Pope strengthened church, weakened communism

ARLINGTON, VA. — ARLINGTON, Va. - They were an unlikely political "trinity" - Ronald Reagan, the president of the United States who came from the Disciples of Christ Church; Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister whose background was working-class Methodist; and Karol Wojtyla, the Roman Catholic priest from Krakow, Poland. Together, they did something no one thought possible: They contributed to the collapse of communism, a political pestilence of the 20th century.

While the contributions of Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher to the fall of communism are well known, communism's trip to the "ash heap of history," as Mr. Reagan put it, might not have come had it not been for Pope John Paul II.


Even former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev acknowledged as much when he told Italy's La Stampa newspaper in 1992: "What has happened in Eastern Europe in recent years would not have been possible without the presence of this pope."

The beginning of the end for communism started in the pope's native Poland. It was June 1979, and the relatively new pope traveled to Poland for a nine-day visit. In more than 40 sermons, addresses, lectures and extemporaneous remarks, the pope fired a shot at communism's weakest link, telling his fellow Poles they were not who their rulers said they were and reminding them of their true identity.


He spoke of Poland's real history and culture, which had been oppressed and rewritten by the Communists. He launched a "revolution of conscience," which, 14 months later, gave birth to the Solidarity movement. Solidarity produced a groundswell of fearlessness and a hunger for freedom that the Communist leaders could neither suppress nor reach. Commenting on the pope's 1979 visit, Polish dictator Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski said, "That was the detonator."

Solidarity's leader, Lech Walesa, credited the pope with giving Poles the courage to rise up. "The pope started this chain of events that led to the end of communism," Mr. Walesa said. "Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism. He simply said, 'Don't be afraid; change the image of this land.'"

While the pope was about liberating millions from the yoke of communism, he also reined in the "liberation theology" that had undercut fundamental church teachings. This orthodox theological revolution not only had influence in Third World countries, it also resonated in American domestic politics.

The Vatican and some American church leaders, such as New York Cardinal John J. O'Connor, suggested that Roman Catholic politicians might face excommunication if they did not conform to church teaching on abortion (a threat that never materialized). The pope replaced theologically squishy priests and bishops with those who believed as he did. Perhaps the most famous "casualty" of his realignment was the forced retirement from Congress of the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a theologically and politically liberal Democrat. The pope simply declared priests may not hold high public office.

In Prague on April 21, 1990, just after communism's collapse in Eastern Europe, Pope John Paul II made one of his most significant statements about governments and cultures. He said, "The claim to build a world without God has been shown to be an illusion."

That applies not only to communist and other dictatorial regimes, but also to "free" people whose gods are materialism and pleasure, leading to insensitivity for the poor and needy.

Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.