Pope John Paul II’s considerable effect on our times is conceded by admirers and critics alike. The imprint of the shoes of this fisherman can be found throughout the new democracies of east central Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. His critique of “real existing democracy” has helped define the key moral issues of public life in the developed democracies and in the complex world of international institutions. Some sober analysts of papal history argue that one must return to the early thirteenth century, to Pope Innocent III, to find a pontificate with such a marked influence on contemporary public life.
Yet there is a paradox here: the “political” impact of this pontificate, unlike that of Innocent III, has not come from deploying what political realists recognize as the instruments of political power. Rather, the Pope’s capacity to shape history has been exercised through a different set of levers.
As Bishop of Rome and sovereign of the Vatican City micro-state, John Paul has no military or economic power at his disposal. The Holy See maintains an extensive network of diplomatic relations and holds Permanent Observer status at the United Nations. But whatever influence John Paul has had through these channels simply underscores the fact that the power of his papacy lies in a charism of moral persuasion capable of being translated into political effectiveness.
This paradox—political effectiveness achieved without the normal instruments of political power—is interesting in itself. It also has heuristic value. It tells us something about the nature of politics at the dawn of a new millennium. Contrary to notions widely accepted since the late eighteenth century, the public impact of John Paul II suggests that politics (understood as the contest for power), or economics, or some combination of politics and economics, is not the only, or perhaps even the primary, engine of history. The revolution of conscience that John Paul ignited in June 1979 in Poland—the moral revolution that made the Revolution of 1989 possible—is simply not explicable in conventional political or economic categories. John Paul’s public accomplishment has provided empirical ballast for intellectual and moral challenges to several potent modern theories of politics, including French revolutionary Jacobinism, Marxism-Leninism, and utilitarianism. The political world just doesn’t work the way the materialists claim.
At the end of a century in which it was widely agreed that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun,” the paradox in the public impact of John Paul II also reminds us of five other truths: that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change; that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past; that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world; that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities.
In sum, and precisely because it has not been mediated through the “normal” instruments of political power, the “worldly accomplishment” of John Paul II has helped free us from the tyranny of politics. By demonstrating in action the linkage between profound moral conviction and effective political power, this pontificate has helped restore politics to its true dignity while keeping politics within its proper sphere.
The distinctive modus operandi of this politically potent Pope also suggests something about the future of the papacy, the world’s oldest institutional office, and about Catholicism in the third millennium of its history.
Those five truths aside from power through violence are worth emphasizing:
- that the power of the human spirit can ignite world-historical change;
- that tradition can be as potent a force for social transformation as a self-consciously radical rupture with the past;
- that moral conviction can be an Archimedean lever for moving the world;
- that “public life” and “politics” are not synonymous; and
- that a genuinely humanistic politics always depends upon a more fundamental constellation of free associations and social institutions in which we learn the truth about ourselves as individuals and as members of communities