And the Wall Came Tumbling Down

Published February 15, 2001

A Lecture Given at Grove City College

Thank you for the invitation to participate in this 125th anniversary lecture series on “Faith, Freedom, and the Future.”

That strikes me as an entirely appropriate theme for your anniversary, for Grove City College has long understood that the future of freedom depends on the virtues of a free people—and that, for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the virtues essential to preserving and extending freedom are expressions in history of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. By holding fast to its conviction that biblical faith informs freedom and points the exercise of freedom onto its true trajectory, Grove City College has made an important contribution to the education of future citizens, to American higher education, and to the defense of American democracy.

We are here this evening to reflect on the historic impact of a man who also believes that faith and freedom are intimately linked. Interestingly enough, this man, who has had an immense impact on the history of our times, is neither a politician, a diplomat, or an international relations theorist. That is, he does not wield power as the world conventionally understands “power.” Rather, he is a pastor, an evangelist, and a witness to basic human rights. Like the men and women who have led Grove City College for 125 years, Pope John Paul II is convinced that ideas and moral convictions are levers with which to move the world. Ideas and values are distinctive forms of power. Reflecting on how the Pope has exercised the power of truth is not only an interesting exercise in its own right; it may help us to understand how the world really works.

That John Paul II has had a considerable impact on contemporary history is now widely conceded by even his most implacable critics, inside and outside the Catholic Church. Yet one may well wonder whether those who think about the dynamics of history, professionally or as an avocation, have begin to come to grips intellectually with the meaning of John Paul’s accomplishment in the world of affairs—or what that accomplishment suggests about the working-out of history and the contours of world politics in the 21st century.

So my plan here is to sketch, briefly, the Pope’s accomplishment as I have come to understand it as his biographer, using three examples; then I shall indicate, again briefly, some lessons from this accomplishment for the future; and finally, I shall suggest where the new intellectual terrain lies, post-John Paul II, for those interested in the impact of ideas and religiously-grounded moral values on politics, especially the politics and ethics of international relations


To understand John Paul II’s concept of the dynamics of international relations—indeed, the dynamics of history itself—let’s go back in our imaginations to the small Polish town of Wadowice, about forty miles southwest of Cracow, somewhere in the late 1920s. There, we meet a young Polish boy named Karol Wojty a. Young Karol, we discover, has learned from his father (a retired military officer) and from his elementary and secondary schooling the great lesson of modern Polish history: that it was through its culture—its language, it literature, its religion—that Poland the nation survived when Poland the state was erased for 123 years from the map of Europe.

Between 1795—when the three great powers of east central Europe, Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, completed the third and final partition of the Polish lands—and 1918, nothing labeled “Poland” appeared on any map of Europe. It was an unprecedented act of destruction, the vivisection of a historic, living state. Yet throughout those 123 years of wandering in the wilderness of history, the Polish nation survived because the idea of “Poland” survived. Indeed, it survived with such potency that the Polish nation could give birth to a new Polish state in the aftermath of World War I.

History viewed from the Vistula River basin looks different; it has a tangible spiritual dimension. Looking at history from that distinctive angle-of-vision, we learn that overwhelming material force can be resisted successfully through the resources of the human spirit—through culture. And in reflecting on that, we learn that culture—not politics, not economics, and not some combination of politics-and-economics—is the most dynamic, enduring factor in human affairs, at least over the long haul.

Having learned these lessons as a young man, Karol Wojty a, a son of Poland whom the world would later know as Pope John Paul II, applied this concept of the priority of culture in history in resistance to the two great totalitarian powers that sought to subjugate Poland between 1939 and 1989.

He applied it in a variety of resistance activities against the draconian Nazi Occupation of Poland from 1939 until 1945. The Nazi’s strategic goal in Poland was to erase these Polish-Slavic untermenschen from the European New Order. One step toward achieving that goal was to decapitate the Polish nation by liquidating it intellectual, religious, and cultural leadership—thus, two months after Poland’s defeat in September 1939, 186 professors from the Jagiellonian University deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. One effective means of resistance to this tactic of decapitation was to keep Polish culture alive. Karol Wojty a was intensely involved in this, at the daily risk of his life, through his participation in a host of cultural resistance groups: the underground Jagiellonian University, clandestine literary, theatrical, and religious activities, a pioneering movement of civic renewal called UNIA which sought to lay the intellectual foundations for a post-war Christian democracy in Poland.

As a priest and bishop in Cracow from 1949 through 1978, Karol Wojty a applied a similar “culture-first” strategy to resistance against the communist effort to rewrite Poland’s history and redefine Poland’s culture. Wojty a had no direct “political” involvement over those three, grey decades. He could have cared less about the internal politics of the Polish communist party, who was up and who was down in the politburo, the twists and turns of the official party line. But his efforts to nurture an informed, intelligent Catholic laity were examples of what a later generation of democratic activists would call “building civil society”—and thus laying the groundwork for an active resistance movement with political traction.

Pope John Paul II has applied this strategy of culturally-driven change on a global stage since his election on October 16, 1978.

In 1992, when Oxford University Press published my study, The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism, there were many eyebrows raised, within the professoriate and the punditocracy, about my claim that the Church and the Pope had played pivotal roles in the collapse of European communism. When I amplified that claim in Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II, which was published seven years later, no one batted an eye. Over the course of the 1990s, John Paul’s crucial role in the collapse of European communism came to be generally recognized—even by Mikhail Gorbachev, who might have been expected to take a somewhat rueful view of the matter. But while the Pope’s pivotal role in these epic events is now recognized, it does not seem well understood.

John Paul II was not, pace Tad Szulc in his biography of the Pope, a wily diplomat skillfully negotiating a transition beyond one-party rule in Poland. He was not, pace Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi in their fantasy-biography, His Holiness, a co-conspirator with Ronald Reagan in a “holy alliance” to effect communism’s demise. He was not, pace the late Jonathan Kwitny in his lengthy study of Wojty a’s career, a Gandhi in a white cassock, running a non-violent resistance movement in Poland through a clandestine messenger service from the Vatican.

Rather, John Paul shaped the politics of east central Europe in the 1980s as a pastor, an evangelist, and a witness to basic human rights

Primary-source evidence for this is found in the texts of the Pope’s epic June 1979 pilgrimage to his homeland, nine days on which the history of the 20th century pivoted. In some forty sermons, addresses, lectures, and impromptu remarks, the Pope told his fellow-countrymen, in so many words: “You are not who they say you are. Let me remind you who you are.” By restoring to the Polish people their authentic history and culture—by giving back to his people their identity— John Paul created a revolution of conscience that, fourteen months later, produced the nonviolent Solidarity resistance movement, a unique hybrid of workers and intellectuals: a “forest planed by aroused consciences,” as the Pope’s friend, the philosopher Józef Tischner once put it. And by restoring to his people a form of freedom and a fearlessness that communism could not reach, John Paul II set in motion the human dynamics that eventually led, over a decade, to what we know as the Revolution of 1989.

Those nine days in June 1979 were not only a time of catharsis for a people long frustrated by their inability to express the truth about themselves publicly. Together, they also formed one decisive, historic moment in which convictions were crystallized, to the point where the mute acquiescence that, as Václav Havel wrote, made continuing communist rule possible was shattered. Many people had long wanted to say “No” to communism. But they could not do so, publicly, except on the basis of a higher and more compelling “Yes.” Providing that “Yes” was what John Paul II did in June 1979. Moreover, it was not simply that, as French historian Alain Besancon nicely put it, “people regained the private ownership of their tongues” during the Solidarity revolution. It was what those tongues said—their new willingness to defy what Havel called the communist “culture of the lie”—that made the crucial difference.

To be sure, there were other factors in creating the Revolution of 1989: the policies of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Helmut Kohl; Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader not formed in the brutalities of Stalin’s purge trials; the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Final Act and their effects throughout Europe, and in linking human rights activists in the captive nations and the old democracies. But if we ask why communism collapsed when it did—in 1989 rather than 1999 or 2009 or 2019—and how it did—without mass violence (with the sole exception of Romania)—then sufficient account has to be taken of June 1979 and the revolution of conscience it ignited. This was a different kind of revolution, because the revolutionaries were a different sort of people—people who understood, as Adam Michnik aptly put it, that “those who begin by tearing down Bastilles end up building their own.”

This singular contribution of the Pope in June 1979 is a point stressed by local witnesses. When I first began researching The Final Revolution in 1990, I thought that the Church and the Pope had had something to do with the Revolution of 1989. In talking with dozens, even hundreds, of the people of the revolution, however, I came to a different, more expansive view. Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, religious and secular alike, were unanimous in their testimony about the crucial impact of June 1979, which had launched a different kind of revolution—a revolution of conscience that made a nonviolent political revolution possible. June 1979, they unanimously insisted, was when “1989″ started.

(Parenthetically, it’s worth noting that the West largely missed this. Thus the New York Times editorial of June 5, 1979: “As much as the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland must reinvigorate and reinspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it does not threaten the political order of the nation or of Eastern Europe.” But two other Slavic readers of the signs of the times were not at all confused: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Yuri Andropov both knew that the rise of John Paul II and the deployment of his “culture-first” strategy of social change was a profound threat to the Soviet order. The degree of seriousness with which Andropov took this threat may be inferred from the events in St. Peter’s Square on May 13, 1981, when Mehmet Ali Agca tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II.)

“1989” had certain unique, unrepeatable characteristics, like any great historical event. Still, John Paul applied a similar strategy—the renovation of political life through the restoration of public moral culture—when he went to Chile in 1987. Fourteen years of the Pinochet government, following the crisis of the Allende regime, had created deep divisions in Chilean society. There were raw wounds in the body politic because of human rights abuses and the recalcitrance of the Left; there was, in a phrase, no “civil society,” and that lack made a transition to a democratic future impossible.

Therefore, John Paul, in collaboration with the Chilean bishops, decided that the public purpose of his 1987 pilgrimage to Chile would be to help reconstitute civil society through a reclamation of Chile’s Christian culture. The great theme for the visit would be that “Chile’s vocation is for understanding, not confrontation” The papal pilgrimage would, as one of its organizers put it to me, “take back the streets,” which had been places of fear under Allende and Pinochet, and transform them, once again, into places of community. And people would be deliberately mixed together at the venues for the papal Masses: Chileans would be compelled, under the eye of their common religious “father,” to look at each other, once again, as persons rather than ideological objects. And it seems no accident that, some eighteen months after the papal visit had accelerated the process of reconstructing Chilean civil society, a national plebiscite voted to move beyond military rule and restore democracy.

The third example of John Paul II’s “culture first” approach to political change can be found in his pilgrimage to Cuba in January 1998. There, the Pope did not mention the current Cuban regime, once—not once, in five days. Rather, he re-read Cuban history through the lens of a Christianity that had formed a distinctively Cuban people from native peoples, Spaniards, and black African slaves. And he re-read the Cuban national liberation struggle of the 19th century through the prism of its Christian inspiration. Here, as in Poland in 1979, the Pope was restoring to a people their authentic history and culture. In doing so, he was also calling for a reinsertion of Cuba into history and into the hemisphere, asking the Cuban people to stop thinking of themselves as victims (the theme of Fidel Castro’s welcoming address), and to start thinking of themselves as the protagonists of their own destiny.


Several lessons can be drawn from reflecting on the distinctive impact of Pope John Paul II on the history of our times.

First, the experience of John Paul II suggests that what we call “civil society” is not simply institutional: a free press, free trade unions, free business organizations, free associations, and so forth. “Civil society” has an essential moral core. Civil society is built on the foundation of common moral convictions about the nature of the human person, and the requirements of human community.

Secondly, John Paul’s “culture-first” strategy reminds us that “power” cannot be measured solely in terms of aggregates of military or economic capability. The “power of the powerless” is a real form of power. Moral conviction, deployed in such a way as to restore to peoples their authentic identity, can be an Archimedean lever from which to move the world.

In the third place, the Pope’s impact demonstrates that non-state actors count in contemporary world politics, and sometimes in decisive ways. John Paul II did not shape the history of our times as the temporal sovereign of the Vatican City micro-state, but as the Bishop of Rome and the universal pastor of the Catholic Church. At the end of a century which began with secular modernity convinced that human being would quickly “outgrow” their “need” for religion, one of the most potent actors on the world stage was the holder of the world’s oldest religious office. The world does not work the way the world sometimes thinks it works—or the way conventional academic analyses of the dynamics of history and politics tell us it works.


Still, for all its “worldly” accomplishments, the pontificate of John Paul II has left some gaps in our understanding that urgently need filling in the years just ahead.

It is curious that this son of a soldier, who has expressed his respect for the military vocation on many occasions, has not have developed the Catholic Church’s just war doctrine. This was most evident during Gulf War, but beyond such relatively conventional conflicts, there are new issues today at the intersection of ethics and world politics—the problem of outlaw states, the morality of preemption in the face of weapons of mass destruction, the locus of “legitimate authority” in the international community—that the Pope has simply not addressed. Others must take up that task.

The same can be said for “humanitarian intervention,”which the Pope identified as a “moral duty” in an address to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization in 1992. But this “duty” was not defined. On whom does it fall, and why? By what means is it to be discharged? What about the claims of sovereignty? These are large questions that demand the most careful reflection.


John Paul II has been the most politically consequential pope in centuries. But his impact did not come through the normal modalities of politics. He had no army. His success did not, in the main, come through the normal instruments of diplomacy. In terms of the history of ideas, his “culture-first” reading of history is a sharp challenge to the regnant notions that politics runs history, or economics runs history. Does the fact of the Pope’s success suggest that we are moving into a period in which nation-states are of less consequence in “world affairs”? Or were the accomplishments I’ve outlined here idiosyncratic, the result of a singular personality meeting a unique set of circumstances with singular prescience and effect? There is much to chew on here, for students of history and international affairs, in the years immediately ahead. But that we have been living, in this pontificate, through the days of a giant seems clear enough.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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