Rome Weeps and Salutes its Pope
a poster decorating the streets of Rome
at the time of Pope John Paul's death
At least from the time of his first visit as Pope to his Polish homeland three months after his election John Paul sensed that the Marxist government there was very vulnerable and he probably also intuited that the fall of a Polish Marxist government could set of the domino effect that could bring down the Soviet “empire” in Eastern Europe. Like many intellectuals—and ordinary citizens—from the Soviet dominated countries of Eastern Europe John Paul had a passionate hatred for both Marxist socialism and its Russian masters.
Marxism was vulnerable for collapse for several reasons but chief among them was its inability to provide a standard of living comparable to the western democracies for its citizens. Radical socialism can only succeed in a state inhabited by angels. Capitalism has always been able to capitalize on original sin, on the inherent self-centeredness and self-interest of the human animal. Marxism needs people who aspire to the common good if that common good is to prevail. “What’s in it for me” is the battle cry of the Christian democracies. When the Poles and the East Germans and the Czechs and the Hungarians saw the West Germans and the French and the Austrians and the Italians driving their sporty little cars and wearing chic clothing and vacationing on the beaches of Spain and Morocco this sowed the seeds of unrest behind the “Iron Curtain.” The Western Allies, and the United States in particular, made it impossible for the Soviet Union and its allies to develop the consumer economies that could compete with the west by escalating an arms race and a space race that sucked all available resources in the Soviet Sphere from consumers to government programs. The Cold War was not so much about nuclear weapons per se as it was a game of Economic “Chicken” as Capitalism and Communism competed to see whose bank would break first.
John Paul knew that if he was to free his homeland from Marxism and the Soviet network, he needed to support the United States and its policies but he also knew that he had to do this in covert ways that would not endanger what little freedom the Church had in Soviet dominated countries.
Let me just break here to comment that an irony in this whole affair is that John Paul developed a good personal friendship and I believe mutual admiration with Mikhail Gorbachev and while Americans say that it was Ronald Reagan who brought down the Soviet Empire, Gorbachev has always claimed that it was John Paul who delivered the knock-out punch.
John Paul needed to work in concert with the Americans—and this meant with the Reagan administration—if he were to continue to undermine Marxism in his native Poland and in the nations of Eastern Europe, particularly those who historically had large Catholic populations. But the Reagan administration needed John Paul too. The Catholic Church, or at least Catholics, were behind much of the social unrest in Latin America and particularly the countries of Central America. American Catholics were supporting the peasant cause in El Salvador where the American supported government had arranged the murder of the Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and where government paramilitary forces had raped and murdered three American nuns and an American lay missionary later that same year. These were only two of the outrageous acts of which American sponsored governments in Latin American were guilty. Catholic Church organizations in the United States began reporting outrage after outrage and demonstrating the connection between the atrocities and the American military educating and training military from these military dictatorships. The Reagan administration was not about to back down from its support of the military regimes and faced a particular challenge with FSLN, commonly known as the Sandinistas, who had overthrown the Somoza regime in Nicaragua in 1979. The Reagan administration supported rebel forces known as the Contras in their effort to overthrow the popular Sandinista regime. The Sandinista government included a number of priests and former priests, most notably Ernesto Cardenal, a noted poet who remains today a priest in good standing. (Cardenal had been for some time a monk in the Trappist Abbey at Gethsemane in Kentucky where he had been taught by the famous monk-author-poet—Thomas Merton.) John Paul used the occasion of a 1983 visit to Nicaragua to publicly rebuke the Sandinista government in general and Cardenal in particular. In fact, the Pope’s 1983 visit to Latin America (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and several other countries) was a human rights debacle as the Pope seemed more interested in shoring up dictatorships than addressing the social ills which plagued the poor. His visit to the tomb of Archbishop Romero in the Metropolitan Cathedral at San Salvador seemed perfunctory at best and left the Salvadoran populace who regarded the Archbishop as a martyr for their cause nonplussed.
President Reagan had Catholic problems not only in Latin America but closer to home as well. While many American Catholics liked the conservative direction of the Reagan Administration, the President’s policies were constantly being undermined by Catholic clergy quoting papal encyclicals and the Documents of the Second Vatican Council. The Bishops were not only not suppressing the liberal clergy, many were joining the chorus of voices calling into question the moral basis of the Administration’s fundamental principles. In 1983 the American bishops published a pastoral letter on peace that seriously undermined Reagan foreign policy. (They would publish a letter on economic justice that demolished any theological justification for Reagonomics in 1986.) Catholics had once been among the most conservative of American religious groups; they were now among the most liberal.
John Paul had something he wanted from the Reagan administration, something that could cement the alliance that would be mutually beneficial in bringing down the Marxist Dictatorship in Poland and hopefully other countries. Actually, the Holy See had wanted diplomatic relations with the United States since the late nineteenth century but American politics had always militated against this. Anti-Catholicism was rife in the United States of the first six decades of the twentieth century. Paul Blanshard, the KKK, the POAU, and other anti-Catholic voices ensured that no Presidential Administration would take the step of establishing formal Diplomatic Relations with the Holy See. Catholic participation in the ecumenical movement since the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and the brief White House tenure of a popular US President (John F. Kennedy, 1961-63) did much to reduce that animosity. Several presidents had personal envoys to the Holy See, a connection that was invaluable diplomatically and especially during World War II. President Reagan saw that the time had come and gave the Pope his ambassador. John Paul in turn gave Reagan a more compliant hierarchy.
It takes a long time, between ten and fifteen years to change the tone of national hierarchy. You have to wait until bishops die or retire to replace them with men closer to your own way of thinking. And John Paul’s object was not simply to provide bishops more in line with conservative American views. He wanted, indeed demanded, bishops on whom he could count to toe the Vatican Line as well at least for the major cultural issues the Church in the West has been facing. He had to know that he could count on his bishops to support Church teaching on abortion, women’s ordination, same-sex marriage, and contraception. We will talk more about the need for theological conformity in a future entry, but what about the American bishops and social questions? I am not so sure that the Pope—and his successor—didn’t get a poor bargain. When John Paul spoke out against American policy in each of the Iraq Wars, the bishops—for the far greater part—remained silent supporting the Administration. When the John Paul spoke about the Death Penalty his remarks went unheeded in the cathedrals of the United States. When John Paul and Pope Benedict have spoken for the rights of migrants, their teachings are not relayed to the Catholic faithful. No longer do we have the caliber of bishops who can take Catholic teaching and fashion it into a pastoral letter on the economy—now when we need it most. Yes we have mitered pit-bulls on abortion and same-sex marriage, but they turn into pussycats when it comes to a host of questions where we need leadership—not necessarily original leadership, just leadership that will pass on to us the moral principles, all the moral principles not just the conservative ones, set forth by John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI and the Bishops assembled in the Second Vatican Council.