The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Diplomacy of St. John Paul

I just received the latest issue of First Things, one of the few journals I could not do without. If you don't subscribe to First Things I urge you to do so. You won't regret it unless you dislike being challenged...end of commercial.

Opening this latest issue I turned first to the lead article, Lessons in Statecraft, by George Weigel. Weigel, probably best known as the historian-biographer of the papacy of St. John Paul II, offers the reader a glimpse of the pope-saint as diplomat and statesman. Although this great pope was first and foremost a man of faith, he was also, out of necessity, a world leader who, as Weigel suggests, used a "different toolkit" from that of the typical politician and diplomat. The times, typified by the ongoing cold war waged between East and West, demanded the active presence of a witness who could stand on the global stage and call for the defense of religious freedom. And more than anything else, St. John Paul II was a true witness who, as if responding to Joe Stalin's famous question -- "The Pope? How many divisions has he got?" -- simply says, "The Church doesn't need armies. She has Jesus Christ."

In his article Weigel offers seven "lessons" distilled from the statecraft of this remarkable pope. I'll list them here, along with just a brief comment or two, but I hope you will take the time to read Weigel's entire article. One can only hope that our current generation of politicians and diplomats, who have made such a mess of the world, will also read it and perhaps take a few of these lessons to heart.

Lesson 1: Culture drives history. John Paul rejected the prevailing ideologies that fallaciously assume history is driven by politics, or power, or materialism, or economics, or any other "ism". History, he believed, is driven by culture. As Weigel says, " the center of culture is cult, or religion: what people believe, cherish, and worship; what people are willing to stake their lives, and their children's lives, on." I first encountered this lesson many years ago in the writings of Christopher Dawson, one of the last century's greatest historians. If you haven't read Dawson, do so. Perhaps the best overview of his thought can be found in Dynamics of World History.

Lesson 2: Ideas count, for good and for ill. Few of today's politicians seem to understand this truth. Too many see movements like Jihadism and dismiss its stated beliefs, the ideas that brought it to life, as irrelevant and attribute its existence to more convenient and politically correct causes. Pope John Paul took ideas seriously because he realized how powerful they were.

Lesson 3: Don't psychologize the adversary. Trying to change the behavior of ideologues through psychological means -- "If we're nice to them they'll forget about making that bomb" -- will always be perceived as weakness by the adversary who will inevitably take advantage of what is offered. An ideologue is, in effect, a slave to his ideology and will use all available means to advance it.

Lesson 4: Speak loudly and be supple in deploying whatever sticks, large or small, you have at hand. Pope John Paul, probably as a result of his years spent under both Nazi and Communist rule, understood the power of the bully pulpit and used it to perfection. He also knew when to approach a situation as a "quiet persuader" to achieve the ends he sought.

Lesson 5: Listen to the martyrs. For almost two decades the persecuted Christians behind the Iron Curtain were largely ignored in the hope that such appeasement would lessen future persecution. It didn't. Pope John Paul, who had witnessed martyrdom firsthand, realized this and didn't hesitate to publicly acknowledge "the witness of [the Church's] sons and daughters who had taken the risk of freedom and paid the price for it."

Lesson 6: Think long-term and do not sacrifice core principles to what seems immediate advantage. Pope John Paul understood well the Church's core values and would do nothing to jeopardize them. The Church, for example, cannot be true to its primary mission of evangelization if it enters into agreements with political powers that place severe limitations on its ability to carry out this mission. Or, as Weigel states when describing the pope's refusal to agree to a political accommodation proposed by Poland's communist government, "In John Paul II's ecclesiology, the Church could not be a partisan political actor because that role contradicted the Eucharistic character of the Church."

Lesson 7: Media "reality" isn't necessarily reality. Pope John Paul II knew that the secular media, even those so-called "experts" on Church affairs, really don't have a clue when it comes to the Catholic Church. Almost universally they tend to view and report on the Church through lenses colored by their political and cultural biases. In other words, they are almost always wrong. Because they are largely irreligious, most media types consider religion to be irrelevant and fail to recognize the importance of religious issues to the majority of humanity. 

I hope my brief description of these lessons will lead you to read George Weigel's article and also encourage you to subscribe to First Things

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