The Fourth of July and St. John Paul II: A Polish Pope With a Heart for the US

What John Paul II’s respect for the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and freedom can teach us today.

Pope John Paul II holds his crozier to his face during the Mass he celebrated on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 1979. At his side is Msgr. Virgilio Noe of the Vatican.
Pope John Paul II holds his crozier to his face during the Mass he celebrated on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 7, 1979. At his side is Msgr. Virgilio Noe of the Vatican. (photo: AP photo/Paul Vathis)

Every Fourth of July, the United States commemorates its Founders’ dedication to our unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — rights endowed by our Creator.

One person who greatly respected what those Founders did was a Polish pope, St. John Paul II.

John Paul II expressed that admiration a number of times, including on U.S. soil. Two occasions particularly stand out: his visits to the United States in October 1979 and September 1987.

John Paul II’s speech to the United Nations on his inaugural trip to America was only the second papal appearance before the international body, behind only Paul VI. It came on Oct. 2, a striking oration in length alone, traversing 6,700 words of text and requiring a full hour.

“Every human being living on earth is a member of a civil society,” said the Pope. “Each one of you, distinguished ladies and gentlemen, represents a particular state, system and political structure, but what you represent above all are individual human beings … each of them a subject endowed with dignity as a human person.”

This was an unmistakable affirmation of humanity’s inherent dignity. It was a public enunciation of the message of his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis.

The Pope drew attention to a “systematic threat to man in his unalienable rights in the modern world.” He called out “forms of injustice in the field of the spirit,” namely man’s “inner relationship with truth, in his conscience, in his most personal belief, in his view of the world, in his religious faith, and in the sphere of what are known as civil liberties.” He was especially concerned with threats to religious freedom, “which I, as pope, am bound to have particularly at heart.”

He quoted from the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae: “In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore bearing personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.”

In what was a reference to the repression of Soviet communism, but which now stands timeless as we in America face our own threats to freedom of religion and conscience, John Paul II continued the quotation from the Council’s declaration on religious freedom: “The practice of religion of its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a human being directly sets his course towards God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind.” The Holy Father said that these words related directly to the “confrontation between the religious view of the world and the agnostic or even atheistic view, which is one of the ‘signs of the times’ of the present age.”

That insight in 1979 could not be more timely, given that we Christians in America and the West today, in 2019, confront the hostility of agnostics and atheists in our present age, who demand we conform to their worldly redefinitions of everything from marriage and family to sexuality and gender and even unborn human life.

As to the latter, John Paul II, in further emphasizing the “respect for the dignity of the human person,” noted that the United Nations had proclaimed 1979 the “Year of the Child.” The emerging champion of a “culture of life” certainly appreciated this — notably, only six years after Roe v. Wade. He implored the international audience to respect life from its earliest stages: “Concern for the child, even before birth, from the first moment of conception and then throughout the years of infancy and youth, is the primary and fundamental test of the relationship of one human being to another.”

It was another powerful statement that echoes to our current age.

The same can be said of John Paul II’s September 1987 visit, which began in Miami early in the afternoon of Sept. 10 — the start of a 10-day, nine-city tour.

There to greet John Paul II as he disembarked from his Alitalia jetliner was President Ronald Reagan. After cordial greetings, the Pope and the president both gave short remarks.

Reagan quoted the Second Vatican Council and the distinguished Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who had elegantly written: “The Founding Fathers were neither metaphysicians nor theologians, but their philosophy of life and their political philosophy, their notion of natural law and of human rights, were permeated with concepts worked out by Christian reason and backed up by an unshakeable religious feeling.” These were concepts that most definitely appealed to John Paul II. Reagan added: “Our nation embraced the belief that the individual is sacred and that as God himself respects human liberty, so, too, must the state.”

The Supreme Pontiff reciprocated. Speaking in slow but steady English, he heralded what would be a theme of his visit: his great respect for the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the nation’s triumph on behalf of “unalienable human rights” and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

To that end, the Holy Father’s most revealing remarks came later that Thursday, Sept. 10, with a formal address at Miami’s Vizcaya Museum. The Holy Father expressed to the president and American people “my own deep respect for the constitutional structure of this democracy.”

He conveyed his admiration for the U.S. Constitution, the 200th anniversary of which was being acknowledged that very month. “It is a time to recognize the meaning of that document and to reflect on important aspects of the constitutionalism that produced it,” he averred. “It is a time to recall the original American political faith with its appeal to the sovereignty of God.”

John Paul hailed the “moral and spiritual principles” and “ethical concerns” that “influenced your Founding Fathers” and how they had been incorporated into the “experience of America.” He underscored the “unalienable rights given by the Creator.”

Unlike many modern Americans, including many of our elite judicial and political minds, this Pope keenly grasped that the greatness of America was its freedom, but so long as that freedom was navigated by the light of God’s guidance. “Among the many admirable values of this nation there is one that stands out in particular,” he said. “It is freedom. … Freedom is a great gift, a great blessing of God.”

John Paul II then spoke of a critically important concept likewise not understood today: the need to pursue an “ordered freedom.”

“From the beginning of America, freedom was directed to forming a well-ordered society,” he said. “Freedom was channeled to the fullness of human life, to the preservation of human dignity and to the safeguarding of all human rights. An experience in ordered freedom is truly a cherished part of the history of this land.” It was this “freedom that America is called to live and guard and to transmit.”

It was an “ordered freedom” that Americans must conserve and preserve.

The Pontiff drilled down, emphatically emphasizing this proper exercise of freedom. “The only true freedom, the only freedom that can truly satisfy, is the freedom to do what we ought as human beings created by God according to his plan,” said the Pope. “It is the freedom to live the truth of what we are and who we are before God. … That is why Jesus Christ linked truth and freedom together.”

He concluded: “Freedom is indeed a great gift of God to this nation.” And yet, freedom must “observe God’s law, which is the supreme standard of all human liberty.”

Think about that. The Pope was saying that freedom isn’t about the freedom to do whatever one wants. That’s license. That is not the Christian conception of freedom.

As stated by his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, the West today suffers from a “confused ideology of freedom.” We are badly misunderstanding what freedom genuinely means, and thus we find ourselves awash in a dictatorship of relativism that ultimately undermines freedom, particularly religious liberty.

Sadly, it’s a vital lesson from the founding that Americans today are not learning.

Nevertheless, we can take heart from St. John Paul II. Religious liberty was something that he grasped profoundly. This Polish pope knew that freedom was a blessing, but it was a blessing bestowed by a Creator who endowed us with certain unalienable rights. It was and remains our duty to know from where and who those rights come and to exercise them properly. And as the U.S. prepares to celebrate its 243rd birthday, we would do well to remember that.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. His books include

A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century

and The Divine Plan: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Dramatic End of the Cold War.