The word "theocrat" is a rapidly emerging swearword in American politics. If someone opposes gay marriage, or supports giving sustenance to Terri Schiavo, or has any strong moral convictions that inform his policy positions, he is a "theocrat" who secretly wishes to begin burning people at the stake. How odd, then, that this week we mourn the death and celebrate the life of a man, Pope John Paul II, who had "theocratic" trappings and convictions and yet is universally regarded as a great warrior for freedom.Actually, it is not odd at all. Many of the great leaps of freedom in the West have come at the instigation of Christian believers. Their faith lends them an unbending belief in human dignity and an audacious hope in success against all odds that sweep aside excuses for inaction.
Through accidents of history, Protestantism has traditionally been associated with political freedom. The Catholic Church, in contrast, had a scarring experience with a nominally democratic revolution in France in 1789 that was viciously anti-clerical. In Europe especially, the church tended, thereafter, to side with established authority.
But there had always been an important seed of freedom in Catholic thought: True faith must be freely chosen. This appreciation of "interior freedom" wouldn't be joined with full acceptance of liberal democracy until the 1960s, when American bishops pushed for adoption of a "Declaration of Religious Freedom" as part of the Vatican II council. It put the church firmly on the side of liberty of conscience and pluralism. Karol Wojtyla advocated for the Declaration, realizing what a powerful tool it would be for the church in Eastern Europe.