- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

Pope John Paul II was one of the most significant popes in history and perhaps the greatest religious leader of our time.

His firm fidelity to God’s truth strengthened orthodox belief in almost all religions. His missionary visits to numberless countries helped revive Christian belief in every part of the world except, ironically, his native Europe.

His moral leadership in the struggle against totalitarian communism inspired half a Continent to regain its freedom.

Yet despite these extraordinary contributions to religious and political liberty, his teaching uppermost in most minds when he died was his commitment to a culture of life. There is an almost eerie symbolism in his entering the next world so shortly after Terri Schiavo, whose right to life he championed.

When historians turn to John Paul’s life and times, however, it is the larger achievements they will ponder. Those achievements were rooted in Karol Wojtyla’s experience prior to his 1978 election to the papacy. The son of a retired Polish military officer, Karol Wojtyla was an athlete, an actor and a promising scholar of philosophy before the Nazi invasion. If history had not intervened, he would probably have become a professional actor or a philosophy lecturer. He never lost his philosophical interests — his latest book is a collection of philosophical essays — or his sense of theater. But he discovered a more pressing vocation.

As George Weigel demonstrates in his magisterial biography, “Witness to Hope,” the Nazi invasion brought home to Karol Wojtyla the central importance of political and religious liberty to the human personality. He was active in the anti-Nazi resistance, dodging German patrols to read patriotic plays to the repressed Polish people. And when he returned to a communist Poland after the war as a priest, lecturer and eventually bishop of Krakow, he was known as a “relentless, sophisticated advocate for the religious and other civil rights of his people.” These experiences enabled him to grasp not only the importance of freedom but the weakness of totalitarianism.

People were held down by fear. Once they recovered hope — the communist despotisms would tumble.

When he became Pope John Paul II in 1978, even atheists sensed his election was a world-changing event. Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, warned his Politburo colleagues a Polish pope would likely destabilize the Soviet Union by giving hope to the nations captive within it. Eleven years later, the evil empire crumbled and the captives emerged into the light of freedom.

Others played vital roles in that liberation: Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and the heroic dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. But the pope provided its vital spiritual impulse and its message of hope.

Within months of his 1979 papal visit to Poland, there were riots by Polish workers, the rise of Solidarity and the spread of anticommunist dissidence throughout Eastern Europe. In the words of the British historian Neal Ascherson (no admirer of religious orthodoxy), the pope’s visit was a “lancehead” that “went straight into the bowels of the whole Soviet empire, and gave it a wound from which it simply didn’t recover.”

His continuing influence, moreover, moderated passions of revenge and ensured the democratic revolutions of 1989 were peaceful as well as successful. Had he achieved nothing more in his lifetime than provide the religious spark of liberty in Europe, he would have been a world historical figure of the first rank.

In fact he was a world-changing figure in many other ways:

c He finally interred the restless ghost of Christian anti-Semitism, declared it a serious sin and famously referred to Jews as “our elder brothers.” Anti-Semitism persists and, alas, may even be growing in Western Europe, but it no longer has even a faint justification in Christian teaching or substantial support from the Catholic clergy.

c He sought close and fraternal relations with leaders of other religions without either surrendering or seeking the surrender of fundamental beliefs. He did not fully succeed with the leaders of Orthodox Christianity and he was believed privately distressed that Muslim leaders have been silent about attacks on Christians and Christianity because of their fear of Islamist extremists. Still, the seeds of better Christian-Muslim relations were planted for later generations to harvest.

c Drawing on his philosophical studies, he developed a more sophisticated Catholic understanding of capitalism. In his encyclicals, he maintained the church’s condemnation of a purely materialistic account of life — indeed, he was more trenchant than earlier popes in condemning consumerism. But he also argued that private enterprise and entrepreneurship were praiseworthy expressions of man’s creativity that required economic freedom to flourish. He thus moved away from older Catholic ideas of “corporatism” that had privileged existing businesses, stifled the aspirations of new entrepreneurs, and retarded economic development in Catholic countries.

c He gave strength and hope to traditional Christian believers of all denominations in their battle with secularism and theological liberalism. American Catholics and evangelical Protestants were still mildly hostile strangers when he entered the papacy. Today they cooperate on a host of issues from abortion to welfare reform. An “ecumenism of the barricades” has emerged in the pro-life movement and other battles with the growing secularism of the modern West.

Above all, Pope John Paul II took seriously the universalism of the Catholic Church and made regular visits to the whole world, especially the poor countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

His pilgrimages to the Third World coincided (not coincidentally) with the extraordinary rise of traditional Christianity of all denominations in those countries. Vast audiences of young people turned out to worship at his open-air Masses and to receive a blessing from him as he stood in his familiar “Popemobile.”

These gatherings gave heart to traditional believers. Here was evidence their faith was not a relic of the past, of old women in black murmuring quietly in empty churches, but the vibrant faith of millions of the young. It was the liberal churches that began to seem old-fashioned, clinging to a secular faith in the “social gospel” of welfarism offering more stone than bread.

There has even been a reverse missionary movement in recent years of young priests from Africa, Asia and Latin America to Europe (and, to a lesser extent, the United States) where liberal Christianity has emptied cradles and pulpits.

That points to a transformation of Christianity — and to the pope’s one great failure and disappointment. A century ago, Hilaire Belloc could truthfully say: “Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe.” No longer. Today, the European Christian churches that survived the threat and oppression of communism are succumbing to the euthanasia of post-Christian consumer materialism under liberty. In this atmosphere, religious belief and attendance are declining across the European Continent, even in such outposts of belief as Ireland.

Post-Christian materialism has even taken official form in the proposed European Union constitution that omits any mention of Christianity from its account of Europe’s history and civilizational identity. That omission is deliberate and reflects an increasing hostility to Christianity and religious belief among the secular elites that govern Europe.

Pope John Paul II, who strongly supported European unity throughout his papacy as the modern expression of Christendom, found it had become instead the expression of secular fundamentalism. He fought hard for acceptance of a simple historical acknowledgment of Christianity’s contribution to European history. But he failed — and that reflects the still growing dominance of Western secular fundamentalism.

It looks invincible. But so did communist totalitarianism in 1978. Will another pope rise to this second challenge as Karol Wojtyla did so bravely to the first?

Not to be in the least flippant but — God only knows.

John O’Sullivan is editor at large of the National Review.

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