Poland: the politics of Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II died Saturday 2 April – the first ever Polish pope and first non-Italian since 1523.

 Millions of people who identify with the Catholicism will mourn for Karol Jozef Wojtyla. His public popularity can be explained by his use of modern technology allowing him to speak to more people, an estimated 17.8 million people attended masses led by him, than any other pope – or indeed any other human being, before him. However, even the unprecedented media frenzy around his death could not drown out dissenting voices. John Paul II was the representative of the most conservative currents of Catholicism. His doctrines on wide-ranging issues from liberation theology, over the ordaining of women to the use of condoms were reactionary. His modus operandi was "there is no such thing as loyal opposition" as he set about rolling back the achievements of the second Vatican council in modernising the church.

The tributes paid to him by Catholic dignitaries, political leaders, pop stars and commentators make the death of John Paul II a very political event and will, have an effect, at least in the short term, on how he will be viewed in history. The American president George Bush said "The world has lost a champion of peace and freedom", opportunistically forgetting how John Paul II had been a critic of the Iraq war and occupation.

The collapse of Stalinism

Many commentators, however, concentrate on the role played by the Catholic hierarchy in general, and John Paul II in particular, in the events around Solidarity in the early 1980’s in Poland and the fall of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991. Commentator Timothy Garton Ash (Guardian April 4 2005) goes overboard making it sound as if the Pope single-handedly brought down the iron curtain: "without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980, without Solidarity no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards Eastern Europe under Gorbachev, without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989".

The reality is different. While the Polish Catholic establishment, together with the Pope, played an important role in steering the Polish uprising against the Stalinist bureaucracy in early 1980’s towards the restoration of Capitalism they did not lay the basis for it. Indeed, for most of its post-war history, the Polish bishops had sought and found an accommodation, albeit an uneasy one, with the Stalinist bureaucracy. Even when the then Polish Prime Minister Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared Martial Law in Poland on the morning of 13 December 1981, the Solidarity leaders, together with the leaders of the Catholic Church, tried to seek an accommodation with the ‘liberal’ wing of the Stalinist bureaucracy, declaring a 90 days truce on strikes.

This approach of attempted conciliation in reality prolonged the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

John Paul II’s demise is being used to rewrite the history of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. Workers risings in Poland and Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 or in Poland in 1970-1971 are completely ignored. These political revolutions were a reaction to the mismanagement of the planned economy combined with police-state like repression by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Workers implicitly adopted the demand for genuine workers’ democracy. The Szczecin shipyard workers in 1971 carried slogans like "Stalin for the bureaucrats, Lenin for the workers" or "Russia 1905 – Hungary and Poland 1956, Russia 1917 – Poland and the world 1971?"

John Paul II and Lech Walesa

Those like Timothy Garton Ash who only see politics as an exchange between powerful individuals without understanding the crucial role played by social processes and the masses fail to understand these political revolutions. They turn their back on the driving forces of history and are doomed to be mere parrots repeating the elitist view of history. How would they explain the enormous contradiction in today’s Poland between the mass perception of John Paul II and Lech Walesa, leader of the Solidarity trade union and Polish president from 1990 until 1995. These two figures are both most closely associated with the restoration of capitalism and still John Paul II is regarded as a saint while Lech Walesa is reviled as little better as the devil. When standing for the presidential election in 2000 Walesa received less than 1% of the vote; he received the blame for introducing rampant capitalism, aggravating poverty amongst the mass of the population whilst amassing personal wealth in the process.

A "culture of death"

The public perception of John Paul II is very contradictory. The mass media made him a household name across the world, including many countries in the neo-colonial world, which never had been reached by the leader of the Catholic Church before. The extreme desperate conditions, created by capitalism, many people live in and the lack of an alternative means millions are extremely receptive to the Catholic teachings of compassion and the hope of a better life after death. The papal politics of John Paul II were, however, reactionary. He became the representative of the most conservative currents of Catholicism and purged the leadership of the Latin American churches who supported the liberationists – a ‘radical’ theology combining Christianity with some elements of Marxism and Socialism. John Paul II condemned the use of condoms as a "culture of death" which might have saved millions of people in the neo-colonial world from an early death as a result of HIV/Aids infection. He first ignored and then partly covered up the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in the United States. The Pope’s opposition to all contraception means that Catholic women have no rights over their own bodies and many, even within the Catholic hierarchy for example in Latin America, choose to turn a blind eye to the Churches doctrine. He was vehemently opposed to the ordaining of women and forbade Catholics from discussing it further.

During his 26 year rule Pope John Paul II succeeded in strengthening the church apparatus, centralising decision making in the corridors of the Vatican and controlling opposing currents inside the Catholic community. It is ironic that the Pope of whom many claim that he won the cold war leaves the followers of the Catholic faith with a hierarchy that is closed, dogmatic, censorious and hierarchical, awash with myth and personality cultus; much like the former Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia.


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April 2005