October 16, 2003,
Karol Wojtyla, a Polish cardinal, was elected pope on October 16, 1978. Today he celebrates a 25-year pontificate, one of the longest in the Catholic Church's history. This editorial appeared after his elevation, in the November 10, 1978, issue of National Review.
The College of Cardinals, having surprised the world with its dark-horse selection of Cardinal Luciani two months ago, has, in choosing Cardinal Wojtyla, astonished it. It is too early to say what his papacy will bring or mean, but his election inevitably implies several things.
Personally, he is a moderate within the conservative spectrum of the cardinalate. At Vatican II he spoke for religious liberty, a cause his situation as a Polish prelate gave him reason to appreciate. He has the reputation of a brilliant philosopher and a shrewd statesman. His courage under Nazi and Communist oppression has been, quite simply, heroic.
The heroism is more than personal. The idea of a Communion of Saints is profoundly social: a sharing of grace, mutual correction, encouragement, and inspiration, every individual enhanced by his membership in the whole. If a whole nation can exemplify it, then one nation above all others has done so. That nation is Poland.
World War II was precipitated by the barbarian attack on Poland, and the war ended with its conquest by the surviving power in the barbarian partnership. Wojtyla was coming to manhood in those years, and the first years of his priesthood were devoted to saving Jewish and other lives at hazard of his own. Later, the nation annexed to the sprawling empire of Stalin and his heirs, he rose to the leadership of a church that uniquely managed to hold on and even flourish.
The peoples of the Communist-ruled nations are the subjects of a new system of serfdom. They are not, of course, the personal property of any overlord: but it comes, in the end, to much the same thing. They have no legal rights against the state, their wages and terms of employment are dictated, and they are summarily shot for trying to escape. The Communist ruling class virtually owns the laboring class-an ironic reversal of Marx.
Only in Poland have the new serfs found an institution strong enough to defend their rights and interests. That institution is the Catholic Church, and Poles have shown it a phenomenal loyalty. But until now they have been the forgotten men of Europe, while American leadership, such as it is, has chirped that Poland is not Soviet-dominated, that it meets our ideals of freedom, etc.
Wojtyla's selection is not only a personal honor but an homage to his countrymen and a recognition of their plight. It may also mean that the Church sees its future in something like the Polish condition: Communist power is still expanding, and the secular West lacks the resources of spirit to resist. If liberalism crumbles, more than one nation may need a Wojtyla.
At the same time, the papacy of John Paul II may help prevent the satellization of the West; may prevent it, in fact, by opening up a huge fault along the Western edge of the Soviet empire, where Catholicism still has immeasurable latent power. That a Pope can emerge from the captive nations is as inspiring a fact as that a Solzhenitsyn can emerge from the Gulag Archipelago.
John Paul II's accession coincides nicely with a more earthy clue to Soviet weakness. Chairman Hua Kuofeng has lately touched base at the vulnerable southwestern points of the Soviet border: Iran, Rumania, Yugoslavia. The lights must be burning late in the Kremlin.