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The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World

The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World

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by John O'Sullivan

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The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister is a sweeping, dramatic account of how three great figures changed the course of history. All of them led with courage — but also with great optimism. The pope helped ordinary Poles and East Europeans banish their fear of Soviet Communism, convincing them that liberation was possible. The prime minister


The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister is a sweeping, dramatic account of how three great figures changed the course of history. All of them led with courage — but also with great optimism. The pope helped ordinary Poles and East Europeans banish their fear of Soviet Communism, convincing them that liberation was possible. The prime minister restored her country's failing economy by reviving the "vigorous virtues" of the British people. The president rebuilt America's military power, its national morale, and its pre – eminence as leader of the free world. Together they brought down an evil empire and changed the world for the better. No one can tell their intertwined story better than John O'Sullivan, former editor of National Review and the Times of London, who knew all three and conducted exclusive interviews that shed extraordinary new light on these giants of the twentieth century.

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The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister

By John O'Sullivan

Regnery Publishing

Copyright © 2006 John O'Sullivan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-59698-016-8

Chapter One

The Indian Summer of Liberaldom

* * *

As the 1970s began, three talented middle managers worried about their respective institutions, which seemed to be crumbling. Worse, there seemed little they could do about it. All three were, in the jargon of management, on the edge of the boardroom, not at the center of events and decision-making.

Karol Wojtyla was the cardinal-archbishop of Cracow, Poland's second city, in a Church still dominated by an Italian pope and Italian clerical bureaucrats. Margaret Thatcher had just entered the cabinet of Edward Heath's new Conservative government in the middle-ranking position of minister of education. Ronald Reagan was in his second and final term as governor of California.

All three had strong personalities, great abilities, and loyal followings. Two of them had good prospects.

Wojtyla might conceivably rise to become the Catholic primate of Communist Poland and an influential religious leader in an Eastern Europe then adjusting to the permanence of Soviet rule. Thatcher might become Britain's first female chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister in non-medieval language) if her wildest ambitions were realized. She conceded at the time that the post of prime minister would remain beyond the grasp of a woman for many moredecades. Both were still rising stars.

At the age of sixty, however, Reagan was probably basking in the warmth of his last hurrah. The Right's favorite had failed in a late bid for the Republican Party's 1968 presidential nomination, and now his successful, more moderate rival, Richard Nixon, was almost certain to run for re-election in 1972. The Californian's presidential prospects looked highly uncertain-his national future perhaps limited to a return to the "mashed potato" circuit of political lecturing. On the verge of receiving his first Social Security check when the 1976 primaries opened, Reagan was already dangerously close to becoming an elder statesman.

All three were plainly at or near the peak of their careers. And those peaks were tantalizingly short of the very top.

It was not hard for any intelligent observer to explain why these three, with such high abilities, had obtained only limited success. All three were handicapped by being too sharp, clear, and definite in an age of increasingly fluid identities and sophisticated doubts. Put simply, Wojtyla was too Catholic, Thatcher too conservative, and Reagan too American.

These qualities might not have been disadvantages in times of greater confidence in Western civilization-or in moments of grave crisis such as 1940 in Britain, or 1941 in America, or in sixteenth-century Rome-when people prefer their leaders to be lions rather than foxes. But 1970 was two years after the revolutionary annus mirabilis of 1968. It was a time when historical currents seemed to be smoothly bearing mankind, including the Catholic Church, Britain, and America, in an undeniably liberal and even progressive direction.

Revolutions of every kind-sexual, religious, political, economic, social-were breaking out from the campus to the Vatican to the rice paddies of the Third World. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, now actually being implemented, was liberating gays, lesbians, housewives, unhappy spouses, single parents-and, of course, those who wanted to sleep with them-from closets of either silence or irksome duty. Feminism and the United States Supreme Court had added legal abortion to the growing list of women's rights. The Catholic Church had embarked in the previous decade on the internal revolution of the Second Vatican Council; Catholic liberals were now threading through the dioceses of Western Europe and America, purging the liturgy of traditional hymns and high-sounding language and seeking to reconcile faith with secular forms of "liberation." The welfare revolution, already entrenched in Europe, was now being extended to America by, of all people, Richard Nixon, with his plans for a guaranteed minimum income and affirmative action. As Nixon also conceded ("We're all Keynesians now"), the Keynesian revolution in economics was believed to be the key to steadily rising prosperity guided by government and interrupted hardly at all by recessions. The scientific "Green Revolution," together with government-to-government aid, promised to extend this prosperity to the poor nations of the Third World. The Third World itself, growing in confidence and clout at United Nations forums, gained more recruits when the Portuguese empire in Africa collapsed overnight, replaced by two new independent governments in Angola and Mozambique. That left South Africa and Rhodesia as the last doomed holdouts against the world revolutions of decolonization and racial equality carried out under UN auspices. There and in countries such as Iran and Brazil, where change was resisted by oppressive governments or the military, more violent forms of revolution were employed. These had been encouraged when armed Marxist peasants in black pajamas had won half a victory in Vietnam as the war wound down, or was at least "Vietnamized" and American POWs began returning home. But it was generally agreed among progressive opinion that the Vietnam War had been an immoral mistake never to be repeated. More realistic statesmen in the advanced world saw the wisdom of avoiding violence and upheaval by yielding gracefully to other revolutions. Mao's China came in from the cold and took its permanent seat on the UN Security Council courtesy of the Nixon-Kissinger "opening" to China. Edward Heath's Conservative government in Britain not only offered left-wing labor unions an unprecedented say in determining economic policy, but also surrendered Britain's recently imperial sovereignty to an embryonic united European superpower. Looking further ahead, the West German government was forging links with the East European Communist regimes in a policy of Ostpolitik that assumed the two halves of Europe would soon converge in some new blend of planned economy and social democracy. Détente promised the same convergence for the two superpowers, making the threat of nuclear war seem pointless in a world moving inexorably toward a future of peace, love, and bureaucracy.

Driving all these subordinate revolutions was what Walt W. Rostow, the distinguished liberal theorist of economic takeoff, called "the revolution of rising expectations." Mankind the world over wanted a better life, was no longer prepared to live under the old rules and limits, and demanded that governments and social institutions provide a blend of prosperity, welfare, and equality-or yield office to those who would. Politicians of the liberal Left were far more prepared to promise such delights than those of a conservative Right that still tended toward caution and even pessimism. Liberals were also more comfortable with striking attitudes of rebellion from positions of authority-which legitimated that authority in an antiestablishment age. Accordingly, liberals dominated debate and the general direction of policy even when they were out of power. And though they sometimes lost the power of government through election defeats, they and their colleagues almost never lost power in the bureaucracy, the courts, the universities, the media, the charitable sector, and the great cultural institutions. The West-Europe more than America but both to different degrees-was governed by the assumptions of a liberal church just as Christendom had been governed according to the assumptions of the conservative Roman Catholic Church. This new order might have been called Liberaldom.

In those days even the Catholic Church-let alone the Tory and Republican parties-was seeking to soften its image to accommodate a more liberal world, a less deferential congregation, and a less orthodox philosophical climate. Even many traditionalists, political and religious, wanted subtle and ingenious leaders who might divert these new challenges into orthodox channels, rather than stiff-necked reactionaries who might break themselves and their institutions in a futile attempt to resist historical inevitabilities. Wojtyla, Thatcher, and Reagan all embodied such fading virtues as faith, self-reliance, and patriotism-which the modern world seemed to be leaving behind. To use a British political metaphor, if they were "big beasts" in the jungles of politics and religion, that was because they were dinosaurs.

An Orthodox Rebel

Karol Wojtyla was less subject to this suspicion than Reagan and Thatcher, for the simple reason that he was less well known. Except for a brief period in Rome, he had lived his life in a Poland invaded by the Nazis, occupied by the Soviets, and ruled by their Polish Communist satraps. His main intellectual interests had been cultural and philosophical rather than directly political, which was why the Communist authorities had initially regarded him as relatively harmless and even pliable. Wojtyla's fame was also obscured by his modesty. When he was consecrated auxiliary bishop of Cracow in 1958 and full archbishop in 1964, and even when he was made a cardinal three years later, he self-consciously subordinated himself to the great Polish primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski. All these things meant that a certain mystery cloaked his views and personality for those outside his diocese and Poland.

As a Catholic bishop under a Communist government, moreover, he was concerned principally with Eastern European issues that Western Europe, America, and the rest of the world knew little about. Indeed, throughout the 1970s most political and religious leaders, betraying the provincialism of the sophisticated, cared less and less about the persecuted Church or the "captive nations" where Christians lived under modern penal laws. While the archbishop of Cracow struggled to ensure that Polish Catholic workers would have a local church on their new housing developments, specifically designed by the Communist authorities to exclude religion, the Church outside Eastern Europe was dealing nervously with a very different set of problems. They included the implementation of Vatican II reforms throughout the Church, the controversy over Catholic teaching on artificial birth control, and the gradual softening of Catholic opposition to Marxism seen both in Vatican diplomacy and in the growing sympathy for a Marxisant "liberation theology" in Latin America.

On all of these questions Wojtyla took essentially orthodox positions that theoretically put him at odds with the "progressive" bishops and theologians of Western Europe and the United States. As an academic philosopher, however, he brought a distinctive argumentative approach to them based on "personalism"-the Christian response to liberal individualism that sees the individual not as an isolated actor achieving a mythical self-realization but as someone developing his personality within the social context of friends, family, and work. This philosophical bent, reinforced by his pastoral experience and by his own personality, allowed Wojtyla to express his orthodoxy through subtle, humane, and novel arguments. This combination-fortiter in re, suaviter in modo-would be a hallmark of his papacy. It was a superb and effective political strategy-except that it was not a political strategy. It was a sincere reflection of Wojtyla's firm belief that Catholic truth must be presented in terms that were intelligible and sympathetic to modern well-educated laymen as well as to other faiths. Still, its effect in these early days was to soften but not disguise the traditional nature of Wojtyla's Catholicism. That made him a puzzle to progressive churchmen in Rome and elsewhere outside Poland, but it also meant that they cherished hopes that he might perhaps move to their side of the altar rail.

Reform and Resistance

Wojtyla was least at odds with progressive and liberal Catholics in his attitude to the implementation of the Vatican II reforms. It was as a participant in the Council debates that he began to establish a reputation with his episcopal colleagues worldwide. Many of the reforms that emerged from these debates were rooted in Wojtyla's thought and reflected progressive concerns. This was especially true for ecumenism and the declaration on religious freedom.

Wojtyla had always shown the respect for other faiths that later animated his papacy and produced the encyclical Ut Unum Sint. When a locally respected Lutheran teacher died in Cracow, the archbishop said a requiem Mass for her and arranged for her Lutheran pastor to attend. Walking into the church that day, Wojtyla went directly over and embraced the pastor "as a brother in Christ." It was a small gesture perhaps, but one very heartening to the Lutheran minority in Cracow, and merely one of many such gestures over the decades. This practical ecumenism was reflected intellectually in the 1959 essay that, as a novice bishop, Wojtyla sent to Rome in preparation for Vatican II. In it he argued for "less emphasis on those things that separate us and searching instead for all that brings us together." His occasional interventions on ecumenism in debates were consistently in tune with this outlook.

Not surprisingly, he was equally firm in his support for the related value of religious freedom. As noted by his distinguished biographer, George Weigel (to whom all writers on John Paul II are indebted beyond possibility of repayment), both religious freedom and ecumenism were logically derived from the "Christian humanism" that Wojtyla developed through prayer, philosophy, and pastoral work. When Christ became Man, He established the high standing of the human being in creation. Every human being has a dignity-and by extension a right to freedom of conscience-that both Church and state are obliged to respect. In a written contribution to the Second Vatican Council debates, Wojtyla made the implications of this individual human dignity unmistakably plain to a gathering that included bishops still attached to the argument that error had no rights: "This civil right is founded not just in a principle of toleration, but in the natural right of every person to be familiar with the truth, which right we must set alongside the Church's right to hand on the truth." From a Catholic standpoint, it would be hard to go further in defense of religious and intellectual liberty than comparing it to the teaching authority of the Church.

Wojtyla was less in tune with progressive Catholics on the Vatican reforms dealing with the government of the Church. He shared the progressives' view that the laity was as important as priests, bishops, and popes in the communion of believers. But he thought the role of Christian laymen was to take the truths of Christianity out to the world where lay people worked-to engage in a dialogue with the world over both Christian and secular truths-rather than, as the progressives argued, to share the responsibility for governing the Church with priests and bishops. Like the progressives, he supported more "authority" for the bishops. But he was critical of their argument that greater authority for the bishops required an increase in their power at the expense of the pope. Secular ideas such as "the separation of powers," he maintained, did not apply to ecclesiastical government because pope and bishops were united in a collegial relationship rather than divided by a struggle for power. Christian truth and the good government of the church would both emerge gradually from debate conducted by the bishops with each other and with the pope rather than from an imitation of government, opposition, and majority rule.

It sounds a somewhat vague and otherworldly view-except for what happened next. (Granted, a bishop might reasonably regard "otherworldly" as a term of praise.) When the Second Vatican Council ended, there began a long debate on what it signified throughout the Church. Liberal Catholics endorsed the Vatican II reforms as a still incomplete agenda for the "democratization" of the Church. "Reactionaries" such as the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (who eventually became schismatics) warned that it represented surrender to a hostile and anarchic modernity. Many faithful orthodox Catholics felt uneasy and nervous about this clash of interpretations-and also by some of the liturgical changes introduced by liberal Church bureaucrats-but they sought faithfully to grasp and implement the reforms. Not all these disputes have evaporated even today.


Excerpted from The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister by John O'Sullivan Copyright © 2006 by John O'Sullivan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

John O'Sullivan covered the Reagan presidency as a Washington columnist, was a special adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and has written regularly on Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church's influence on international relations. A veteran journalist in Britain and the United States, he was the editor in chief of National Review, The National Interest, Policy Review, and United Press International, editorial page editor of the New York Post, op-ed and editorial page editor for the London Times, and an editor with the London Daily Telegraph. He is currently executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, editor at large for National Review, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. A Commander of the British Empire and founder of the New Atlantic Initiative, he divides his time between his apartment in Washington, D.C., his home in Decatur, Alabama, and frequent trips to Britain, Europe, and Latin America.

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