The Final Revolution, by George Weigel
Good vs. Evil
The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism.
by George Weigel.
Oxford University Press. 255 pp. $25.00.
When asked, Who killed Communism?, most experts usually respond with the name of one or both of the two superpower leaders of the 1980’s: Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. George Weigel now argues that major credit for the anti-Communist revolution should be given to another world figure, Pope John Paul II. It is Weigel’s contention that the Pope’s role, and the role of religious belief generally, have been much undervalued in the various assessments of the overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Weigel, who serves as president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is the author of a number of writings on the relationships among religion, politics, and culture, with a special focus on the Catholic Church’s participation in public life. A Catholic himself, he dealt often, and critically, with the Church’s stance toward American foreign policy during the late cold-war years when some American bishops seemed more concerned about cruise missiles than about the struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, and when segments of the Church declared open solidarity with the authoritarian Left in Latin America.
Here, however, Weigel has the rare opportunity to analyze a genuine triumph, a victory of Good over Evil, in which a principal victim of tyranny helped shape the struggle which led to tyranny’s downfall. Weigel takes up the task with relish, all the more so because of his obvious admiration for John Paul II, whom he counts as one of the truly great figures of modern times.
It should be noted that The Final Revolution is for the most part narrowly focused on the Catholic Church’s response to its Communist oppressors in only two countries, Poland and Czechoslovakia. One wishes that Weigel had undertaken a more comprehensive analysis of the part religion played in the fall of Communism. For while the role of the Church in Poland’s emergence from Communist domination is clear, the pattern of events in other parts of the Soviet empire was much different. This was particularly true in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, where Eastern Orthodoxy is the predominant faith, and where the church hierarchy had often compiled a record of collaboration with Communist authorities and played little or no role in the actions which led to the collapse of the old order.
Weigel does not contend that the influence of organized religion was universal throughout these countries. But he does insist that the rejection of Communism was driven by certain transcendent values which derive from the Western religious tradition. He describes the events of 1989 as
a revolution of the human spirit, frequently informed by a reinvigorated Christian (often Catholic) faith, which proved to be the irresistible force that the Communist enterprise could not finally withstand.
On this score he is largely correct. The upsurge of emotional support evoked by Vaclav Havel and the other secular intellectuals of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution stemmed in large measure from the fact that they based their actions on spiritual and humane principles, and consciously rejected the materialist or millenarian vocabulary traditionally associated with revolution. It was immediately understood that a revolution led by Havel or Lech Walesa would be committed to the expansion of freedom and the establishment of the rule of law, which is why far more enthusiasm greeted their triumph than that of the African National Congress, whose semi-Marxist rhetoric sends the disturbing message that, should it attain power in South Africa, class and racial revenge will be the first order of business.
The story Weigel tells begins with the persecution of the Catholic Church by the Communist authorities when they took power in Eastern Europe after World War II. Priests were executed, jailed, or sent into forced-labor service, monasteries were disbanded, churches seized by the state, and the Church hierarchy stripped of the right to control its own internal affairs. Religion was not destroyed, but, with one exception, it was made subordinate to the state, and various steps were taken to bring about a steady withering-away of religious belief. Severe constraints were placed on the religious education of the young, believers were made subject to various forms of discrimination, priests who showed an inclination toward dissent were stripped of the right to perform their religious duties.
The exception, as Weigel writes, was Poland, the most intensely Catholic of East European nations and a country where the Church and the national idea were closely intertwined. Not that the anti-religious prejudices of Poland’s Communists were any less powerful than those of Communists elsewhere. But their repressive tactics largely failed in Poland, where strong religious identification, intense popular anti-Communism, and a politically shrewd Church leadership combined to ensure a measure of religious autonomy unique in the Communist world.
A key figure in the struggle between Church and party was Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, Poland’s primate during most of the Communist era. Harassed and placed under house arrest in the early years of the Communist regime, Wyszynski was released once it became clear to the authorities that an accommodation with the Church was essential if a violent rebellion was to be averted. While Wyszynski seldom challenged the state directly, he employed a kind of coded language and symbolic gesture to demonstrate his disapproval of Communist policies and make clear his solidarity with the people.
Wyszynski was not reckless, Weigel points out. Indeed, he was sometimes criticized by intellectual dissidents for being overcautious, and for calling for patience and restraint during the periodic upheavals which marked Poland under Communist rule. From Wyszynski’s perspective, however, the very possibility of Polish independence was tied inseparably to the autonomy of the Church. Religion had been all but destroyed in other Communist countries, and a Soviet invasion—a near-occurrence in 1956—could never be ruled out. In any event, Wyszynski’s leadership must be ultimately judged on the basis of his greatest achievement—establishing the Church as a source of permanent opposition to Communist rule, an institutionalized focus of anti-Communism whose independence was largely unaffected even during the martial-law period of the early 1980’s.
As Weigel shows, the Polish Church’s achievement was especially notable given the drift toward accommodation with Communism which marked the general diplomacy of the Vatican beginning in the mid-1960’s. During the early years of the cold war, the Vatican had adopted a militant, and largely ineffectual, attitude toward Communist governments; then, under Pope Paul VI, it moved in the opposite direction, adopting a form of détente under which an unspoken bargain was struck between Rome and Moscow. The Church would no longer anathematize Communism as a system incompatible with Christian values; in return, the East European regimes would permit the Church a measure of freedom in running its internal affairs.
The Communist part of the bargain was, predictably, never fulfilled. As for the Vatican, in its desire to avoid offending Communist authorities, it made the same kind of dismal compromises with principle that Western governments slid into during this same period. In one disturbing episode, a papal envoy was dispatched to Czechoslovakia to put an end to the underground religious work of a bishop who was irritating the post-Prague Spring regime by carrying out the clandestine ordination of priests.
In light of the general drift in both the Vatican and the wider diplomatic world in the late 1970’s, the reorientation of papal foreign policy implemented by John Paul II looms as even more impressive. As a Pole who had spent his adult life under Communist rule, this Pope understood not only the inherently evil nature of Communism, but also its vulnerabilities. Like his mentor, Cardinal Wyszynski, John Paul II was adept at employing the symbolism and language of the Catholic Church to drive home a message whose subversive elements were well understood by the people despite its surface innocuousness.
John Paul II’s pilgrimage to Poland in 1979—his first visit to his native land as pontiff—is reckoned by Weigel as the symbolic beginning of the process which ten years later ended in the demise of East European Communism. Massive throngs greeted the Pope throughout his visit, and the Pope, in clear if understated language, reassured them that the Church stood with them against foreign domination and Communist misrule. He pointedly declared that “Christ will never agree to man being viewed only as a means of production”; he urged Poles to follow an “inner truth” and avoid conformity; he spoke of the right to self-determination and integrity; and he made an audacious call for Slavic solidarity in the face of an unnamed, common enemy.
The consequences of all this were far-reaching. The Pope’s words and the huge crowds that greeted them clarified a political situation in which practically an entire nation stood in opposition to a small cluster of Communist officials ruling solely by dint of their control of the apparatus of repression and the threat of Soviet invasion. Poland’s domestic opposition, traditionally divided, emerged relatively united, as even those intellectual dissidents suspicious of the Church’s role acknowledged the power of the Pope’s themes. One year later, intellectuals, workers, and believers all came together in a series of mass strikes which led to the formation of Solidarity, the first overtly anti-Communist institution established in a Communist-controlled state.
Poland, of course, is but one of a number of countries to have shed the yoke of Communism; its significance lies in its having been the first in which a period of upheaval was not followed by a return to absolute party rule. It thus became the opening wedge in a process which culminated in the collapse of the entire Communist edifice (and which Weigel traces in detail in the case of Czechoslovakia as well as Poland).
Is it possible that the Pope sensed this larger prospect from the very beginning? Weigel thinks it is indeed possible, that in fact the Pope believed he had been chosen by God to lead the Church in the final struggle against Communism. What we have in The Final Revolution, then, is an inspirational story of a great political and spiritual victory, a victory achieved over considerable odds and often in the face of the indifference of much of the world’s secular leadership.
But why have the achievements of the Catholic Church, or at least of John Paul II, not been given their rightful place of prominence by the analysts and experts? Part of the answer can be found in the attitude of Western organized religion in general toward the cold war. Weigel, often a sharp critic of the neutralist tendencies which infected elements of Christianity during the latter phases of the conflict, here reminds us that the East European revolution, a triumph for the “resistance Church” in Poland and other countries, did not seem a triumph to Christian leaders in the West, who insisted to the bitter end that political changes in the East could occur only after arms-control agreements had been negotiated. Nor is there any evidence that the “peace” forces within organized Christianity in the West learned the right lesson from Communism’s collapse; their response to the victory of anti-Communism was embarrassed silence, not, as Weigel wishes it might have been, joy at the downfall of Christianity’s sworn enemies.
Finally, one suspects much of the answer lies in the ambivalence of the secular world toward any hint of renewed religious strength. This apprehension is reflected in statements which in one breath will bemoan the decline in traditional morality and in the next breath express the fear that (for instance) the Catholic Church in Poland is attempting to establish a clerical state (the evidence being the Church’s tough stand against abortion). As for the Pope, he is viewed with wariness precisely because he is a man of powerful convictions with the ability occasionally to see his vision realized. Many, no doubt, would prefer a pontiff who projected a more reassuring, more “modern,” more compromising image.
Fortunately, John Paul II is none of these things, and when the oppressed people of the Communist world needed his iron integrity and rare political skills, he was there to provide them. It is also fortunate that George Weigel has given us this informative, necessary, and often moving account of what will certainly go down as John Paul II’s most memorable success.