Pope John Paul II
Jude Wanniski
April 3, 2005


Memo To: Non-Catholics
From: Jude Wanniski, a Catholic
Re: The Pope's Legacy

There has been so much said in the last two days about Pope John Paul II that I decided I would skip the opportunity to put my two cents in. But after listening to commentaries on the Holy Father’s legacy from all manner of people, mostly non-Catholics, I can’t resist offering one Catholic’s thoughts on his importance in my time.

Non-Catholics of course think of John Paul’s support of the Polish Solidarity opposition to the Soviet Union’s domination of Eastern Europe and believe that will be his most important legacy. He “gave cover” to Lech Walesa and the trade unionists that stood up to the Polish Communist President in 1980. That is, when there was no “crackdown” from Warsaw or Moscow, it was assumed that the communists were fearful of causing a serious rebellion of Poland’s Catholics that would shift the country into support of the West and democratic capitalism. I’ve even heard this weekend from talking heads asserting that if not for the John Paul II, the Cold War would still be with us, which of course is palpable nonsense.

By 1977, it was clear to me as I wrote in “The Way the World Works,” that communism was a spent force, and would be put to rest by the revival of classical economic ideas that would regenerate the West. In 1978, a year before the Karol Wojtyla was elevated from Cardinal to the Papacy, Deng Xiao Peng threw in the towel on communism in China, deciding it didn’t work and that it would be okay for all Chinese to become rich if they could. By the time Lech Walesa’s Solidarity came along, the handwriting was on the wall for global communism. All it took then was for Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. to embrace classical economic ideas -- and Mikhail Gorbachev followed the Chinese lead in abandoning the USSR’s command economy in favor of capitalism’s market economy. Pope John Paul II was an important agent of change in this history, but if he had not been around, the Russian experiment with communism would have ended just as it did.

If secular history, in my view, will not make such a big deal out of John Paul’s trip to Poland in 1979, what will constitute his legacy? As a Catholic, I will submit that for 26 years his greatest contribution will be to the church, which after all was the job he was given. On one talk show today, I heard a distaff journalist, Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, give the Pope an A+ for what he did for Solidarity, but flunked him because he did nothing “to modernize the church,” by which she meant he did not accommodate the sexual revolution that was contemporaneous with his papacy. Another panelist on the same show, Larry O’Donnell, a Catholic, agreed that the Pope made his greatest contribution in helping defeat communism, but that he was “irrelevant” ever since, at least in America, where Catholics ignored the Pope’s refusal to bend an inch on orthodox Catholic teachings regarding the sanctity of life.

O’Donnell is of course correct, in that most American Catholics seem to ignore Vatican pronouncements on these social issues. But I do believe almost all serious Catholics, and probably most serious Christians of any flavor, love John Paul II for standing rock solid in his resistance to “modernizing the church” by devaluing its traditional moral teachings. As a 68-year-old Catholic who left the church as a young adult and was drawn back into it because of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII, I’d hope you might understand that I think of my faith and my religion as a 2000-year-old work in progress. And it could never have survived as a moral force – with Poland’s Solidarity or anything else – if the leaders of the church in Rome had “modernized” every time there was a period of economic distress and a devaluation of morality.

The Protestant Reformation, after all, was the perfect example of a political reaction to a Vatican that had lost its way and had devalued the teachings of Jesus the Christ, corrupted by the coin of the realm and unchallenged political influence. As a Catholic, I thank God for Martin Luther, a positive and absolutely necessary agent of change in his time. The Roman monopoly proved the dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The teachings of Jesus have been well served by the competition of Catholics and Protestants.

Also today, I caught former New York Governor Mario Cuomo on TV, talking about the Pope’s legacy. Cuomo is a practicing Catholic, but also a politician, who in his active years struggled to achieve political power even while he knew he could not win if he personally lived up to the standard set by Rome. Cuomo expressed the hope that the new Pope would abandon the standard set by John Paul II and “modernize the church.”

How sad, I thought, for Mario to be praying for a lower standard than was set when Jesus told Peter that he wished him to build a church on the rock of his teachings.

Do you see what I mean? I know it is hard because you are non-Catholic, but please try. You should at least appreciate the idea that all of mankind needs a standard to which it can aspire.