By Stanisław Obirek (tekst dostępny również w języku polskim)

In the second of a three-part series to mark the centenary of John Paul II’s birth, cultural anthropologist Stanisław Obirek argues that a more nuanced perspective is needed when reflecting on the complex papacy, and character, of the Polish pope.

For yesterday’s article by papal biographer George Weigel, on the lessons today’s struggling democracies can learn from the idea of John Paul II, see here. Our third and final article will appear tomorrow, on the anniversary itself.

Not only hagiographies 

Between 1978 and 2005, the Catholic church in Poland, and the country as a whole, were viewed through the lens of the pontificate of John Paul II. And this continued with his death. The rapid beatification and canonisation of the Polish pope in fact reinforced his influence on the church. As the man born Karol Wojtyła has become Saint John Paul II, uncritical hagiographies of his papacy have been popular – and many Polish “messianists” even view it as the fulfilment of Romantic prophesies.

Among all the biographies written about the Polish pope, it is the work of George Weigel that has come to be seen as the official, canonical version presenting his life and work. Even during his lifetime, it was this book that consolidated the popular saintly image of “John Paul II the Great”. In Poland too, the view in the various institutions in Poland set up to explore his legacy is largely uncritical.

But this is not a narrative shared by all Catholics. Critical voices also exist in Poland, such as the discussion “Whose pope?” and the manifesto “The JPII Generation Is Not Us” associated with the Catholic Intelligentsia Club, or the works of the philosopher Tadeusz Bartoś. Such voices help to provide a more nuanced perspective on a complex figure who has been called “a man with more than one persona”, and the monumental role he played in the recent history of Catholicism in the world

Formative experiences

In 1962–1965, Bishop Karol Wojtyła participated in the Second Vatican Council (or Vatican II), the most important event in the history of modern Catholicism, and one might expect this experience to have shaped the personality of the future pope.

Yet this was not so. Much more important was his experience of working in communist Poland, and especially his confrontation with a political system hostile to the church. In his years in Kraków and after becoming pope in 1978, Wojtyła enjoyed nurturing contacts with intellectuals, including those outside of the church. His openness to people in academia and the art world was well known, in Rome too.

Yet Vatican II was a groundbreaking moment in Roman Catholicism, and Karol Wojtyła’s choice of the name John Paul II was a clear hint that he wished to continue the reforms initiated by the popes of the council, John XXIII and Paul VI, especially when it came to relations with other religions.

Indeed, he made important gestures of openness in this respect, becoming the first pope to visit places of worship including the Great Synagogue of Rome (in 1986) and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (in 2000). The organisation of the World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi in 1986, attended by leaders of Christian churches and 11 non-Christian religions, also became something of an icon for the Polish pope’s pontificate.

According to John O’Malley, the biggest change post-Vatican II was in language. This was not just about the introduction of new concepts such as freedom of conscience, dialogue, human dignity, cooperation with other faiths, respect for other religions or the perception of lay people in the Church, but also radical openness to the modern world.

These changes took place during the pontificates of John XXIII and Paul VI and on the pages of the Vatican II documents. Under the Polish pope, pre-council Catholicism was in fact restored. He based his governance of church structures on his own intuition, and was unwilling to listen to the arguments of others, especially critical ones.

This state of affairs caused enormous tensions in local churches that still exist today. Despite the theological discussion and openness to contemporary culture as well as other Christian denominations and other faiths instilled by the council, Wojtyła ruled in an authoritarian and centralised way that caused huge waves of opposition within the church.

Poland’s pope

The context in which his pontificate was received was very different in Poland. Most Polish Catholics thought of John Paul II as “our pope”, who helped us to shed the shackles of communism and led us through the sea of totalitarian liberation. Poles gave little thought to theological subtleties. We treated him as a liberator – an inherent mainstay in the process of political and civilisational transformations in Eastern Europe.

For many Poles, he was a saint in his own lifetime, and no criticism could convince them otherwise. The few sceptics or critics struggled to be heard, and malcontents were even disciplined. Even the liberal media have sustained the impression that everybody accepts John Paul II unreservedly.

The widespread domination of the Polish pope and the huge number of documents he published during his long pontificate were reinforced by his succession of pilgrimages to Poland. He made nine altogether. One could say that, from the first one in 1979 to the last in 2002, they marked out the rhythm of the work not just of the Catholic church, but of all Polish media and the entire state apparatus. It is hardly surprising that John Paul II’s presence was so dominant in not just the religious ideas of most Poles, but their social and political ones too.

Countless monuments, streets, schools and hospitals named after him are a kind of documentation of this process. And references to Poland’s Romantic traditions were also significant – the poetry of Juliusz Słowacki foresaw a “Slavic pope”.

Furthermore, John Paul II himself, from the start of his pontificate and especially after the attempt on his life in 1981, was convinced that the papal service fulfilled a unique mission entrusted in him by providence. This almost mystical belief doubtless gave Karol Wojtyła self-confidence and the strength to oppose views taking issue with his rigorous approach to such issues as sexual ethics, liberation theology, and even celibacy of priests and ordination of women.

In his view, the very fact that a Pole had been chosen as pope authorised him to stringently defend conservative circles. For example, in 1988 he said, “This is how I explain why they took a pope from Poland – because in the East certain things are less relativised. If a person lives in a system that is programmatically atheist, he discerns better what religion means. And sees one thing that a Western person does not see. That God is the source of human freedom – the final, only, absolute, certain source.”

His belief in the advantage gained from the experience of living in postwar Poland’s oppressive communist system is clear. Of course, this argument does not make discussion with people who viewed his style of governance differently any easier. This approach led to growing polarisation, for example, between liberation theologists and the official papal doctrine, and also failed to encourage criticism of the exercise of power in the Vatican.

Which Catholicism?

One interesting example of discrepancies of views on the role of the Catholic church in dealing with the tensions between religion and politics is the pope’s published correspondence with his friend Stefan Swieżawski, a Polish historian of philosophy professor and participant in Vatican II. It contains important questions “on difficult matters demanding elaboration” to which Swieżawski did not receive a satisfactory response from the pope.

“Why must the church always be associated with the right? Why must there necessarily be a Concordat, when history shows that for the proper, profound objectives of the church the Concordat has not always been beneficial; that the church was somehow tied down when the Concordat was in operation?”

These questions were never discussed in the Catholic church in Poland in John Paul II’s lifetime – to the great detriment of the reception of his pontificate. The discussion on the relationship between Catholicism and politics remains ahead of us.

The radical changes in Catholicism that occurred at Vatican II in 1962-1965 were adopted selectively in Poland. Most of the Catholic hierarchy, led by Cardinals Stefan Wyszyński and Karol Wojtyła, were not enthusiastic about it. This aversion rubbed off on almost the entire clergy. It also concerned such issues as the autonomy of laypeople and their participation in ruling of the church, democratisation of governance and separation of religion from politics.

The Polish clergy’s approach led to a politicisation of religion and radicalisation of the attitudes of many Catholics after the political changes in 1989. An exceptional role in this process was played by the media consortium of a Redemptorist from Toruń, Tadeusz Rydzyk – the face of politicised and fundamentalist Catholicism. To a great extent, the long pontificate of John Paul II was also responsible for this direction of changes in Polish Catholicism – because the Polish pope never distanced himself from this kind of Catholicism.

European identity

The current situation has historical, religious and political roots. Poland, together with other Eastern bloc countries, did not participate in the formation of European identity after the Second World War. Polish Catholicism, as in other countries dominated by Soviet Russia, including the former Soviet republics, was entirely concentrated on survival and conformation with the atheist doctrine of the regime.

Only after the political transformation in 1989, and especially after Poland’s accession to the European Union, did both the Catholic hierarchy and the Catholic media join the debate on Poland’s relationship with Europe. In this debate, the voice of the Polish pope was extremely important, and it had a major impact on the positive result of the EU accession referendum.

Only years later is it clear that, by supporting Poland’s aspirations to join the EU, John Paul II dreamt of its re-Christianisation, designating a key role to Catholic Poland in this process.

This is not to say, of course, that before 1989 the Polish Catholic clergy were detached from the philosophical and theological disputes going on in the West. After all, Karol Wojtyła himself completed his doctorate in Rome and participated in Vatican II with other Polish bishops.

Yet both the form of the aforementioned debate on relations with Europe (emphasising the unique role of Poland, and especially Polish Catholicism) and most Catholic media suggest that it was the doctrine developed by Wojtyła that was the main influence. Its main distinguishing features were a lack of understanding for cultural pluralism and stigmatisation of contemporary culture as a “civilisation of death”. This doctrine continues to be treated as compulsory and fundamental.

Moral rigorism and uncritical reception

Furthermore, seminary education is still a closed system, fully controlled by Roman congregations which not only determine the subject matter of mandatory lectures, but also decide on the final acceptance of academic teachers. In this situation, critical thinking is practically non-existent. This results in a phenomenon known in cultural anthropology as “structural amnesia”.

The pressure of the present moment is decisive in evaluating not only the events taking place before our eyes, but also those from the past. As the well-known American Jesuit Walter Ong put it, “The present imposed its own economy on past remembrances”. In the case of the influence of John Paul II’s pontificate on Polish society, this meant uncritical (but also selective) reception of his words and gestures as well as disregard for polemical views.

Karol Wojtyła’s decidedly conservative position on sexual ethics must also be mentioned. This became entrenched long before he assumed the papacy in 1978. In fact, he influenced Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae from 1968, which contributed greatly to the sharp divide between Catholics in Western Europe and in the USA. The reason for this polarisation was the failure to take into account the opinions of many theologians, including lay Catholics, who thought it essential and in keeping with Catholic doctrine to accept birth control.

According to O’Malley, it was Wojtyła’s book Love and Responsibility that influenced the final shape of the controversial encyclical. This moral rigorism does not sit comfortably with John Paul II’s extremely lenient approach to the sexual crimes committed by priests, including bishops. Although this problem is not directly connected to the personality and doctrine of the Polish pope, it cannot be ignored, especially as in recent years this has been what has set the temperature of debates, not only in the media.

Critics of John Paul II’s legacy

The most important critical book on John Paul II’s pontificate was the English Catholic journalist and historian John Cornwell’s The Pope in Winter: The Dark Face of John Paul II’s Papacy. The Polish pope clearly felt more at home in the tradition of hierarchical and politicised Catholicism – a preference that became especially visible in his final years.

Cornwell points to the paradoxical nature of John Paul II’s personality, writing in 2005: “He has become a living sermon of patience and fortitude, appealing to the sympathies of the entire world; but the billion-strong Church has been run increasingly by his Polish secretary and a handful of ageing reactionary cardinals.”

In recent years, these claims have been confirmed in reports compiled by the Vatican on notorious sex offenders. Cornwell’s assessment of his long pontificate is not favourable:

“John Paul II was pope during an extraordinary era of disruption and fragmentation in the world and within the Church. He responded to the manifold problems and crises by becoming a superman pope: he took charge. He saw the Church as a pyramid rather than a group of communities. He saw his papal role as that of a chief executive running the branch offices from the apex.”

He was following the examples of pre-Council popes – Pius X, Pius XI and Pius XII – and his pontificate was centralised and based on authoritative rule. Cornwell’s reflections provide an important addition to the debate going on in Poland on John Paul II’s contribution to building Polish reality after the fall of communism.

John Paul II was a more complex figure than many verdicts on his papacy credit. Could it be that, as problems that have been shamefully covered up in the past continue to beset the Catholic church, the messianic myth will ultimately be compromised?

To cite Thomas Doyle, one of the first Catholic clergymen to highlight the problem of paedophilia in the church, understanding Karol Wojtyła’s position on this subject – until recently a taboo in Poland – is the key to grasping his personality. In a private letter to me from 10 December 2019, Doyle wrote: “It has become clear, to me and to others, that John Paul II was a man with more than one persona. He played the holy pope to the crowds and the public, the guardian of orthodoxy to the so-called orthodox, but the real one was not visible to the public.”

Translated by Ben Koschalka

Main image credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection

Stanisław Obirek is a cultural anthropologist and professor at Warsaw University. He is interested in the place of religion in modern cultures, interreligious dialogue, and strategies for overcoming conflicts between different civilisations and cultures.

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