What I Learned From John Paul II

I shall leave it to other columnists to comment on the profound impact of John Paul II on our times. I am content to confine myself to comments on what I learned from his ministry.


Robert Burns’s phrase about the best-laid plans of mice and men often going awry is illustrated better by John Paul II’s career than anyone in my era. Only one other figure comes close: Deng Xiao Ping. The best-laid plans can come to naught in an amazingly short period of time.

The year 1978 was a year of expected caretakers. In March, Deng Xiao Ping had become the undisputed leader of Communist China. At age 74, he seemed old: probably a caretaker. The National People’s Congress decided to go with a safe bet: age.

Pope Paul VI died in early August. He had overseen the transformation of the Roman Catholic Church. The death of John XXIII in 1963, after Vatican II had begun, left to Paul VI the task of overseeing the sessions and implementing them. This he did. The Church changed more under his administration in 15 years than had taken place in the previous 500 years — maybe 1,000. It moved decisively in a liberal/modernist direction.

The election of John Paul I took place in one day of the Conclave in late August, 1978. There is no doubt in my mind that a Conclave that brief indicates pre-Conclave agreement regarding a short list of candidates before the cardinals were locked in their room (which is what “conclave” means). John Paul I was to be a caretaker Pope. He immediately took the names of his two predecessors, indicating his commitment to extend Vatican II. Thirty-three days later, he died.

There are lots of really choice conspiracy theories about his death. My favorite has to do with the secret Masonic brotherhood, P2, and its connection to the unfolding Bank Ambrosia scandal. Do I actually believe he was murdered? There is insufficient evidence to persuade me. (The standard book on this non-standard theory is David Yallop’s In God’s Name. The fictional account is the novel by Malachi Martin, Vatican.)

Whatever the cause of his death, no conspiracy theory has come close to explaining the outcome: the election of a Polish Pope and what followed next.

The Conclave that elected John Paul II took three days. There are no notes published after a Conclave. There are no leaks during it. Silence prevails. So, theories about what went on are without verifiable support. The duration indicates that there had been a short list. Wojtyla was probably on the previous short list. I say this because there had been little time for pre-Conclave politicking. The cardinals had barely arrived home by the time John Paul I died.

Wojtyla took the name John Paul II. This was the equivalent of calling Wilt Chamberlain “Wilt the Shrimp.”

Consider the next 14 months after John Paul II’s election in October.

In December, Deng announced the agricultural reform that transferred land ownership to farmers. That marked the beginning of the capitalist revolution in Red China. He lived long enough to implement his economic reforms. He died in 1997. We see the results of that revolution in every Wal-Mart and in every report on the U.S. trade deficit.

January, 1979: the Shah of Iran abdicated and fled Iran. Khomeini took over.

On May 3, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain. She was to serve longer than any Prime Minister in 150 years: 11 years. Under her administration, much of the system of government-owned monopolies was privatized.

On June 2, John Paul II arrived in Poland and began a series of public meetings that drew millions of visitors. This was the beginning of the end of Communism in Poland. The Solidarity movement began within a year. Poland’s ex-Communist tyrant, Gen. Jaruzelski, later said that this was the central event in the toppling of Communism in Central Europe. Gorbachev, when out of power, agreed.

Late June: OPEC announced a 50% hike in the price of oil. Jimmy Carter went into defensive mode economically.

November 4: Iranian mobs captured the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Jimmy Carter went into defensive mode militarily.

In December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. This marked the beginning of a decade of bloodletting that culminated in 1989 with the withdrawal of Soviet troops and, within two years, the disintegration of the USSR.

None of this was remotely visible in October, 1978.

So far, I haven’t mentioned Ronald Reagan.

We know the phrase, “seize the moment.” Pope John Paul II not only seized the moment, he seized the next quarter century. For someone officially in charge of an organization that large, seizing a quarter century is no small accomplishment.


Alexandr Solzhenitsyn was the other figure of the twentieth century who rivaled Pope John Paul II in undermining Soviet authority by the power of his words. He, even more than the Pope, made painful and embarrassing any support of the Soviets by Western intellectuals, too many of whom had become early admirers of Stalin and then his successors until The Gulag Archipelago finally undermined them in the mid-1970s. He wrote of his decade in the Soviet concentration camps that this experience saved him. The camps took everything material away from him. He had nothing left to lose. Outside the camps, victims of Communist oppression clung to a few possessions and conformed in order to keep what little they owned. By being stripped of everything, Solzhenitsyn said, he avoided this fate.

By the time Wojtyla was 21, every member of his immediate family had died. The Nazis had invaded Poland when he was 19. He began as a student for the priesthood in a clandestine seminary. He was ordained in 1946, to begin life under the Communists. He was in opposition from the beginning.

He was trained by a consummate anti-totalitarian, Stefan Wyszynsky (pronounced, ironically, “Vishinski” — just like the Soviet foreign minister), the primate of Poland, who became a cardinal in 1953 and was immediately put under house arrest for over three years. Wyszynsky served as president of Vatican II in 1962. Wojtyla learned how to survive under a rival bureaucracy that also claimed universal authority, eschatological inevitability, and the infallibility of its supreme council.

He had no family to terrorize, no possessions to confiscate. “What’s a tyranny to do?” He went into opposition and remained in opposition until there was nothing left of worldwide Communism to oppose.

The nothing-left strategy is not open to most men most of the time. But it is what is required of a dedicated few in times of moral confrontation. Mentally, you have to surrender it in advance in order to preserve any of it in a time of life-and-death confrontation. Jesus said: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39).

Of all Catholic nations that had been in opposition to totalitarianism longest, Poland was it in 1978. So, when the Conclave chose Wojtyla, it chose the man most suited for a long-term confrontation.

The Western media have identified his strategy of resistance with respect to Communism. This strategy was also visible in his open confrontations in Latin America in the 1980s. His opponents were priests who had joined the liberation theology movement. That movement sank on the Good Ship Marx after 1991, to the dismay of seminary professors, Protestant and Catholic, around the world.

We do not yet know the outcome of his strategy of opposition with respect to his steady, quiet, non-headline-grabbing undermining of the social liberals in the Church’s hierarchy.


John Paul II was the second-longest reigning Pope after Pius IX (1846—1878), the Pope of Vatican I (1870).

Under his reign, he appointed well over 100 cardinals. Of the 117 eligible to vote (those under age 80), he appointed all but three.

In his 1987 book, The Jesuits, former Jesuit Malachi Martin discussed Romanita. Romanita is the ability to outlast your competition. There are always factions in any bureaucracy, and there is no bureaucracy with a longer tradition or more factions in the West than the Roman Catholic Church. The faction that provides the longest-lasting survivors in any battle wins the next phase of the war.

Pius IX was a conservative. Until John XXIII reversed this tradition, it held firm. Yet it was visibly on the defensive within a decade of the death of Pius XII in 1958.

I have little sense of the details of John Paul II’s philosophy. As for his theology, it is clear that he upheld traditional Catholic views regarding the Virgin Mary. This outlook was the product of his years in Poland and also the assassination attempt. He had moved unpredictably just before he was shot, looking more closely at a Sacred Heart emblem worn by a little girl. (This is reported in Martin’s book, The Keys of This Blood.)

Everyone knows his social views: no female priests, no abortion, no contraception devices, no homosexuality. Also, it should be added, no war. On abortion, he voiced his opposition to the policy of Clinton. On war, he voiced his opposition to the policies of Clinton and both Bushes.

Year after year, appointment after appointment, he wove a tapestry of traditionalism. It will take a concerted effort on the part of liberals to reweave this tapestry. In the seminaries, they have more than a foothold. They have control. The Pope did not excommunicate entire seminary faculties. To get a sense of what I am talking about, click here.

He did not resign, although the American media kept running interviews with liberal Catholics who thought he should. He grew old and infirm before our eyes. He did not hide what was happening to his body. He was reduced at the end to silence, unable to speak in any of the eight languages he spoke. But he did not hide from the cameras.

If ever there was a man whose career said “No retirement,” it was his. He stayed on the job until the end. It was not a bitter end, but it was painful.


Has any man worked the mass media better, longer?

He got in front of the cameras, and there he stayed for 26 years.

One interviewee revealed that when the Pope first met with members of the press, when the interview was over, he stood up and walked around the room full of reporters to shake hands. This was unheard of. They had expected to be allowed to file past him, one by one.

He had a unique skill. He exercised his ability as Pope to go directly to the people — the first Pope in history to do this internationally. He made 103 trips outside of Italy to some 120 countries. No other figure has ever toured a reported 120 countries in front of TV cameras.

No one has ever drawn the crowds that he did. So, the media had to show up. So, the crowds kept getting larger. By 1995, an estimated seven million showed up to see him in Manila — the largest crowd in man’s recorded history.

He had a unique ability to capture attention. He used it for all it was worth.

The media reported that he had been an amateur actor early in his career. This was not said in derision. Another former actor, also known for his ability to handle the media, received more criticism for his similar background. In both cases, the public responded favorably.


Deng, an old man in 1978, was not expected to do much. The twenty-first century already looks back at what he did and marvels.

Brezhnev, a doddering old man in 1979, launched a war in Afghanistan that brought down the USSR a decade later. This caretaker failed to take care.

John Paul I, another expected caretaker, did not remain on the job long enough to fulfill his expected role.

The Shah of Iran, a caretaker of Western oil, did not stay on the job.

Pope John Paul II knew that a resistance strategy was suitable in 1978. He publicly issued traditional encyclicals, while maintaining absolute mastery of the media — a skill also possessed by Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

What blindsided liberals after 1978 was the ability of conservatives to commandeer the media to extend their agendas. Liberals had long assumed that their control over the media was unbreakable. They believed that they could set the agenda. The best-laid plans. . . .

In each case, what had been expected by the various establishments did not come to pass.

I am reminded of the words of my teacher, Robert Nisbet, in the closing words of a June, 1968 essay in Commentary:

“What the future-predictors, the change-analysts, and trend-tenders say in effect is that with the aid of institute resources, computers, linear programming, etc. they will deal with the kinds of change that are not the consequence of the Random Event, the Genius, the Maniac, and the Prophet. To which I can only say: there really aren’t any; not any worth looking at anyhow.”

April 6, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.

Copyright © 2005 LewRockwell.com