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Issue Date:  July 14, 2006

Unpublished work by John Paul II speaks debate


A little-known and unpublished work by Fr. Karol Wojtyla has touched off debate among experts across the globe about whether the future Pope John Paul II, as a young academic, had developed an appreciation of some aspects of Marxism as well as a strong critique of U.S.-style capitalism.

The John Paul II Institute in Lublin, Poland, which is charged with Wojtyla’s pre-papal writings, has plans to publish the work in the near future. However, interpretations of the two-volume Katolicka Etyka Spoleczna (Catholic Social Ethics) have been bitterly contested, a debate touched off in Wojtyla’s homeland of Poland and beyond when the authors of this article first wrote about the unpublished volume in a cover story for the British Catholic weekly The Tablet last January.

The text contradicts views promoted by neoconservative thinkers who depict the pontiff as a lifelong fan of U.S.-style liberal capitalism. It also raises questions of why, when every detail of Wojtyla’s life has been combed over by researchers and biographers, mention of this 511-page work has apparently been avoided.

Catholic Social Ethics originated as a series of lectures by Wojtyla in 1953-54, and was typed and bound for students and academics. It provides no evidence that the future pope had any direct political affiliation. However, it shows Wojtyla had acquired by his early 30s a sophisticated knowledge of Marxism and an empathy with its critique of capitalist injustices. It shows he had already rejected both “socialist totalism” and “individualistic liberalism” as prerequisites for a well-organized society.

“The church is aware that the bourgeois mentality and capitalism as a whole, with its materialist spirit, acutely contradict the Gospel,” Wojtyla writes.

“From the church’s standpoint, it is a question of ensuring, by way of various economic-structural forms, just participation by all members of society, and especially people of work, in possessing sufficient amounts of assets and participating at least to some extent in productive goods.”

Statements like this have proved hard to accept in some church quarters.

In his 1999 biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel relegated the work to a footnote, claiming Wojtyla had used course notes from an older colleague, Professor Jan Piwowarczyk, and could not be regarded as the author. Catholic Social Ethics was, in any case, “a rather conventional presentation of the church’s social doctrine in the 1950s,” Weigel assured his readers.

In a January letter to The Tablet, Weigel again dismissed what he called an “alleged Wojtyla text,” claiming the pope “did not regard the work as his own.” This is rejected by Polish experts on John Paul II, who insist Catholic Social Ethics, though drawing on Piwowarczyk, is indeed Wojtyla’s work, and could significantly affect interpretations of his philosophical development.

“It shows, clearly and unequivocally, how deeply he believed Christians had to resist injustice and oppression,” said Fr. Jan Glowczyk, an expert with Rome’s John Paul II Foundation. “Though it can’t be treated as an official text, it should be studied and interpreted accordingly.”

The recent attention to the work has provoked negative reactions in Poland, too, particularly at Catholic University of Lublin, where the future pope once taught.

In March, Lublin Archbishop Jozef Zycinski summoned a meeting of professors and declared “support for the views of George Weigel,” dismissing suggestions that Wojtyla had expressed “sympathy for Marxism” and “criticism of capitalism.” Wojtyla might have shown “social sensitivity,” the archbishop added. But this shouldn’t to be “identified with the position of the left.”

Zycinski has worked with Weigel on “Free Society” summer schools in Poland, alongside U.S. neoconservatives Michael Novak and Fr. Richard Neuhaus. He announced he was setting up a special Web site to counter “false interpretations of “John Paul II’s views at various stages of his life.”

Meanwhile, the Polish church’s official Catholic Information Agency insisted Wojtyla had only criticized capitalism out of deference to Pope Pius XI, and defended Zycinski’s demand for “rational restrictions” to be imposed on discussion of the pope’s outlook.

Zycinski and his supporters will have trouble controlling public comment once Catholic Social Ethics is published. The bulk of the work is written as a response to Marxism. Wojtyla’s aim, he makes clear, isn’t to apply Marxism to Christianity, but to give Marxist concepts a Christian meaning, and win back the ideas of social justice that Marxism had expropriated.

Wojtyla traces communism itself back to Christian tradition, even subtitling one section “The Objective Superiority of the Communist Ideal.” But he makes clear he is using the term generically to mean common ownership. The church believes “the private ownership principle” can be upheld while “enfranchising the proletariat.”

“In the contemporary communist movement, the church sees and acknowledges an expression of largely ethical goals,” the future pope concedes.

“In line with patristic traditions and the centuries-old practice of monastic life, the church itself acknowledges the ideal of communism. But it believes, given the current state of human nature, that the general implementation of this ideal -- while protecting the human person’s complete freedom -- faces insurmountable difficulties.”

This does not, however, invalidate the use of struggle to change the social and economic order, he writes. Since human beings are endowed with free will, they are able to “choose spiritual goodness.” Yet violent upheavals can be ethically justified as a means of resisting unjust rulers, and as “the supreme penalty for concrete guilts and crimes in the sphere of socioeconomic life.”

Catholicism cannot “agree with materialism” or the “primacy of economics,” Wojtyla writes. But it recognizes that “various facts and historical processes” are economically determined. “In a well organized society, orientated to the common good, class conflicts are solved peacefully through reforms. But states that base their order on individualistic liberalism are not such societies. So when an exploited class fails to receive in a peaceful way the share of the common good to which it has a right, it has to follow a different path.”

“Class struggle should gain strength in proportion to the resistance it faces from economically privileged classes, so the systemic social situation will mature under this pressure to the appropriate forms and transitions,” Wojtyla continues.

“Guided by a just evaluation of historical events, the church should view the cause of revolution with an awareness of the ethical evil in factors of the economic and social regime, and in the political system, that generates the need for a radical reaction. It can be accepted that the majority of people who took part in revolutions -- even bloody ones -- were acting on the basis of internal convictions, and thus in accordance with conscience.”

Wojtyla was not the only Polish priest writing about Marxism at the time. Archbishop Stefan Wyszynski, who also wrote extensively on Catholic ethics, claimed in his prison diaries to have “gone through Das Kapital three times,” and makes clear he would have supported communist “socioeconomic reform” if not for the party’s “narrow atheism.”

In this context, Wojtyla’s controversial style could be said to reflect the language of the epoch. Although the text’s ideas are couched in Marxist language, the meaning behind them accords with Christian teaching, and conveys in unconventional terms what popes from Leo XIII onward had said about the abuses of liberalism and unchecked competition.

That, however, isn’t how Catholic Social Ethics is being viewed in the Polish church.

Tomasz Styczen, who heads Lublin’s John Paul II Institute, said the work wasn’t submitted for publication in Poland originally for fear its analysis of Marxism would offend the communist censors. Once Wojtyla was pope, Styczen said, it was considered “unpropitious” to draw attention to it.

Virtually every other piece of Wojtyla’s writing has been published, from the youthful poetry he penned as a teenager to the weighty conference papers he delivered as a cardinal. When a collection of his handwritten lectures as a parish priest in 1949 was published toward the end of his life, a leading Catholic ethicist insisted they had “lost none of their relevance” for the present.

Can a work of such importance as Catholic Social Ethics simply have slipped through the net?

That question is being asked in Poland. In a front-page spread, the Zycie Warszawy daily accused the Lublin institute of attempting to “censor the pope” by withholding the text from John Paul II’s Polish beatification tribunal, which ended April 1 after just five months’ work.

Meanwhile, the Polityka weekly criticized church leaders like Zycinski for showing short memories. “Whoever knows a bit about postwar church history in Poland knows there’s nothing surprising or morally dubious in the polemics and discussions of church hierarchs and intellectuals with Marxist doctrine,” wrote Polityka columnist Adam Szostkiewicz. “They also know what a great challenge Marxism posed to Wojtyla’s generation. It spoke in a language pleasant to the ears of Catholics disappointed by the failures and faults of interwar Poland.”

Fr Andrzej Szostek, rector of the Catholic University of Lublin, has insisted no attempt was made to suppress the text. The John Paul II Institute had merely found “more important texts” to publish during John Paul’s 26-year pontificate, Szostek said in April. Meanwhile, the beatification tribunal had only considered Wojtyla’s officially published texts.

Speaking at a Lublin conference in May, Szostek admitted that Wojtyla had used Catholic Social Ethics to “formulate fundamental intuitions concerning capitalism and Marxism.” That should qualify the work for fair and open study by historians. It should also raise doubts about using the pope to bless any single ideology.

But Zycinski has rejected suggestions that there can be “valid differences of view and interpretation” about John Paul II’s early life and work. Meanwhile, Szostek has warned that an “authentic version” of the text must be prepared, with “commentaries to help with its understanding.”

“Editing this script isn’t a simple matter,” Szostek cautioned in an April statement. “It requires scientific reliability.”

Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch write from Oxford, England, and Warsaw, Poland. Their latest book, Rethinking Christendom: Europe’s Struggle for Christianity, is published by Gracewing.

National Catholic Reporter, July 14, 2006

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