Air turbulence and the Resurrection

George Weigel

If there’s anything Catholics in the United States should have learned over the past two decades, it’s that order – in the world, the Republic, and the Church – is a fragile thing. And by “order,” I don’t mean the same old same old. Rather, I mean the dynamic development of world politics, our national life, and the Church within stable reference points that guide us into the future.

Many of those reference points seem to have come unstuck, and that’s why we’re experiencing an unusual amount of air turbulence these days. Or so I argue in The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times, which has just been published by Ignatius Press. The book collects thirteen essays on world history and politics, American history and politics, and the post-Vatican II Church that I’ve written in recent years. The set-up is a new essay on the ways things seem in 2018 contrasted to the way they looked a quarter-century ago, with the Cold War won and the Church beginning to experience the renewal John Paul II defined and promoted in his authoritative interpretation of Vatican II.

It was a heady moment and, in retrospect, perhaps too heady. I was always skeptical of my friend Francis Fukuyama’s notion that “the end of history” had dawned with the triumph of democracy and the market over communism; as I wrote at the time, in 1990, there’s far more to “history” than politics and economics, and the human propensity for making a mess of things would continue to give all us pause, and plenty to work on. But the rapidity with which the post-Cold War order has unraveled throughout the world, and the speed with which American political culture has decayed into unbridled bombast on all sides, have surprised me – and, I expect, many others. Exploring how that happened in a generation, in both world politics and our national public life, is one thread tying The Fragility of Order together.

As for the air turbulence in the Church, I must confess that that I’m somewhat less concerned about that than others seem to be. Why? For one reason, I don’t confuse the Catholic blogosphere and its neo-Darwinian, survival-of-the-shrillest antics with the realities of Catholic life, here and throughout the world Church. For another, it strikes me that the most vital parts of the Church – parishes, dioceses, seminaries, religious orders, lay renewal movements, evangelization groups – are getting on with the business of being a Church permanently in mission, tuning out as much of the static as they can and pursuing what they know to be effective ways of spreading the joy of the Gospel.

These vital parts of the Church are, uniformly, the parts that have embraced All-In Catholicism and rejected Catholic Lite. And that is, or should be, another source of confidence and hope amidst the current ecclesiastical turbulence. Those who don’t remember the two decades immediately after Vatican II and haven’t taken the trouble to learn that history are understandably upset at the fragility of order in the Church today. But they should also understand that this is not 1968, or 1978, or even 1988, and that a lot of ballast was put into the Barque of Peter during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For all the challenges it faces, and despite the determination of some to revisit what they regard as the glorious Seventies, the Church in the U.S. is in far, far better condition to withstand the air turbulence of the moment that it was forty years ago. And that’s because truth, spoken winsomely and in charity, but without fudging, has proven a powerful instrument of evangelization and spiritual growth in a culture wallowing in various confusions.

At the bottom of the bottom line is the Resurrection. It’s entirely possible to hold fast to the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was raised by God to a new form of bodily life after his crucifixion and be deeply concerned about the state of the Church today. But it’s not possible to know the Risen Lord and to indulge in despair. Despair died on the cross and unshakeable hope was born at Easter. That’s why Easter faith is the surest anchor for all of us in turbulent times.

COMING UP: Memory, identity, and patriotism

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The second volume of my biography of St. John Paul II, The End and the Beginning, benefited immensely from the resources of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance [IPN, from its Polish initials], which was established after the Revolution of 1989 to preserve records related to the Polish experience under the Nazis and the communists. Documents obtained from IPN by Polish historians helped me paint a detailed picture of the forty-year war the communists conducted against Karol Wojtyla, from the days when he was a young priest, through his Cracovian episcopate, and on to his first decade as Pope John Paul II.

Thus, as a beneficiary of IPN’s archives, a longtime friend of Poland, and a grateful recipient of that country’s highest award for contributions to Polish culture, I am deeply concerned by the new “IPN Act” signed into law this past February. For the law dictates that IPN – presumably an archive for research – will now become an agency monitoring thought, speech, and writing. According to a law so vaguely drawn as to invite abuse, it seems that IPN is to flag instances of someone speaking publicly or writing about Polish involvement in the Holocaust of European Jewry, speech and writing that has been declared illegal under the IPN Act. The penalty for such transgressions is three years in prison (ironically, the sentence passed by a Viennese court against the odious Holocaust-denier, David Irving).

Sympathetic as I am to some of the current Polish government’s criticisms of the European Union, and much as I welcome its efforts to strengthen family life, I cannot extend my sympathy to this gravely misconceived law: misconceived because it makes IPN into something ominously resembling Orwell’s “Big Brother;” misconceived because it could promote falsifications of history while criminalizing truth-telling; misconceived because it deflects attention from the 6,000 Polish rescuers honored at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem; misconceived because it re-awakens stereotypes many of us have worked for decades to erase; misconceived because it exacerbates tensions in a country where (like America, alas), the survival of the shrillest seems to be the order of the day.

No one should doubt that all Poland suffered terribly during World War II. Twenty percent of the population in 1939 was dead in 1945, including three million Jews. Another 1.2 million people had been “transferred” to Siberia and its gulag camps. The race-mad Nazis seized two hundred thousand Polish children and took them to Germany. At the end of the war, there was not a single structure more than two feet high in Poland’s capital, which Hitler had ordered razed in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Polish heroes of unimpeachable integrity were judicially murdered by the country’s new Stalinist occupiers, because their democratic convictions might pose a threat to consolidating communist rule.

In recent years, real progress has been made in eradicating offensive terms like “Polish Death Camps” from the world’s vocabulary, as Poles, Germans, and others have worked together to make clear that those were Nazi extermination camps. Moreover, Poland’s Jewish heritage is now celebrated: in massive cultural festivals such as the one held in Cracow every summer, and above all in a magnificent new museum of the history of Polish Jewry in Warsaw – one of the finest historical museums in the world. Further, the late Archbishop Jozef Zycinski of Lublin, following the example of John Paul II, slowly but carefully created a Jewish-Christian dialogue in Poland, so that memories could be cleansed and purified, and a new relationship between Catholics and Jews forged.

In light of all this, and more, the IPN Act seems a grave mistake. Poland in the 1980s offered the world an inspiring model of morally-driven nonviolent revolution. Since 1989, Poland has been the model for post-communist transitions, politically and economically. Poland and its friends were successfully making the case to the world about the full truth of the unspeakable atrocities that took place there during World War II. Now this.

And in the name of what? National identity is a precious thing, but it can only lead to a true civic patriotism if it deals with history honestly. Russia is a prime example of a country beset by a national story riddled with historical falsehoods. Poles, of all people, should not want to follow that example.