THE DIVINE PLAN:
JOHN PAUL II, RONALD REAGAN, AND THE DRAMATIC END OF THE COLD WAR
By Paul Kengor and
ISI Books, 2019
221 pages, $27.95
To order: isibooks.org or amazon.com
Catholics believe that God has a plan for our lives. We believe that God is the Lord of history, not just in biblical times, but today. As our authors are wont to quote St. John Paul II: There are no “coincidences” in God’s designs.
Paul Kengor and Robert Orlando tell the story of three men — St. John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev — from that Providential perspective.
They observe that Karol Wojtyła and President Reagan, actors who came to the highest roles in Church and state through unconventional paths, both believed God had a plan for their lives. Their survival after assassination attempts about six weeks apart reinforced that belief. And they believed that plan entailed bringing down communism. Gorbachev, they claim, was the “providential man,” a Soviet general secretary atypical of his predecessors but without whom, at the right time and place, world history could have ended radically differently.
The secular world might see this as so much self-illusory exaltation, but that would be to misread the protagonists.
Kengor and Orlando do not claim this is how God planned things, but this is how Reagan and Wojtyła might have seen them — and, in retrospect, those conclusions look pretty persuasive.
Borrowing a term that really belongs to Hans Urs von Balthasar, the authors recount the history of these three men’s friendship as a “theo-drama,” a play in which each actor, bringing his talents and sometimes improvisation to the stage of the world, lends his role to the Divine director’s ends. The book is divided into five “acts,” tracing the idea of our lives as drama; the preparation of these two thespians; their arrival at the zenith of their careers, almost cut short by assassination, and the interpretations they drew from that experience; their collaboration, primarily over Poland, in the effort to slay the red dragon; and the conclusion of a free Europe as the two actors exit, stage right.
The book is replete with quotations from people who knew Wojtyła and Reagan, which is perhaps more useful to Orlando’s documentary film companion to this book, The Divine Plan. Kengor had previously developed his ideas in his 637-page book A Pope and a President, of which this book — which adds fresh material — is also a useful distillation. Again, the secular world might expect a highly choreographed Divine script, in which our Providential men are bit actors. That’s not how God works. Quoting George Weigel, “But by June 1982, ‘when these two considerable figures meet,’ theirs is a ‘meeting of men who both believe that they are called to live according to God’s purposes for their lives.’ They pursued such a life by ‘discerning what is possible, what is doable, what is prudent, but also not settling for the world’s notion of what can be done.’”
It didn’t mean being messianic. But, as presidential adviser James Rosebush put it, they had “a sense that they recognized the opportunity before them, the opportunity to work together and what they could accomplish.” Or, as John O’Sullivan puts it, their collaboration “took the form of ‘a de facto alliance.’”
Their “alliance” was not one, however, of calculated political interest: who gets what from whom. As Frank Shakespeare, former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, put it, “they were kindred spirits and kindred souls.” Kengor and Orlando see their collaboration as more than a zero-sum game of political advantage: It was a vision of human dignity and freedom as such, translated into the fields in which they labored — religion and politics.
A fascinating, popularized read, much of this book will depend on future declassification of relevant archives. Of course, God’s plans are inscrutable. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand them.
John M. Grondelski, Ph.D.,
Falls Church, Virginia.