It is intuitively obvious that the late John Paul II contributed greatly to the peaceful collapse of communism in the last quarter of the 20th century, but how? In the mountain of memorial appreciations written about the Polish priest who became pope, a column by Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum stood out.
As the Warsaw correspondent for The Economist in the late 1980s, Applebaum saw firsthand the collapse of the Soviet system. She had real insight into how, as pope, Karol Wojtyla had “helped overthrow communism.”
There were plenty of conspiracy theories going about in those days, she noted, secret negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev, that sort of thing. But in fact, his contribution was far more mundane.
In a communist system in which the state claimed ownership, not just of productive assets of the economy but of the truth itself, the church, first in Poland and then elsewhere, “broke the two monopolies, offering people a safe place to meet and intellectually offering them an alternative way of thinking about the world.”
When she first moved to Poland, she recalled, “I was told that if I wanted to know what was going on, I’d have to go each week to a particular Warsaw church and pick up a copy of the city’s underground weekly newspaper. Equally, if I wanted to see an exhibition of paintings that were not the work of the regime’s artists, or a play that was not approved by the regime’s censors, I could go to an exhibition or a performance in a church basement.
“The priests didn’t write the newspapers, or paint the paintings, or act in the plays — none of which were necessarily religious — but they made their space and resources available to the people who did.” And in doing to, they were following the example of a man who had secretly studied for the priesthood during the Nazi occupation and founded an underground theater himself.
Meanwhile, the advice of a priest friend sent me back to the basic documents of Vatican II, the great council of the leaders of the church convened by Pope John XXIII in October 1962. (Vatican I, had been interrupted nearly a century before by the Franco-Prussian War; the previous council met at Trent, 1545-1563.) Vatican II took three years to do its work. Its most conspicuous decision was to give up the Latin mass in favor of worship in vernacular languages.
When someone asked John XXIII why the council was needed, he reportedly first went to a window and opened it, then replied: “I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in.” The convocation became a fundamental contributor to the pattern of liberalization of the 1960s.
Most bishops from communist countries were forbidden by their governments to attend. But some participated, and among the draftsmen of the section in the document on the pastoral role of the church (Gaudium et Spes, or Joys and Hopes) was a young Polish bishop named Wojtyla.
My friend explained that within the church, it was believed that Wojtyla’s influence on the pastoral blueprint’s overall tone had much to do with his later being elected pope 13 years later.
The twelve pages of chapter three, on economic and social life, had much to say about the very concrete problems facing a world divided by a Cold War. It celebrated increasing productivity; encouraged technological progress and the spirit of enterprise; called for increasing democratization of decision-making (development was “not to be left to the judgment of a few individuals or groups possessing too much economic power”); endorsed the right of workers to form unions in all nations; and affirmed the insurance and social security institutions of the welfare state; and urged wise macroeconomic policies so that weak countries would not suffer unjust losses from inflation.
The document identified income inequality as a growing problem. “At the very time when economic progress… could do so much to reduce social inequalities, it serves all too often only to aggravate them; in some places, it even leads to a decline in the situation of the underprivileged and to contempt for the poor.”
The roots of this maldistribution of things was to be found in an imbalance of interests and ideas that was found to be growing rapidly around the world, as much in collectivized economies as in decentralized ones. “Many people, especially in economically advanced societies, seem to be dominated by economics; almost all their personal and social lives are permeated with a kind of economic mentality.”
It was precisely this sort of imbalance — between practical effectiveness and moral conscience, between specialization and the whole being, between social activity and individual reflection — that the church existed to redress: that was the message of Gaudium et Spes. And in fact, the church in the Iron Curtain countries gained strength from the proceedings of Vatican Council II.
That was not the only thing going on in the 1970s, of course. Timothy Ryback argued in Rock Around the Bloc that rock-and-roll undermined communism, and there is a certain amount of truth in that. But no tour by the Rolling Stones, any more than a last-minute meeting with Gorbachev, could have achieved a peaceful end of the communist empire, if the argument for its dissolution hadn’t been made, subtly and quietly, years in advance.
What struck me most forcefully as I read the chapter on economic and social life, however, was its equal applicability to the other monopoly — the market-oriented mentality that dominates most nations around the world today. I was immediately reminded of the old East-bloc joke — under capitalism, life is a matter of dog-eat-dog; under communism, it is just the reverse.
Today, many economists think they have all the answers. They are planning to take on psychology next. You can expect salvo after salvo of exaggerated discoveries and pronouncements in the coming years. George Stigler used to joke that he looked forward to the day when, chemistry and physics and medicine having solved their mysteries, only two Nobel Prizes besides the Peace Prize would remain: one for economics, the other for fiction.
And of course it is true that we take a good deal of out moral instruction these days from fiction: from novels, films, sitcoms, comic books. But secular storytelling is only one way of addressing infinitely complicated questions of right and wrong — and often not the most profound.
The life of John Paul II showed that the religions of the world — from their most humble priestly functions to their highest offices — still possess remarkable vitality and power to affirm and to negate. Sometimes that power was no more complicated than the pope’s knack for drawing a large crowd.
John Paul II’s first visit as pope to Poland came in 1979, not long after he was invested. He was greeted, as Applebaum recalled in her Post column, “not by a handful of little old ladies, as the country’s leaders had predicted, but by millions of people of all ages.”
That was the trip, she wrote, on which the pope kept repeating, “Don’t be afraid.” It was only a year later that the Poles organized Solidarity — the first mass anticommunist political movement, as effective in its time as Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, or Martin Luther King’s sit-ins and marches in the 1960s.
Never mind politicians who seek to misappropriate religious doctrines for their own selfish purposes. True religious leaders of all faiths, far away and close to home, have much to teach about an alternative way of thinking about the world — far more than is commonly suspected.