Home / Articles / Pope John Paul II and the Dynamics of History
We are here this afternoon to discuss the international impact of a man who is neither a politician, a diplomat, or an international relations theorist, but rather a pastor, an evangelist, and a witness to basic human rights. Yet it is also appropriate that we explore “the Pope’s divisions” under the auspices of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, for this institution has always understood that ideas have consequences in history, for good and for ill.
Pope John Paul II has had a considerable impact on contemporary history. Yet one may well wonder whether those who think about international relations, professionally or as an avocation, have begun to come to grips intellectually with the meaning of John Paul’s international accomplishment— or what that accomplishment suggests about the contours of world politics in the 21st century.
So my plan here is to sketch, briefly, the Pope’s accomplishment as I have come to understand it as his biographer, using three examples; then I shall indicate, again briefly, some lessons from this accomplishment for the future; and finally, I shall suggest where the new intellectual terrain lies for those interested in ethics and international relations.
To understand John Paul II’s concept of the dynamics of international relations, indeed, the dynamics of history itself, requires us to go back to the small Polish town of Wadowice, c. 1928. There, a young Polish boy named Karol Wojtyla learned the great lesson of modern Polish history: that it was through its culture — its language, it literature, its religion— that Poland the nation survived when Poland the state was erased for 123 years from the map of Europe. History viewed from the Vistula River basin looks different; it has a tangible spiritual dimension. Looking at history from that distinctive angle-of-vision teaches the observant that overwhelming material force can be resisted successfully through the resources of the human spirit— through culture — and that culture is the most dynamic, enduring factor in human affairs, at least over the long haul.
Karol Wojtyla, whom the world would later know as Pope John Paul II, applied this lesson of the priority of culture in history in resistance to the two great totalitarian powers that sought to subjugate Poland between 1939 and 1989.
He applied it to a variety of resistance activities against the draconian Nazi Occupation of Poland from 1939 until 1945. If the Nazi strategy to erase these Polish-Slavic untermenschen from the European New Order began with an attempt to decapitate Polish society by liquidating it cultural leadership, then one effective means of resistance was to keep Polish culture alive— and this Wojtyla tried to do, at the daily risk of his life, by his participation in a host of cultural resistance groups: the underground Jagiellonian University, clandestine literary, theatrical, and religious activities, a pioneering movement of civil renewal called UNIA.
As a priest and bishop in Krakow, he applied a similar “culture-first” strategy to resistance against the communist effort to rewrite Poland’s history and redefine Poland’s culture. Wojtyla had no direct “political” involvement between 1948 and 1978; he could have cared less about the internal politics of the Polish communist party. But his efforts to nurture an informed, intelligent Catholic laity were examples of what a later generation would call “building civil society”— and thus laying the groundwork for an active resistance movement with political traction.
Pope John Paul II has applied this strategy of culturally driven change on a global stage since his election on October 16, 1978.
John Paul’s role in the collapse of European communism is now generally recognized, but it does not seem well understood. He was not, pace Tad Szulc, a wily diplomat skillfully negotiating a transition beyond one-party rule in Poland. He was not, pace Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, a co-conspirator with Ronald Reagan in a “holy alliance” to effect communism’s demise. He was not, pace the late Jonathan Kwitny, a Gandhi in a white cassock, running a non-violent resistance movement in Poland through a clandestine messenger service from the Vatican. Rather, John Paul shaped the politics of east central Europe in the 1980s as a pastor, evangelist, and witness to basic human rights
Primary-source evidence for this is found in the texts of the Pope’s epic June 1979 pilgrimage to his homeland, nine days on which the history of the 20th century pivoted. In those forty-some sermons, addresses, lectures, and impromptu remarks, the Pope told his fellow-countrymen, in so many words: “You are not who they say you are. Let me remind you who you are.” By restoring to the Polish people their authentic history and culture, John Paul created a revolution of conscience that, fourteen months later, produced the nonviolent Solidarity resistance movement, a unique hybrid of workers and intellectuals — a “forest planed by aroused consciences,” as the Pope’s friend, the philosopher Jozef Tischner once put it. And by restoring to his people a form of freedom and a fearlessness that communism could not reach, John Paul II set in motion the human dynamics that eventually led, over a decade, to what we know as the Revolution of 1989.
June 1979 was not only a moment of catharsis for a people long frustrated by their inability to express the truth about themselves publicly. It was also a moment in which convictions were crystallized, to the point where the mute acquiescence that, as Vaclav Havel wrote, made continuing communist rule possible was shattered. Moreover, it was not simply that, as French historian Alain Besancon nicely put it, “people regained the private ownership of their tongues” during the Solidarity revolution. It was what those tongues said— their new willingness to defy what Havel called the communist “culture of the lie”— that made the crucial difference.
To be sure, there were other factors in creating the Revolution of 1989: the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; Mikhail Gorbachev; the Helsinki Final Act and its effects throughout Europe. But if we ask why communism collapsed when it did— in 1989 rather than 1999 or 2009 or 2019 — and how it did, then sufficient account has to be taken of June 1979. This is a point stressed by local witnesses: when I fist began to research this question in 1990, Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, religious and secular alike, were unanimous in their testimony about the crucial impact of June 1979. That, they insisted, was when “1989″ started.
(Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that the West largely missed this. Thus the New York Times editorial of June 5, 1979: “As much as the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland must reinvigorate and reinspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it does not threaten the political order of the nation or of Eastern Europe.” But two other Slavic readers of the signs of the times were not at all confused: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yuri Andropov both knew that the rise of John Paul II and the deployment of his “culture- first” strategy of social change was a profound threat to the Soviet order.)
John Paul applied a similar strategy to a quite different situation when he went to Chile in 1987. Fourteen years of the Pinochet government, following the crisis of the Allende regime, had created deep divisions in Chilean society. There were raw wounds in the body politic because of human rights abuses and the recalcitrance of the Left; there was, in a phrase, no “civil society,” and that lack made a democratic transition impossible.
Therefore, John Paul, in collaboration with the Chilean bishops, decided that the public purpose of his 1987 pilgrimage to Chile would be to help reconstitute civil society through a reclamation of Chile’s Christian culture. The great theme for the visit would be that “Chile’s vocation is for understanding, not confrontation.” The papal pilgrimage would, as one of its organizers put it to me, “take back the streets,” which had been places of fear under Allende and Pinochet, and transform them, once again, into places of community. And people would be deliberately mixed together at the venues for the papal Masses: Chileans would be compelled, under the eye of their common religious “father,” to look at each other, once again, as persons rather than ideological objects. And it seems no accident that, some eighteen months after the papal visit had accelerated the process of reconstructing Chilean civil society, a national plebiscite voted to move beyond military rule and restore democracy.
Finally, the Pope deployed a similar strategy in Cuba in January 1998. He did not mention the current Cuban regime, once, in five days. Rather, he re-read Cuban history through the lens of a Christianity that had formed a distinctively Cuban people from native peoples, Spaniards, and black African slaves, and he re-read the Cuban national liberation struggle of the 19th century through the prism of its Christian inspiration. Here, as in Poland in 1979, the Pope was restoring to a people it authentic history and culture. In doing so, he was also calling for a reinsertion of Cuba into history and into the hemisphere, asking the Cuban people to stop thinking of yourselves as victims (the theme of Fidel Castro’s welcoming address), and start thinking of themselves as the protagonists of their own destiny.
Several lessons can be drawn from this analysis. First, the experience of John Paul II suggests that “civil society” is not simply institutional: a free press, free trade unions, free business organizations, free associations, etc. “Civil society” has an essential moral core.
Secondly, John Paul’s strategy reminds us that “power” cannot be measured solely in terms of aggregates of military or economic capability. The “power of the powerless” is a real form of power.
In the third place, the Pope’s impact demonstrates that non-state actors count in contemporary world politics, and sometimes in decisive ways. John Paul II did not shape the history of our times as the sovereign of the Vatican City micro-state, but as the Bishop of Rome and the universal pastor of the Catholic Church.
Still, the present pontificate has left some gaps in our understanding that urgently need filling in the years just ahead. It is curious that this son of a soldier, who has expressed his respect for the military vocation on many occasions, has not developed the Church’s just war doctrine. This was most evident during Gulf War, but beyond such relatively conventional conflicts, there are new issues today at the intersection of ethics and world politics— the problem of outlaw states, the morality of preemption in the face of weapons of mass destruction, the locus of “legitimate authority” in the international community — that the Pope has simply not addressed, and others must.
The same can be said for “humanitarian intervention,” which the Pope identified as a “moral duty” at the FAO in 1992. But this “duty” was not defined. On whom does it fall, and why? By what means is it to be discharged? What about the claims of sovereignty? These are large questions that demand the most careful reflection.
John Paul II has been the most politically consequential pope in centuries. But his impact did not come through the normal modalities of politics. He had no army. His success did not, in the main, come through the normal instruments of diplomacy. In terms of the history of ideas, his “culture-first” reading of history is a sharp challenge to the regnant notions that politics runs history, or economics runs history. Does the fact of the Pope’s success suggest that we are moving into a period in which nation-states are of less consequence in “world affairs”? Or were the accomplishments I’ve outlined here idiosyncratic, the result of a singular personality meeting a unique set of circumstances with singular prescience and effect? There is much to chew on here, for students of international affairs, in the years immediately ahead. But that we have been living, in this pontificate, through the days of a giant seems clear enough.
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