Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Winston Churchill and Pope John Paul II had much in common. Aron and the French left were ardent in their support of a secular humanism that had its birth in 1789, Berlin was a deracinated Jew who firmly purchased a new life bequeathed to him by the British, most especially at Oxford, where he engagingly wrote on political issues that dominated the life of a Don ensconced from the tragedy that befell those in the east. Churchill understood and lived the perils that secular promise hailed. Although he did not drive deep into the theological foundation of freedom and liberty, he understood the relation. It fell to John Paul II to craft a final response to the question that dominated the life of Aron, Berlin and Churchill.
Aron, Berlin and Churchill were vexed to explore a moral dilemma around political lines of thought. All three men felt as Huxley or Orwell did, that modern man was incapable of managing a future. It fell to John Paul to quarry an answer opposing such a view. He lovingly answered in the affirmative that man was capable of a future and he spent his time as Bishop and Pope deeply engaging the sources that renew civilization. Perhaps only two political writers came close to the thought of John Paul, it was Eric Voegelin and Arnold Toynbee, but neither had the position to both publicly embody and fortify the theological ground that informed freedom and liberty. John Paul II had both in spades.
Mid 20th century fiction writers like Aldous Huxley and Eric Blair (pen name George Orwell) penned accounts of dystopic life under the rule of both consumerist and politically fascist tyranny. Both engaged the issues of their time as did Eric Fromm when he wrote ‘Escape From Freedom’, which portrays the types of personalities that desire domination. Fromm wrote that some men are not fit for liberty so they wish to be dominated.
Can we discover the field that makes such men write as they do? Can we possess the vision they saw? Is it possible to know the question that dominated the lives of such men?
WHAT THESE MEN BEAR WITNESS TO HAS PROFOUND POLITICAL AND SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES. WHAT THEY ALL WITNESSED WAS HOW HUMAN INDIVIDUALITY BECAME SUBMERGED BY THE GIANT SCALE UPON WHICH MODERN LIFE WAS ORGANIZED.
Only John Paul II had the intellectual fortitude to summon the resources of the Church to defeat a moral question posed by the Enlightenment. For the persons and institutions that originally framed such an insight had failed in providing a framework to modify or engage such an issue. One could argue that the American Founding was the only political solution bearing such religious, moral sentiments. But now it founders as the West struggles to embrace new freedoms created from the light of such a forward moving positivism.
If one were to study the political course upon which John Paul II tacked as he engaged a failed modernity, he unwittingly began by inserting his authority by consolidating the Church. He performed such acumen with deftness. He understood that before he engaged others His own house must be in order. We can witness the same political move in the beginning of Pope Benedict’s grasp of authority.
Nevertheless, it fell to the Church to work out a theology of resistance to mass standardization, production and consumption. For both John Paul II and Benedict XVI were affronted by how the human person became an appendage to such processes’.
Winston Churchill has written about his hatred for the collectivization of life and thought that emanates modernity. In this, John Paul II was anticipated. Churchill wrote that he never believed that history was made by forces. He never denied that ideas had a powerful impact on the life of man. What Churchill denied was that ideas bear responsibility for shaping the future of man. For him, a world made by tides, tendencies and not wisdom and virtue was worthy of repudiation. What both Churchill and John Paul II agree upon is this: individual virtue can puncture the scale upon which man shapes his freedom.
If one studies the diaries of Churchill, you can anticipate a dominate theme: all around him were men drowning in crisis of abdication! From the WWI throughout WWII, the men who dominated the political scene were caught up in a world in which the CHARACTER of men no longer was the dominate factor determining political trajectories. Instead of CHARACTER, ideology became the axis upon which the future was determined. In this vein, all the writers mentioned above found much to repudiate. None other than John Paul felt compelled to author a response shaping an impact as bulwark against ideology in affirmation of human liberty.
At the center of this ideological vortex was an error that needed remedy. John Paul II began his Pontificate with the cry ‘Do Not Be Afraid’. His battle cry to the ramparts of human freedom was a call to acknowledge that progress in the modern world was founded upon a false understanding of humanness. Ethics and progress need not be mutually exclusive in their engagement to procure the goods of this world. John Paul saw a profound error reminiscent of Churchill in that fortune was in constant hostility to virtue. For modern man to reclaim his freedom and love of liberty, the call to virtuous life required fortification.
If human agency was swallowed up by the mass effects of contemporary life so that courage and genius appear impotent and irrelevant, John Paul was prepared to look foolish for the sake of the Gospel.
His titanic effort to engage and vanquish the claims of modernity in his ‘Theology of the Body’ is often misconstrued. To often, contemporary theologians write and speak of the nature of the conjugal act as the center piece of his moral endeavor of renewal. Many forget how the quotidian and the poetic shaped his life, most especially regarding solitude and work. His ‘body theology’ embraces a profound truth that most in the west willingly ignore, namely: how excessive leisure destroys, removes the stress required to shape effective responses. John Paul II, in writing his ‘Theology of the Body’ was also taking aim at the Marxian view of manual labor and alienation for only a poet could write of the healing effects of manual labor!
Both John Paul II and Churchill wrote lovingly of the effects of manual labor, especially regarding the need that ethics inform our understanding of the relation between labor and capital, or inform utopian ideologies that wreck havoc upon the political relations of men. Neither man wrote explicitly against Social Darwinism, Freud or Behaviorism, but one cannot deny that such ideologies required a response.
What made John Paul II great?
His attachment to defending the religious ground of freedom and liberty, his unshakeable belief that the very constitution of man is religious.
And why would he succeed?
Because in defending such ideals; such truth, he was, as always, being true to himself!