Saturday, April 2, 2005

Pope John Paul II and Polish communism's fall

By Donald Sensing

Reposted from April 2, 2005. Links were valid at the time of authorship.

Leopold Stoltch writes today that John Paul's role in the fall of communism is "overstated." He cites a quote by Lech Walesa:

"We know what the pope has achieved. Fifty percent of the collapse of communism is his doing," Walesa told The Associated Press on Friday. "More than one year after he spoke these words, we were able to organize 10 million people for strikes, protests and negotiations. "Earlier we tried, I tried, and we couldn't do it. These are facts. Of course, communism would have fallen, but much later and in a bloody way. He was a gift from the heavens to us."

To which Leopold responds,

It seems to me that Walesa and others completely overstate the Pope's impact on the fall of communism in the Soviet Union. In fact, it has been my position that the Pope (and the Church in general) has been extraordinarily weak in the face of tyranny, always counselling the United States against using military force but never calling the Soviets or other dictatorial regimes to account for their persistent violations of natural law. The most recent example of this one-sided pacifism occurred when the Pope admonished President Bush not to invade Iraq, but never called on Saddam Hussein to stop murdering his own people. To constantly call for the good to stand down in the face of evil, in the name of allowing peace to come in God's time, seems a contradiction that I can't get over.

I would reply thus: First, it is far too much to credit John Paul II for the fall of communism as a whole. The credit he deserves relates to what he did to bring about the fall of Polish communism. That is what Walesa was addressing. What he did, in conjunction with Walesa's Solidarity movement, was de-legitimize the Polish government and lead, not exactly to its collapse, but to its growing inability to monopolize the political life of the nation. Once men like Walesa found political effectiveness outside the Party, communist rule there was doomed. The pope visited Poland in 1979, a year before Solidarity was born. By 1982 (IIRC) the Communist government had outlawed Solidarity and had imposed martial law. But John Paul visited Poland again in 1987. Reported the BBC:

When he re-visited Poland in 1987, the Polish leader, General Jaruzelski, and the Communist leadership gave the Pope the welcome due to a foreign Head of State. But the pomp and ceremony could not disguise the authorities' nervousness. Television viewers noted the General's trembling voice. The battle for the Polish soul was an unequal one. In a sonorous baritone, as yet untouched by the Parkinson's Disease that afflicts him today, the Pope told the customary huge crowds that came to greet him what many wanted to hear... ."

There was still a long, hard row to hoe before the Warsaw Pact broke up, followed by the Soviet empire itself. The Polish political revolution was not the foundation of the fall of Soviet empire, it was a big crack in the wall. The foundation was Communist East Germany. When the people there threw off the authority of the government, the whole facade collapsed and the Soviet empire - indeed, the Soviet Union itself - was shown to be a house of cards, politically speaking. John Paul's role in the revolution in East Germany was nil. The locus of resistance there was the Protestant Lutheran church, not the Catholic church. But I hold that without the example of the Polish resistance the East Germans would likely not have been so bold. As for John Paul's one-sidedness in dealing with Saddam, I have no explanation. But this article by Father Raymond J. de Souza, writing from Rome in 2003 sheds a lot of light, I think. It first appeared in the National Catholic Register.

George Weigel, the papal biographer, once asked his subject what he learned from the Second World War. Pope John Paul II answered instantly: "I learned the experience of my contemporaries: humiliation at the hands of evil." The moral of the war story for so much of Europe is just that: humiliation and evil. ... The Holy See, too, felt the pain of humiliation, with the tiny Vatican City State surrounded. The Church felt compelled to moderate her voice to preserve the neutrality upon which her freedom depended. It was a defensible policy but there was no glory in it รข€” there was only humiliation in the face of evil. Indeed, with the exception of Poland - which fought bravely and lost -and Britain - which fought bravely and won - the moral of the war story for Europe was that, as John Paul is fond of saying, "nothing is solved by war." The subsequent Cold War only reinforced the view that war brings more evils in its wake and further underscored the impotence of free Europe to combat evil in its own neighborhood. ... So the Iraq war has produced an odd situation. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are men of deep Christian faith, explicitly motivated by the morality of their policy and committed to the role of religion in public life. Yet the Holy See has opposed them every step of the way.

De Souza's point is that Europeans generally do not see military force as being inside the moral universe, that war is purely destructive, never politically liberating. See also, Janet Dalety piece in the UK Telegraph, "Freedom? Why Europe's not bothered." (Catholic theologian George Weigel, cited by de Souza, has also written extensively on the theology of war. I've discussed his works five times. See this index.)

Update: Arthur Chrenkoff was a child in Krakow when John Paul visited there in 1983.

My John Paul, not surprisingly, is the political Pope, the Polish Pope, the one who helped to bring down the Soviet Empire. There is no doubt in my mind about the role he played in this grand spectacle of history. Forget all the rather silly theories about cooperation with the CIA, or some "holy alliance" with President Reagan; he made a difference not on the account of some covert shenanigans but because of who he was, what he said and what he did out in the open, in front of the billions. If you distill it all into one word, it is this: hope. He gave us hope. By us, I mean initially the Poles, the troublemakers who in 1980 started rocking the communist boat ...

Read the whole thing.

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