Commentary Magazine

The Politics of John Paul II

There are many grounds for disagreement with some of the statements made by Pope John Paul II during his spectacular visit to the United States in early October, but it is difficult to deny the extraordinary spiritual presence of the man. As a Catholic and as a Slav, I was perhaps unusually moved by his passage through the land. He did not hesitate to say No where Yes would have been popular and his No seemed to issue from lived experience rather than rigid doctrine. The ancient word for grace—the presence of God shining through ordinary acts—is charis, from which Max Weber derived his “charismatic leadership.” The Pope, I thought, had charisma in the ancient more than in the Weberian sense. Many witnesses, even when they did not agree with his words, honored his person or, more profoundly perhaps, the God of all, to Whom everything about him aimed to draw attention.

In one sense, the Pope’s visit to America seemed to be of the utmost intellectual importance. In sophisticated America as in Mexico and Poland he has shown that there are enormous spiritual and moral energies at work. The peoples of the world are far more religious than any of our public forms or public leaders seem able to express, and more than thin theories of “secularization” seem able to describe. The worldwide stirring of the human spirit by this pilgrim’s progress may thus have incalculable consequences.

In Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, and Chicago, Pope John Paul II paid lavish tribute to the culture, spiritual values, and moral ideals of American civilization. This was a turning point. For generations, the Popes have been most reserved in their comments about America, and the Vatican bureaucracy has been even more so. All the prejudices of European intellectuals against American civilization have thrived there. In addition, Roman Catholic theology has long regarded America (and Great Britain) as particularly Protestant, utilitarian, materialist, individualistic, and as the very homeland of psychological egoism. No Pope ever praised American liberties as Pope John Paul II did at Battery Park. No Pope has ever grasped as eloquently and in such detail the spiritual integrity of American institutions as Pope John Paul II did at the White House. When he chided Americans for consumerism and materialism, he was voicing traditional papal judgments, but when he praised America (as when he recited in his unforgettable accent, “America, America, God shed His grace on thee . . .”), he sounded a new note in Roman Catholic history.

At the Second Vatican Council (1961-65), the Catholic bishops of the world struggled long and hard before endorsing, against all previous traditions, the conception of religious liberty pioneered by the United States; young Bishop Woytyla, the future John Paul II, had spoken eloquently in favor. Until recently Rome had been unwilling to listen to the American experience or to learn from it. (Exception might be made for the influence of the American bishops in persuading Pope Leo XIII to side with labor in his classic encyclical “On the Condition of Labor,” 1891.) Despite its commitment to private property, and despite its antagonism toward socialism, the Catholic Church has never yet produced a Pope who has praised the political-economic-cultural order of democratic capitalism. It was all the more impressive, then, to watch John Paul II learn from the spiritual energy he evoked from the crowds in America, and to watch his response grow warmer and more explicit as he stayed.

Among all his statements in America, the Pope’s address at the United Nations on October 2 was the intellectual centerpiece. Following closely upon the major address he gave at Pueblo, Mexico, last January, it repeals none of his stands against Marxism. Indeed, it continues his effort to undercut the emphasis placed by Marxist Christians and “liberation theologians” on material economic concerns.1 Yet it must also be said that the UN address was a major disappointment, and the reasons bear careful scrutiny.2

Because of the press of time, the Pope’s oral address (the transcript of which appeared in the New York Times) was shorter than the written text.3 Several paragraphs, and many lines, were omitted. In general, the pattern of these omissions favors traditional thinking; materials which the Pontiff may have judged his hearers to expect of him he elided, the newer things he retained. This in itself gave an unfortunate effect to his words. In what follows, I am mainly following the oral transcript, clarifying only a few points by the written text.

There is no doubt that the audience assembled before him at the UN was most diverse, and that many of the Pope’s words were received with visible discomfort on the part of the representatives of regimes which today practice—publicly, officially, and in full view—the many systems of repression the Pope was at pains to analyze in the light of day. There could not have been much comfort taken in totalitarian lands from the Pope’s purpose of awakening individual conscience.

On the other hand, the Pope’s address reads not at all like his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, which he wrote himself. It seems to be a staff document through and through, couched in the special jargon which has recently become conventional in papal statements. Indeed, a review of recent official statements on “peace and justice,” the current euphemism for a theology of politics and economics, plainly exposes the rhetoric mined for the address at the UN.



After his opening remarks, directed through the UN members to “all the men and women living on this planet, to every man and woman without any exception whatever,” John Paul took up five arguments in turn.

First, he recalled the principles of the founding Charter in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Many Catholic scholars see in these documents a vindication of the Catholic tradition, a kind of parallel to natural-law theroies. (Jacques Maritain, the distinguished Catholic philosopher who was for a time Ambassador of France to the Holy See, had considerable influence on their formulation.) The Pope recalled the unspeakable sufferings of Auschwitz, in which the aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were born: “This declaration was paid for by millions of our brothers and sisters, at the cost of their suffering and sacrifice, brought about by the brutalization that darkened and made insensitive the human conscience of the oppressor and of those who carried out a real genocide. This price cannot have been paid in vain.” The aims of the United Nations, therefore, exceed all “political interest” narrowly understood.

The political philosophy John Paul II enunciated on this basis undercuts totalitarian regimes, and undergirds representative democracy. State officials, he said, represent individual human beings. All political activity “comes from man, is exercised by man, and is for man”—the words, almost, of the Gettysburg Address. Then there appear these important lines not given orally:

. . . if political activity is cut off from this fundamental relationship and finality, if it becomes in a way its own end, it loses much of its reason to exist. Even more, it can also give rise to a specific alienation; it can become extraneous to man; it can come to contradict humanity itself. In reality, what justifies the existence of any political activity is service to man. . . .

In his second argument, the Pope cited Paul VI on his visit to the U.S. fourteen years earlier—“No more war. War never again”—and then briefly mentioned two of the world’s present conflicts: (1) the threats exchanged by Argentina and Chile a year ago, in which papal intervention helped to avert a war; (2) the Middle East, where he invoked the issue of the “tranquility, independence, and territorial integrity of Lebanon,” cautiously commended the present Egyptian-Israeli effort on the condition that it “truly represent the first stone of a general, moral peace in the area, a peace that . . . cannot fail to include a consideration and just settlement of the Palestinian question,” and expressed hope “for a special statute that, under international guarantees, . . . would respect the particular nature of Jerusalem.”

John Paul’s third argument, applauding “the decisions and agreements aimed at reducing the arms race,” was composed of two separate strands. The first purported to be a matter of empirical observation:

The continual preparation for war demonstrated by the proclamation of ever more numerous, powerful, and sophisticated weapons in various countries shows that there is a desire to be ready for war and ready means being able to start it. It also means taking the risk that somewhere, somehow, someone can set in motion the terrible mechanism of general destruction.

The second strand, more problematical, followed Paul VI in asserting a quite untraditional definition of peace: “. . . the new name for peace is development.” In John Paul II’s diagnosis, “the very roots of hatred, destructiveness, and contempt—the roots of everything that produces the temptation of war—” lie “not so much in the hearts of nations as in the inner determination of the systems that decide the history of all our societies.”

The Pope’s fourth argument concerned distribution of wealth. Asserting that “in the modern world there are two main threats,” the Pope continued: “The first of these systematic threats against human rights is linked in an overall sense with the distribution of material goods. This distribution is frequently unjust, both within individual societies and on the planet as a whole.” He recognized that inequality “can often be explained by different historical and cultural causes and circumstances. But while these circumstances can diminish the moral responsibility of people today, they do not prevent the situations of inequality from being marked by injustice and social injury.” The Pope then appealed to “the humanistic criterion, namely, the measure in which each system is really capable of reducing, restraining, and eliminating, as far as possible, the various forms of exploitation of man. . . .” He noted “disturbing factors” in the “frightful disparities between excessively rich individuals and groups on the one hand and, on the other hand, the majority made up of the poor, or indeed, the destitute, who lack food and opportunity for work or education, and are in great number condemned to hunger and disease.” He called for “coordinated cooperation by all countries” and added:

Everything will depend on whether these differences and contrasts in the sphere of the possession of goods will be systematically reduced through truly effective means; on whether the belts of hunger, malnutrition, destitution, underdevelopment, disease, and illiteracy will disappear from the economic map of the earth; and on whether peaceful cooperation will avoid imposing conditions of exploitation and economic or political dependence, which would only be a form of new colonialism.

Pope John Paul’s final argument concerned the “second systematic threat” in the modern world: injustice in the field of the spirit. “For centuries, the thrust of civilization has been in one direction—that of giving the life of individual political societies a form in which there can be fully safeguarded the objective rights of the spirit, of human conscience, and of human creativity, including man’s relationship with God” (emphasis in the original). The Pope here made the history of liberty the central thread of human history. He also distinguished between “legal formulas” proclaiming rights and those “structures of social life” which actually prevent persons from exercising those rights by compromising their chances of advancement, their professional careers, their access to posts of responsibility, and the possibility of educating their children freely. (These descriptions clearly fit non-party members in Communist societies. Indeed, it is possible that John Paul intended to direct the argument on material abuses against the Western world, and the argument on spiritual abuses against the Communist world.)

In his conclusion, John Paul returned to his earlier point about the arms race:

The United Nations organization has proclaimed 1979 the Year of the Child. In this perspective we must ask ourselves whether there will continue to accumulate over the heads of this new generation of children the threat of common extermination, for which the means are in the hands of the modern states, especially the major world powers. Are the children to receive the arms race from us as a necessary inheritance? How are we to explain this unbridled race?

The ancients said, Si vis pacem, para helium. [If you desire peace, prepare for war.] But can our age still really believe that the breathtaking spiral of armaments is at the service of world peace? In alleging this threat of a potential enemy, is it really not rather the intention to keep for oneself a means of threat in order to get the upper hand with the aid of one’s own arsenal of destruction? Here too, it is the human dimension of peace that tends to vanish in favor of ever new possible forms of imperialism.



Before commenting upon these arguments it is necessary to understand what has been happening in papal social teaching since 1965. One of the most significant actions of the Second Vatican Council was its final document, Schema XIII on “The Church in the Modern World.” In it, the bishops assembled religious attitudes toward the three “systems”—political, economic, and cultural—of modern life. Except for its many references to Scripture, this lengthy document reads like a fashionable compendium on human dignity and rights. It contains within itself the seeds of many modern ways of thinking quite different from ancient and traditional Catholic teaching.

During the fifteen-year reign of Paul VI, these seeds were amply nourished. Under the leadership of Cardinal Maurice Roy, Paul VI named a special Commission on Peace and Justice to continue the work of the Vatican Council on secular matters. Many dioceses throughout the world have formed similar “Peace and Justice” commissions in which priests and nuns, many of them trained neither in political nor in economic nor in cultural systems, gather materials on all complaints, resentments, tendencies, and dissensions that arise from worldly concerns.

Few historians of ideas would deny that economic thought is the least updated and least sophisticated specialty in Catholic (or any other) theology. Nevertheless, one of the leading experts on “peace and justice” in the United States, Father Joseph Gremillion, has compiled 623 pages of official documents on the subject, including a 140-page introduction of his own, under the title The Gospel of Peace and Justice.4

It is a little disconcerting to have so many highly debatable statements, necessarily based upon sweeping ranges of fact, elevated to the title of “gospel.” It is especially disconcerting to notice in these documents a nagging hostility to the liberal tradition as it is found in the United States, Great Britain, and other democratic-capitalist nations. Of the five references to liberalism listed in the index, for example, every one contains a negative judgment. Thus, Pope Paul VI, after saying that a Christian cannot adhere to Marxist ideology, adds: “Nor can he adhere to the liberal ideology which believes it exalts individual freedom by withdrawing it from every limitation, by stimulating it through exclusive seeking of interest and power, and by considering social solidarities as more or less automatic consequences of individual initiatives, not as an aim and a major criterion of the value of the social organization.” Or again: “. . . at the very root of philosophical liberalism is an erroneous affirmation of the autonomy of the individual in his activity, his motivation, and the exercise of his liberty.”

One looks in vain in these official papal documents for the faintest sign of the political wisdom of the Anglo-American world. It is as though only Italy, France, Germany, and the underdeveloped world existed in Roman Catholic thought. There seems no trace of Locke and Mill, Edmund Burke, The Federalist, de Tocqueville, Franklin Roosevelt, John Dewey, or any recognition of the history of liberty and fraternity in the Anglo-American world. Nor does Father Gremillion, American-born as he is, offer any particular help. In the recent fashion, he appears to loathe the American system. Here is how he handles the distinction between totalitarianism and democratic capitalism:

Regions differing in their political systems, governmental leadership, and organizational ability: It is already clear that countries en route to development will generally choose a planned economy, with public ownership of most productive property and basic services under strong governmental control and direction, because they cannot take the time needed for the gradual growth of a market economy. It is also clear that those advanced nations now having planned, state-controlled economies, such as the Soviet bloc, are unlikely to change to market or “guided” mixed systems in the near furtue.

Regions or nations still retaining so-called [sic] market systems based upon so-called [sic] private property and contractual relations: These differ considerably among themselves, from the United States, Canadian, and Australian model, with their many resources and lingering frontier ethos, to socialist-leaning Britain and Italy, and export-minded, high-technology Germany and Japan, both heavily dependent upon outside raw materials and markets. These Northern nations have created the strongest economic power units of the globe, the multinational business corporations now under new scrutiny by the Third World. And the free-market region as a whole enters a time of troubles due to inflation, energy crisis, pollution, and internal disorders.

It would be difficult to find a more coherent compendium of clerical bourgeois radicalism than Gremillion uncritically presents in his introductory history of recent papal thought. Significantly, in telling the history, he notes that from 1880 until 1945, Catholic social thought “was concentrated within an oblong diamond whose points approximate Paris, Brussels, Munich, and Milan.” Gremillion himself then jumps, as Rome has done, to Africa, Latin America, and formerly colonial Asia (excepting Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Malaysia—all prospering through democratic capitalism).

Gremillion’s vision is “planetary.” He envisages hundreds of thousands of Catholic priests and nuns helping, through “peace and justice” commissions, to direct secular planners and rulers in the proper moral ordering of an “interdependent” world. But along the way, a dirty little secret leaps out. Outside the Anglo-American world, and especially in the Latin world, Roman Catholicism has a pronounced attraction toward centralized governance. The alliance between throne and altar works just as well when the alliance partners are the commissar and the local chairman of the “peace and justice” commission. Indeed, in Latin America the mix of clerical and political roles already being played by Catholic priests is well advanced.

It would be outrageous if it were not merely sad that Father Gremillion—like virtually all the other workers in “peace and justice,” in America and in Rome—has blinded himself to the American experience and its historic originality. The bias against democratic capitalism is thick and tangible; it is, at times, irrational. In any case, on the evidence presented in The Gospel of Peace and Justice, very little thought has yet been given to the institutional arrangements by which religious liberty is effected in the daily life of nations, let alone the undeniable truth that the zone of effective religious liberty upon this planet coincides almost perfectly with the zone in which democratic capitalism has developed.



In his first argument at the UN, Pope John Paul II turned at least some tendencies of “peace and justice” theology inside-out. According to the Marxist vulgate which, as Raymond Aron has noted, hangs like a smog over European intellectual centers, the poor and hungry of the world are passive victims of the “system,” and “bourgeois” political liberties may be disdained, since plainly what the poor and hungry need is bread. Pope John Paul II, however, is no Grand Inquisitor who says “First bread, then liberty.” The Pope’s address began with political liberties and ended by defining political liberties as spiritual goods superior to material goods. In the great debate between liberal democracy and economic determinism, the Pope declared for the primacy of the former. This is an important intellectual contribution; John Paul accomplished it deftly by the structure of his address. On the other hand, a close consideration of the Pope’s remaining four arguments shows that he has been less successful in cutting free from “peace and justice” theology.

In his second argument, the Pope made three points about the Middle East, mentioning the territorial integrity of Lebanon, justice for the Palestinians, and the status of Jerusalem. The silence of the Pope on Israel follows Vatican policy (which still, to this day, does not recognize the state of Israel) . I am deeply troubled by it and do not understand its principles. The Pope did not single out his own flock, the Christians in Lebanon, whose sufferings might be expected to make a Christian leader cry out in grief and outrage. He spoke of pre-civil war Lebanon as “an example of peaceful and mutually fruitful coexistence between distinct communities.” Mentioning, then, the “Palestinian question,” the Pope stopped short of endorsing a Palestinian state and he also stopped short of asking for the internationalization of Jerusalem or for a return to its pre-1967 status. Presumably, the “international guarantees” he mentioned would give some universal standing to today’s religious liberties and autonomies as they have been respected under the Israeli occupation.

The Pope’s third argument, about the arms race and the causes of war, was even more flawed. The roots of war, he said, lie in “the systems that decide the history of all our societies,” and in the inequitable distribution of goods. Yet such a theory by no means covers all cases. The invasions of Vietnam by China, of Cambodia by Vietnam, and even of Poland by Germany in 1939 would not appear to be explained by material envy. Moreover, the phrase, “systems that decide,” is suspiciously impersonal, deterministic, vulgarly Marxist. It is discordant in the thinking of one as clear about the rights of the person, the role of representative institutions, and the purpose of politics as the Pope elsewhere showed himself to be.

One expects a Marxist to stress envy; it is odd to find papal statements doing so. “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods” is God’s commandment, but envy is not the only or even the most frequent source of war. Pride, greed, lust, and the will-to-power, among other passions, also lead to war.



The Pope’s fourth argument, proposing a more just distribution of the world’s goods, seems to invite extortion. At least, Fidel Castro took advantage of this possibility just two weeks later at the UN, where in pressed military olive he cited the Pope almost verbatim while demanding a transfer of $300 billion from the Western nations (but not from the socialist ones) over the next ten years. Castro represents a nation now economically dependent upon the USSR and obliged in exchange to offer its young men as foreign janissaries. Since the Pope explicitly warned against “economic or political dependence, which would only be a form of new colonialism,” this is presumably not what he had in mind.

But it is also unsound to imagine that the fundamental moral problem in the economic order today is distribution. As the Pope has elsewhere noted, of material goods there are never enough both because appetite is insatiable and because scarcities are real. Thus, while the Pope sometimes seemed to be suggesting that wealthier nations should, as he said in another talk, “give of their substance, not only of their plenty,” one must question pragmatically how this is to be done.

The Catholic tradition, following Aristotle, has always defined justice in terms of distribution. The tradition is in this respect pre-modern. In the ancient and medieval world, the wealth of nations was perceived to be relatively static. The classic literary villain was the miser, whose hoarding deprived others of the limited common store. Modern economics introduced the insight that wealth is not static. A single acre of strawberries cultivated with intelligence and care, Adam Smith perceived, might produce eightyfold what unaided nature could alone produce on it. In such a world, the primary problem of justice is production.

John Paul seemed to suppose that there is already enough wealth in the world, and that all we need do is to distribute it. This is patently untrue. There are now 4.4 billion persons on this planet. To give each of them housing, food, medical care, and education will require far more wealth than the planet now produces. The fundamental moral task is to produce more wealth. The secrets of how this may be done are well known. Every nation that follows the democratic-capitalist way enters, even within a generation, into the ranks of the approximately twenty-eight “developed” nations of the world. The surest recipe for remaining in poverty is to maintain a socialist economy. The empirical record for the last thirty years may be consulted for corroboration.

At the end of his speech, the Pope returned for a second time to the issue of disarmament. He began with a “factual” observation: the arms race is growing. In truth, however, the United States has been steadily reducing its army, navy, air force, and reserves of ammunition for nearly a decade, being now considerably weaker in each of these areas than it was ten years ago. In addition, and unilaterally, the U.S. has cancelled plans to build the B-l bomber, the neutron bomb, the long-range cruise missile, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and other weapons systems. Its newest tanks date back to the 1960’s; its artillery dates back to World War II; its strategic bombers are older than the men who fly them and would never pass fitness tests for commercial airliners; it has not built a new intercontinental-missile launcher since 1968 and many of its present stock, never tested, have been rusting in their pads for twenty years. By contrast, the forces of the Soviet Union are in every sphere stronger than they were a decade ago, more fully modernized, and prepared for operation through a worldwide system of transport and communications. Relatively and absolutely, there is in fact no arms race. The U.S. has been declining; the USSR has been ascending.

The Pope’s principle is that the mere possession of nuclear arms constitutes an intention to use them first. Yet one power on this planet, and one only, has declared publicly that its intention and destiny require world domination. That power is the only power whose dominance over other nations has continued to grow, state-by-state, since 1945. Once that nation gained possession of the secrets of the atom bomb, what was the moral imperative of those who cherish liberty? If we are to see to the future of our children, as the Pope enjoins us to do, weakness before such a nation is morally inexcusable. To disarm as far as the U.S. has already done is already to be culpable. To disarm further would be morally unconscionable. The defense of liberty and human dignity cannot be based upon wishfulness.



In trying too hard to be a “pontiff”—a bridge to every part of the world—John Paul II is either not yet ready to take a fully empirical view of the international situation or not yet ready to say everything he does see. Between his inspiring vision and his description of international realities there lies, so far, a disappointing gap. One had hoped that his wartime experiences and his endurance of early struggle would have hardened his mind as well as his soul. One must pay him the credit that he has us arguing about many of the right things, even where his own observations and analyses fall short of reality. But if it is part of the collegial task of a Pope to inspire the whole community to advance the common wisdom, it is part of our task to do the same.


1 See my article, “Liberation Theology and the Pope,” COMMENTARY, June 1979.

2 As I am concentrating here on the Pope's political philosophy, this is not the place to discuss issues of more intramural Catholic interest—chiefly sexual matters, including contraception, divorce, homosexual activity, and the ordination of women priests. Suffice it to say that, even where I disagree with the Pope on these matters (particularly contraception), I am delighted that he did not try to flatter the prejudices of contemporary civilization. Those who would improve upon his teaching need to know that neither bluster nor intimidation, neither opinion polls nor passions, will suffice.

3 The complete text of all the Pope's speeches in America is available from the U.S. Catholic Conference (1312 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005).

4 Orbis Books, 1975.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.