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Wojtyla lectures reveal he saw communism as based in misunderstanding

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Warsaw, Poland

In any assessment of Pope John Paul II’s 21 years at the head of the church, his role in communism’s collapse is a dominant theme.

How he pulled it off, though, is a question awaiting convincing answers.

Now a new theory is afoot, drawn from a seemingly forgotten collection, never published, of Polish-language lectures. They are signed with Wojtyla’s name and were printed as a samizdat underground edition in the early 1950s. It was titled “Catholic Social Ethics.”

Previously, the nearest anyone got to a general theory was that the Polish pope understood his opponents well enough to outdazzle their ideology with Christian truth.

But it’s a theory that hadn’t gained universal acceptance.

Former associates from Kraków insist that Karol Wojtyla never studied Marxist classics; that he picked up his arguments secondhand from Catholic handbooks. They maintain that his reliance on biased sources explains the pope’s hostility to everything linked with Marxism, from Polish communism to the liberation theology that he so vociferously opposed in Latin America.

“Catholic Social Ethics” runs to 336 dense pages. Just a few dozen copies were printed, on cheap, thin paper. The text isn’t available at Catholic seminary or university libraries in Poland. But it throws important light on John Paul II’s personal political views.

The few surviving copies of “Catholic Social Ethics” are jealously guarded. A rare surviving copy was obtained by NCR from Romuald Kukolowicz, a former assistant to Poland’s Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski (1901-1981).

Although it contains sections on Personalism, Liberalism and Individualism, as well as “Totalism” and “Solidarism,” the bulk of the text is written as a response to Marxism. Wojtyla stated his aim clearly. The text, he wrote, wasn’t a “total criticism” of Marxist philosophy, but an analysis of how it had used or misused “ethical categories.”

“In the contemporary communist movement, the church sees and acknowledges an expression of largely ethical goals,” Wojtyla wrote. He noted that Pope Pius XI had acknowledged that Marxism stemmed from criticism of capitalism and protest against capitalism’s exploitation of human work. Pius XI had added that such criticism was undoubtedly “ ‘the part of the truth’ which Marxism contains.”

When these words were printed, Stalinist rule was at its height, and dozens of Polish priests and bishops were in jail. A 1949 Vatican decree had barred church members from any dealings with communists, “who show themselves, in teaching and actions, to be enemies of God, true religion and the church of Christ.”

But Karol Wojtyla was noted among students as an unusual lecturer.

Ordained in 1946, he’d studied in Rome, where he’d gained insight into Pius XII’s dilemmas as he confronted Eastern Europe’s newly installed communist regimes. He’d also visited “worker-priests” in France and Belgium, observing their attempts to rebuild a church presence among secularized industrial communities.

Class struggle is the starting point for Wojtyla’s analysis. Such struggle, he said, is “an evil” that may be justifiable to ensure a “just distribution of goods.”

Catholicism cannot accept, though, “primacy of economics” or materialism as philosophical principles, he wrote. The ability to “choose spiritual goodness” testifies to the “spiritual nature of the human will.”

“In a well-organized society, orientated to the common good, class conflicts are solved peacefully through reforms,” Wojtyla wrote. “But states that base their order on individualistic liberalism are not such societies. So when an exploited class fails to receive in a peaceful way the share of the common good to which it has a right, it has to follow a different path.”

If Marxism regards class struggle as a means of liberation, the “sacred duty of the proletariat,” Catholicism views it differently. It is not a “supreme ethical imperative” and can help achieve the common good “only indirectly and marginally.”

“Despite all the factors which divide people in society (such as cultural levels), or set them against each other (such as attitudes to the means of production), Catholic social ethics assumes there are other deeper, more fundamental factors which unite them and build solidarity,” Wojtyla wrote.

When it comes to demanding justice, though, Wojtyla is unequivocal. Achieving social justice is an element of “building God’s kingdom,” he said. Society has “a strict right, even a duty,” to ensure that just government by controlling its exercise of power and criticizing its mistakes. When this fails, society has a right to passive resistance. And when this fails, it has a final option: “active resistance against a legal but unjust power.”

As the authoritative text, Wojtyla cites Pius XI’s 1927 encyclical Nos Es Muy Conocida, which defended armed resistance against anti-church atrocities by Mexico’s socialist regime a quarter-century before.

Even then, Wojtyla drew a careful distinction between “active resistance” and revolution. Catholic moral theologians, he said, denied that “political revolution” -- the kind envisaged by Marx -- could be ethically justified. This was not because the Catholics were “conservative or opportunist,” he said, but because they knew that “the revolutionary step carries grave consequences for the common good.”

Wojtyla traces communism back to Christian tradition, too, even subtitling one section of his text “The Objective Superiority of the Communist Ideal.” But he makes clear he’s using the term generically to mean common ownership -- the kind of “communism” idealized by philosophers all the way back to Plato.

“According to patristic tradition and the centuries-old practice of monastic life, the church acknowledges the ideal of communism,” he wrote. But given the near impossibility of implementing the ideal, he opted for reforms to ensure social justice “within an economic system based on private property.”

“Human nature suits private property,” he wrote.

Wojtyla wasn’t the only Polish priest saying things about Marxism. He admits drawing on the work of Frs. Jan Piwowarczyk and Andrzej Szymanski, who had pointed to “the revolution’s indirect benefits in speeding up events on a path toward implementing justice.”

Meanwhile, even Poland’s Catholic primate, Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski, claimed in his prison diaries to have “gone through Das Kapital three times,” and makes it clear he’d have supported communist “socioeconomic reform,” if not for the Communist Party’s “narrow atheism.” “Catholic Social Ethics” shows Wojtyla had not only studied Marxism -- along with thinkers from Adam Smith to Nikolai Berdyaev. It also proves he had already worked out how to counter its ideological appeal.

His aim wasn’t to apply Marxism to Christianity. Just the opposite: It was to give Marxist concepts a Christian meaning and win back the ideas of social justice that Marxism had expropriated

The ability to dissect Marxism and reassemble it in a Christian form made him a potentially significant Catholic thinker. It would take him another two decades to perfect this approach in The Acting Person (1969), a book that was studied, much to Wojtyla’s satisfaction, not only by Catholics but also by communists.

But “Catholic Social Ethics” served as a prototype for Wojtyla’s later efforts. Although he hadn’t developed a coherent philosophy of his own, he’d thought out ways of transferring Marxist concepts of alienation and participation to a Christian context. He’d also set down the master concepts that would recur in his sermons in the 1980s.

One was “solidarity,” which became the name of the Polish movement that helped bring communism to a peaceful end in the 1980s.

Credit for uncovering Wojtyla’s unpublished text goes to American journalist Jonathan Kwitny, who devoted a section to it in his Man of the Century (Henry Holt, 1997). Evidence suggests, however, that Kwitny severely distorted what Wojtyla wrote, in an attempt to portray the future pope as a youthful Marxist enthusiast.

Professor Andrzez Szostek, rector of Poland’s Catholic University of Lublin and a former Wojtyla student, said he is aware of “Catholic Society Ethics,” but doesn’t like calling it an “underground text.”

“The term underground applied when authorities didn’t want something published,” he said. “But Wojtyla prepared and wrote down his lectures for himself and his students without ever intending to publish them.”

Fr. Tomasz Styczen, who heads Lublin’s John Paul II Institute, thinks “Catholic Social Ethics” originated as a lecture series at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, before the university’s theology faculty was closed by the communist regime in 1954.

He thinks the text strengthens the likelihood that the pope’s October 1978 election owed something to church figures who knew he had a forceful grasp of Eastern Europe’s predicament, as well as the will and ability to act on it.

“Those who still claim he didn’t read Marxism, or knew it only from secondary sources, are clearly wrong. Every lecture in this collection draws on original Marxist texts,” Styczen said.

Styczen continues: “Wojtyla believed social injustice, and the righteous anger it aroused, represented a failure by those who had accepted unjust conditions in the first place. Marx and Marxism would never have merged if not for terrible injustices. This was why he spoke, and still speaks, about the seeds of truth to be found in them. Yet he also realized early on that Marxism was based on a mistake, since it failed to take account of free choice and personal responsibility.”

Pius XII had branded communism “intrinsically evil.” John XXIII would opt for the “medicine of mercy rather than severity,” and Paul VI would try to “save what could be saved” by showing communists how much they could gain through concessions.

Wojtyla’s approach was different. He saw communism less as an enemy than as a misunderstanding -- a misdirected turn toward a false conception of the world and humanity. To correct any mistake, one had first to understand it, to turn its illusory values into real ones.

National Catholic Reporter, November 5, 1999