(Editor’s note: Today marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Pope John Paul II. This commentary, written shortly after his death in 2005, recounts the vital role he played in toppling the Soviet Union and his life-long support of liberty and freedom.)
You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic — and despite what my family name may suggest, I’m not — to appreciate the contributions that John Paul II made to freedom, economic and otherwise.
His achievements in advancing freedom were many: revealing the lies of totalitarian ideologies through his life and teaching; encouraging a civil society in communist Poland; and applauding the role of entrepreneurship.
Perhaps it is because he lived as a young man under both Nazism and Communism that he understood better than most the moral failings of an overreaching state.
Totalitarians, whether German Nazis, Soviet Communists, or anyone else, hold all forms of freedom in contempt.
In that environment, ordinary acts of life become acts of courage. While living under Nazi rule, Karol Wojtyla (as John Paul was known before becoming pope) organized an underground theater. At a time when a "Pole could be shot for going to the theatre and even for speaking Polish in the wrong place," Wojtyla carried the banner of freedom. His underground seminary studies were another testimony to his determination to live in freedom even in the face of oppressive government.
Freedom requires that citizens create space between themselves and the government. As the columnist Anne Applebaum recounts from her days living in Poland in the 1980s, the church there was the space for human freedom. One of its contributions, she wrote, was in "offering people a safe place to meet and intellectually offering them an alternative way of thinking about the world." While the novel "1984" described a year in which an all-encompassing state practiced mind control, people actually living in the year 1984 had created space for a civil society by drawing on the example and teaching of the pope.
While totalitarian regimes depend on fear to maintain control, John Paul’s watchword, from his very first sermon as pontiff, was, "Be Not Afraid." His visit to Poland a short time after becoming pope is widely credited with undermining the authority of the Communist regime there, and ultimately, in all of Eastern Europe. As Applebaum notes, "It wasn't a coincidence that Poles found the courage, a year later, to organize Solidarity."
PROCLAIMING THE VALUE OF FREEDOM
John Paul’s support for freedom came not only through providing inspiration and teaching to Poland, acts that would eventually lead to the dissolution of the entire Soviet empire, but to his subsequent teachings.
One of his most well known encyclicals, "Centesimus Annus," was issued shortly after the fall of communist states in Europe. In it, John Paul offered a lengthy commentary on the events of 1989, Marxism, capitalism and morality.
While ideological partisans should be careful not to claim more support from the pope than his teachings merit, "Centesimus Annus" offers a strong endorsement of giving civil society a wide berth.
In response to the question of whether capitalism is "the victorious social system," the pope writes: "If by ‘capitalism’ is meant the economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative."
By contrast, the failure of communist government stems in part from "the inefficiency of the economic system." Its inefficiency in turn is the "consequence of the violation of the human rights to provide initiative, to ownership of property and to freedom in the economic sector." John Paul also blamed the all-encompassing nature of the old regime for using government power to absorb culture. "Where society is so organized" to "suppress the sphere in which freedom is legitimately exercised, the result is that the life of society becomes progressively disorganized and goes into decline."
While it is sometimes assumed that self-interest, a key part of economic thought since Adam Smith, is somehow in conflict with religious teaching, John Paul saw things differently. "Where self‑interest is violently suppressed," he warned, "it is replaced by a burdensome system of bureaucratic control which dries up the wellsprings of initiative and creativity."
While John Paul gives self-interested behavior a significant role, he is also careful to ground it within legal and moral frameworks. In other words, his support for free markets comes with qualifications that will please or displease various ideological partisans to some degree. But as Richard John Neuhaus noted in his May 1991 commentary on "Centesimus Annus," published in The Wall Street Journal, the encyclical’s teaching is based, in part, on a principle that is key to economic freedom: "The individual, his free associations, and society itself are all prior to the state in both dignity and rights."
While John Paul’s scholarship was of course grounded in Catholic doctrine concerning God, man and other topics, an appreciation of John Paul’s contributions to economic freedom can transcend most any sectarian dispute.
John R. LaPlante is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited