May 28, 2017


Leaders of the Free World : Book Excerpt: Paul Kengor, 'A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century' (Paul Kengor, May 28, 2017, Free Beacon)

John Paul II and Ronald Reagan shared some important core convictions, principles that stemmed from their religious faiths. Weigel wrote that John Paul II understood human wickedness and the enduring power of evil in history, and how these could be overcome by the power of truth and by a shrewd sense of how the "children of light" could work to bend events in a more humane direction. Bill Clark said much the same about Ronald Reagan. The president and the pope, Clark observed, saw atheistic communism as an evil. Both men came to understand this evil very early, when others did not--John Paul II when he was a student, and Reagan during his acting days. Weigel adds that both men were "positive anticommunists" (his emphasis) who sought to counter communism with a positive alternative of human rights and freedom. Their fierce anticommunism did not prevent them from being nuclear abolitionists. (Only now do scholars recognize this aspect of Reagan's perspective; at the time, few appreciated that Reagan abhorred nuclear weapons.)

In part because of their unconventional paths to leadership, "both men were initially underestimated," said Clark. "Observers did not at first perceive their strength of intellect, courage, and vision." And yet, he added, both persevered in translating their personal vision into an underlying policy and strategy to defeat Soviet oppression and aggression. Weigel suggests that they were successful because they were creative and dynamic in their approach, not locked in to the standard "conceptual categories" of realpolitik or, for that matter, Ostpolitik and d├ętente. Weigel adds that "both were unafraid" to challenge the conventional wisdom of their diplomats and bureaucracies.

Reagan and John Paul II believed in God's will and had a faith-based optimism about the future. The pope, in his own words, held a self-professed "conviction that the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence." Reagan had the same conviction. Moreover, said Clark, they shared a view that each had been given a "spiritual mission-- a special role in the divine plan of life."

This shared conviction would become abundantly clear during their first meeting, in June 1982.

Frank Shakespeare, whom Reagan would appoint ambassador to the Vatican, and who briefed both the president and the pope, observed the two leaders keenly and points out that "both men were mystics." That is something perhaps more expected of a Catholic, but those who knew Reagan and who observed his faith side would quickly agree that that he had a mystical sense. Reagan wasn't shy about commenting on things like ghosts at the White House or the sudden appearances of rainbows or hearing his late father's voice at his funeral.

Beyond their faith-based understanding of the evils of communism and their belief in a merciful Providence, John Paul II and Reagan embraced other principles in common. For example, they insisted on the reinforcing relationship between faith and freedom; they unapologetically supported the sanctity and dignity of human life; they championed the singular importance of the individual over the state; and they both adhered to what in Catholic social thought is called subsidiarity, which holds that small or local organizations, rather than large, centralized authorities, should handle public functions that they can perform effectively. This last principle animated Reagan's passionate belief in limited government.

To understand the philosophical kinship that Reagan and John Paul II must have felt well beyond their anticommunism, consider just two of those categories. The first is faith and freedom. Ronald Reagan's understanding of freedom was not a libertarian one. One of the many leading philosophical spokesmen for conservatism whom Reagan knew and read was Russell Kirk. It was in his 1974 classic, The Roots of American Order, that Kirk wrote of the need for "ordered liberty," for ordering ourselves internally so as to secure the nation's external order. George Washington made the point in his First Inaugural Address, when he said that the "the foundations of our National policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality." In other words, self-government requires just that: self-government.

To Reagan--and to John Paul II--genuine freedom was not mere license. Freedom carried responsibilities rooted in faith. This is the Christian conception of freedom. In the New Testament, Galatians 5:13-14 states: "For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use your freedom as opportunities for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' " Without the rock and rudder of faith, John Paul II said, freedom can become confused, perverse, and can even lead to the destruction of freedom for others.40 John Paul II's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, said that the West suffers from a "confused ideology of freedom," one that has unleashed a modern "dictatorship of relativism."

Posted by at May 28, 2017 7:07 AM