Year after year since the evil empire’s fall, the promise of Poland increases. If history is capable of decency, the world will forever acknowledge its debt to Poland for the gift of Karol Wojtyla, John Paul the Great”for his universal appeal was inextricably joined to the particularity of his Polishness.
That particularity is strikingly underscored in the book published shortly before his death and based upon interviews of a decade earlier, Memory and Identity. Against the airy abstractions of secular modernity, John Paul displayed a way of being in the world that is formed by keeping faith with the memories, sufferings, and aspirations of a most particular people. He was that rare thing: a whole man. The many dimensions of his interests, energies, gifts, and inspirations were all of a piece. He refused modernity’s imperious demand to choose between the universal and the particular, the world and his place in the world. Critics referred to him as the “Polish pope,” implying that he was parochial. Far from apologizing for who he was, he invited others to be the best of who they are. It was as a son of Poland that he was a father to the world.
There is no nation today whose identity is so attached to one person as is Poland’s to John Paul. It is not certain that this will continue to be the case. Poland has its fair share of airy universalists, in the academy and the media, who agitate the cause of transcending the embarrassment of particularity. No doubt there are aspects of Polish life and history”as is true of the life and history of any people”that should be transcended. But these universalists have what they fancy to be a bigger idea, the transcending of the heart of what it means to be Polish. They still subscribe to a “secularization theory” that has now been abandoned by most scholars in the rest of the world.
The old idea was that the more modern a society becomes the more secular it will become. America, the most modern of societies, never fit the theory, giving rise to talk about “American exceptionalism.” Now, in a time of resurgent religion, both personal and public, it is evident that America is pretty much in step with the rest of the world. If we are to look for “exceptionalism,” we look instead to western Europe, where secularization appears to be almost totally triumphant.
Even that appearance, however, may be misleading. Observers are struck by the small but dynamic movements of Christian renewal in, for example, France and Germany. Moreover, some studies suggest that the general population of western Europe is not as secular as many think. This phenomenon is labeled “believing but not belonging.” In other words, people believe more than is supposed, but they are disinclined to participate in the activities and institutions that once gave social expression to the faith to which many, however tenuously, still adhere.
The institutional bearer of the old secularization theory today is the European Union and its Brussels-based bureaucracy. The refusal to acknowledge Christianity in the now-rejected constitution’s reference to Europe’s cultural identity and the repudiation of Rocco Buttiglione as justice minister because of his Catholic faith are well known. The EU is a proposal for a future that has no past”or, more precisely, a future that is fleeing its past.
Poland is now a member of the EU and there are perceived economic benefits to membership. In the next few years, the EU—meaning chiefly Germany, France, and Great Britain—will be pouring billions in economic aid into Poland and its Central European neighbors, in the hope of an economic “lift off” such as has happened in Ireland. The idea is that, as these countries enter the circle of high productivity, they will in turn be able to help expand the circle to include nations such as Romania and Bulgaria.
But in Poland, the overriding reason for being part of the EU is geopolitical. As one Polish friend puts it, “Better the European Union than the Soviet Union.” The Soviet Union is, of course, a thing of the past, but Russia is the ever-threatening thing of the past, present, and future. Poles are determined that never again will it be in doubt whether Poland is part of the West.
The intellectual universalists of Poland, however, also have another agenda. The “decision for Europe” means a decision to transcend particularity, to embrace modernity, and therefore to become a secular society on the model of western Europe. Polish particularity is most powerfully entrenched in Polish Catholicism. For a thousand years of tortured history, up through the horrors of Nazism and Communism, the Church has been the bulwark of resistance and the rallying point of national identity. The depiction of Polish history as the continuing story of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ is very much alive, not least in the poetry of John Paul and in the book Memory and Identity.
Very much unlike other countries, such as the neighboring Czech Republic, the Church in Poland has flourished in the post-Communist years. It is a Church of both the old and the young, of crowded Masses, of long lines at the confessional, of more than ample vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and of youth movements of a stunning variety. The last is notably evident in the remarkable youth apostolates of the Dominicans but is by no means limited to the Dominicans. In short, the very Catholic particularity—and universal vision derived from that particularity—embodied in the life and witness of John Paul is the most striking characteristic of contemporary Poland.
Those who subscribe to the old secularization theory, however, believe—and, in many cases, hope—that this will change over time. They could turn out to be right. But recent studies (notably a national survey conducted in July 2005) suggest that Poles are moving closer to, rather than away from, the Church’s teaching on controverted moral issues. Since 2003, the strong and steady opposition to abortion has increased by 14 percent. There is an identical increase in opposition to doctor-assisted suicide. Only eight percent favor same-sex marriage, while express opposition has risen to 85 percent. Although the ordination of women is not within the realm of real-world possibilities, the media universalists have made common cause with Catholic progressives in promoting it—despite which, support for that change has fallen from 17 to 12 percent over the last two years, with 74 percent strongly opposed. There is no change, however, on artificial contraception, which the great majority (71 percent) approves.
For obvious reasons, too much should not be made of surveys of public opinion, but there are those who think that the historic link between being Polish and being Catholic is not weakening and may be growing stronger. They note that, under Nazism and Communism, the Church had a monopoly on virtue and provided the only sphere of freedom, however limited. Under current conditions, other institutions and worldviews are, as is to be expected, competing with the Church. Still, it appears the Church is holding its own, and maybe doing somewhat more than holding its own.
While the reasons for allying with the EU are compelling, there is anxiety about being “absorbed” into the “New Europe.” The EU may be the Other but, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there is little otherness there. The New Europe vaguely invoked by the EU is not a substantive Other. People know what it means to be Polish, but what does it mean to be a New European except that one is not Polish, or at least not very Polish? Being Polish has almost always meant being very Polish. There is something painfully artificial, a powerful feel of “let’s pretend,” in the EU’s reach toward the Enlightenment ideal of “Universal Humanity” while employing tens of thousands of translators to facilitate communication among peoples of twenty-one official and eighteen unofficial languages. All along, everybody knows that, as France openly declares and Germany quietly seconds, the dominant powers will not bend in compromising their national identities. The Brits have the decency to acknowledge that there is a real problem with this putative universalism, and they at least ask the awkward questions as they move step by step, the questions unanswered, toward unification.
In an aside that was quickly inflated by pundits into a doctrinal pronouncement, Donald Rumsfeld referred to “old Europe” and “new Europe,” meaning by the latter those countries, such as Poland, still newly liberated from the Soviet empire and, not incidentally, more supportive of America’s world leadership. These countries have fresh memories of America’s indispensable part in their liberation, even as they do not forget America’s complicity at Yalta in delivering them to the mercies of the Soviet Union in the first place. President Bush’s candid acknowledgment of that betrayal in his May 2005 speech in Latvia has, it is widely believed, helped to heal the wound of that old memory. Now “new Europe” contemplates the “New Europe” promoted by the “old Europe” and worries about the next hegemony that history may have in store for it.
As one Polish political scientist said, “Whatever it turns out to be, the EU is underway and Poland has no choice but to be part of it.” Even after the shock of the rejection of the EU constitution by popular referenda in France and the Netherlands this spring, there still remains a sense of inevitability about the EU itself. At its heart the EU project is driven by fear and resentment: the Europeans’ fear of themselves and resentment of America. A top official in Brussels recently asked why European unity is necessary. The answer, he said, is to be found in the military cemeteries all over the continent. That answer is undeniable, if not sufficient. Twice in the century past, Europe threw itself and much of the world with it into convulsions of unprecedented destruction. Given the indelibly imprinted memory of those horrors and the flaccid military capacities of European states today, some contend that Europe’s fear of Europe’s propensity for warring madness is greatly exaggerated. But grievances and conflicting ambitions can erupt unpredictably, stirring national passions and once again unleashing the dogs of war. Europe’s fear of Europe, while it may not be an inspiring vision for anything so grand as its architects intend the EU to be, is not irrational.
Nor should we be surprised by the European resentment of the United States. France once counted, and counted mightily, in world affairs; pretensions to the grandeur that once was do not gracefully give way. As for Germany, it will not forever stifle in guilt and shame its desire to have again a place in the sun, a desire it dare not try to realize on its own but can perhaps be found in part through an EU that stands up to the American hegemony. Or, with the return of the Christian Democrats to power, Germany may set aside resentment in favor of its own “special relationship” with the United States, joining other EU members in further isolating France. England, meanwhile, is both a great power in Europe and America’s junior partner in advancing a democratic new world order. To the extent that these and other countries see the controlling story line of their future in the EU, it is a future resting on the foundation of fear and resentment, which is not the firmest of foundations for a project that, in the view of its more fervent champions, aims to displace the national memories and identities of past and future. In conversations with thoughtful Europeans, the suggestion that the EU may be consigned to the dustbin of history in ten or fifteen years meets with dutiful protests but not with incredulity.
Even the economic benefits are cast into doubt as major players such as France and Germany fear the encroachment of “neoliberalism,” by which they mean the market economy. The May referendum in France was, in the final analysis, a vote against change. Societies with double-digit unemployment that wrap the entire population in a welfare net to protect against life’s risks and that massively subsidize economic inefficiencies do not have a bright future. Especially is this true when the population is rapidly aging. The triumph of what we might call “presentism,” in the demographic catastrophe resulting from the continent-wide decision not to have babies, is the grim capstone of a structural turn against hope.
The triumph of presentism is not yet complete, and countries such as Poland evidence a measure of reluctance about contracepting and aborting their future, but the generalization holds that Europe is a dying continent. As though that were not sobering enough, it is exacerbated—in England, Germany, and, especially, France—by the presence of a large, rapidly growing, and mainly unassimilated population of Muslims, who have turned major cities into both the base and target of terrorism. The prospect of Europe becoming “Eurabia” is painfully clarified with each exploding bomb. Europeans have traditionally excoriated America for its troubled race relations. That criticism is no longer heard. In the American race riots of the 1960s and 1970s, angry young blacks played at revolution by burning down their own neighborhoods. Much more in deadly earnest are Muslims who dream of heavenly reward in lethally striking at the power and population centers of the infidels. Whether states respond with appeasement or with repression, or, as is likely, with a mix of both, may tell us more about the future of Europe than any blueprints issued from Brussels.
Little wonder that Poland, the preeminent representative of Rumsfeld’s new Europe, is deeply ambivalent about the New Europe on offer from the old Europe. While almost all Poles admired and loved John Paul II, not all share his understanding of memory and identity that joins Poland to nothing less than salvation history. In that last book, he suggests, in a way that eludes sure understanding, that the election of a Polish pope was also the election of Poland. John Paul supported the unification of Europe, perhaps because in that process Poland could be the catalyst for restoring the memory and identity of Christian Europe.
One can almost hear him saying to his beloved Poland that it should “be not afraid” to enter upon the risks of the European project in the confidence that universality need not be the enemy of particularity—indeed, that the only universal to be trusted is the universal that emerges from and fulfills the genius of the particular. Conversely, the strength of memory and identity is tested by whether it provides a firm foundation for greater unity.
For John Paul, that firm foundation can be, ultimately, nothing less than allegiance to Jesus Christ and the culture formed by that allegiance. After all the considerations economic, political, and legal are duly weighed, the great question about Poland and European unification is whether there is an openness to the oft-repeated invitation of John Paul the Great, “Open the door to Christ!” At present, Brussels is most decidedly deaf to that invitation. If Poland simply goes along with the EU, if Poland does not persist in being Poland, it seems likely that Europe will have definitively declined an invitation to a different and more promising future.
Richard John Neuhaus is the editor-in-chief of First Things.
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