Theory to Practice: It’s Happening in Poland

Everyone who cares about freedom owes a great debt of gratitude to the people of Poland.

That Poland was the trigger for the Revolution of 1989 in east central Europe is widely recognized throughout the world; and thus Poland gets (and deserves) high marks for its essential, even unique, role in the collapse of European Communism. But in that astonishing year, 1989, Poland gave the world something more than a striking example of the politics of freedom. It gave the world a lesson in the power of truth.

The events of 1989 in east central Europe were “no accident,” as the Marxists used to say. They did not just happen. They were, in a sense, made to happen. And they were made to happen by people who were not, in the first instance, acting politically.

The annul mirabilis, “1989,” had in fact been prepared during the previous decade: sometimes overtly, often underground; sometimes deliberately, often accidentally; sometimes intentionally, not infrequently as an antidote to despair. Moreover, “1989” was prepared by people who were committed to exercising a new form of political power: the power of the powerless. That was, to be sure, the only power they had; but as things turned out, it proved to be potent, indeed. In sum, the democratic and nonviolent politics of 1989 were made possible by a moral revolution, a revolution of conscience that, against all the odds, gathered force throughout the 1980s—and that ultimately gave the Revolution of 1989 its distinctive character.

That revolution of conscience first began to reach a critical mass in Poland in 1979, and was sorely tested during the decade that followed. Thus throughout the 1980s, Poland gave the world a great lesson in the ethics, as well as the politics, of freedom. Many Western political leaders, academics, and journalists missed the heart and soul of the Revolution of 1989. This upheaval had transformed the face of east central Europe, and not incidentally, had made an enormous contribution to the security of the West. But the West didn’t seem to grasp the magnitude of what was taking place east of the Elbe River, or why it had happened, or how it had happened when it happened.

For the sorry truth of the matter is that most Western commentary on “1989”—at the time, and ever since—has focused on two factors: economics and Mikhail Gorbachev. And while both of these were important aspects of the Revolution of 1989, too narrow a focus on them is a distorting prism through which to view these stunning events.

It is surely true that the Warsaw Pact’s economic backwardness—itself an expression of the impossibility of Marxism-Leninism—made it ever more difficult for the Soviet Union and its satellite empire to maintain its position vis-à-vis the West during the last decade of the Cold War. But “economics” does not explain why the Revolution of 1989 happened when it did, and how it did. Nor does “economics” explain what came before the revolution: namely, the rise of Solidarity in 198o and the tenacity with which the Polish human rights resistance maintained itself during the martial law period and afterwards.

The Real, Human Story

When Poles went to vote in June 1989, they were certainly dissatisfied with their economic circumstances. But that is not all they were dissatisfied with, nor was it the heart of their grievance. The vote of June 1989 was, first and foremost, a vote for freedom, for a return to decency in society, for an end to the Communist culture of the lie. Western reporting and commentary tended to miss this.

The Western fixation on Mikhail Gorbachev was also misbegotten and unenlightening. It had certainly made a difference, in 1989, that Gorbachev, not Brezhnev, was running the Soviet Union; and the difference was that the tanks didn’t roll westward, as they had rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. But it seems extremely unlikely that Gorbachev (who, on the public record, remained a reform Communist up until the moment he left office) ever imagined or desired the complete disintegration of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. Gorbachev can be given his due credit for many things, but being the architect of the Revolution of 1989 is not one of them.

In sum, the real story of “1989” was the human story of the human rights movement: the democratic resistance that proved its staying power throughout east central Europe during the 198os, and that, through instruments like Solidarity, Charter 77, Civic Forum, and Public Against Violence, made possible the unique politics of the Revolution of 1989.

One of the striking things about the east central European human rights movement was its ecumenicity. It included, within one common house of resistance, many shades of political, economic, and religious opinion and conviction; and in doing so, it helped re-create civil society by modeling the pluralism that is one crucial dynamic of the social and cultural life of a democracy. In the forging and maintaining of that ecumenism, there is plenty of credit to be distributed to many different parties. But in parsing this complexity, I was particularly struck by the role of the Catholic Church in these human rights movements. For, led by the Polish Pope, John Paul II, Catholic bishops, priests, religious, and laity not only challenged Communist regimes, from the Baltic states south, throughout the 198os; they were, concurrently, transforming the public image of their Church, building bridges of understanding between secular intellectuals and believers, and recovering (for themselves, but also for the developed democracies) the great insight that democracy has something to do with certain moral truths about the human person and human community.

As a student of modern Catholic social thought with a particular interest in the Church’s role in international affairs, I was, of course, generally familiar with the role of the Church in east central Europe. But it was in my conversations with the people of the revolution, in the years following the collapse of European Communism, that I became convinced that the Church had played a hitherto unappreciated role in shaping the moral revolution that had made the political revolution of “1989” possible. Throughout east central Europe, I discovered, men and women had said “No” to Communism on the basis of a higher and more compelling “Yes”: a “yes” to the truth about man, about human community, about human freedom, about human destiny, and, ultimately, about God. The singular role of the Church and of Pope John Paul II in shaping that “yes” became the focus of my research. Because of that focus, the experience of Poland loomed ever larger in my analysis of the history of the Communist crack-up. Poland’s political importance to the Revolution of 1989 was clear to me before I began my research and my interviewing; but it was in the course of that work that I became deeply aware of, and deeply impressed by, the moral and spiritual importance of Poland and the Polish people in shaping these singular events. And I thought it important that their story be more widely known.

Back to History, Forward to Normality

One does no service to history or to the people who make history by romanticizing events or persons. I am under no illusions that the people of Poland miraculously became angels during the 1980s. But what happened was, perhaps, even more impressive: ordinary men and women—the kind of people who turned out by the millions to greet and to pray with John Paul II during his three pilgrimages to Poland prior to the revolution—made conscious decisions to live “in the truth,” to live “as if” they were free, to break with the culture of the lie that defined public moral life under Communism. In doing so, they laid the foundations of a civil society amidst the rubble of totalitarianism. And in doing that, they helped make democracy possible.

When I call the Revolution of 1989 the “final revolution,” I am thinking in terms of depth, not length, and of culture rather than of chronology.

The image of the “final revolution” is a moral image, not a temporal image. (And it is most certainly not a prediction about the future course of events, in east central Europe or anywhere else). Rather, by “final revolution” I mean “finality” in the metaphysical sense: I mean the depth of personal conviction that shaped the people of the revolution and their distinctive resistance to Communism. “Revolution” means “turning.” And by the “final revolution,” I mean the human turn to the good, to the truly human, and, ultimately, to God, that made an effective, sustained human rights resistance possible, and that eventually led to the nonviolent overthrow of Communism.

Thus the “final revolution,” the Revolution of 1989, does not mark the “end of history,” as some Western commentators have rather exuberantly suggested. Rather, the “final revolution” means the return of history to its normal rhythms and patterns. Communism was, among many other things, a distortion of history: a distortion of the “normal” pattern of human interaction and societal development. Ridding Poland of Communism did not mean that Poles had, somehow, leapt “beyond” history. Rather, it meant that Poland had been reinserted into history and into “normality.”

In talking with the people of the revolution and asking them what they wanted for their countries, I was struck by the frequency with which I heard one answer: “We want a normal society.” And that, as I have told my Polish friends in recent years, is precisely what the Poles have gotten: normality.

Normality, of course, means many things. It means no longer fearing the unexpected knock on the door. It means being able to talk freely in a public place, without looking around to see who might be eavesdropping. It means being able to read serious newspapers; to publish one’s work without fear of state censorship or reprisal; to teach as one sees fit, rather than as ideological correctness demands. Normality means looking at one’s government and at public officials with a measure of respect, rather than with barely concealed contempt. It means being able to give one’s children a religious education without fearing for their futures. It means voting in real elections, for real candidates, after real campaigns in which real differences of opinion are debated.

And normality means making a mess of things from time to time.

A “normal society” is not a perfect society, for there are no perfected human beings, this side of the Kingdom of God. A normal society is thus a society in which there is a constant struggle between good and evil, between altruism and selfishness, and that moral struggle runs through each individual citizen’s heart as well as through society as a whole. Democracy, which most of our contemporaries regard as an expression of “normality” in public life, does not guarantee that public life will be wise, compassionate, or just; indeed, democracy requires a wise, compassionate, and just citizenry so that individual liberty, exercised through the arts of democratic political persuasion, helps build the common good.

In my conversations with many Poles in the years since The Final Revolution was published in English, I have been struck by their sense of frustration, at times bordering on embarrassment, at the pace and scope of social and political reform in Poland. This frustration is understandable; Poland faces an enormous task of cultural, social, political, and economic reconstruction, and there are bound to be ebbs and flows in the rates of progress on those various fronts. But I do not believe that Poles have any cause for embarrassment over their accomplishments since 1989. The progress that has been made has been quite amazing. Indeed, Poles did more to consolidate their democracy in the four years after 1989 than Americans did in the four years after the Treaty of Paris ratified the American colonies’ political separation from Great Britain. In 1787, there was considerable doubt as to whether “the United States of America” would survive, or whether it would survive as a democracy. In 1994, there is little doubt that Poland’s democratic transition is as secure as these things get in the world. That is no small accomplishment. And it is an accomplishment in which Poles should take great pride.

No democracy, though, is ever finally secure, for democracy is an ongoing experiment, a great test of a people’s capacity for self-governance. That aspect of democratic life—democracy’s unsettledness, if you will—is, perhaps, just beginning to emerge in Polish consciousness. And it is, I suspect, the cause of some of the discomforts that some Poles feel. To which the only thing an American can say is, well, that’s just the way things are in a democracy. Democracy means making freedom work. And making freedom work is work, hard work that means overcoming the fear of freedom that tempts every democracy.

Civil Society and the Church

One of the curious things about democracy is that men and women learn to be democrats, not politically, but in pre-political institutions. As Poles know full well, you can learn to behave like a tyrant simply by being part of a tyrannical institution, like the apparatus of a Communist state. But you cannot learn to act like a democrat unless you have learned some basic moral lessons—about truthfulness, and trust, and cooperation, and civility—in the family, with one’s friends, and in voluntary associations and organizations.

Democracy cannot work unless there is a critical mass of democrats in a society committed to making it work. And democrats are made, not born. Moreover, the making of democrats involves a considerable process of education and experience. Democrats have to be educated in the meaning of freedom and its relationship to the truths about the human person that our freedom is meant to serve. And democrats have to gain experience in behaving democratically. Absent that education and that experience, the temptation to decline the challenge of freedom can become overpowering. Thus the best answer to the fear of freedom that threatens all democracies is a robust civil society informed by a vigorous public moral culture.

The Catholic Church will necessarily play an enormous role in shaping Polish civil society and the moral culture of democratic Poland. Questions about the boundaries of the Church’s public role, and about the ways in which Church leaders exercise their teaching ministry on issues engaging political choices, have become a prominent part of the Polish public debate since 1989. That, too, is part of being a “normal society.”

It would be both unseemly and untrue for an American to suggest that these questions have been happily resolved in the United States, such that Poles only have to look to America to see how things are done in a mature democracy in this matter of church-and-state. The fact of the matter is that the Polish and American situations are quite distinct, historically and culturally; and the further fact of the matter is that we in the United States haven’t gotten these issues straightened out at all. Indeed, 205 years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Americans still are arguing about the roles of religious conviction and religiously based moral values in our public life. No serious observer of the American scene expects that argument to end anytime soon.

But what Americans might usefully share with Poles is some of the lessons we have learned in our two centuries of wrestling with these questions.

We have learned that the problems of the relationship between moral truths and democratic politics are built into democracy. They are not an accident, nor are they the result of ill will on the part of anyone or any institution. These are, to return to an image already used many times here, “normal” problems.

We have learned that democratic politics is about more than elections and legislation. Indeed, we have learned, through experience, the truth first enunciated theoretically by Aristotle 2300 years ago: namely, that politics is the ongoing public deliberation about how we ought to order our lives together in society. Thus politics, and especially democratic politics, is an inescapably moral discipline. (Put another way, Realpolitik is not an escape from moral reasoning; it is merely a deficient form of moral reasoning.) And because the great majority of the American people derive their moral convictions from religious convictions, our democratic politics inevitably engages religiously based moral claims. This, we can be sure, will also be the case in Poland.

We have learned that the familiar statement, “morality cannot be legislated,” is unsatisfactory. The fact is that democracies legislate “morality” all the time: they forbid murder, theft, defamation of character, false advertising; they legislate just employment practices and they regulate economic behavior according to moral norms (think of product liability laws, warranties, legally mandated nondiscriminatory lending practices, and so forth). The real question is not whether democracies can “legislate morality” but the boundaries of public morality. For example, how broadly should we construe the field of behavior within which democratic states may legitimately legislate and regulate in defense of individual liberties and for the sake of the common good? (The abortion issue, in Poland as in America, is just such a question of the location of public moral boundaries. In this case, the crucial question is, “How wide is the community of those for whom we, as a political community, assume a common responsibility? How broadly does the law’s writ of protection run? Does it include the unborn? And if it does not, what have we said about the nature of our democratic community and its commitment to the rights of all, especially the weakest and most defenseless among us?)

We have learned that “the separation of Church and state” does not and cannot mean the separation of religiously grounded argument from public life. For if it did, “separation” would involve a profoundly undemocratic discrimination against citizens on the basis of religious belief.

We have learned that “separation of Church and state” is good for the Church. As John Paul II wrote in the 1990 encyclical Redemptoris Missio, “The Church proposes, she imposes nothing.” Because coerced faith is no faith, the Church does not seek to put the coercive power of the state behind its truth claims. A Church free from excessive entanglement with the state is a Church free to carry out its evangelical mission with full vigor.

We have learned that “the separation of Church and state” says something as important about the state and its boundaries as it does about the boundaries of the Church. Because any modern state is characterized by the inclination to expand the scope of its influence, power, and control, the freedom of the Church (which is the positive formulation of the “separation of Church and state”) is a crucial barrier against state pretensions. No “established Church” implies a constitutional or limited state. “No established Church” means no sacred state. “No establishment” means that the state acknowledges its incompetence in the most important areas of human life. And this confession of incompetence clears the social space on which a politics of persuasion and consent can replace the politics of sheer coercion.

Finally, we have learned that religious tolerance can be religiously grounded. It is simply not true that the only possible foundation for democratic tolerance and civility is a benign agnosticism or benign secularism. For most Americans, religious tolerance is a matter, not of abstract political philosophy, but of God’s will: they believe it is God’s will that they be religiously tolerant and democratically civil. Thus a Church that has internalized the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Dignitatis humanae and of John Paul II in Centesimus annus will be a public force for tolerance, civility, and genuine pluralism.

How these “American lessons” can be applied in Poland is, of course, for Poles to determine. But I can sum up the lessons of the American experience by noting that religiously grounded public moral argument can help sustain the civil society essential to democracy if four conditions prevail:

1. If the political process is open to citizens of all convictions, and if there are no penalties (or rewards) in terms of access to public life based on religious conviction or the lack thereof;

2. If the Church acknowledges the limits of its competence in political and economic life, and maintains a principled, firmly non-partisan stance vis-a-vis electoral politics;

3. If religious people and religious leaders, when they enter the public square, make genuinely public moral arguments for their views, rather than sectarian (or authoritarian) claims;

4. And, if a virtuous citizenry practices tolerance and works to achieve a genuine pluralism, in which differences are not avoided but engaged within the bond of democratic civility.

All of this may be captured in a simple phrase: the goal is a public Church that is not a partisan Church. That, I take it, is what John Paul II was describing when he told the bishops of Poland, during their 1993 ad limina visit to Rome, that “the Church is not a political party nor is she identified with any political party; she is above them, open to all people of good will, and no political party can claim the right to represent her.” And that, it seems to me, is the vision of the “public Church” that the bishops of Poland expounded in their June 1993 pastoral letter. It is a vision that an American observer can only applaud.

The New “Polish Question”

Poles may well feel that they have earned a respite. Having borne the brunt of the struggle against totalitarianism for 50 years, Poland, it may be thought, should get a break. But insofar as we can discern the will of Providence in the churnings of contemporary history, Providence seems to have decreed differently.

For Poland is now living out a fascinating question, with potentially great historical consequences: How can a liberal democratic state and a free economy be built on the foundations of an intact Catholic culture? That has never been done before. But I believe there are reasons to be optimistic about Poland’s chances of success.

The first reason is the residual impact of the Revolution of 1989 and the revolution of conscience that preceded it. Poland is, now, a “normal society.” But it is a “normal society” with a difference: within the living memory of its entire adult citizenry, it has experienced the radical, transformative power of the truth in public affairs. It may be that that experience created certain unrealistic, perhaps even naive, expectations about the character of post-revolutionary democratic politics. But amidst the discontents of the present, the unchangeable fact remains that the Poles did something great for freedom, in 1989. And that fact deserves to be remembered, and understood, and celebrated, so that it can play its proper role in shaping the politics of democratic Poland throughout the 1990s and into the next century.

The second reason for optimism has to do with the transformation of Catholic social doctrine during and since Vatican II. For the better part of the past two centuries, in Catholic countries (or in pluralistic societies with a significant Catholic population), transitions to democracy and the market were undertaken in the face of the official Church’s professed nervousness about the limited constitutional state, religious freedom, and capitalism. But at the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholicism embraced religious freedom and the limited, constitutional state. And in John Paul II’s bold 1991 encyclical, Centesimus annus, the Magisterium of the Church endorsed the “free economy” (disciplined and tempered by a vibrant moral culture and a democratic polity) as an expression of the creativity of human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

All of which means that the great Polish experiment in freedom will not be conducted with Polish society looking nervously over its shoulder, so to speak, at a skeptical Church. Rather, the vision of the free society developed by John Paul II in Centesimus annus is considerably ahead of the curve of debate in Poland (and everywhere else, for that matter). Thus the Church’s social doctrine can act as a magnet toward successful reforms, rather than as a brake on them.

And so I am inclined to be optimistic about both Polish democracy and the Polish Church. Indeed, I am inclined to think that the successful establishment of democracy and a free economy in Poland will take place through, not around, the Catholic Church, its leaders, and its people. For all its present difficulties, Poland has changed, dramatically, and for the better, since 1989 and because of 1989. So has the Catholic Church in Poland. And out of those changes may yet come a distinctive model of the free society, in which Catholic faith and piety are the guarantors of liberty and justice for all.


  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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