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Did Karol Wojtyla See and Rescue the Good in Marxism?

BY Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolantababiuch

Jan 26-Feb. 1, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/26/97 at 2:00 PM

 

WHEN A NEW film by Poland's award-winning director Krzysztof Zanussi is released this spring, it's likely to raise some eyebrows.The script for Brat Naszego Boga (Brother of Our God) was written by a Catholic priest half-a-century ago.Some viewers may have trouble believing the priest in question was Karol Wojtyla, who finished it in 1949, three years after his ordination.

If they do, it will merely confirm that attitudes toward the Pope are still highly-colored by his role in the struggle against communism — and often neglect the passionate concern for social justice that has been ever-present in his thoughts and actions.

Brother of Our God tells the true story of a Polish painter, Adam Chmielowski (1845-1916) who lost a leg at age 18 while fighting the Russians in Poland's January 1863 uprising.Later, after a religious conversion, he changed his name to Brother Albert and founded a new Franciscan order in Krakow.It also tells a great deal about the young Karol Wojtyla — and about the bitter and prolonged political and ideological struggle of his early years.

When Wojtyla moved to Krakow as a student in 1938, locals still remembered the tall, limping figure of Chmielowski pushing his cart around the cobbled streets begging alms for the poor. Brother Albert's life story embodied two kinds of heroism — revolutionary struggle and self-denying charity.The Polish Pope showed his gratitude on Nov.12 1989 by declaring Adam Chmielowski a saint.In Brother of Our God, Chmielowski rejects the paternalistic philanthropy of the 19th century Church, and is full of venom for those who appease their consciences with charitable donations — who “for a few zloties here and there demand the right to a peaceful isolation.”

He also rejects the notions of his liberal artist friend Maks, who believes the human person exists independently of social and economic factors and can be left to drift uncertainly between competing forces and pressures.Instead, Chmielowski concurs with another character, Nieznajomy, that revolutionary upheavals are inevitable and necessary by-products of social injustice, which can only be avoided through a vigorous solidarity with the poor.

Nieznajomy (his name means “unknown”) personifies Europe's socialist movement.His ideas derive from Polish Romantic literature, echoing the rebel Pankracy in Zygmunt Krasinski's Nieboska Komedia, with accents from the Russian Dostoevsky.But Chmielowski parts company with Nieznajomy when it comes to revolutionary methods.For one thing, Nieznajomy's approach to social justice is anonymous and indiscriminate.For another, he believes in common responsibility — whole classes are branded guilty for contemporary social evils.

Nieznajomy manipulates emotions to harness the destructive anger of the exploited.But he knows little of the real-life hardships of the “street people” for whom he claims to speak.The “revolution” he helps ignite merely brings new injustices and division.In its place, Chmielowski develops his own idea of mercy that recognizes each person's inherent dignity.This does not mean passivity.Poverty and injustice, he readily concedes, should indeed awaken real anger.

“There's a difference between summoning forth this righteous anger; letting it ripen and emerge as a creative force — and exploiting the anger, abusing it as a material tool,” Chmielowski insists. “But I knew about this anger — this great, just anger.I knew it would explode, and continue exploding because it is just.”

Nieznajomy, for his part, is contemptuous of Chmielowski's “mercy,” believing it papers over conflicts and postpones muchneeded changes. “Watch out for those apostles of mercy: they are our enemies,” is the revolutionary's final response.

Clearly, we find Wojtyla retracing his own dilemmas through Chmielowski's personal anguish.Like Chmielowski, he had also given up art and politics for the more interior life of a priest.But like most of his generation, he had also thought through Marxist options at a time when the “new science” was locked in a mortal struggle with Christianity.As a literature student in 1938-9, Wojtyla had known the tense radical atmosphere of pre-war Krakow, when most contemporaries sensed they faced a choice between Soviet-style communism and fasciststyle nationalism.

Dubbed “the Socialist” by fellow students, Wojtyla had had left-wing friends, such as Tadeusz Holuj who survived Auschwitz and became a Communist Party activist.He had known rightwingers too, including members of Poland's extreme nationalist Falanga, with their declared aim of destroying communism through “the power of ideas and the power of fists.” It was the Left's predominance that helped bring about a positive public response to communism after World War II, when many saw in the new Marxist program hope for a world of peace and justice.Forced to choose, Wojtyla rejected the path of Marxist revolution and retreated to the high ground of Christianity.He did so not out of concern for the preservation of social order, which had traditionally motivated Church leaders, but out of reasoned conviction.

He was well aware of the powerful moral and ideological challenge posed by Marxism, and knew the Church's otherworldly response would be found wanting by new societies that no longer accepted the worn-out formulations of the past. Returning from a summer 1947 trip to France and Belgium, Wojtyla was enthused about the “living testimony” provided by “worker priests.”

“This school, as very often happens with new trends in the Church, is making an effort to return to the Gospel's spirit of simplicity and engagement,” he wrote in Krakow's Tygodnik Powszechny Catholic weekly. “The proletariat does not accept new teaching without a struggle.But this should not disappoint the lay and clerical pioneers.They understand that some types of culture are disappearing, that certain once-vibrant traditions are now just empty [husks].”

Wojtyla's article was approved uncut by Poland's communist censors as a view from the “progressive clergy.” Just three years, later Pope Pius XII deplored the “alarming spread of revolutionary ideas” among the priests Wojtyla had lauded.Pope Pius curbed their activities in 1953 by which time adherents of the movement were arguing that the Church needed desembourgeoisement and should learn from Marxist analysis.

That was four years after Wojtyla had finished Brother of Our God.It had taken him five years to write about how to tackle the dilemmas over how to fight for social justice.Even then, he came up with several versions, and decided against publishing the play — perhaps out of fear that the communists could exploit it, but more likely because it was too personal and selfrevealing. Only in 1979, four decades later, was the play finally published in the Tygodnik Powszechny.By then, its tormented reflections had become those of the leader of the Catholic Church.

Was it all just the idealism of youth? As a lecturer at Poland's Catholic University of Lublin in the 1950s, Wojtyla was sparing in his public remarks about Marxism, never portraying himself as an outright anti-communist.

He talked about Marxism in private, and appeared to have read up on it extensively.His notes and articles contain references to dialectical materialism and class warfare.Like other priests, he saw Marxism as a form of atheism — an “atheist utilitarianism” that had emerged from false doctrines.But as a philosophical challenge, it deserved to be understood rather than just condemned, he appeared to believe.

Yet the ethical intentions of Marxists, Wojtyla noted, could be acknowledged too.Their principles and ideals ‘are those of Christian ethics, minus the reference to God which gives Christian ethics a religious character,’ he said.

Christianity's struggle for justice was based on the universal commandment of love, whereas Marxism restricted the struggle to a righteous class against its exploiters.Yet the ethical intentions of Marxists, Wojtyla noted, could be acknowledged too.Their principles and ideals “are those of Christian ethics, minus the reference to God which gives Christian ethics a religious character,” he said.

“Christian ethics cannot be based on class, since it must be universal.But it understands the struggle for justice,” Wojtyla wrote in 1938. “The history of the human spirit cannot be separated from the history of its material bodily existence.Because of this, the struggle the Church undertakes within humanity and for humanity does not occur independently of a struggle in the economic and political sphere.”

Not until 1959, when Wojtyla was a cardinal, did he finally offer a really coherent answer to Marxism with a new book, Osoba i Czyn (The Acting Person), intended as a rebuff to a new work by Adam Schaff, Poland's foremost Marxist scholar. Marxism's fundamental mistake, Wojtyla concluded, was anthropological — its economic and social failures derived from a misunderstanding of human nature.After the cataclysms of the 20th century, it was essential to understand why so many had succumbed to its siren's song.Marxism postulated that the “acting person” could become master of history, but that he was also a product of social forces who needed a correct praxis.Wojtyla's task was to find a counter-proposition to this Marxist vision of man.

Marxists saw activism as a duty, where personal interests were sacrificed for humanity's betterment.Wojtyla set out to rediscover the link between this kind of activism and Christian ethics.The human person fulfills himself by his actions,” he acknowledged; and the actions performed shape the world and mark the course of history.But good and bad actions are determined by free choice, personal effort and responsibility — not the moral determinism found in Marxism.

Thus, The Acting Person presented a positive, systematic rereading of Marxist values, stage by stage.Wojtyla dissected and refuted Marxism's conception of the world.Then, he gradually reassembled it in a Christian form, using concepts — alienation, exploitation, inequality — that Marxism had expropriated.

For all his imperfections, Wojtyla concluded, man is destined to be a participant in events.But what kind of participant? Wojtyla rejected both “individualism” and “totalism.” Instead, he offered a concept that he called “solidarity.”

“Solidarity means corporate integrity — the duties we expect from others and the rights we demand for others.And the attitude of solidarity goes together with the duty of opposition,” the future Pope wrote.Afull 11 years would elapse before a social movement bearing the same name erupted in his native Poland.

That notion of solidarity — of civil opposition as a form of social love — had found expression elsewhere in the world since Vatican II.But in Wojtyla's hands the correcting of injustices became a task to be carried out in common.Involuntary resignation or non-participation — attitudes often resorted to under communism — were no defense.It was wrong to allow oneself to be “carried along with the anonymous majority.” Besides being “sensitive” to social issues, it was also necessary to act.

Of course, deciding how to act required judgment and discernment. Those who were serious about redeeming humanity would not waste time on utopian dreams of structural transformation.

Instead, they would trouble themselves to think out the values and principles most in need of safeguarding — those that would enable the human being to achieve self-realization despite the oppressive structures that stood in his or her way. This was the aim of Catholic social teaching.Catholics believed, as Wojtyla had written in 1957, that “the ideology proclaimed by the Gospel” offered the best means of survival.But they should be just as aggressive and determined when it came to defending the poor and downtrodden.

Re-reading Wojtyla's early works today, the well-known adage that he's “conservative” in ethics and religion, but “radical” on social and economic issues becomes apparent.But that should hardly come as a surprise.After all, it's only through a Catholic combination of both that the age-old stereotype will be corrected — that the Left is tough on social justice but weak on questions of morality, and the Right strong on morals but indifferent to human suffering.

Whoever overcomes this stereotype will set the political agenda for the 21st century.And they&apso;ll owe much to Pope John Paul II, not least the idea that the 20th century's rival reforming currents could be purified by the Christian message that revealed their original humanitarian meaning.

The 80th anniversary of Brother Albert's death was commemorated in Krakow on Christmas Day.Perhaps that's one reason why the Pope, who owns the copyright to his work, agreed belatedly to allow Brother of Our God to be turned into a film by Zanussi.But perhaps, in the twilight of his life, John Paul II also hopes to reveal a side of himself that's hardly known — the passionate yearning for the rights of the poor that dominated his path to Rome.

Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch are authors of a soon-to-be-published book with the working title of When the Counsellor Comes: Pope John Paul II and the Collapse of Communism.