On Sunday 27 April Pope Francis will canonize two of his predecessors, John Paul II and John XXIII. With regards to the former, his coming from East-Central Europe caused some of his critics to view his origins as the cause of his “backwardness.” However, Pope John Paul II was a son of the Jagiellonian Poland, a champion of religious tolerance and of those oppressed by dictatorial political systems, not the reactionary some called him.

That John Paul II was among history’s most popular popes is undisputed. Yet all towering historical figures had their share of critics. Most criticisms of John Paul II fell into one of two categories: the “right-wing” criticism, coming from Catholic traditionalists who indicted him for ecumenism and liturgical modernism, and the “left-wing” criticism, which painted him as a reactionary. In particular, the critics of the latter category ascribed his “backwardness” to his Polishness.


An obscurantist reactionary

On 16 October 1978, the world was in shock. Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Kraków was elected pope, the first non-Italian since 1523. Papal critic Hans Kung – a Swiss-German octogenarian dissident priest and theologian – saw John Paul II as an obscurantist reactionary, which he connected with his Polish identity.

In his ridiculously titled memoir My Struggle for Freedom – a title that evokes the experiences of political prisoners in Cuba or Burma, whereas Kung’s only punishment for his unorthodox views was not being able to lecture as a Catholic theologian; he may lecture as a theologian, just without the title “Catholic” – Kung devotes a lot of attention to showing how Wojtyła must have been so backwards since he came from such a backwards country. Yet Kung demonstrates that his knowledge of Polish history is embarrassingly inaccurate.

Kung writes, for instance, that Poland never experienced the Enlightenment. What? Poland did have an Enlightenment, but – unlike that in France, and more like in Germany – it was not anti-religious. The Polish Enlightenment inspired the signing of the world’s second constitution in 1791 – a few years after the American Constitution, and months before the French one.

Kung’s implication, based on unfamiliarity with Polish history, is that the Church in Poland – and thus the pontificate of John Paul II – was anti-democratic and opposed to modern notions of human rights. In an interview with the leftist Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza published in the 1990s, the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater criticized John Paul II for embracing the idea of human rights, saying that the Church cannot speak of human rights as the modern notion of human rights developed in opposition to Christianity. Yes, Prof. Savater, it did in France, but not in Poland.

John Paul II explicitly said in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus (recently, Pope Francis said the same in his apostolic adhortation Evangelli Gaudium) that the Church does not preach a specific political ideology. He chided the modern West for its consumerism, secularization and economic exploitation of developing countries. Yet he never accepted dictatorship and his visits to countries ruled by undemocratic regimes sparked revolutions. His 1979 visit to his native Poland, which inspired the rise of Solidarity a year later, is the most famous example.

In 1983, he visited Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere then ruled by the corrupt right-wing dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Knowing the pope’s anticommunism, Duvalier expected him to applaud the dictatorship. Yet, during his sermon John Paul II condemned the violence and inequality in Haiti. “Something must change here!” he scourged Duvalier. This inspired the Haitian Church to vocally protest the dictatorship, ultimately forcing Baby Doc into exile. John Paul II’s visits to other nations ruled by dictators, including Chile, Paraguay and the Philippines, accompanied by vocal criticisms of poverty and authoritarian rule, also were turning points in those nations’ moves towards democracy. John Paul II did not explicitly endorse democracy. But he always stood on the side of the oppressed and brought into life the Polish historical experience of democracy going hand-in-hand with faith.


Growing up with Jews

Ironically, in his Struggle for Freedom Kung praises John XXIII for improving the Church’s relations with the Jews, yet throughout his book bashes John Paul II for his “backwardness.” Indeed, John XXIII did significantly improve his Church’s relationship with the Jewish people by, for example, removing the prayer for the conversion of the “perfidious Jews” from the Good Friday liturgy. However, John Paul II greatly built on John XXIII’s reconciliation. This stemmed from his Polish heritage.

Papal biographer Marco Politi noted that John Paul II was the first pope since St. Peter to grow up with Jews. In Karol Wojtyła’s hometown of Wadowice the Jewish population was sizeable, and the future pope had many Jewish friends. Although anti-Semitism increased in Poland at the time, the young Wojtyła and his army officer father opposed this and enjoyed cordial relations with the town’s Jews. Wojtyła’s first love interest was a Jewish girl named Ginka Beer, while during the 1930s he protected his friend Hana Mandelberger from anti-Semitic thugs. In January 1945, as the Nazis were fleeing Kraków and the Red Army was advancing, Wojtyła saved a then-13-year-old Jewish concentration camp survivor named Edith Zierer from starvation and freezing. In 1968, when Poland’s communist government pursued an anti-Semitic campaign, Cardinal Wojtyła visited a Kraków synagogue to express his solidarity with his Jewish compatriots.

This philo-Semitism became visible when Karol Wojtyła became pope. In 1986, he became history’s first pope to visit a synagogue; in 1993 he established diplomatic relations with Israel (this contrasts with previous popes; during his 1964 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Paul VI avoided saying the word “Israel”). He was the first pope to condemn anti-Semitism as a sin, and in 2000 he apologized for the Church’s historical injustices against many groups, including Jews.

First of all, this demonstrates that Kung is puzzling and inconsistent in praising John XXIII for being “progressive” for reaching out to the Jews, and John Paul II for being “backwards.” However, one must note that John Paul II’s philo-Semitism resulted directly from his Polish heritage.

Although in the 20th century anti-Semitism in Poland and across Europe increased, previously Poland was Europe’s most religiously tolerant nation, and as ethnic tensions increased in the past century people like Wojtyła retained an attitude of respect for Jews. Since the Middle Ages, the Jews had been settling in Poland thanks to the tolerant policies of King Casimir and later the whole Jagiellonian dynasty and the elected kings that ruled Poland from the 16th century until its 18th century partitions. For the world’s Jewry, Poland became “Paradisus Judeaorum,” a Jewish paradise. Also, Armenians fleeing the Ottomans and radical Protestant sects settled in tolerant Poland. “Polonia mea est,” wrote the Renaissance humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam. “Poland is mine.” While the soil of Europe was soaked with the blood of wars between Protestants and Catholics in the 17th century, wars spared Poland.


Religious tolerance

As ethnic tensions arose in the 20th century, two visions of Poland developed. One was that of Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who ruled until his 1935 death and espoused multiculturalism. The other was that of the right-wing National Democrats, whose Sanation regime ruled Poland after Piłsudski’s death, and defined Poles as ethnically and linguistically Polish and Roman Catholic (ironically, the founder of the National Democrats, Roman Dmowski, was an agnostic until his deathbed conversion) and were chauvinistic towards ethnic minorities, including Jews, Orthodox Christians and Eastern Rite Catholics (mostly Ukrainians).

Wojtyła defended the Poland of Piłsudski and the Jagiellonian dynasty. And John Paul II, who before entering the seminary studied Polish literature, was deeply steeped in philo-Semitic Polish Romanticism. The whole world noticed that Wojtyła frequently called the Jews “elder brothers in the faith.” What few realized, however, was that this phrase was borrowed from Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s national poet, a philo-Semite (frequently quoted by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, born in Poland as Mieczysław Biegun) who organized a Jewish division during the Crimean War and believed that Polish Gentiles and Jews should together fight their oppressors.

John Paul II’s religious tolerance was not limited to Jews. He was the first pope to visit a mosque and a Lutheran church. The single dignitary with whom he met the most times was the Dalai Lama. And in 1986 he organized an ecumenical prayer for world peace at Assisi, which was attended by rabbis, Protestant and Orthodox clergy, mullahs, African animist snake worshipers and Native Americans with peace pipes. John Paul II did not come to convert them. He realized that each religion deserves respect and valued all prayers for peace.

In his Struggle for Freedom Kung suggests that the Polish Church never was persecuted by Nazis and communists: “[P]eople cherish and cultivate the myth of a church of the resistance and keep silent about how much conformism and collaboration in the time of National Socialism and above all Communism made the survival of the church possible.”


Defying the communists

Reading Kung’s imaginative rants about Polish Catholicism one wonders where he gets this information. Not only did the Catholic Church in Poland not collaborate with the Nazis, but half of all Polish priests were sent to Nazi concentration camps, 18% of whom were killed. Recent estimates suggest that about 15% of Polish priests collaborated with Poland’s communist security services. By comparison, 50% of East German society collaborated with the Stasi. The leader of the Polish Church Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński boldly defied the communists.

While Kung accuses the Polish Church of collaborating with the Nazis (as seen above, something unfounded), he cites Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholics approvingly in accusing the Roman Catholic Church in Poland of Latinizing the flock. Indeed, the Roman hierarchy in Poland was chauvinistic towards Byzantine Catholics then. However, Kung does not mention that on 18 July 1943 Slipyj said Mass in Lviv’s Greek Catholic Cathedral to pray for Adolf Hitler and the 80,000 Ukrainian collaborators who had joined the SS!

The future Pope John Paul II suffered under Nazi occupation, being a forced laborer in a quarry. Yet, he was forgiving and appreciated German culture and learning, having written his doctorate on the philosophy of German phenomenologist Max Scheler. In 1965, the Polish bishops wrote a letter to their German counterparts reading: “We forgive and ask for forgiveness.” Wojtyła was among the main contributors.

There was a reason why John Paul II was an anti-communist. He saw firsthand how communism eroded away human freedom. And Wojtyła, an erudite philosophy professor, knew the intellectual underpinnings of Marxism. During the counting of votes in 1978 the conclave that elected him, he read a Marxist philosophical exercise book to stave off boredom.

By contrast, Kung himself never experienced communism, having spent his life in the prosperous West. Evidence of this is that he once claimed that John Paul II – by revoking his title as a “Catholic” theologian – treated him as the USSR treated Andrei Sakharov. The best response was offered by Leszek Kołakowski, a Polish agnostic (albeit appreciative of Christianity) philosopher exiled to Oxford who lost his faith in Marx under Stalinism, with his characteristic sardonic humor: “It is no secret that Prof. Kung is for years harassed by the papal police, he was thrown out of his home, deported to the interior of the country and his friends are jailed in papal gulags or dying in the Vatican’s dungeons.”

John Paul II’s Polish experience was crucial to understanding his pontificate. Yet this was not, as his critics charged, the cause of “backwardness.” Rather, he was a son of the Jagiellonian Poland with a rich history of religious tolerance, a nation where Christianity and the struggle for liberty did not contradict each other. And while Hans Kung may be an accomplished theologian, he desperately needs to brush up on his history.


Filip Mazurcak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.

Filip Mazurczak

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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