The deaths of the powerful elicit extravagant claims, and many of the tributes to the man being buried in Rome today have been little short of grotesque. Dumbing-down comes over obituary writers, and in their eagerness to define a clear legacy they often produce simplifications that take no account of how the world and people change.
The way Poles saw communism in the 1970s is not the way they see it now. The Polish Catholic church was in regular dialogue with the communist authorities, and both worked subtly together at times to resist Soviet influence. John Paul altered his own views as he travelled.
So the notion that anti-communism was always a consistent part of his motivation is off the mark. It was prominent in his early trips to Poland but less important in his dealings with Latin America. Pacifism was also a key principle for John Paul, and when it came to preserving power in his own domain, authoritarianism was his watchword rather than the protection of freedom.
The retrospectives that draw a line between his first visit home as Pope in 1979, the rise of Solidarity a year later and the collapse of the one-party system in 1989 are especially open to question.
They ignore martial law, which stopped Solidarity in its tracks and emasculated it for most of the 1980s. It was a defeat of enormous proportions that John Paul could not reverse until the real power-holders in eastern Europe, the men who ran the Kremlin, changed their line.
The Pope’s 1979 tour, with vast crowds at his open-air masses, undoubtedly gave Poles a tremendous sense of national revival. It added an unpredictable factor after decades of periodic crises between discontented workers, communist leaders who wanted to show their national credentials by finding a “Polish road to socialism” and narrow-minded rulers in Moscow.
The Pope’s support when workers struck in Gdansk and founded the Solidarity union as Poland’s first independent national organisation helped it to grow with amazing speed.
But things had changed a year later. Solidarity was split over tactics and goals. At its 1981 autumn congress, where western reporters were given full access, delegates fiercely debated priorities: was the key issue to be workers’ demands for better wages and self-management in their factories or the call for political freedoms that the intellectuals on the Solidarity bandwagon saw as paramount? Should the union accept or reject the Communist party’s leading role in government?
All sides agonised over whether and how Moscow would intervene. There were already strong hints that the Polish army would be used rather than Soviet tanks. None of us thought a clamp-down could be avoided. Within weeks we were proved right. The Kremlin got its way with relative ease. Poland’s own communist authorities arrested thousands of Solidarity’s leaders and drove the rest underground.
John Paul’s reaction was soft. Armed resistance was not a serious option, but there were Poles who favoured mass protests, factory occupations and a campaign of civil disobedience. The Pope disappointed them. He criticised martial law but warned of bloodshed and civil war, counselling patience rather than defiance.
After prolonged negotiations with the regime, he made a second visit to Poland in 1983. Although martial law was lifted a month later, many Solidarity activists remained in jail for years. The government sat down to negotiate with Solidarity again only in August 1988, by which time Mikhail Gorbachev had already launched the drive towards pluralistic politics in the USSR itself and publicly promised no more Soviet military interventions in eastern Europe.
The impetus for Gorbachev’s reforms was not external pressure from the west, dissent in eastern Europe or the Pope’s calls to respect human rights, but economic stagnation in the Soviet Union and internal discontent within the Soviet elite.
The Pope’s cautious reaction to martial law was prompted by his firm belief in non-violence. If it tempered his anti-communism, so did the high value he put on national pride.
His line on communist Cuba differed sharply from his line on Poland. He realised that Castro’s resistance to US pressures reflected the feelings of most Cubans. He saw that nationalism and communist rule went hand in hand in Cuba in a way that they did not in Poland, where the party was ultimately subordinate to Moscow. In Havana the Pope mentioned freedom of conscience as a basic right, but his visit strengthened Castro. His critique of capitalism and global inequality echoed Castro’s and he denounced the US embargo on Cuba.
Nor was John Paul’s attack on liberation theology in the 1980s motivated primarily by the fact that the so-called “option for the poor” was infused with Marxism. The Pope was worried by other features too. He felt it was being used to justify violence and leading Catholic parish priests to support armed struggle by peasants against repressive landowners and feudal dictatorships.
In Nicaragua, where the Sandinistas toppled the US-backed Somoza regime by force, three priests became ministers. In El Salvador priests were often reporters’ best conduits to guerrilla commanders, taking us into remote villages to meet them. In the Philippines some priests carried guns themselves. “The situation required more than a human rights group. I went underground and joined the defence forces,” Father Eddy Balicao, who used to serve in Manila Cathedral, told me in the mountains of Luzon.
John Paul also opposed liberation theology because he saw priests defy their bishops and challenge the church’s hierarchical structure. Even while communism still held power in Europe, he had more in common with it than many of his supporters admit. He recentralised power in the Vatican and reversed the perestroika of his predecessor-but-two John XXIII, who had given more say to local dioceses.
With the fall of “international communism”, the Vatican was left as the only authoritarian ideology with global reach. There was no let-up in the Pope’s pressures against dissent, the worst example being his excommunication of Sri Lanka’s Father Tissa Balasuriya in 1997, an impish figure who questioned the cult of Mary as a docile, submissive icon and argued that, as a minority religion in Asia, Catholicism had to be less arrogant towards other faiths.
The Pope could not accept that challenge to the Vatican’s absolutism. So it is fitting that he will be buried in the crypt from which John XXIII was removed, symbolically marking the primacy of Wojtyla’s conservative era over the liberal hopes of an earlier generation.
· Jonathan Steele reported from Poland, the Soviet Union and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s firstname.lastname@example.org