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Pope John Paul II and democracy

Neal Ascherson
31 March 2005

Army officers are taught two ways of commanding a brigade or division in the field. One is Directive Control, which means laying down absolutely clear general orders and priorities and then letting junior commanders carry them out. The other is Order Command. This is sometimes called “leading from the front”, or – less kindly – obsessive interference in details. In Order Command, a general exercises hour-to-hour control to ensure that his operational orders are being precisely carried out, and may jump in at any moment to overrule orders given by a subordinate.

The Catholic church resembles an army in a great many ways. Few popes, however, have staff-officer qualities. Traditionally, they neither make their general orders clear nor interfere with prelates who, at the operational level, are trying to keep the great show on the road.

Pope John Paul II, in contrast, was a warrior commander. He set out on his long reign in 1978 with two perceptions, both of them requiring offensive action. The first was that the church was an organisational shambles which, if its discipline was allowed to deteriorate further, would enter a phase of final disintegration. The second was that there was a war on. This was a two-front war against materialism: one front against atheist Marxism and the other against the atomising, demoralising force of free-market capitalism.

No pope in recent history has attacked his task with such energy and relish. But, like most generals, Karol Wojtyła was not a model staff-college pupil. He did some Directive Control, especially at the start, but soon was provoked into a series of sensational Order Command episodes which appalled Catholic intellectuals. Dissent was treated like heresy, whether it came from individual theologians or entire religious orders. Conversely, he promoted and favoured some truly creepy lay groups and backwoods thaumaturges (Opus Dei or Padre Pio) who appeared to present no threat to his command structure. John Paul’s response to the deluge of revelation about the sexual abuse of children by the Catholic clergy was uncharacteristically weak, although he was old and sick when the full scale of this horror began to emerge.

His campaign to restore authority and discipline to the church was certainly spectacular. But it is not clear that he achieved much beyond resigned obedience from thousands in the hierarchy who hoped that the next pontiff would be less controlling. Just as transitory, one can guess, will prove his tremendous effort to hold the traditional line on the “sexual” issues: divorce, abortion, contraception, the celibate priesthood and the ordination of women. He spoke with passion about the world’s poor and their exploitation by the rich. But his rigid conservatism about contraception in the age of HIV/Aids, and his suppression of any hint of radical “liberation theology”, suggested that his grasp of reality in poor continents was often weak.

The pope and democracy

Much is now being written and recycled about John Paul II’s supposed “failure to understand” the nature of western liberal society. In reality he understood the dynamics of society in western Europe or north America quite well, but disliked much of what he saw there. In return, he was disliked – sometimes detested – by reformers within or outwith the Church, who were also shocked by the materialism of their own societies but who could only understand his refusal to liberalise the church as brutal, reactionary authoritarianism.

On his first visit to the United States, John Paul II was confronted by an impressive, widespread campaign which begged him to reconsider the ordination of women. The campaign produced evidence (how solid I do not know) to suggest that the majority of American Catholics favoured the change. The pope was completely unimpressed by this reasoning. Afterwards, a columnist suggested that he had been the first world figure to tell the American public that wanting something in a majority did not mean they ought to have it.

This brings up the question of the late pope’s attitude to democracy. He was in favour of it, as at least a huge improvement on the other thing (of which he had a lifetime’s personal experience). He had reservations about the behaviour of elected professional politicians and of political parties, but they were reservations of the kind shared by all intelligent democrats. Again, such behaviour was a vast improvement on the behaviour of non-elected politicians in a one-party state. He certainly did not believe that vox populi was vox Dei. People could demand things they should not have or accuse the innocent on false grounds, and to credit one particular form of government with infallibility was idolatrous (unless, of course, it was the throne of St Peter). In short, although his style as pope was highly authoritarian, this did not lead him to support authoritarian politics. One of his closest friends, with whom he seems to have spent many cheerful evenings, was the late Sandro Pertini, president of Italy, old socialist and anti-fascist partisan fighter.

Karol Wojtyła certainly appreciated historic pomp, and on his visit to Canterbury in 1982, he was enormously impressed by the royal splendour and ceremonial which the Church of England laid on for him. But he had none of that repellent old-Catholic hankering for “ordered” hierarchical societies in which aristocrats and officers protected an innocent peasantry against socialists and Jews. Unlike some of his predecessors, he was immune to pious dictators and – to the alarm of the Vatican bureaucracy – intensely concerned with Judaism, the Jewish people and the church’s disastrous history of anti-Semitism.

Karol Wojtyła called himself a “pilgrim”. He travelled incessantly, even when his mountaineer’s constitution had finally broken down, and faced countless crowds which often numbered millions in almost every country on earth. But when he looked out over those crowds, asking himself what they wanted, “democracy” was probably not the first word which came to mind. He thought about human beings, or at least their social requirements on earth, in terms of rights and – above all – in terms of “freedom”. When they had secured rights and freedom, then bread and probably democracy might be the next points on the agenda. But that second pair of items were not really matters for the kingdom of God and his representative on earth. The first pair were.

The pope and Poland

Here the Polish background becomes all-important in understanding Wojtyła’s mind. He was brought up in a conservative-nationalist tradition, still possessed by the hypnotising mythology of Poland’s long struggle to regain independence. At the core of this mythology was the 19th-century doctrine of “messianism”. Poland was presented as the collective reincarnation of Jesus Christ, destined to be crucified, to descend into the tomb and then to be resurrected in glory to redeem all nations by its sacrifice. Unmistakeable traces of national messianism recur in Wojtyła’s magnificent sermon-cycles (much better writing than his second-rate drama and poetry). And its influence left him with a uniquely Polish synthesis of patriotism and theology.

Karol Wojtyła saw God’s human creation as composed of three concentric circles: the individual, the family, the nation. Each was God’s work, and each was sacred. The tyrant who raised his sabre against a Christian nation was as blasphemous as when he raised it against a Christian family or a Christian woman or man. This was why Wojtyła, on his pilgrimages, always knelt down to kiss the ground in piety when he arrived in a new nation.

His first visit to Poland as pope, which took place in 1979, knocked a fatal hole in the credibility of the Communist regime. Solidarność (“Solidarity”) emerged the following year and, although it was temporarily crushed in 1981, it soon became clear that the hole below the waterline was extending to the other regimes in the Soviet “outer empire”.

(A fondly-nurtured legend has it that in September 1980, when a Soviet invasion seemed imminent, the Pope warned the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev, that if Poland were attacked he would move the Papacy and the Vatican to Kraków. So far, there is no evidence whatever for this story.)

That 1979 “pilgrimage” was the first event in a process which ended ten years later in Warsaw, Prague and the fall of the Berlin wall. But the words which began that process did not include “democracy”. Spoken to a million people by the Unknown Soldier’s tomb in Warsaw, they went like this:

“The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man … Man cannot be understood apart from this community that is constituted by the nation … It is therefore impossible without Christ to understand the history of the Polish nation, this great thousand-year old community that is so profoundly decisive for me and each one of us … It is impossible without Christ to understand this city, Warsaw, the capital of Poland, that undertook in 1944 an unequal battle against the aggressor, a battle in which it was abandoned by the powers allied with it …”

He was talking not about democracy but about freedom. This included national freedom from foreign or foreign-managed repression; a cultural freedom in which “Poland could be Poland”; spiritual freedom from the regime’s feeble pretence of atheism. As it happened, that freedom was established the following year through the most radical form of democracy: a trades-union revolution based on workers’ control of production through elected self-management committees. This did not bother Wojtyła in the least, because Solidarność from the outset celebrated its fight for workers’ rights and civil liberty with daily masses.

The pope and freedom

But at heart he saw freedom as a means rather than an end. For this pope, the theological point of freedom was that it unlocked the right of the individual to be respected as an individual, and restored his or her right to choose by reason the correct path to follow:

“A human being is a free and reasonable being. He or she is a knowing and responsible subject. He or she can and must, with the power of personal thought, come to know the truth. He or she can and must choose and decide.”

There is nothing new about this view of rights and freedom, which Catholic theology had developed centuries before President Jimmy Carter introduced the human-rights inventory into international relations, or before consumerism adopted a sue-them rights language suggesting that everyone was entitled to be beautiful and immortal. All the same, the impact of Wojtyła’s emphasis on rights and freedom owed something to timing. He was chosen as pope only three years after the Carter administration made human rights one of the basic concerns of the “Helsinki process”, which sought to overcome the dangers and the damage of the cold war.

This impact was strongest in oppressed countries, weakest in the “free world”. Karol Wojtyła had the gift of imparting to each member of a crowd – often the subjects of regimes which had spent years treating them as mere granules in the social building aggregate – a sense of being recognised as a unique and irreplaceable individual. This sudden revelation of worth and dignity was overwhelming. As I followed some of those pilgrimages, I often saw it happen, manifested in tears and the reaching out of arms.

Was it just an orator’s trick, the knack of making each listener in an audience think the speaker is talking only to him or her? I think it was more. This pope, who had once laboured with his hands and whose bishopric had included Auschwitz, understood the desperate human need to be recognised as a person. This is the right to respect, including self-respect, which comes next to the right to life.

Is that self-respect, turning to mutual respect, a precondition for democracy? It has often turned out to be the precondition for freedom. As we have seen in “soft” revolutions from Prague to Kiev and Kyrgyzstan, liberty is nowadays won by obstinate self-confidence rather than by blood and barricades. But democracy?

I would argue that Pope John Paul II saw democracy – plural and/or open – much as he saw freedom: as a means to an end. He valued choice as the expression of a moral being, not of a consumer or an elector, and I doubt if he fostered personal self-esteem in order to create worthier voters. His end, to which freedom and perhaps democracy were means, was much simpler and older: keeping open the possibility of free will, the option to choose God. After all, the man was a pope.

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