The Polish pope's role in the fall of communism

Posted: Apr 04, 2005 12:00 AM

Scholars and historians will debate for years to come the precise causes and historical forces that produced the sudden collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s. One matter not in dispute, however, will be the earth-shattering role played in the process by Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope.

From the moment of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's election to the papacy in October 1978, he began to shake the very foundations of communism. His first pilgrimage to Poland in 1979 helped undermine government censorship as the Polish people heard the pope talk about human dignity and pray, "Spirit, come and renew the face of the Earth." As young Poles gathered in throngs to hear the pope preach, they saw masses and felt the press of individuals just like themselves and knew they were not alone in wanting freedom and human dignity.

It was no accident that the Polish church became a primary force behind the resistance against communism, uniting both Catholics and non-Catholic Poles in solidarity against communism. The pope was without a doubt the major source of hope and encouragement to his fellow countryman Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity workers' union and future president of Poland post-communism.

After the fall of communism, Pope John Paul II released a papal encyclical titled "Centesimus Annus" (1991), which explained within a Christian framework why communism had failed and from that failure drew lessons about social, political and economic organization. In the process, the papal encyclical explained how people must organize themselves secularly, not to establish "heaven on Earth" but to maintain human dignity and social conditions conducive to each individual's having an opportunity to seek and achieve salvation of his soul. In other words, the pope placed individual freedom squarely within the core of Christian theology.

Communism was a secular failure - it failed to deliver the material benefits it promised - the pope said, because it rejected the truth about the human person: "The state under socialism treats the individual, not with dignity, but as a molecule within the social organism, so that the good of the individual is completely subordinated to the functioning of the socioeconomic mechanism."

The lessons "Centesimus Annus" drew from the practical failures of communism also undermined the theoretical and any possible theological justification of collectivism.

Secular opposition to capitalism - from doctrinaire socialism to the kind of soft democratic collectivism we call "liberalism" today - has always derived from one fundamentally incorrect notion, namely that private property and its productive use to earn a profit exploits other people. Karl Marx and Frederick Engles attempted, unsuccessfully, to give scientific grounding to this fallacy of capitalistic exploitation.

Historically, the Christian church had been skeptical of capitalism, not because of what the pursuit of profit did to exploit other people but rather because of how the pursuit of profit frequently corrupted individuals, making them avaricious, envious and materialistic.
The pope's encyclical exploded both misconceptions: "The church acknowledges the legitimate role of profit as an indication that a business is functioning well. When a firm makes a profit, this means that productivity factors have been properly employed and corresponding human needs have been duly satisfied. But profitability is not the only indicator of a firm's condition. It is possible for the financial accounts to be in order and yet for the people, who make up the firm's most valuable asset, to be humiliated and their dignity offended.
Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm's economic efficiency. In fact, the purpose of a business firm is not simply to make a profit, but is to be found in its very existence as a community of persons who in various ways are endeavoring to satisfy their basic needs and who form a particular group at the service of the whole society."

By a process of elimination, this devastating critique of socialism and unenlightened capitalism alike left democratic individualism and free markets, informed and guided by the spiritual teachings of the church, as the only practical means of organizing human action. At the same time, "Centesimus Annus" also reconciled the church's historical fear that capitalism and free markets breed vice among the faithful with beneficial social outcomes that only human freedom and its expression through private property and free markets can produce.

The papal encyclical expounded upon how, for example, the effort involved in building a business also builds individual virtue: "Important virtues are involved in this process, such as diligence, industriousness, prudence in undertaking reasonable risks, reliability and fidelity in interpersonal relationships as well as courage in carrying out decisions which are difficult and painful, but necessary both for the overall working of a business and in meeting possible setbacks."

Pope John Paul II concluded that earthly poverty and human despair are not the product of private property, capitalistic exploitation of labor and the pursuit of profit through the operation of free markets but just the opposite. It is when people are excluded from ownership, lack the opportunity to develop job skills and are not free to participate in free enterprise that people suffer and are, as the pope said "if not actually exploited, they are to a great extent marginalized; economic development takes place over their heads, so to speak, when it does not actually reduce the already narrow scope of their old subsistence economies."

The next time pessimism and despair over the future grip us, we should remember that October 1978 when the renaissance of freedom began with the election of a humble Polish pope by the name of Wojtyla.