Two new books explore Pope St. John Paul II’s moral convictions, intellectual legacy

A Pope and a President by Paul Kengor and Wind From Heaven by Monika Jablonska delve into many unknown or overlooked aspects of John Paul’s life and thought.

Although thirteen years have passed since his death, Pope St. John Paul II continues to inspire new publications. Although many books and films have already dealt with the legacy of the late pope, this mine of information about the man and his legacy has not yet been exhausted, as demonstrated in new books by Paul Kengor and Monika Jablonska dealing with unknown or overlooked aspects of John Paul’s life and thought.

Reagan and the end of the Cold War: Beyond SDI

Paul Kengor’s A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century provides much hitherto unknown, surprising information about the fortieth president of the United States. It is difficult to deny that President Reagan’s uncompromising stance towards the Soviet “Evil Empire” was one of the major causes of the end of the Cold War. When describing Reagan’s contributions to the fall of the Iron Curtain, a traditional scholar would above all centers on the Reagan administration’s increase of defense spending and policies such as Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), mockingly called “star wars” by the president’s critics.

Paul Kengor, however, is not a traditional scholar. Instead, he focuses on the moral and, yes, religious aspect of Ronald Reagan’s struggle against communism. This book naturally complements Kengor’s 2006 work The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, which particularly concentrates on Reagan’s intellectual journey from that of an FDR Democrat to becoming convinced that the Soviet Union was a threat to human existence and on his strong support for Solidarity in Poland.

In A Pope and a President, Kengor again effectively demonstrates that for Reagan the crusade against the Soviet Union was not primarily motivated by the pursuit of superpower dominance, but by a genuine desire to liberate hundreds of millions of people from the communist yoke. Kengor argues that Reagan’s anti-communism had a strong religious component; he chronicles, for example, how the president pushed Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet general secretary, to grant religious liberty to oppressed groups of believers in the Soviet Union, such as Ukrainian Greek-Catholics and Jews (Nathan Sharansky, the famous Russian-Jewish gulag prisoner denied permission to leave the USSR who would later be a prominent figure in Israeli politics, was released by Gorbachev due to pressure from Reagan).

The most fascinating and surprising find of Kengor’s research is that the Protestant Reagan’s moral fight for liberty in Russia and Eastern Europe was not only to a large extent informed by Catholicism (the president’s father and brother were Catholics), but was also Marian in nature. Kengor convincingly shows that Reagan was well aware of, and may have privately believed in, the Marian apparitions in Fatima and Medjugorje (the latter, controversial among some Catholics, have not been recognized by the Catholic Church). During the Cold War, Kengor argues, both shrines were well known to anti-communists; after all, Mary told the shepherd children in the Portuguese village to pray for the conversion of Russia, while the alleged Medjugorje apparitions occurred in communist Yugoslavia. Kengor cites, for example, Reagan’s speech to Portugal’s Parliament (overshadowed by the president’s controversial visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg, where SS-men were buried, during the same European tour) in which he directly referenced Fatima.

At Reagan’s funeral in Washington’s National Cathedral, Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang “Ave Maria.” Thanks to his research, Kengor has confirmed that this performance was much more than a tribute to the Irish-American president’s ethnic origins: before becoming stricken with Alzheimer’s, Reagan requested that “Ave Maria” be sung at his funeral. Given all these revelations of Ronald Reagan’s ties to Catholicism and Mary, one can only wonder why the president never became Catholic.

A “partnership” between the pope and president?

Like President Reagan, Pope St. John Paul II is often cited as one of the historical figures most responsible for the demise of European communism. Very often, his contribution to the end of the Cold War is presented more or less like this: in 1978, a Pole was elected pope, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. The following year, he traveled to his communist-ruled homeland, and the pilgrimage galvanized his countrymen, leading to the rise of Solidarity, whose eventual success led to a chain reaction of anti-communist rebellions across Eastern Europe in 1989.

Naturally, Kengor’s account contains this history. However, it is much deeper than that. In addition to familiar stories of Archbishop (and later Cardinal) Karol Wojtyła struggling against atheist state Marxism-Leninism in his native Poland before becoming pope, Paul Kengor writes about the myopic policy of Ostpolitik pursued by the Vatican before John Paul’s election. Kengor illustrates this naïve policy under popes John XXIII and Paul VI that consisted of trying to negotiate better conditions for Catholics under communist regimes by avoiding provoking them, with the example of Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, an outspoken opponent of the communist regime whom the Vatican refused to support in the 1960s and 1970s.

Kengor compares Vatican Ostpolitik, which John Paul II definitively broke with, to Washington’s policy of détente, of which Reagan was a critic and which was pursed not only by Democratic but also Republican presidents including Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon. Thus Kengor presents both leaders as often working against their establishments, ultimately proving successful.

Although the pope and president met in person only five times, Paul Kengor makes it clear that the men not only admired each other; they frequently corresponded and cooperated in the struggle for the liberation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe. Drawing on interviews with Reagan administration officials as well as archives from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Vatican (many documents, Kengor notes, will remain redacted or classified for many years to come), Kengor shows that the two men often consulted with each other and took each other’s advice seriously. For example, he notes that John Paul II successfully persuaded Reagan to scrap plans to impose sanctions on Poland after General Wojciech Jaruzelski had declared martial law on Solidarity; the pope argued that sanctions would bring much suffering to the Polish people.

Although Paul Kengor frequently refers to Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan as “partners,” reading his book I could not help but keep thinking that although the two men clearly respected each other, their opinions on topics other than the communist domination of Eastern Europe frequently diverged. Unfortunately, Kengor does not discuss this at all.

For example, in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus the pope writes:

Then there are the other social forces and ideological movements which oppose Marxism by setting up systems of ‘national security,’ aimed at controlling the whole of society in a systematic way, in order to make Marxist infiltration impossible. By emphasizing and increasing the power of the State, they wish to protect their people from Communism, but in doing so they run the grave risk of destroying the freedom and values of the person, the very things for whose sake it is necessary to oppose Communism.

The Reagan administration, however, often supported regimes that pursued such policies. In 1983, for example, during a visit to El Salvador, struck by an extremely bloody civil war, John Paul II prayed at the tomb of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, slain three years earlier by a regime supported by the White House, both during the Carter and Reagan administrations. Many had begged the pope to not visit the tomb, arguing it would be seen as a political gesture, yet he did not listen to them. Meanwhile, in 1981 John Paul II visited the Philippines, where he blasted the corruption, political violence, and social inequality of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, a longtime friend of Ronald Reagan.

To bring up the fact that the Reagan administration supported unsavory regimes in what during the Cold War was known as the Third World does not take away from Reagan’s enormous contributions to the end of communism in Europe; all political leaders makes errors in judgment. However, not discussing how John Paul II and Ronald Reagan did not see eye to eye on everything risks obscuring the historical record in the long run; this is the sole flaw of an otherwise fine study.

Communism did not have to end in Eastern Europe in 1989, and the Soviet Union did not have to collapse two years later. After all, despite its failing economy, there is no end in sight to communist domination of Cuba. In fact, the Caribbean island nation recently elected hard-liner ideologue Miguel Díaz-Canel to replace the Castro brothers. Meanwhile, although China and Vietnam have adopted free market policies, they are as much totalitarian regimes as they ever have been.

Thus communism didn’t naturally collapse “on its own” in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; there were other factors at work. Undoubtedly, Pope St. John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan were two actors who made major contributions to the annus mirabilis of 1989. As Kengor shows, both men were deeply informed by principles they took seriously. Kengor’s book serves as a reminder that not only Realpolitik, but also moral convictions can impact history. It is an important addition to historical literature on the Cold War and will likely be heavily referenced for many years to come.

A primer to John Paul II’s intellectual legacy

The fact that Pope St. John Paul II was a Pole was frequently emphasized in his life; arguably, his being Polish was noted more often than the fact that Benedict XVI is a German and Pope Francis is an Argentinean. In part this was because the very fact that a non-Italian was elected bishop of Rome – something that hadn’t happened since the Renaissance – was in itself remarkable. Furthermore, Cardinal Wojtyła’s election was closely linked to subsequent political events in his homeland that would have global repercussions.

Monika Jablonska’s new book, Wind From Heaven: John Paul II – The Poet Who Became Pope, shows that John Paul II’s Polish heritage is crucial to understanding his legacy. She does this not only by offering an overview of Poland’s dramatic history and how it personally affected Karol Wojtyła, but also by outlining the ideas of the major figures of Polish Romanticism: Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Cyprian Kamil Norwid. As a young man, Wojtyła was enamored of their work, and during the German occupation of Poland he illegally performed them in the Rhapsodic Theater, an act of cultural resistance.

Wind from Heaven does not contain new information; it draws on sources that are available, such as George Weigel’s classic biography Witness to Hope as well as Polish language books. However, it is a useful primer on the intellectual legacy of Pope St. John Paul II, one of the most educated popes in Church history. After all, he had two doctorates (in theology and in philosophy) and wrote plays, poetry, and philosophical and theological works.

Jablonska’s intimate familiarity with the Polish context in which Karol Wojtyła’s vocation matured makes her analysis well informed of his works written before and after his election as successor to St. Peter. For example, she explains that Karol Wojtyła’s biblically-themed plays written during the war, such as Job, Jeremiah, and the lost play David need to be read not only in light of the Old Testament, but also within the context of the dramatic events occurring in Karol Wojtyła’s homeland. Job, for example, draws parallels between the Biblical figure who remained faithful to Yahweh despite suffering great calamities, and the Polish people, faithful to the Church despite two centuries of brutal foreign domination.

At a time when discussion on the indissolubility of marriage has returned, Pope St. John Paul II’s teachings on marriage and the family have again become reference points in discussions among prelates and theologians. Jablonska introduces many of Karol Wojtyła’s pre-papal works on marriage, such as his classic Love and Responsibility, a philosophical treatise on the ethical dimension of relationships between men and women, and the play The Jeweler’s Shop, which symbolically illustrates the differences between ephemeral sensuality and emotion on the one hand, and love, which is a commitment for a lifetime, on the other.

Oddly enough, however, Jablonska’s book contains no discussion of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which papal biographer George Weigel has called “a theological time bomb, set to go off with dramatic consequences.” Indeed, across the United States many Theology of the Body study groups are being formed to better understand this attempt to rediscover God’s gift of human sexuality and the appropriate use of it in light of biblical anthropology. At a time when it is clear that Western society not only has little respect for sexuality, but it no longer understands it, the Theology of the Body is a welcome alternative.

Despite this omission, Monika Jablonska’s book is an effective introduction to the writings of the man who at his heart was a scholar, poet, and man of the theater. It will likely encourage readers to pick up books by one of the past century’s most influential figures. Hopefully, it will also encourage Catholic publishers to print new editions of St. John Paul II’s works. Although collections of his poetry and plays have been published in English, they were published many years ago and are difficult to obtain.


A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century
by Paul Kengor
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2017
Hardcover, 648 pages

Wind From Heaven: John Paul II: The Poet Who Became Pope
by Monika Jablonska
Foreword by Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz
Angelico Press, 2017
Hardcover, 202 pages

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About Filip Mazurczak 72 Articles
Filip Mazurczak is a historian, translator, and journalist. His writing has appeared in First Things, the St. Austin Review, the European Conservative, the National Catholic Register, and many others.

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