WASHINGTON – It was Stalin who gave us the most famous formulation of that cynical (and today quite fashionable) philosophy known as “realism” – the idea that all that ultimately matters in the relations among nations is power: “The pope? How many divisions does he have?”
Stalin could only have said that because he never met John Paul II. We have just lost the man whose life was the ultimate refutation of “realism.” Within 10 years of his elevation to the papacy, John Paul II had given his answer to Stalin and to the ages: More than you have. More than you can imagine.
History will remember many of the achievements of John Paul II, particularly his zealous guarding of the church’s traditional belief in the sanctity of life, not permitting it to be unmoored by the fashionable currents of thought about abortion, euthanasia and “quality of life.” But above all, he will be remembered for having sparked, tended and fanned the flames of freedom in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe, leading ultimately and astonishingly to the total collapse of the Soviet empire.
I am not much of a believer, but I find it hard not to suspect some providential hand at play when the white smoke went up at the Vatican 27 years ago and the Polish cardinal was chosen to lead the Catholic Church. Precisely at the moment the West most desperately needed it, we were sent a champion. It is hard to remember now how dark those days were. The 15 months following the pope’s elevation marked the high tide of Soviet communism and the nadir of the free world’s post-Vietnam collapse.
It was a time of one defeat after another. Vietnam invaded Cambodia, consolidating Soviet hegemony over all of Indochina. The Khomeni revolution swept away America’s strategic anchor in the Middle East. Nicaragua fell to the Sandinistas, the first Soviet-allied regime on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere. (As an unnoticed but ironic coda, Marxists came to power in Grenada too.) Then finally, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
And yet precisely at the time of this free-world retreat and disarray, a miracle happens. The Catholic Church, breaking nearly 500 years of tradition, puts itself in the hands of an obscure non-Italian – a Pole who, deeply understanding the East European predicament, rose to become, along with Roosevelt, Churchill and Reagan, one of the great liberators of the 20th century.
John Paul II’s first great mission was to reclaim his native Eastern Europe for civilization. It began with his visit to Poland in 1979, symbolizing and embodying a spiritual humanism that was the antithesis of the soulless materialism and decay of late Marxist-Leninism. As millions gathered to hear him and worship with him, they began to feel their own power and to find the institutional structure – the vibrant Polish church – around which to mobilize.
And mobilize they did. It is no accident that Solidarity, the leading edge of the East European revolution, was born just a year after the pope’s first visit. Deploying a brilliantly subtle diplomacy that never openly challenged the Soviet system but nurtured and justified every oppositional trend, often within the bosom of the local church, John Paul II became the pivotal figure of the people power revolutions of Eastern Europe.
While the success of these popular movements demonstrated the power of ideas and proved realism wrong, let us have no idealist illusions either: People power can only succeed against oppression that has lost confidence in itself. When Soviet communism still had enough sense of its own historical inevitability to send tanks against people in the street – Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968 – people power was useless.
By the 1980s, however, the Soviet sphere was both large and decadent. And a new pope brought not only hope but political cunning to the captive nations yearning to be free. He demonstrated what Europe had forgotten and Stalin never knew: the power of faith as an instrument of political mobilization.
Under the benign and deeply humane vision of this pope, the power of faith led to the liberation of half a continent. Under the barbaric and nihilistic vision of Islam’s jihadists, the power of faith has produced terror and chaos. That contrast alone, which has dawned upon us unmistakably ever since 9/11, should be reason enough to be grateful for John Paul II. But we mourn him for more than that. We mourn him for restoring strength to the Western idea of the free human spirit at a moment of deepest doubt and despair. And for seeing us through to today’s great moment of possibility for both faith and freedom.
Charles Krauthammer is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to email@example.com.