Acton Commentary

A Dutch Protestant Reflection on a Polish Catholic Pope


I am an ordained Protestant of the Reformed or Dutch Calvinist persuasion. My experience with Catholics, specifically Polish Catholics, began in the neighborhood in which I was raised. Most on my block were either Dutch Reformed or Polish Catholics. The line between us was bright and clear. Each attended their own church and school (non-public) and each kept to their own kind. A marriage between children would be a scandal for both families. Nothing in my childhood challenged this reality. Little in my college or various seminary experiences countered what I learned in my youth.

Interaction with co-workers and friends who are Catholic and reading on my own resulted in a deeper understanding of recent history. These things also led me from an interest in to a profound appreciation for Pope John Paul II. John Paul II was the pope of human liberty and human dignity. His upbringing in Poland under the rule of various forms of totalitarianism taught him a lesson via negativa that he would never forget, even in his death.

John Paul's vision of society holds things in tension. He was about neither complete freedom nor enforced virtue. Freedom and virtue are intertwined. They are dependent on one another. Liberty is the context within which people make virtuous choices. Liberty, for Pope John Paul II, was not some ethereal concept. The 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus was a call to Catholics and, indeed, to all Christians, to take freedom seriously, especially in the realm of economics. It is not an endorsement of a particular economic structure. His condemnation of communism was matched by his fear that those emerging from totalitarianism would immerse themselves in consumerism.

The pope's vision and perspective were always broader than particular issues in a given political or economic situation. What is remarkable is his vision of liberty and morality. Christians in business are not participating in necessary evil. Rather, they are called to elevate their thinking so that their work became their vocation and one of the prime means by which they serve God.

Pope John Paul II knew that pervasive welfare states could never match the salvific power of private charity for both the wealthy and the poor. Liberation theology, with its bizarre mixture of Marxism and Christian thought, could only lead to greater oppression and poverty. Communism would fall because at its root, it was morally and economically bankrupt, matching bad anthropology with faulty economics. It was only a matter of time.

In many ways, despite theological differences, I found in the life and thought of John Paul II an ally and a well-formed defense of a society that is both free and virtuous. I have two regrets upon hearing of his decline and death. The first is that I did not have an opportunity to meet him. The second is that I did not learn more of him earlier in my academic career. Protestants, in the coming weeks and months, will have an opportunity to meet him and know him through numerous articles and books. I hope that they take the opportunity to do so.