St. John Paul II’s Seven Lessons for Statesmen (and Sinners)

In his William E. Simon lecture Feb. 4, George Weigel said that John Paul II’s wisdom in statecraft offers a model for today.

George Weigel delivers the 2015 William E. Simon lecture Feb. 4 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
George Weigel delivers the 2015 William E. Simon lecture Feb. 4 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. (photo: Ethics and Public Policy Center)

WASHINGTON — St. John Paul II’s pontificate offers seven valuable lessons on exercising prudence in the modern world, according to the saint’s Witness to Hope biographer.

“No pope, going back to St. Peter, gets everything right,” said George Weigel, director of Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), a Washington think tank dedicated to “applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”

Asked Weigel, “So what does it mean for a pope to exercise prudence in a heroic and exemplary way?”

Weigel was delivering the William E. Simon lecture at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on Feb. 4 called: “St. John Paul II: Lessons for Statesmen (and Sinners).”

Weigel said Pope John Paul II was a pastor who refused the role of “diplomat” or “politician,” but, instead, used “moral witness” to become “the most politically consequential pope in centuries.”

The Witness to Hope biographer said he found that any pope’s heroic exercise of prudence lay in “the steady determination to make decisions about situations and personalities without fear and without seeking favor” and “always trying to bring one’s best judgments on circumstances and people to bear, even if that involves difficulties and costs.”

He added that a pope’s heroic prudence also included a great ability to read “the signs of the times” in a way that “opens up opportunities for evangelically inspired action.”

When it came to St. John Paul II, Weigel said seven lessons could be learned “from the global statecraft of a saint who had a real impact in what the ‘punditocracy’ likes to call the real world.”


'Culture Comes First’

“The first lesson: Culture comes first,” Weigel said.

He said John Paul II’s statecraft was based on the realization that culture “is, was and always will be the most dynamic force in history”: both in terms of resisting tyranny, but also sustaining free societies.

“Moreover, he understood that the center of culture is cult or religion: what people believe, cherish and worship; what people are willing to stake their lives and their children’s lives on,” he said.

Weigel pointed out that St. John Paul II did not speak about economics or politics when he made his nine-day pilgrimage to Poland in 1979, but he appealed instead to Poles’ history, culture and national self-understanding.

“By returning to his people the truth about themselves, he helped them form tools of liberation that were essentially moral and cultural in nature” that culminated in the 1989 revolution in Poland, led by the Solidarity movement.

The second lesson, he added, was: “Ideas count for good or for ill.”

Weigel noted that John Paul II had personally experienced the horrific consequences of Hitler’s Nazi ideology and Stalin’s communist ideology, which led to the deaths of tens of millions, including friends and classmates. But he also experienced “the regenerative power of noble ideas, such as Christian democracy,” whose leaders, such as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer, helped rebuild Europe in the aftermath of World War II and set the foundation for what later would become the European Union.

“What was more crucial in John Paul II’s view was the idea of the human person being proposed.”

Weigel noted that democratic statesmen must take ideas, and the conflict over them, as seriously as measures of gross national product or military capability.

“Neither wealth nor military power will be usefully deployed in the cause of freedom in the 21st century, if the will to do so is not present,” he said, adding that such a will is unlikely “if the political culture of the West continues to be eroded by skepticism, relativism and irony, by an anthropology that reduces people to a bundle of desires and a nihilism that mocks all moral and religious convictions.”


Putin and Iran

The third lesson from St. John Paul II’s statecraft Weigel proposed was: “Don’t psychologize the adversary.”

“He understood that bad guys behave badly because of who they are, what they espouse and what they seek, not because of anything we did to them.”

In the modern context, Weigel said statesmen should acknowledge Vladimir Putin’s agenda in Eastern Europe and the Shiite mullahs’ pursuit of nuclear weapons for Iran as being driven by their own ideologies, not reactions to U.S. policy that can be pacified through behavioral changes.

“The fourth lesson,” Weigel stated, was: “Speak loudly and be supple, deploying whatever sticks, big or small, you have at hand.”

He said the Vatican’s previous diplomatic strategy under Blessed Paul VI, called Ostpolitik, had “avoided public condemnations of communism’s human-rights violations for the sake of reaching diplomatic agreements with Warsaw Pact countries,” but had demoralized the Church in several Eastern Bloc nations.

St. John Paul II was “shrewd enough not to dismantle” the existing Vatican diplomatic effort begun by Paul VI, but restored the Catholic Church’s voice in challenging human-rights violations by adding his own “papal megaphone.”

“Time and time again, in venue after venue, John Paul II lifted up the first freedom, religious freedom, and brought his case before the world in his 1979 address to the U.N. General Assembly.”

The papal megaphone allowed the Church to realize it had a champion, inspiring the Church in Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, the late pope also knew how not to overshadow local leaders and could work behind the scenes supporting their efforts for human rights, which he did in Chile, Argentina and the Philippines.

“Thus the lesson for the 21st-century statesmen: Moral pressure can be an important lever in world politics, but effective human-rights advocacy and democracy promotion requires dexterity,” in both diplomacy and the battle of ideas, Weigel said.


‘Listen to the Martyrs’

The fifth lesson was: “Listen to the martyrs.”

”To his mind, the witness of these brave men and women, living and dead, helped strengthen a religiously informed cultural resistance to communism, because it embodied in a unique way the moral pressure that could and should be exerted on communist regimes at their greatest point of vulnerability,” Weigel said.

St. John Paul II made visible gestures of solidarity with the local Church in Ukraine and Lithuania, a pattern that continued throughout his pontificate. His example should inform how statesmen and Churchmen approach the transition to a post-communist future for China and Cuba as well as toward Christian communities afflicted by extremist forms of Islam.

Weigel said the sixth lesson was: “Think long-term, and do not sacrifice core principles to what seems to be an immediate advantage.”

He pointed out that St. John Paul II declined an opportunity to engage in a national dialogue with the Jaruzelski regime, because the Church would have replaced the Solidarity movement, which he saw “was the proper representative of Polish civil society.”

“The Church cannot be a partisan political actor,” in John Paul’s thinking, Weigel said, “because that contradicted the Eucharistic character of the Church.” The Church forms people, who form civil society, who then form the institutions tasked with the work of politics.


Imperative of the Gospel

The seventh and final lesson was: “Media reality is not necessarily reality, and statesmen cannot play acolyte to such narratives.”

He pointed out that The New York Times predicted St. John Paul II’s 1979 pilgrimage to Poland “does not threaten the political order of the nation and of Eastern Europe,” but events in history proved otherwise.

“Church leaders, clerical and lay, who respond to media-generated narratives about the Catholic Church, rather than to the imperatives of the Gospel, are not going to advance the evangelical mission of the Church or the cause of human dignity and freedom.”

He concluded that St. John Paul II offered a lesson in “not submitting to the tyranny of the possible” defined by conventional wisdom and low expectations.

“Because he believed more deeply and thus saw more clearly, he discerned sources of renewal in the Church where others saw only decay. And he saw openings for freedom where others saw only impenetrable walls.”

He added, “By refusing to bend to the tyranny of the possible, he helped make what seemed impossible not only possible, but real.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.