The latest attack of the media on Holy Pope John Paul, its intensity, brutality and merciless character, make us ask what the Polish Pope’s figure and memories of him actually mean for the contemporary generation - and what they should mean.
It is not my intention to dwell on the reasons behind the actions of the instigators of the peculiar media attack against Pope Wojtyła. However, we should note that he was not only a historical personality that played a role of essential importance for the history of the Old Continent and of the whole World by contributing to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. The heritage of the Wadowice-born Pope represents a very interesting resource that should be appreciated not only by Catholics, but by all those who value classical philosophy and the tradition of Western civilization.
The first dimension of that heritage is certainly the Pope’s holiness, confirmed as a result of the canonization process by the Church. From the viewpoint of a Catholic, the Polish Pope is a saint. This means that the Church has recognized the example of Karol Wojtyła’s life as a model to be followed with respect to the heroic way of him embodying many human and Christian virtues.
His everyday behaviour, which for the quarter century of John Paul II’s pontificate was especially carefully followed by media, both those favourable and unfavourable for the Pope – was perceived by the believers of the Catholic as a symbol of his deep piousness exhibited in a natural way and showing the beauty of a religious stand that can be achieved by a contemporary man. Catholics saw in the Pope an example of courage, typical for a great man who did not hesitate to consistently stand out in defence of justice and truth regardless of the benefits that could be obtained by resigning from those values.
All of us who still remember the time when John Paul II was aging also had a clear proof that he was an example of loyalty in service, constancy and patience in the face of suffering and adversities. All this happened before the eyes of the whole world not so long ago, already in the era after digital revolution.
However, John Paul II’s authority was not only limited to the Pope’s spiritual appeal, possibly legible today for just a relatively narrow group of people interested in their own spiritual development. Probably – from the viewpoint of a religious person, who doubtlessly John Paul II himself was - this aspect had and still has basic importance, but we certainly cannot limit ourselves to it.
Though the Pope never considered himself a politician but a priest, he obviously left an indelible mark on the political life of his era. He contributed to breaking the post-Yalta division of the world and Europe in two opposing blocks, the division perpetuated by the aggressive Soviet imperialism on the one hand and the conservatives politic of the Western countries block on the other hand. John Paul II’s merits in that field are acknowledged even by the representatives of the same leftist-liberal media that have been involved in the attack on his person.
For the Eastern block’s societies of the break of 1970s-1980s, John Paul II– his teaching and activity – brought awakening of the long forgotten hope for recovering social freedom and national identity, so effectively quashed by the Moscow domination lasting for a few decades.
This can be best seen in the history of Polish people in that period. The question if the „Solidarity” movement could have been established in August 1980 without a Pole having been earlier elected as for the Holy See, cannot be probably answered unequivocally. However, certainly the form, range and effectiveness of the Polish social anti-communism movement were in a large part co-shaped by the Holy Father’s authority.
But these are not only the Poles who owe a lot to the influence of the authority of the Rome-based head of Catholic Church coming from behind the iron curtain. The Pope’s achievements are well known to the Czechs and Slovaks, Lithuanians, and even Romanians. However, from the present point of view, the most important issue is probably the pioneering contribution of Karol Wojtyła, already as the Pope, to reminding the world’s public opinion about the existence and suffering of the Ukrainian nation. Even when carrying out the nine-year program of the Novena of the Christening of Kiev Ruthenia in cooperation with Card. Josif Slipij and his successor, Card. Myroslav Lubatschivsky, the Pope kept reminding for years of the basic rights of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics. By doing this, he also posed as a problem of international politics the fate of the whole Ukrainian national community, already a bit forgotten by the world in the 1970s.
Of course, like e.g. the American scholar Paul Kengor, we can see John Paul II as first and foremost a partner of Ronald Reagan in the peaceful dismantling of the Communist block carried out in the 1980s. However, John Paul II’s role reached – in my opinion – even deeper than the influence of the great President of the United States.
John Paul not only shared with Reagan the vision of basing social life on religious truth and belief in the existential evil of the totalitarian Communist regime. He also reinstated in the world political discourse reasoning based on the belief – characterizing also the whole Polish culture, which Karol Wojtyła had grown in – that a nation is a natural community based on a cultural bond which is indispensable for the man to achieve his full human identity. In this context, the voice of the European nations enslaved by the Soviet empire was not – as supporters of the regime wanted – a nationalist usurpation, but a demand by the representatives of those nations that their natural rights be respected.
In his teaching and activity, John Paul II also reinstated the importance of the ethical factor, forgotten or neglected by politicians. He demanded – as I have mentioned – justice for the Eastern European nations enslaved under the Yalta order, and for the societies of the so-called South, whose position within the global order was weaker than that of the dominant North. The Pope also pointed out that international politics must in practice take into consideration the element of love for one’s neighbour, and that this is not inconsistent with a realistic approach to the international politics. Karol Wojtyła was among those who kept reminding that a true realism takes into consideration ethics as a factor important for a politician, as well as the fact that cynicism – whether presented openly or masked by false humanitarianism – is not a more realistic attitude than organized Christian love.
Of high political importance was also the Pope’s polemics with the Marxist approach to the man and society, which in the late 1970s was dominant in the Western intellectual milieus. Though in his speeches the Pope did not enter into open polemics with Marxism, he clearly pointed out the deficiencies of atheism, materialism and collectivism in that philosophy while proposing a coherent alternative for them – the Christian vision of the man.
The Holy Father ventured without any hesitation – like in the Laborem excercens encyclical published in 1981 and dealing with the issue of human labour – into fields reserved up to that time almost exclusively for the thinkers identifying themselves with atheistic socialism. By pointing out a credible alternative to the assumptions of Marxist thought, he deprived communism and Marxism of their alleged moral advantage, the advantage that the acolytes of those ideologies had been claiming for a few decades and using it without any moderation to launch brutal attacks on traditional societies. The Pope carried out all these polemics in a way in passing, not allowing himself to be reduced to the role of yet another frustrated critic of Marxism but trying first and foremost to show the real image of the man, which he saw in the light of Christian revelation. This turned out one of the key factors of intellectual and moral disavowal of the revolutionary left in the 1980s.
This last aspect joins the work of John Paul II as a person influencing the politicians of his era with the still relevant work of Karol Wojtyła as a thinker. This is because the Pope, who prior to his election used to teach philosophical ethics at the Catholic University of Lublin, had a clear stand on many philosophical issues important for contemporary thought, and his social position and personal authority gave the stand he presented a special importance.
The list of important philosophical issues – especially in the area of philosophical anthropology - that were pondered by the Holy Father in his philosophical reflection is probably long. However, here I will only signal three of them, which I deem to be of fundamental importance.
The first of these issues was the Pope’s reminding of the full Catholic anthropology. Like nobody else over the last few decades, John Paul II kept consistently showing the strength of Catholic vision of the man. The stand of Pope Wojtyła was attractive since he pointed out that Catholic anthropology joined in an effective way seeming opposites – e.g. the individual as well as communal dimension of human nature, the spiritual as well as material dimension of human existence, and finally the man’s immersion in the mortal life and at the same time his capability of touching the transcendental dimension. Hence Catholic anthropology represented a serious alternative to the various reductionisms dominant in contemporary thought – whether the materialistic ones (both Marxist and consumerist), or the spiritualistic ones (like stands originating from Eastern philosophies). This coherent vision of the man was also to represent a remedy for the existential discomfort and fear persecuting the contemporary man, as the Pope wrote in his first and at the same time declarative encyclical Redemptor hominis of 1979.
The positioning of these issues at the centre of papal reflection was also not without influence on John Paul II taking a clear stand on a number of other serious problems of contemporary thought. As already mentioned here, the Pope reminded the people of the importance of natural communities in man’s life, focusing his attention on the family (understood as a community based on a monogamous heterosexual marriage) and the nation (understood as a community of culture). These issues – very controversial for many contemporary philosophers – were taken up by the Pope among others in the adhortation Familiaris consortio of 1981, in numerous speeches (to mention only the UNESCO speech of 2 April 1980), as well as in the “private” book “Pamięć i tożsamość” (Memory and Identity) published towards the end of his life. The anthropological stand also allowed the Pope to justify his unchanging respect for the natural dignity of human life – from the moment of man’s conception until his natural death, which the Holy Father expressed, among others, in the encyclical Evangelium vitae z 1995 r. The second issue important for the thought of John Paul II/Karol Wojtyła, which is also strictly connected with the vision of the man he presented, is the issue of in-depth understanding of human sexuality and its meaning for the identity of a human being. That reflection was most fully, developed in the book „ Mężczyzną i niewiastą stworzył ich. Odkupienie ciała a sakramentalność małżeństwa” (They were created as a man and a woman. Redemption of the body and the sacramentality of marriage), which is a collection of papal religious education lessons of 1979-1984. The philosophical version of human sexuality presented by the Pope in that work remains a lesson still unabsorbed not only by the contemporary culture as a whole but also by many nominal acolytes of Wojtyła’s thought. Indeed, taking human sexuality out of the context of hedonistic use, where it had been placed by sexual revolution, and placing it at the centre of reflection on the essence of humanity and man’s relation to God is an undeniable contribution of the Polish Pope to the oeuvre of contemporary thought.
Finally, the third key element of John Paul II’s reflection is his defence of the existence of absolute truth and man’s ability to recognise that truth. In this context, we should quote first of all two encyclicals announced by the Pope: Veritatis splendor of 1993 and Fides et ratio of 1998. In both those texts John Paul II opted for rejecting the ethical relativism widespread in the contemporary thought, as well as confirmed man’s ability to recognise truth, achievable with help of belief and mind, mutually supporting each other.
This stand allowed him to demand with full conviction that man’s nature be respected, and to oppose its arbitrary treatment in the name of political or intellectual usurpations.
Instead of a summary
Hence in case of John Paul II we have to do with a multi-dimensional personality that has left behind an amazingly rich and multifarious body of work, which we not only are still making use of, but which still represents a serious challenge for us – a challenge that we have yet to cope with in full.
The brutality of the media attack on the Polish Pope, as well as its negligible factual foundations, are the best proof that the aggressors’ goal is to discredit Karol Wojtyła as a moral as well as intellectual authority. Obviously, Wojtyła’s heritage cannot be easily ignored and should become the subject of renewed consideration for us all, and most probably a source of spiritual and intellectual inspiration.
Photo by: Gregorini Demetrio