Beyond nostalgia in Poland

In late July, the Polish Parliament created a new national holiday, “John Paul II Day,” to be celebrated every October 16, the anniversary of Karol Wojtyla’s election as the 264th Bishop of Rome. According to the bill establishing the holiday, “John Paul II Day” is meant to “express the pride that a great humanist, a man of profound science and culture, was formed by the Polish tradition” — a man, the bill continued, who “taught how it is possible, keeping one’s own faith, to give respect and love to others.”

Just a month later, John Paul’s longtime secretary and confidant, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, was installed as the archbishop of Cracow. During the three-plus weeks I spent in Cracow this summer, I spoke with many of the new archbishop’s old friends, who were eager to welcome him home.

As indeed they should be. At the same time, Archbishop Dziwisz, his (and my) friends, and the entire Polish Church face a tremendous challenge. The parliament’s decision to create “John Paul II Day” is an admirable expression of a broadly felt national desire to honor a great son of Poland. The challenge for the Church in Poland will be to honor the memory of John Paul II by looking ahead, not by looking back.

Shortly after Archbishop Dziwisz’s appointment was announced, former Polish president Lech Walesa welcomed the news enthusiastically, saying, in so many words, that, just as John Paul II had told the Poles what to do with their hard-won freedom, Archbishop Dziwisz would now do the same. The former Solidarity hero was wrong on both counts: John Paul II didn’t give Poles political instructions (although he did talk President Walesa out of a hare-brained scheme to acquire nuclear weapons from rogue ex-Soviet operatives); and Archbishop Dziwisz shouldn’t (and won’t) issue political instructions to his people. The fact that Walesa seemed nostalgic for the days when the Polish hierarchy was a de facto political party does suggest, though, one measure of the challenge facing the new archbishop of Cracow.

Contrary to some expectations, Polish Catholicism hasn’t gone the way of Irish Catholicism, Spanish Catholicism, and Portuguese Catholicism in the sixteen years since the Revolution of 1989 — which is to say, Poland hasn’t abandoned its historic faith and the religious roots of its national culture. Quite the contrary. Poland today remains the most intensely Catholic culture this side of Guadalupe or Manila. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life are strong in their own right, and astonishingly high by western standards. The Church remains the most respected institution in the country. As an American friend says every year in Cracow, “It’s amazing to be in a city where the principal civic activity on Sunday morning is going to Mass.”

Yet fervor, piety, and high rates of religious practice aren’t the whole story of Polish Catholicism. With rare exceptions, the Polish episcopate has yet to find a genuinely “public” voice in the debates over the life issues, biotechnology, and marriage in which all European and North American democracies are now embroiled. The Marxism of the bad old days in Polish high culture has frequently been replaced by the kind of post-modern skepticism and relativism that have eroded the civilizational morale of western Europe; and the Church has not, to date, effectively taught John Paul II’s conviction that we can, in fact, know the truth of things — even moral things — in ways that challenge the regnant intellectual cynicism. The intellectual and spiritual formation in diocesan seminaries must be strengthened, so that the priests of Poland’s 21st century are equipped to deal with the questions of Catholic faith and practice that inevitably arise in modern societies — and equipped to give more persuasive answers than “Because I told you so.”

John Paul the Great tried to help Poland prepare to be “the Church in the modern world” envisioned by Vatican II — a Church engaging the hardest question of contemporary life out of a deepened appreciation of the riches of its own tradition. Poland will best honor the memory of its noblest son by applying his teaching boldly and creatively, not nostalgically, to the future.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash