Why did the Wall fall, 30 years ago?

November 9 marked the 30th anniversary of the peaceful breach of the Berlin Wall — the symbolic high point of the Revolution of 1989, which would be completed seven weeks later by the fall of the Czechoslovak communist regime and Vaclav Havel’s election as that country’s president. A few days before the actual anniversary, German foreign minister Haiko Maas penned a brief essay on the reasons why the Wall came down, which was striking for what Mr. Mass didn’t mention.

He did not mention NATO steadfastness against a vast Soviet campaign of agitation and propaganda over western military modernization in the 1980s.

He did not mention President Ronald Reagan or Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — he didn’t even mention West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

From my point of view, however, the most glaring omission in Mr. Maas’s essay was his complete lack of attention to the pivotal figure in the Revolution of 1989, Pope St. John Paul II. Just as oddly, the foreign minister neglected to mention the moral revolution — the revolution of conscience — that John Paul II helped ignite and that gave the Revolution of 1989 its unique human texture. This is bad history. And bad history always raises warning flags about the future.

Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University is America’s most distinguished historian of the Cold War. He is not a Catholic, so he could not be accused of special pleading or sectarian bias in writing that “when John Paul II kissed the ground at the Warsaw Airport on June 2, 1979, he began the process by which communism in Poland — and ultimately everywhere — would come to an end.” My friendly amendment would be to note (as the Polish pope did) that a lot had been happening in east central Europe before John Paul’s June 1979 pilgrimage to Poland; so the Pope did not so much begin, as he did accelerate, the process of dismantling European communism through an effective nonviolent resistance based on the assertion of basic human rights. And he did that in part by giving the Catholic components of the resistance new courage, rooted in the conviction that “Rome” now had their backs (as it hadn’t in the 1970s).

But I will happily accept Professor Gaddis’s citation of June 2, 1979, as a signal moment in this process. What happened that day? Unbelievably, after more than 30 years of communist repression, a pope from behind the iron curtain celebrated Mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square. And during that hitherto unimaginable event, a vast crowd chanted, “We want God! We want God!”

That dramatic scene was the curtain-raiser on nine days of national renewal in which John Paul, in dozens of speeches and addresses, never mentioned politics or economics once and ignored the Polish communist government completely. Rather, he played numerous variations on one great theme: “You are not who they say you are. Remember who you are — reclaim the truth about yourselves as a nation formed by a Christian history and a vital faith — and you will eventually discover tools of resistance that communism cannot match.” The demand for religious freedom, in other words, was at the center of the John Paul II-inspired Solidarity movement in Poland, even as it became an increasingly prominent part of the human rights resistance to communism in Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Getting this history straight is important, not just as a matter of intellectual hygiene but for the future. Public officials who do not grasp the centrality of religious freedom to the collapse of European communism and the emergence of new democracies in central and eastern Europe are unlikely to appreciate the centrality of religious freedom to free and virtuous 21st-century societies and to 21st-century democracy. It is a sadness to note that Foreign Minister Maas is not alone in his ignorance, and in what one fears may be his insouciance about the first freedom.

A few days before the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down, former Irish president Mary McAleese gave a lecture at Trinity College in Dublin. Did she celebrate her Church’s role in liberating a continent? No. Instead, she made the bizarre claim that infant baptism and the consequent obligation of parents to raise their baptized children in the faith may violate the U.N.’s Covenant on the Rights of the Child.

Hard to believe, but true — and an urgent reminder that bad history makes for bad public policy.

Featured image by Raphaël Thiémard | Wikicommons


COMING UP: The ‘synodality’ masquerade  

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During the 2001 Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who’d suffered through a lot of synodal speechifying and small-group discussions over the years, made a trenchant observation: “Jesus Christ didn’t intend his Church to be governed by a committee.”


The mechanisms of consultation that exist in the Church — from parish councils through diocesan pastoral councils to the Synod of Bishops — exist to strengthen the governance of the Church by its pastors: priests in their parishes, bishops in their dioceses, the Bishop of Rome in terms of the universal Church. The Synods of 2014, 2015, 2018, and 2019, however, suggest that the committee model deplored by Cardinal George has morphed into something arguably even worse: the masquerade model, in which a “synodal process” of “walking together” provides cover for effecting serious changes in Catholic self-understanding and practice for which there is little or no doctrinal, theological, or pastoral warrant.

In the Final Report of the recent Amazonian Synod, this masquerade model was described in language sodden with clichés:

“To walk together the Church today needs a conversion to the synodal experience. It is necessary to strengthen a culture of dialogue, reciprocal listening, spiritual discernment, consensus and communion to find spaces and modes of joint decision and respond to pastoral challenges. This will foster joint responsibility in the life of the Church in a spirit of service. It is urgent to work, propose, and assume the responsibilities to overcome clericalism and arbitrary impositions. Synodality is a constitutive dimension of the Church. You cannot be a Church without acknowledging an effective exercise of the sensus fidei of the entire People of God.”

Leaving aside the question of how an “effective….sense of the faithful” involving 1.2 billion Catholics could be measured, much less “exercised,” what does this gobbledygook mean? Confusions on that front were amplified by a prominent celebrant of the cult of synodality, whose prose parses but whose grasp of the reality of recent synods seems deficient. Thus Villanova’s Massimo Faggioli, writing in La Croix International, recently made several claims about synodality, none of which stands up to what the courts would call “strict scrutiny” by those actually present in Rome during recent synods:

“…Francis has turned the synods into real events.” Baloney. The synods led by Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, chosen by the Holy Father as secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, have been at least as orchestrated as their predecessors. And after there was serious pushback to the manipulation of Synod-2014 by the Synod general secretariat, care was taken at the Synods of 2015 and 2018, and at the recent Amazonian regional synod, to ensure that voices potentially disruptive of the Synod-managers’ plans were not prominent among the invited.

“They [the recent synods] have been prefaced by a serious consultation of the faithful at the local level.” Really? Can you, gentle reader, name anyone in your circle of Catholic friends who was seriously consulted about the issues at Synods 2014 and 2015 (the nature of marriage and sacramental discipline)? Leaders of some of the most evangelically successful youth ministries in the United States were noticeably absent from the preparations for Synod-2018. According to several Amazonian Synod spin-doctors, 87,000 people were consulted prior to the development of that synod’s working document. But how can a local Church unable to tell us how many Catholics there are in Amazonia credibly count the precise number of people “consulted” (much less tell us how well-catechized those people are)? And how was it that 87,000 Amazonians spoke in progressive German Catholic accents, emphasizing “issues” that may be agitated in the Biergärten of Munich but that seem somewhat removed from the real-world pastoral challenges of the Brazilian rainforest?

“The actual Synod gatherings….in Rome have featured genuine freedom of expression.” This, I’m sure, would come as news to the African bishops warned against consorting with American bishops at Synod-2018, as it would to the members of the final-report drafting committees at Synod-2015 and Synod-2018, who complained about the manipulation of the process by the Synod general secretariat.

Serious consultation and collaboration are essential to effective pastoral leadership, including the leadership of the Bishop of Rome. But over the 50-plus years of its existence, no one has figured out how to make the Synod of Bishops really work. Propaganda about “synodality” that functions as rhetorical cover for the imposition of the progressive Catholic agenda on the whole Church is not an improvement on that track record; it’s a masquerade, behind which is an agenda.

Featured image by Daniel Ibáñez/CNA