By JOHN THAVIS, CNS | Published April 7, 2005
In the view of many political commentators, history will best remember Pope John Paul II as the spiritual godfather of communism’s demise.
Although he refused to claim personal credit for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and its decline elsewhere around the globe, the pope was keenly aware that his moral prodding—especially in his native Poland—helped redraw the ideological map in the late 20th century.
“I think the crucial role was played by Christianity itself: its content, its religious and moral message, its intrinsic defense of the human person. All I did was recall this, repeat it and insist on it,” the pontiff said in a 1993 interview.
His election in 1978 as the first pope from behind the Iron Curtain immediately sparked interest in Washington and apprehension in Moscow, two poles of a renewed Cold War. For decades the Vatican had followed a policy of quiet negotiation with communist regimes, in order to win realistic concessions on religious rights. Many thought the new pope would throw out this “Ostpolitik” in favor of more aggressive approach.
But in the end, Pope John Paul made “Ostpolitik” his own. He kept up the quiet negotiations, but in documents and speeches around the world he began making not-so-quiet pronouncements about communist ideology and practice.
In 1984, for example, the pope publicly criticized Moscow for not letting him go to Lithuania for religious celebrations. The same year, a Vatican document approved by the pope referred to communist regimes as the “shame of our time.”
The real testing ground of East European freedom was Poland. When the pope visited his homeland in 1979, he helped ignite a sense of spiritual purpose that nurtured the political hopes of the Solidarity labor movement. After martial law was imposed and Solidarity outlawed, the pope returned to a discouraged nation in 1983, but in talk after talk raised the country’s morale and political resolve.
Back once again in 1987, he repeatedly praised the original Solidarity ideals, hammered the government’s labor record, called for religious freedom and said Marxism had lost credibility.
“Save your strength for the future,” he told a crowd of millions in Gdansk, where the pro-democracy movement had begun. Two years later, a revived Solidarity swept to political power in historic free elections, and European communism began to unravel.
From 1980 onward, the United States sent high-level officials from the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency to brief the pope about Soviet policies in Poland and elsewhere. The Vatican never denied that these meetings took place, but denied the claim of a U.S.-Vatican “holy alliance” to thwart communism.
In fact, when the first big cracks appeared in the European communist facade, the pope turned East, not West, for help. His overtures to Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev culminated in their historic meeting at the Vatican in 1989 and led to the restoration of church rights throughout the Soviet bloc.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Vatican took further advantage of the situation by quickly establishing diplomatic relations with the newly independent countries. As the pope remarked, it was clear that Marxist ideology was “completely exhausted.”
A key part of the pope’s strategy was to encourage communist countries to sign human rights accords, then insist that they live up to them. The Vatican, for example, repeatedly invoked the Helsinki Agreement and the 1989 Vienna follow-up accords when discussing the human rights situation in Eastern Europe.
Another factor working for the pope was that the Vatican’s “blessing” was important to countries seeking economic and political favor in the West. As communist ideology weakened, the regimes sometimes advertised their more liberal approach by offering concessions on religious freedom.
The pope adopted the same strategy during his historic pastoral visit to Cuba in 1998, encouraging President Fidel Castro to make political and religious reforms while urging the international community to stop isolating the Caribbean nation.
While much of the world was caught off-balance by the rapid disintegration of communism, the Vatican seemed better prepared. According to former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Frank Shakespeare, the cardinals who elected Pope John Paul II showed amazing foresight.
They chose a man from Krakow, Poland—the “geographical center of the continent”—who was a European Slav and a “bridge between the East and the West,” Shakespeare said in 1997. The pope spoke the languages of many of the region’s people, and that made a huge difference.
When Solidarity took hold in Poland and pro-democracy movements began spreading to other countries, the reports that came in did not get stuck in the Vatican bureaucracy—they went to a Polish Slav pope who had shepherded his own flock for 30 years under communism, Shakespeare said.
“From a management point of view, the Catholic Church was perfectly prepared for what happened,” he said.
The pope realized that the moral victory over communism marked the start of a delicate re-organizational phase for the church and its pastoral mission. In the space of a decade, he called two special synods for Europe to discuss evangelization plans in the wake of the Soviet collapse and emphasized that the demoralizing effects of a half-century of communism could not be erased overnight.
He also rejected ideological triumphalism. Rather than dance on communism’s grave, he preferred to warn that unchecked capitalism held its own dangers—especially in the countries emerging from Marxist shadows. He made a point to visit 18 former Soviet republics or satellites in the years before his death.