Fearless: How John Paul II Changed the Political World

John Paul II was a shaker of world events. He regraded the political landscape of the 20th century and was counted among the few who were responsible for the relatively peaceful demise of the Evil Empire. Pundits were busy assessing his impact in this realm and wondering about his broader political legacy. They were having a hard time of it because, politically speaking, each side that would like to claim the pope for its own has to disregard or discount certain of his actions that seem inconsistent with its views.

Consider: The pope refuses to visit South Africa while there is still apartheid, yet he goes to Fidel Castro’s Cuba, where it is against the law to celebrate Christmas. He salutes the Americans who helped to liberate Europe from the Nazis, yet he criticizes the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which he later admits was a “totalitarian” state. In 1981, he cries out, “My land is bathed with the blood and sweat of its sons and daughters. I put this problem before the conscience of the whole world,” but then he disagrees with U.S. sanctions against Poland after the clampdown on Solidarity. He visits groups openly known to oppose the regimes in Stroessner’s Paraguay and Marcos’s Philippines, both of which disappear within a year of his trips, yet he decries the “liberation” theology animating the Latin American Left. He vigorously defends the right to private property but excoriates libertarian capitalism as dehumanizing. He criticizes the Polish Communists for trying to build “a city without God,” yet he tells the newly freed Poles not to imitate the West, where he sees signs of “totalitarian democracy.” Well aware of the persecution of Christians in certain Muslim countries, he nonetheless allies with them at UN conferences on population and family to defeat the U.S. positions on family and abortion. He establishes full diplomatic relations with Israel but calls the Palestinian demand for a homeland a “natural right.”

This can seem confusing, and it is because the pope was not, essentially, a politician. He was a metaphysician, and more. The consistency in the pope’s behavior can only be seen within the larger context of the transcendent moral and theological principles guiding him and his particular understanding of the political events to which he had to apply them.

People easily confuse the pope’s prudence with his principles. For example, his opposition to the death penalty was not an enunciation of magisterial teaching but the result of his own prudential judgment that, at this particular juncture, it is better to desist from capital punishment because of the larger goal of creating a “culture of life.” He never suggested that capital punishment was against Church doctrine. Another example concerns nuclear weapons. Just-war teaching could never allow for the use of weapons of mass destruction designed to kill indiscriminately, and the pope said so. However, despite the pressure to condemn all nuclear weapons, he recognized “the fundamental concern for justice which forces me to maintain the principle of legitimate defense in this history” and a deterrent role for nuclear weapons designed as counterforce in this defense. John Paul II never confused his prudential judgments with the moral principles from which he was making them, but others did and that is why they are confused. History may help bring some clarity.

We are so far into the global war on terrorism that the conflict that defined most of the century that preceded it has almost receded from view, along with the role that the Church and this pope played in bringing it to an end. As a foot soldier in the Cold War, I did not think I would live to see its conclusion. I vividly remember the day in 1990 when I read a statement in the Soviet press by Alexander Yakovlev, the Politburo chief of Soviet ideology, that he had finally come to understand that Leninism was based upon class hatred and that this was “evil.” Excitedly, I faxed his remark around Washington. Yakovlev’s words meant the end of the Cold War and the Soviet empire. The actual deeds of its dissolution soon came in their wake. (Yakovlev has spent the ensuing years documenting the persecution of the Church in Russia.)

Language, then, and the restoration of its relationship with reality were critical to the Communist collapse. This was no small feat since, for many in the West, words had lost their meaning. A recovery of meaning was essential before a real challenge could be presented to the East. No single individual did more for this restoration than John Paul II, who insisted upon calling things by their proper names. Naming Communism for what it was required, first of all, the refutation of modern nominalism and radical skepticism. You cannot use “evil” as an adjective until you know it as a noun. Epistemological, philosophical, and theological reconstruction were required and accomplished.

Everyone now celebrates “our” victory over Communism, conveniently forgetting that the struggle was not only with Communism but within the West as to what Communism meant. The anti-anti-Communists in the West were frightened by the vocabulary of the pope and President Ronald Reagan for the Soviet Union because they feared it might lead to war, but also because the use of the word “evil” had implications for themselves with which they were extremely uncomfortable. As English writer Christopher Derrick once said, the only real Iron Curtain runs through the soul of each one of us. If we can know what evil is, how then does that apply to our own lives? Rather than answer that question, many preferred to attack the people using it and to explain the Cold War away as just another variation of power politics and realpolitik. Communism was simply a mask for traditional Russian imperial expansionism and could be dealt with similarly. Power dealing with power can reach an understanding.

So long as this view was regnant in the West, Communism was a form of absolutism fighting a form of relativism. As such, Communism had the clear advantage and gained it on the field with stunning geographic advances—in Central Asia, Africa, and Central America—and strategic advances in both conventional and non-conventional weaponry. So great was the progress of the Soviet Union in the 1970s that anyone looking at these factors alone would have expected it to win. Those expectations were defeated by a factor outside of these calculations.

The word “evil” was always in the Church’s lexicon for Communism but, because John Paul II was a Pole, his words particularly resonated. He spoke from the belly of the beast. He knew totalitarian “evil” personally in both its Nazi and Communist manifestations and spoke from experience. His philosophical grounding also allowed him to reach beyond Christian revelation to a larger audience that did not share that revelation. He could speak of universal truths in a language that was not parochial.

Reagan was the first political leader to use the moral vocabulary of “evil” to describe the Soviet empire in the recent era. The reaction was hysterical. How reckless could Reagan be? Yet the president calmly responded that he wanted them, the Soviets, to know that he knew. This acknowledgment inspired great hope behind the Iron Curtain. Then, finally, the Soviets used the term themselves. Once the proper vocabulary was employed, it was over. Semantic unanimity brought the end not in the much-feared bang, but a whimper. Truth—the splendor of truth—turned out to be the most effective weapon in the Cold War. The bearer of that truth in its fullest splendor was John Paul II.

Not everyone could see this coming. In 1967, a dim-witted Communist party apparatchik turned in a report on Karol Cardinal Wojtyla of Krakow to his superiors in the Polish secret police that may have lulled them into complacency. It started, “He has not so far engaged in open anti-state activity. It seems that politics are his weaker suit; he is over-intellectualized. He lacks organizing and leadership qualities.” General Jaruzelski, former head of the Polish Communist Party, later bemoaned this shortsightedness: “My Communist colleagues decided that the Bishops ahead of Karol Wojtyla on the list of candidates were not good for the state, so they pushed Karol Wojtyla. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.”

The Soviets were more alert. They remembered Lenin’s warning: “The idea of god is unutterable vileness of the most dangerous kind.” Andrei Gromyko, the foreign minister, fumed: “Things have reached the point where thousands upon thousands of people are crawling on their knees before the Roman pope.” If the Church were not dealt with, Leonid Brezhnev warned, “sooner or later it would gag in our throats. It would suffocate us.” Canadian reporter Eric Margolis later learned the depth of the concern: “I was the first Western journalist inside the KGB headquarters in 1990. The generals told me that the Vatican and the pope above all was regarded as their number one, most dangerous enemy in the world.” (Someday, we may learn whether that concern expressed itself in the 1981 attempted assassination of the pope. As John Paul II wrote in Memory and Identity: “Someone else masterminded it and someone else commissioned it.”)

In any case, the magnitude of John Paul Il’s role was definitively acknowledged by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a 1992 article in La Stampa: “All that has happened in Eastern Europe over these last few years would have been impossible without the presence of this pope and without the important role…that he played on the world stage.”

What did he do, and how did he do it? The word “evil” was the correct diagnosis, but what was the prescription? In his 1977 dedication of a church in Nowa Huta, Cardinal Wojtyla criticized the Communist Party for attempting to build “a city without God.” That was the diagnosis. When he returned to Poland as pope two years later, he proclaimed, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe.” The people responded by shouting: “We want God.” The prescription for evil was God.

Radek Sikorski, the former deputy foreign minister of a free Poland, wrote in a tribute to John Paul II that, “Before people demand democracy and social rights, they have to gain faith in their own human dignity.” That was the prerequisite for liberation: You must know you should be free before you can be free. This is what the pope restored to them. “Be not afraid” were his first words as pope. You need not be afraid because of the truth. Know that truth, and it will set you free.

One needs not only physical courage to be free but, above all, courage of the mind in identifying and speaking the truth. Living in the spirit of the truth is what banishes fear. A recent example of this was provided by an Iraqi government employee, Haifa, who attended a memorial for the pope at St. Joseph’s parish in Baghdad on April 7. Despite the threat of violence, she said, “If I die, I will die here in the church with Jesus. When you have a soul of faith, it kills every fear inside your body.” It is difficult for people in the West to appreciate how galvanizing the Truth is when it is spoken publicly in a society oppressed by a lie—an institutionalized lie about man that is enforced by state power.

The pope’s “politics” were really quite simple, as they derived from his conviction that God is sovereign and man’s human dignity and rights are endowed by Him. Without God, they have no origin. He stressed the irreducible fact that the source of man’s dignity is in his Creator. If you lose God, you lose man. As political philosopher Paul Eidelberg once said, “If there is no being superior to man, nothing in theory prevents some men from reducing others to the level of the subhuman.”

The political implications of this are clear: If you wish to save man, first restore God to His rightful place. Then, “If you want peace, remember man” that is, man made in His image, blessed with reason and free will. Therefore, the political arrangement of man’s life should comport with his nature as a free and reasoning creature, ordered to a transcendent good. Within this context, the pope consistently endorsed and enthusiastically promoted democratic, constitutional order and market economics—and not only for Europeans. Most recently, in a meeting last November, he said in a statement read by an aide to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi: “I wish to encourage efforts made by the Iraqi people to establish democratic institutions which will be truly representative and committed to defending the rights for all.” John Paul II’s championship of freedom seemed to bear fruit in a reunited Europe, with a free Poland, and the world prospering and at peace. Had not the pope’s dream come true?

Then what about the rest? What about John Paul II’s excoriating critique of the West after the Cold War, and the puzzlement with which it was greeted? Why did he interrupt our victory celebrations? Those who had reduced the pope’s role to the political results of his actions missed, perhaps deliberately, the transcendent moral standards that animated his actions. The same people who failed to grasp the true nature of the Cold War also failed to appreciate the pope’s critique of the West. Those who did not understand what was morally wrong with Communist ideology also do not understand what is wrong with us.

While the struggle within the West during the Cold War was over the meaning of Communism, the new struggle is over the meaning of freedom. The Gospel of St. John tells us: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” After seeing that quote over the doorway to his classroom in Heidelberg, Martin Heidegger told his students: No, no; be free and you shall be true. In other words, it is not putting yourself into relationship with what is that frees you, but making up what you wish. This became the empty credo of modernity.

The same moral relativism that weakened the West during the Cold War remained after the war ended. In fact, it probably grew stronger in the absence of the external threat that had galvanized people in the West to summon enough faith to oppose it. The pope’s critique of Communism is important to understand because its principles apply to his critique of the West after the Cold War. It is, in fact, the same critique of modernity, albeit modernity in a different manifestation. Apparently, getting to make up reality for ourselves is not a harmless endeavor. In fact, John Paul II used the same terrible word to describe it: totalitarian.

In this case, however, the pope startlingly juxtaposed the words “totalitarian” and “democracy” and warned of “totalitarian democracy” as the new danger, even in America.

A “totalitarian democracy” may seem a contradiction in terms. However, when its context in the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” is removed, democracy loses its authority in higher law and becomes simply another vehicle for the expression of the primacy of the will. This is the basis of totalitarianism. What one wills, not what one reasons, is paramount. Force, not free will, is the means. Whether it is the force of the majority or of the minority matters not.

In his brilliant crisis article, “Why the Pope Loves America” (February 1997), Dennis Teti pointed to the source of John Paul II’s affection for the United States in the natural law grounding of its founding documents. The pope consistently spoke of “the paramount value of the natural law.” That love for America was clearly still intact when he addressed President Bush during a 2001 meeting:

Your nation’s founders…were guided by a profound sense of responsibility towards the common good to be pursued in respect for the God-given dignity and inalienable rights of all. America continues to measure herself by the nobility of her founding vision in building this society of liberty, equality, and justice under the law. In the century which has just ended, these same ideals inspired the American people to resist two totalitarian systems, based on an atheistic vision of man and society.

John Paul II urged President Bush to “strengthen your country in its commitment to the principles which inspired American democracy from the beginning.” It was precisely that commitment that the pope saw America in danger of losing.

As Teti pointed out, a number of papal statements expressed the concern that, as Teti says, “Totalitarianism is implicit in democratic denials of objective truth.” In Veritatis Splendor, the pope warned of “the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible.”

If truth is impossible, so are the “self-evident truths” upon which free government depends. Then, one can understand everything in terms of power and its manipulation. The concern is not simply with evil but with its institutionalization. In 1993, the pope said that “the ‘culture of death’ has assumed a social and institutional form of legality to justify the most horrible crimes against humanity: genocide, ‘final solutions,’ ‘ethnic cleansings’ and the massive ‘taking of life of human beings even before they are born or before they reach the natural point of death.'”

This led to the pope’s extraordinary rebuke of President Clinton for vetoing the partial-birth abortion ban: “This presidential decision…amounts to an incredibly brutal act of aggression against innocent human life and the inalienable human rights of the unborn. The fact that this presidential decision legalized this inhuman procedure, morally and ethically imperils the future of a society which condones it.”

John Paul II continued to call things by their true names. As he had refused to comply with the old lie of slavery, he would not bend to the new lie of false freedom. He preserved the integrity of words because of his fidelity to the Word. People celebrate him because of the victory over Communism but not for the deeper reasons behind that victory, because they do not like being told that they are abusing their freedom. However, he raised the hope that moral recovery is possible by calling for it. And, if it happens, it will be because his words perdure.

President Bush appreciated the larger role the pope played—not simply as a champion of freedom, but at a deeper level—and went to the heart of it in an off-the-cuff comment to the press as he was leaving Rome on April 8. He said, “I would define Pope John Paul II as a clear thinker who was like a rock. And tides of moral relativism kind of washed around him, but he stood strong as a rock.”

What, finally, enabled this man to do what he did? No conventional explanation suffices. There is an illustrative episode from his last months that hints at an answer. This was, recall, a period when the focus was on the pope’s suffering and when, one would think, he would be consumed by it. One of his closest senior aides was looking for the pope in his apartments. Not finding him, he went into the private chapel. There he found the pope in his altar chair, with his arms around the tabernacle, singing in Polish. The aide fled. Later in the afternoon, he asked John Paul II what he had been doing in the chapel. The pope responded that he had been singing a song his mother used to sing to him when he was sad as a boy, and that he had been comforting our Lord.

The frightening intimacy that this man gained with Jesus Christ has changed the world, because Christ shone through him in a way that could be seen by billions of people. John Paul II had gone so completely into God that others could see God in him. This, his whole life seemed to say, is how a man lives who is not afraid, because “love always brings victory.”


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly has written for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest, The American Spectator, and National Review, and is the author or contributing author of over 20 books. His most recent book is America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding (Ignatius Press).

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