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From the November, 2006 issue of Touchstone


The Polish Factor by Mark Wegierski

The Polish Factor

Memory and Identity: Conversations At the Dawn of a Millenium
by Pope John Paul II
Rizzoli, 2005
(172 pages, $19.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Mark Wegierski

This book, which originally appeared in Polish in 2003, was based on John Paul II’s conversations with two prominent Polish theologians, and includes an epilogue by his personal secretary, Stanislaw Dziwisz. It was a huge bestseller in Poland and is considered among the most directly political of the late pope’s publications.

After his identification of both Nazism and communism as “ideologies of evil,” the pope draws out his argument further, pointing to a possible third, now-emerging danger for the West, where “the anti-evangelical currents . . . strike at the very foundations of human morality.” These include:

divorce, free love, abortion, contraception, the fight against life in its initial phases and its final phase, the manipulation of life. This program is supported by enormous financial resources. . . . Faced with all this, one may legitimately ask if this is not another form of totalitarianism, subtly concealed under the appearances of democracy.

Abortion, for example, is an “extermination . . . decreed by democratically elected parliaments, which invoke the notion of civil progress for society and for all humanity.” The pope includes “the strong pressure from the European Parliament to recognize homosexual unions as an alternative type of family, with the right to adopt children,” as another among the current “grave violations of God’s law.”

But “freedom is for love,” John Paul notes, against a worldly standard that identifies freedom with self-expression and self-satisfaction. “Sinful man knows that God is infinite mercy, always ready to forgive and restore the sinner to righteousness. . . . Of course, there is also justice, but this alone does not have the last word in the divine economy of world history and human history.”

A Christian Patriotism

At the same time, John Paul pays greater attention to the role of nations in human history than is often seen in Christians today. He is an ardent Polish patriot, and the book is also culturally important as a historical document about Poland for English-speaking audiences.

He emphasizes how Poland has at different times in history endeavored to defend the ethical principles embodied in Christendom and argues not only that Poland has always been an integral part of Europe, but also that, from Polish King Jan III Sobieski’s victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683 to the rising of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, it has rendered enormous services to Europe.

He mentions the 1920 battle near Warsaw, the so-called “Miracle of the Vistula,” for example, where the armies of the newly independent Poland turned back the Bolshevik army, thus saving Europe. This was also the year of his birth.

The book also refers to Poland’s period of Partition (123 years of harsh foreign occupation, from 1795 to 1918) and criticizes the political arrangements of nineteenth-century Europe that were based on brutal power politics, especially those of Tsarist Russia and Imperial Germany. The pope rejects any emphasis on power as an end or justification, whether of the so-called Holy Alliance in the nineteenth century or of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth.

He also reminds the reader that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Western Europe was convulsed by religious wars, Jagiellonian Poland and the First Polish Republic exercised religious tolerance. Yet he worries that Poles today feel that their country is inferior to Western Europe and may be deluded into accepting its very worst tendencies, because these are now fashionable and considered to be progressive.

It is in the mixture of John Paul’s Polish patriotism and theological insight that much of the value of this book lies. Memory and Identity draws special and unusual—and for many Christians, much needed—attention to the necessity of participating in a rooted history, nation, and tradition as part of a flourishing Christian existence. As the pope writes:

the Gospel gave a new meaning to the concept of native land. . . . Christ’s departure opened up the concept of native land to an eternal, eschatological dimension, but took nothing away from its temporal content. We know . . . from the example of Polish history, how much thought of the eternal homeland can inspire people to serve their earthly native land, motivating citizens to accept all manner of sacrifices for it—often to a heroic degree.

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