Accessibility links

East: Analysis From Washington -- A 'Culture First' Strategy

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 17 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II played a key role in promoting the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe because he adopted a "culture first" strategy, one built around returning the nations of that region to their historical languages and cultures.

That is the judgment of his biographer George Weigel as presented in this year's Templeton Lecture on Religion and Foreign Affairs and published in the current issue of the journal of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Even as a young man, Weigel insists, the future pope "learned the great lesson of modern Polish history: that it was through its culture -- its language, its literature, its religion -- that Poland the nation survived." And consequently, he was later able to advance that cause across the world.

During his first visit to Poland as pope in June 1979, John Paul II told his fellow-countrymen: "You are not who they say you are. Let me remind you who you are." And by so doing, he created what Weigel calls the "revolution of conscience" that 14 months later gave rise to Solidarity.

It was not as a wily diplomat that John Paul contributed to the collapse of communism. It was not as a "co-conspirator" with U.S. President Ronald Reagan as some have suggested. And it was not as a "clandestine messenger" as at least one author has argued.

Instead, Weigel says, John Paul succeeded because he "shaped the politics of East-Central Europe in the 1980s as a pastor, evangelist, and witness to basic human rights."

Or as the great French historian Alain Besancon put it even more succinctly, the pope created conditions in which "people regained the private ownership of their tongues."

In his presentation, Weigel demonstrates how John Paul adopted the same approach in his pilgrimages to Chile and Cuba where he also sought to call people back to their cultural roots, to restore "to a people its authentic history and culture." But Weigel argues that the pope's approach is of far more than historical interest.

Instead, he says, it has three major lessons for the world, lessons not yet fully assimilated anywhere.

First, he says, the pope's efforts suggest that "'civil society' is not simply institutional." To be genuine, it has "an essential moral core."

Without such a moral foundation, Weigel argues that John Paul understood, a free press, free trade unions, and free associations of all kinds will not fill the space between the state and its citizens in ways that protect the freedoms of the individual.

Second, John Paul's strategy serves as a reminder, Weigel says, 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."

Throughout his pontificate, Weigel says, Pope John Paul has been underestimated because he has relied on this special kind of power rather than on its more conventional manifestations.

And third, Weigel concludes, "the Pope's impact demonstrates that non-state actors count in contemporary world politics, and sometimes in decisive ways."

In his case, Weigel says, "John Paul II did not shape the history of our times as the sovereign of the Vatican City microstate but as the Bishop of Rome and the universal pastor of the Catholic Church."

But even more than that, John Paul's approach represents a "sharp challenge" to the predominant notions that either politics or economics drives history and that the nation state is the most significant form of political life.

This pope's "culture first" strategy thus seems likely to continue to play a major role in the evolution of human societies even as his pontificate enters its third decade.