- God and the Death of Communism
When future historians tell the story of the annus mirabilis that was 1989, they will have to come to grips with the importance of a phenomenon that many contemporary commentators on the decline and fall of communism have underrated, if not neglected altogether. The phenomenon to which I refer is religion, and especially in this case Catholic Christianity. With this brief and powerful book, George Weigel has helped to point the way toward a fuller understanding of the role that transcendent faith (and more specifically, a religiously grounded commitment to the dignity of the human person) played in the remarkable events of that most remarkable year.
The head of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a well-known lay Catholic writer on religion and public affairs, Weigel conducted extensive interviews in Rome, Poland, and Czechoslovakia with a wide array of civic activists, journalists, clergymen, and politicians. The insights he gained from these discussions, along with his reflections on Eastern Europe's four and a half decades under communism, are marshalled to buttress the book's central thesis: The series of largely nonviolent upheavals that began in Poland in mid-1989, and within 30 months had led to the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism, was ultimately the fruit of a dogged spiritual struggle that Weigel dubs "the final revolution."
This revolution was final, he argues, because it decisively upended the [End Page 126] world's longest-running experiment in secular messianism—"actually existing socialism." Marx and Lenin placed at the heart of their project a notion of paradisical postrevolutionary existence that is a secularized distortion of biblical promises about the coming Kingdom of God. In their zeal to bring about the comprehensive and final (but entirely this-worldly) relief of the human estate, communists sought a "politics to end all politics." Both more limited models of politics (such as parliamentary democracy) and nonpolitical or suprapolitical candidates for human devotion (such as religion) had to be eliminated.
The story that Weigel recounts is, in essence, the tale of how the spirits of democracy and religion survived decades of repression and then took advantage of Mikhail Gorbachev's abandonment of the Brezhnev doctrine to bring down Marxism-Leninism in Eastern Europe. Poland was the cradle of the great change. Intensely Catholic, possessor of a proud cultural heritage, and already tested by a long history of suffering under various foreign masters, Poland always remained a restive part of the post-Yalta Soviet empire. Weigel provides an excellent account of how the cohesive and ably led Polish Catholic Church of Stefan Cardinal Wyszyfiski (d. 1981) worked both to protect the Church's freedom to pursue its own mission and to shield civil society from complete communist penetration and control.
Meanwhile, as Weigel shows, the intellectual groundwork for this dual role of the Church as defensor fidei (guardian of Christian belief and practice) and defensor hominis (guardian of human rights and hence of civil society) was being laid in the years before and during the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65. It was in this period that Church leaders, influenced in part by the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray's reflections on the meaning of the U.S. experiment in democracy and ordered liberty, endorsed religious liberty as "the first freedom" and cast the Church as a teacher of respect for human dignity, and therefore for human rights properly understood.
The main protagonist in Weigel's account is Pope John Paul II. As a seminarian studying in secret and working to hide Jews from the SS in wartime Poland, as a young priest synthesizing his experiences and formal studies into a deeply held Christian-personalist outlook, as a bishop deliberating at the Vatican Council, as cardinal-archbishop of Cracow, and later as the first Slavic pope, Karol Wojtyla was eminently well-suited to press the nonviolent case against communism.
As Timothy Garton Ash has pointed out, the birth of Solidarity and the eventual end of Polish communism are difficult to imagine apart...