Twenty years ago, a young, vigorous man named Mikhail Gorbachev was chosen leader of a now-vanished nation called the Soviet Union. I was then about to go do some reporting in what was the world’s other superpower, a nation which then was the most important foreign country in the world.
Gorbachev’s selection seemed exciting, since three sick and elderly Soviet leaders had died in barely more than two years. So I called up experts in Washington and all over the country, and to a comrade they all predicted that he might have more energy, but otherwise would be little different from his predecessors. In any event, they agreed there would be no significant policy changes.
Naturally, that turned out to be one of the most colossally wrong predictions in history. That’s something we should keep in mind as we listen to the talking heads when the cardinals pick a new pope later this month.
We should also realize why it matters to all of us, even the heathens. Normally, I’m reluctant to write about religion, because it’s a matter of faith, not reason, and I don’t think I have the right to criticize the inner workings of a private club that I don’t belong to or want to join. However, the Roman Catholic Church is a lot more than that. Worldwide, it has more than a billion members.
Nor does it shrink from political activism. When I was a wee lad, an old Irish-Catholic editor sent me to cover a conference of Roman Catholic bishops in Chicago. “But I’m the politics writer, not the religion writer,” I whimpered. His rheumy eyes twinkled. “This ain’t got nothing to do with religion,” he growled, and he was more than right. The bishops fought over political issues, like the nuclear freeze movement and the wars of Central America, and mentioned the Holy Ghost and crew mainly as an afterthought.
What is unique about Roman Catholicism, however, is that alone among the world’s great religions, it invests what amounts to absolute power in a single individual who cannot be removed for any reason whatsoever, and who, the church teaches, has the right to declare what he says as infallible.
That invests the pope with the power to do perhaps more good — or harm — than any other world leader. Some popes have had no desire to use that power politically; others lacked the finesse. But Pope John Paul II had the wit and the skill and the drive to become a major actor on the world stage.
I think many of us didn’t realize exactly how important he was. For those of us who happen to be progressive, or whatever liberals call themselves nowadays, it was easy to get caught up in indignation over his medieval ideas about women, birth control, abortion and other social issues.
Yet he was perfectly sincere about all of that, not a crass hypocrite like Tom DeLay, and that’s where I don’t think we can really criticize him, especially if we aren’t believing Roman Catholics. He was totally up-front, and never attempted to conceal his opinions for a moment.
I didn’t share his faith, or most of his views on sex and society, and would have fought tooth and nail against any attempts to have his religious dogmas turned into secular law. Yet he had a right to those beliefs. And whether or not his ideas about women are eventually rejected, even by his church, what he did do right dwarfs all the nonsense. He was the biggest single player in the fall of communism, and it was a role he played with more consummate skill than anyone on the world stage in history.
When Karol Wojtyla became pope in 1978, the world was still divided into two armed camps, and people still feared a nuclear war between them. When he died, communism was essentially extinct, so much so that even some of the people who suffered under it were beginning to wax nostalgic about it.
Thanks to his skillful maneuvering, Solidarity, the communist bloc’s first free and independent trade union, was allowed to flourish in Poland for a time. Later, when the government cracked down and imposed martial law, the pope managed both to keep hope alive and keep his people from being massacred.
Think of how terribly wrong things could have gone. Think of the mountains of dead in Hungary in 1956, and the years of repression that followed. None of that happened under this pope, thanks again in large part to his knowing exactly how to play both his countrymen and the opposition.
Not too many years later, Solidarity was legalized, and Poland, incredibly, became the first communist-led country to have multiparty elections. The people voted for freedom, and Mikhail Gorbachev decided not to try to stop it. Within six months communism collapsed throughout Eastern Europe; two years later, the Soviet Union itself followed, like a failed drugstore. And almost no one died.
Last week, as the pope himself lay dying, Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidarity, said that John Paul II deserved as much credit for the fall of communism as everybody and everything else combined.
Here’s something else that was supremely important about this pope: He may have had his dogmas, but he wasn’t a yahoo or a bigot; he would have been drummed out of the Southern Baptists.
You never saw his church leading the charge against teaching evolution, in large part because John Paul II was highly educated, and from what he said in public, almost certainly thought that’s how God had worked his mysterious ways.
This pope also apologized for the way the church treated Galileo. He was dead wrong on stem cell research, but was at least logically consistent.
Most importantly, he was a man of peace and tolerance. The Roman Catholic Church is growing fastest in Africa and other developing nations. Can you imagine the potential effect if he had denounced Islam, for example?
He worked hard at reconciling different faiths. What if he had been a fanatic who called on Christians to convert Jews, Muslims and other unbelievers? Can you imagine the potential effect on this violent world? Fortunately, he was none of those things, and he was much more savvy about Our War On Iraq (he saw what it really was from the start) than most of the Democratic Party, and when even speaking in English, was far more coherent about it than John Kerry.
He was, in the last analysis, a man very much like Ronald Reagan — a former actor with winning charm, who drew admiration from millions who rejected or ignored his teachings on issues with which they disagreed.
Nobody knows whether the next supreme pontiff will be anything like him. What we need to realize is that the pope is supremely important. If we could use a time machine to bring the best scientists of a century ago to the present, I don’t think they would be most surprised by space travel or cell phones.
What would shock them more is the staying power of religion, and that after “scientific socialism” was gone, the forces of reason would be fighting against Muslim fanatics abroad and Christian fundamentalists here, all of whom would seek to impose a world view on humanity straight out of the Dark Ages.
How humanity rises beyond this without destroying itself isn’t clear, except by working hard to promote education and tolerance. What is clear is that we somehow have to, or when we least expect it, we will get ayatollahs instead.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org