Geopolitics And An Asian Pope

Communism’s greatest enemy has traditionally been organized religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church. The beginnings of the Soviet empire’s unraveling can be traced to 6:15 pm on October 16, 1978, when Poland’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope and took the name John Paul II.

Upon hearing of Wojtyla’s election, Soviet KGB chief Yuri Andropov called a subordinate in Warsaw and asked: “How could you possibly allow the election of a citizen of a socialist country as pope?” Andropov ordered the KGB’s First Chief Directorate to assess this development’s consequences. The KGB report warned about Poland’s potential destabilization and the end of the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Central Committee conducted its own assessment and concluded that the new pope would work for religious freedom in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe.

George Weigel, John Paul II’s best biographer, noted that the election of a Slavic Pope who was “capable of addressing the restive peoples of the external and internal Soviet empires in their own languages, was a nightmare beyond the worst dreams of the masters of the Kremlin.” “The new Pope,” Weigel continued, “posed a serious threat, not simply to the Warsaw Pact, but to the Soviet Union itself.”

John Paul II moved cautiously but forcefully to buttress religious resistance to communist tyranny throughout Eastern Europe and within the Soviet Union itself. In March 1979, the Pope wrote a letter to Czechoslovakian Catholic leaders urging religious resistance to political tyranny. That same month, John Paul II sent a letter to a Ukrainian cardinal defending the idea of universal religious freedom.

Most dramatically, between June 2 and 10, 1979, the Pope made his first pilgrimage to Poland, what George Weigel later called “Nine Days That Changed the World.” The world witnessed an outpouring of love and faith among Poles that demonstrated their allegiance to their faith and the Catholic Church over the communist state. “A revolution of the spirit,” Weigel wrote, “had been unleashed.”

Malachi Martin wrote that John Paul II showed that he was more than a religious leader; he was a “geopolitical pope.” Martin explained it this way: “[T]he Pontiff’s first step into the geopolitical arena was eastward into Poland, the underbelly of the Soviet Union. In John Paul’s geopolitical analysis, Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals is a giant seesaw of power. Europe from the Baltic to the Atlantic Sea is the center of that power. The Holy Father’s battle was to control that center.” “From now on,” wrote Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, “...thunderbolts against Communist ideology would be hurled from the chair of St. Peter.”

A year later, the independent Polish trade union Solidarity was born. John Paul II and his Polish followers had shaken the empire. It would never fully recover. The Pope, as Paul Kengor has noted, formed an informal alliance with the Reagan administration, many of whose upper-tier national security advisers were Catholic (Secretary of State Alexander Haig, National Security Advisers Richard Allen and William Clark, CIA Director William Casey, and special envoy Vernon Walters). President Reagan and Pope John Paul II shared the same goal -- to liberate the subject peoples of the Soviet empire.

By 1988, George Weigel writes, “the seeds of resistance [John Paul] had sown in east central Europe began to flower.” The Soviet empire gradually and mostly peacefully began to disintegrate. There were, of course, economic and political reasons for the Soviet Union’s fall, but John Paul’s contribution was large. His determined spiritual leadership and courage answered Josef Stalin’s rhetorical question: “How many divisions does the pope have?”

The great communist power of the 21st century is China, a large Eurasian country run by a regime every bit as ruthless and cunning as the former Soviet Union, but that also shares some of the Soviet Union’s vulnerabilities. There are an estimated 10 million Catholics in China. Other major religions include Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Protestants, and members of Falun Gong. The Chinese Communist regime persecutes all religions, including the so-called underground Catholic Church. Religious minorities and nationalities in China want independence and freedom.

The late Chinese Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-mei of Shanghai, for example, was imprisoned for 30 years for defying the CCP and professing loyalty to the Pope. John Paul II met with Cardinal Kung in the Vatican in 1988 and acknowledged the cardinal’s courage and steadfastness of faith. There is a moving photograph of that meeting that shows John Paul hugging and kissing Cardinal Kung on the forehead.

Pope Francis and the current Vatican leadership have sought accommodation with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), recently renewing a “secret deal” that gives the CCP a significant role in selecting bishops. The Pope has encouraged Chinese clergy to join the state-run church and has been accused of delaying the beatification process of Cardinal Kung so as not to offend the CCP. The Wall Street Journal has called Francis’ deal with China “unholy.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has been openly critical of Pope Francis’s concessions to the CCP on the selection of China’s bishops and other matters. He has labeled Francis’ approach to the CCP “appeasement.” Cardinal Zen has vigorously and repeatedly denounced China’s human rights violations, including its repression of religious organizations throughout China. He has been joined in these criticisms by Cardinal Charles Muang Bo of Burma and Cardinal Ignatius Suharyo of Indonesia. The courage and steadfastness of these three Asian cardinals are reminiscent of John Paul II.

Perhaps when Pope Francis’ papacy ends, it will be time for an Asian Pope -- an Asian prelate with the qualities, character, and geopolitical savvy of John Paul II. Perhaps that Pope will, like John Paul II, shake the foundations of another communist empire. And then the CCP may learn -- as the Kremlin did -- how many divisions the Pope has.

IMAGE: John Paul II’s first visit to Poland in 1979. Public domain.

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