav Havel called “a culture of lies.” He effectively articulated a Christian alternative to the false humanism of communism.
In June 1979, Pope John Paul II made his first pilgrimage to Poland, a nine-day-visit that produced an awe-inspiring spiritual awakening in Poland and the birth of the Solidarity trade union. Tens of millions of Poles realized that “we are the society and the country is ours.” The pope’s historic pilgrimage set in motion “a revolution of the spirit” that resulted — a mere decade later — in the collapse of communism in eastern and central Europe.
Not even an attempted murder by a professional assassin in May 1981 could stop John Paul II and his campaign for freedom. In 1987, when President Reagan called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall — the pope spoke for the first time of a Europe united “from the Atlantic to the Urals,” reflecting his conviction that communism was finished.
When many commentators fumbled for an explanation of why communism had fallen so suddenly and unexpectedly, the pope offered this reason in January 1990 at his annual meeting with the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See: “The irresistible thirst for freedom ... brought down walls and opened doors.” It was a freedom made possible, he said, because “women, young people and men have overcome their fear.”
The extraordinary leader who helped them conquer their fear, who served as an eloquent witness to hope, and who helped topple the empire of lies was John Paul II.
Scholars and historians will debate for years to come the precise causes and historical forces that produced the sudden collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s. One matter not in dispute, however, will be the earth-shattering role played in the process by Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope.
From the moment of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla’s election to the papacy in October 1978, he began to shake the very foundations of communism. His first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 helped undermine government censorship as the Polish people heard the pope talk about human dignity and pray, “Spirit, come and renew the face of the Earth.” As young Poles gathered in throngs to hear the pope preach, they saw masses and felt the press of individuals just like themselves and knew they were not alone in wanting freedom and human dignity.
It was no accident that the Polish church became a primary force behind the resistance against communism, uniting both Catholics and non-Catholic Poles in solidarity against communism. The pope was without a doubt the major source of hope and encouragement to his fellow countryman Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity workers’ union and future president of Poland post-communism.
After the fall of communism, Pope John Paul II released a papal encyclical titled “Centesimus Annus” (1991), which explained within a Christian framework why communism had failed and from that failure drew lessons about social, political and economic organization. In the process, the papal encyclical explained how people must organize themselves secularly, not to establish “heaven on Earth” but to maintain human dignity and social conditions conducive to each individual’s having an opportunity to seek and achieve salvation of his soul. In other words, the pope placed individual freedom squarely within the core of Christian theology.
Communism was a secular failure - it failed to deliver the material benefits it promised - the pope said, because it rejected the truth about the human person: “The state under socialism treats the individual, not with dignity, but as a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socioeconomic mechanism.”
The lessons “Centesimus Annus” drew from the practical failures of communism also undermined the theoretical and any possible theological justification of collectivism.
Secular opposition to capitalism - from doctrinaire socialism to the kind of soft democratic collectivism we call “liberalism” today - has always derived from one fundamentally incorrect notion, namely that private property and its productive use to earn a profit exploits other people. Karl Marx and Frederick Engles attempted, unsuccessfully, to give scientific grounding to this fallacy of capitalistic exploitation.
Historically, the Christian church had been skeptical of capitalism, not because of what the pursuit of profit did to exploit other people but rather because of how the pursuit of profit frequently corrupted individuals, making them avaricious, envious and materialistic.
The pope’s encyclical exploded both misconceptions: “The church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productivity factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm’s condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order and yet for the people, who make up the firm’s most valuable asset, to be humiliated and their dignity offended.
Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm’s economic efficiency. In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavoring to satisfy their basic needs and who form a particular group at the service of the whole society.”
By a process of elimination, this devastating critique of socialism and unenlightened capitalism alike left democratic individualism and free markets, informed and guided by the spiritual teachings of the church, as the only practical means of organizing human action. At the same time, “Centesimus Annus” also reconciled the church’s historical fear that capitalism and free markets breed vice among the faithful with beneficial social outcomes that only human freedom and its expression through private property and free markets can produce.
The papal encyclical expounded upon how, for example, the effort involved in building a business also builds individual virtue: “Important virtues are involved in this process, such as diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability and fidelity in interpersonal relationships as well as courage in carrying out decisions which are difficult and painful, but necessary both for the overall working of a business and in meeting possible setbacks.”
Pope John Paul II concluded that earthly poverty and human despair are not the product of private property, capitalistic exploitation of labor and the pursuit of profit through the operation of free markets but just the opposite. It is when people are excluded from ownership, lack the opportunity to develop job skills and are not free to participate in free enterprise that people suffer and are, as the pope said “if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak, when it does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old subsistence economies.”
The next time pessimism and despair over the future grip us, we should remember that October 1978 when the renaissance of freedom began with the election of a humble Polish pope by the name of Wojtyla.
One man can make a difference: that is the lesson of the life of Pope John Paul II. If someone had told you, 50 years ago, that the three men who would do the most to advance human freedom in the next half century were the parish priest of St. Florian’s Church in Krakow, the military cadet who was the grandson of the last king of Spain and the star of the recent movie “Bedtime for Bonzo,” you would not have believed him. But so it has been. History takes surprising turns. And it is often individual men and women, for good and for evil, who do the steering.
They can steer in directions not widely anticipated. A half century ago, it seemed the world was moving toward ever more collectivism and centralization, toward ever greater secularism and skepticism: This was modernity, and Marx and Freud were its prophets. Experts at the top of hierarchical pyramids would determine the course of events. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes ruled most of the world’s people, and in an age of nuclear weapons, no one could hope to change that. The best that could be wished for was a convergence of systems.
Karol Wojtyla thought something different. He was 19 when Nazi Germany overran his native Poland; through World War II he worked in a quarry and acted in clandestine illegal plays. He sheltered Jews and was once arrested by the Gestapo. Then, after the Red Army swept into Poland and installed a Communist government, he attended seminary and became a priest, a bishop and an archbishop. In the pulpit and out he called for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, implicitly rebuked a regime built on lies. Today, we can read about the millions of people murdered by Hitler and Stalin. Pope John Paul II lived under their rule, but kept his own mind and conscience free.
In 1978, when he was 58, Karol Wojtyla was elected pope; he had lived most of his life under totalitarian governance. This was the same year in which Juan Carlos I, groomed to be King of Spain by the dictator Franco, presided over free elections in Spain — a transition to democracy that, as Michael Ledeen has written, inspired similar transitions in other parts of southern Europe and Latin America. And it was the same year that Ronald Reagan, past retirement age, was writing radio commentaries and preparing to run for the third time for president of the United States. This time he would win, and would put in place policies that did much to end the Soviet Union and the Communist regimes it supported.
The next year, the Pope returned to his native Poland and appeared before crowds of 1 million in Warsaw and Gniezno and Czestochowa. Thirteen million Poles — one-third of the nation’s population — saw the Polish Pope in person. He spoke words of hope and faith, and without openly advocating the overthrow of the Communist regime made it clear that it did not hold the people’s allegiance. As his biographer George Weigel wrote, “A revolution of the spirit had been unleashed.” For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries the Catholic Church had looked askance at democracies and had seen authoritarian regimes as upholders of the faith. Pope John Paul II heartily embraced representative democracy and enunciated a sophisticated appreciation of free markets and their limits. He engaged in serious moral dialogue and presented a vision of modernity different from that of the disciples of Marx and Freud.
Would the Solidarity movement that undermined the Communist regime in Poland have emerged with the courage and hope it did without Pope John Paul II? Would the Soviet Union have lost its Eastern European satellites and its very existence without the Pope and Ronald Reagan? Would Spain have made the transition to demcracy and freedom and set the example it did without King Juan Carlos I? We cannot be certain of the answers to these counterfactual questions. But it seems as certain as such things can be that different leaders would have produced different, and less happy, results. Juan Carlos lives today the routine life of a constitutional monarch; Ronald Reagan withdrew from public view as Alzheimer’s clouded his vision; John Paul II, his body wracked with Parkinson’s, struggled to do his duty until the end. This man who lived under Hitler and Stalin, like the American president and the Spanish king, steered history in a surprising and felicitous direction, a direction unforeseen a half century ago.
WASHINGTON — It was Stalin who gave us the most famous formulation of that cynical (and today quite fashionable) philosophy known as “realism” — the idea that all that ultimately matters in the relations among nations is power: “The pope? How many divisions does he have?”
Stalin could only have said that because he never met John Paul II. We have just lost the man whose life was the ultimate refutation of “realism.” Within 10 years of his elevation to the papacy, John Paul II had given his answer to Stalin and to the ages: More than you have. More than you can imagine.
History will remember many of the achievements of John Paul II, particularly his zealous guarding of the church’s traditional belief in the sanctity of life, not permitting it to be unmoored by the fashionable currents of thought about abortion, euthanasia and “quality of life.” But above all, he will be remembered for having sparked, tended and fanned the flames of freedom in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, leading ultimately and astonishingly to the total collapse of the Soviet empire.
I am not much of a believer, but I find it hard not to suspect some providential hand at play when the white smoke went up at the Vatican 27 years ago and the Polish cardinal was chosen to lead the Catholic Church. Precisely at the moment the West most desperately needed it, we were sent a champion. It is hard to remember now how dark those days were. The 15 months following the pope’s elevation marked the high tide of Soviet communism and the nadir of the free world’s post-Vietnam collapse.
It was a time of one defeat after another. Vietnam invaded Cambodia, consolidating Soviet hegemony over all of Indochina. The Khomeni revolution swept away America’s strategic anchor in the Middle East. Nicaragua fell to the Sandinistas, the first Soviet-allied regime on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere. (As an unnoticed but ironic coda, Marxists came to power in Grenada too.) Then finally, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
And yet precisely at the time of this free-world retreat and disarray, a miracle happens. The Catholic Church, breaking nearly 500 years of tradition, puts itself in the hands of an obscure non-Italian — a Pole who, deeply understanding the East European predicament, rose to become, along with Roosevelt, Churchill and Reagan, one of the great liberators of the 20th century.
John Paul II’s first great mission was to reclaim his native Eastern Europe for civilization. It began with his visit to Poland in 1979, symbolizing and embodying a spiritual humanism that was the antithesis of the soulless materialism and decay of late Marxist-Leninism. As millions gathered to hear him and worship with him, they began to feel their own power and to find the institutional structure — the vibrant Polish church — around which to mobilize.
And mobilize they did. It is no accident that Solidarity, the leading edge of the East European revolution, was born just a year after the pope’s first visit. Deploying a brilliantly subtle diplomacy that never openly challenged the Soviet system but nurtured and justified every oppositional trend, often within the bosom of the local church, John Paul II became the pivotal figure of the people power revolutions of Eastern Europe.
While the success of these popular movements demonstrated the power of ideas and proved realism wrong, let us have no idealist illusions either: People power can only succeed against oppression that has lost confidence in itself. When Soviet communism still had enough sense of its own historical inevitability to send tanks against people in the street — Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 — people power was useless.
By the 1980s, however, the Soviet sphere was both large and decadent. And a new pope brought not only hope but political cunning to the captive nations yearning to be free. He demonstrated what Europe had forgotten and Stalin never knew: the power of faith as an instrument of political mobilization.
Under the benign and deeply humane vision of this pope, the power of faith led to the liberation of half a continent. Under the barbaric and nihilistic vision of Islam’s jihadists, the power of faith has produced terror and chaos. That contrast alone, which has dawned upon us unmistakably ever since 9/11, should be reason enough to be grateful for John Paul II. But we mourn him for more than that. We mourn him for restoring strength to the Western idea of the free human spirit at a moment of deepest doubt and despair. And for seeing us through to today’s great moment of possibility for both faith and freedom.
WASHINGTON — In Eastern Europe, where both world wars began, the end of the Cold War began on Oct. 16, 1978, with a puff of white smoke, in Western Europe. It wafted over one of Europe’s grandest public spaces, over Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s, over statues of the saints atop Bernini’s curving colonnade that embraces visitors to Vatican City. Ten years later, when the fuse that Polish workers had lit in a Gdansk shipyard had ignited the explosion that leveled the Berlin Wall, it was clear that one of the most consequential people of the 20th century’s second half was a Pole who lived in Rome, governing a city-state of 109 acres.
Science teaches that reality is strange — solid objects are mostly space; the experience of time is a function of speed; gravity bends light. History, too, teaches strange truths: John Paul II occupied the world’s oldest office, which traces its authority to history’s most potent figure, a Palestinian who never traveled a hundred miles from his birthplace, who never wrote a book and who died at 33. And religion, once a legitimizer of political regimes, became in John Paul II’s deft hands a delegitimizer of communism’s ersatz religion.
In an amazingly fecund 27-month period, the cause of freedom was strengthened by the coming to high offices of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II who, like the president, had been an actor and was gifted at the presentational dimension of his office. This peripatetic pope was seen by more people than anyone in history and his most important trip came early. It was a visit to Poland that began on June 2, 1979.
In nine days a quarter of that nation’s population saw him. Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, but it did not have a sedative effect on the Poles. The pope’s visit was the nation’s epiphany, a thunderous realization that the nation was of one mind, mocking the futility of communism’s 35-year attempt to conquer Poland’s consciousness. Between 1795 and 1918 Poland had been erased from the map of Europe, partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia. This gave Poles an acute sense of the distinction between the state and the real nation.
Igor Stravinsky, speaking with a Russian’s stoicism about Poland’s sufferings, said that if you pitch your tent in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue, you are going to be hit by a bus. The Poland where John Paul II grew to sturdy, athletic manhood was hit first by Nazism, then communism. Then, benignly, by John Paul II.
It was said that the fin de siecle Vienna of Freud and Wittgenstein was the little world in which the larger world had its rehearsals. In the late 1970s, the Poland of John Paul II and Lech Walesa was like that. The 20th century’s worst political invention was totalitarianism, a tenet of which is that the masses must not be allowed to mass: Totalitarianism is a mortar and pestle for grinding society into a dust of individuals. Small wonder, then, that Poland’s ruler, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, visibly trembled in the presence of the priest who brought Poland to its feet in the face of tyranny by first bringing Poland to its knees in his presence.
John Paul II almost did not live to see this glorious consummation. In 1981 three of the world’s largest figures — Ronald Reagan, Anwar Sadat and John Paul II — were shot. History would have taken an altered course if Sadat had not been the only one killed.
Our age celebrates the watery toleration preached by people for whom “judgmental” is an epithet denoting an intolerable moral confidence. John Paul II bristled with judgments, including this: The inevitability of progress is a myth, hence the certainty that mankind is wiser today than yesterday is chimeric.
Secular Europe is, however, wiser because of a man who worked at an altar. Europeans have been plied and belabored by various historicisms purporting to show that individuals are nullities governed by vast impersonal forces. Beginning in 1978, Europeans saw one man seize history by the lapels and shake it.
One of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories includes this passage: “‘I’m afraid I’m a practical man,’ said the doctor with gruff humor, ‘and I don’t bother much about religion and philosophy.’ ‘You’ll never be a practical man till you do,’ said Father Brown.”
A poet made the same point: “A flame rescued from dry wood has no weight in its luminous flight yet lifts the heavy lid of night.” The poet became John Paul II.