When Gerald Ford famously stumbled, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” in 1976, he could have had the work of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla in mind. The former president meant to indicate the people of the Warsaw Pact did not embrace the atheistic Soviet leadership – a fact the CIA noted sprung from the peoples’ abiding faith. Pope John Paul II did more than any modern cleric to make explicit the chasm between the pretensions of an all-powerful government and the veneration owed to God alone.
Unlike his predecessors (fairly or not), his legacy will not be clouded by allegations of collaboration with totalitarianism. As a young man, the future Successor of St. Peter would put on anti-Nazi plays as part of an underground theatre troupe. In 1946, after the Communists replaced the Nazis as the Polish people’s slave-masters, he entered the priesthood – itself a seditious act against the absolute State. Although the secret police did not believe the vigorous clergyman posed a threat to their hegemony, he lost few chances as bishop and archbishop to flout Communist rule, covertly catechizing young Poles and establishing churches in forbidden locations.
The world in which Karol Wojtyla transformed into Pope John Paul II offered little reason for optimism, on a spiritual or political level. In 1978, the West lay at the low end of its postwar decline, with England hamstrung by a series of Labour governments and the United States mired in Jimmy Carter’s malaise. Everywhere, the bankrupt Soviet Union showed signs of expansion. In rapid succession, three personalities burst onto the scene to reverse this course: They were in chronological order Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. (John Adams might have summed up this weekend’s news by quipping, “Thatcher lives.”)
Shortly after his consecration as Pope, John Paul II openly defied the Marxist government of Poland, telling his admirers during a 1979 Mass in Warsaw:
Do not be afraid to tell the truth. Do not be afraid of the system. People are created not to enmity but to solidarity. Let the Holy Spirit descend and renew the face of the land, this land.
Curiously, the Left did not second this exhortation to “speak truth to power.”
The Pope would continue to water the seed he planted during this visit by financing Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement. He revealed an unusually keen political sense, once asking Senator Joseph Biden for details on the senator’s investigation of Eastern Europe. For decades, the Pope denied rumors that his non-objection to Ronald Reagan’s stationing of ICBM missiles in Western Europe had been part of a covert political agreement.
His opposition proved so effective that just three years into his reign, his enemies hired professional assassin Mehmet Ali Agca to permanently silence him – an attempt the Pope hinted in his new book was “one of the last convulsions of the 20th century ideologies of force. Force stimulated fascism and Hitlerism, force stimulated communism.” (In Memory and Identity, he also doubted the long-standing suspicion that Bulgaria had a hand in the plot.) When he visited Agca in prison the following year, the world caught a moving glimpse of the forgiving love the Pope was meant to embody.
He continued to undermine Marxism in his pastoral ministry and in his capacity as one of the world’s last remaining philosophers. He became the most eloquent spokesman opposing China’s “one child” policy and its stifling of the rights of indigenous Roman Catholics, Buddhists, and adherents of other faiths. (The Chinese government established a separate “Catholic Church,” which is subject, not to the Pope, but to the Communist government.) He combated this by naming Chinese Bishop Ignatius Cardinal Kung Pin-Mei a secret cardinal early in his Pontificate, and he may have named another Chinese clergyman a cardinal “in pectore” before his death.
He also clarified those portions of church teaching leftists exploited to justify collectivism. He repeatedly condemned the Liberation Theology of those Central American revolutionaries posing as priests and bishops. He explicitly promoted free markets in Centesimus Annus, an encyclical that cheered many conservatives who, like William F. Buckley Jr., opposed the economic liberalism of his immediate predecessors. In all, his pontificate repudiated all the theoretical underpinnings of the Communist enterprise, stripping Marxism of its most valuable asset – its veneer of ideological altruism – exposing its naked aggression and brutality. Human Events ranked his election as pope one of the “Ten Decisions that Won the Cold War.” There were signs near the end of his pontificate that he had begun facing uncomfortable truths about Islamofascism, as well.
Throughout his tenure in the Vatican, he stood firm against the winds of modernism seeking to reverse the historic teachings of his church, affirming with Orwell’s Winston Smith, “Sanity is not statistical.”
However, he reached outside the confines of his own church to live out his vision of the Papacy as chief Pastor of the entire world. Out of his personal affection, he made great strides to forge positive relations with Jews and members of the Orthodox communion. Before the entire world, he apologized for the excesses of medieval popes, a move of unprecedented humility and goodwill. (Owning up to past mistakes is particularly appreciated by those associated with this website.) And in the last decade, he daily manifested his obligation to serve this worldwide pastorate while suffering in persona Christi, keeping the full extent of his pain known only to God. To the world, he offered only a frail countenance, strained and slurred speech, and the kindly smile of a loving father. This world’s final image of him will be his playfully chatting with children and laughing at uncooperative doves, and his final appearance at his window, struggling to force his declining body to utter a few words of hope to his beloved flock – not for his sake, but for theirs.
His enemies have sprung to the offensive, now that his weak voice can no longer answer them. The Italian Anarchist Federation (FAI) issued a statement on the far-left website Indymedia.org calling the Pope the “standard-bearer for a culture of oppression.” FAI declared, “Karol Wojtila [sic.] was the head of a multinational company with far-reaching interests in the whole world and a huge income in a planet where the majority of the population survives on less then two dollars a day.” Barbara Ehrenreich, whose books are required reading on many college campuses, once described him as “a flesh-hating, elderly celibate.” The New York Press published a cover story last month entitled, “The 52 Funniest Things about the Upcoming Death of the Pope,” which included such knee-slappers as, “In his last days, the Pope was in tremendous pain,” and “Pope pisses himself just before the end; gets all over nurse.” Undoubtedly, leftist cartoonist Ted Rall is somewhere, dreaming up a way to gain TV time by spitting on the Pope’s corpse. It is no wonder this Pontiff spent so much of his pontificate castigating the world’s “culture of death.”
And it is no wonder the Left reviles him in death as in life. His teachings, in essence, stated: Government is not God. Marxism is a failed religion, and economic collectivism is the road to ruin. All members of the human family possess inalienable rights not dependent upon government fiat. All life – even the unattractive, the afflicted, and the invalid – is endued with inherent worth in the sight of its Creator and cannot be snuffed out when it becomes inconvenient.
Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, is now, depending on your point of view, in Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, or Vatican City. However, the tens of millions inspired by his pastoral leadership keep his faith and hope for a better, gentler world alive in their hearts. And the hundreds of millions freed from the nightmare of totalitarianism through his efforts and example remind the world of the earthly good that can be wrought by a heavenly minded man.
Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine: et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.
For the record, this author is not a Roman Catholic, merely an admirer of the late pope’s stance on behalf of freedom.