John Paul II understood geopolitics

Karol Wojtyła became Poland’s first pontiff forty-five years ago. His successful opposition to authoritarian regimes was born of his uniquely European experiences, in contrast to the Holy See’s present, Latin American incumbent.

Pope John Paul II travels to Poland in 1979.
Pope John Paul II travels to Poland in 1979. Credit: RealyEasyStar/ Fotografia Felici / Alamy Stock Photo

Pope John Paul II was a highly successful man of the cloth, one who inspired Catholics all over the world. He also understood the potential of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy See as a geopolitical force, not least because he was a European. Pope Francis’s Latin American background means he doesn’t view the world in the same way. That explains why the Holy See has endured a string of mishaps during the Ukraine War.

In 1979, one year into his papacy, John Paul II returned to Poland for a papal visit. Although the communist authorities had much preferred that the pontiff stay away, there he was, the charismatic head of the world’s largest religious community and the small but mighty Holy See. After disembarking from the aircraft, John Paul bent down and kissed the ground. He celebrated Mass in Warsaw before a congregation of 250,000. He told an audience that ‘Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe’. Although John Paul was only a man of the cloth, not a politician, the Roman Catholic’s unique position as a global organisation and independent state gave him an extraordinary platform.

John Paul knew he could use that platform to effect change. While he could clearly impose his will on dictatorial leaders, the Polish pontiff knew that he could call out injustices committed by regimes behind the Iron Curtain and elsewhere in the world, and he did. The former Karol Wojtyła, who had survived Nazi occupation and communist rule, keenly understood geopolitics. He knew that turning the other cheek would not convince dictators and autocrats to change their ways. He challenged authoritarian regimes without needlessly provoking them.

Pope Francis comes from a completely different background. The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio didn’t know war as a child or young man, but he got to experience his own country’s injustices, not to mention its military dictatorship. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Francis takes a more sympathetic view than his predecessors of liberation theology, the strongly Latin American school of thinking that argues the Church should side with the oppressed, though for a Latin American he’s decidedly skeptical of it. All told, Francis reflects the worldview of the Roman Catholic Church’s most populous and fastest-growing communities today – the ones outside Europe. And they’re defined by social struggles and corrupt regimes (and strong and vibrant faith), not centuries of land wars.

Francis doesn’t get geopolitics, and perhaps he can’t. Had the post-Cold War world preceded along the harmonious path it seemed to have embarked on in the early 1990s, there might in fact have been no need for Francis to get it. Instead, he’s leading the Roman Catholic Church during an era that has seen the return of great power politics. Francis has reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the sort of peace-first approach that would mean not holding Russia accountable for its aggression – or even allowing it to prevail. Although he has repeatedly criticised the invasion, he has also suggested that NATO may have ‘provoked’ it by expanding in the direction of Russia. He has tried to put together a peace plan – but without demanding that Russia first withdraw from Ukrainian territory. Nobody can fault the Pontiff for not trying: the pursuit of the peace plan has been a time-consuming undertaking. He has prioritised visiting countries that might be able to help make it happen – Hungary, for example – over ones with many more Catholics. ‘In these meetings we did not just talk about Little Red Riding Hood. We spoke of all these things. Everyone is interested in the road to peace,’ he told reporters after meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Metropolitan Hilarion, the Russian Orthodox Church’s representative in Hungary this April.

Francis is not steeped in geopolitics and so he doesn’t understand that even the purest intentions for meeting with Orban, who is seen as friendly with Russia and unhelpful towards Ukraine, would alarm European governments and citizens. In meeting Hilarion, he was sending a strong signal. Last year the Kremlin banished Hilarion – until then the Russian Orthodox Church’s second-ranking cleric and a globally known theologian with an Oxford doctorate – to the backwaters in Hungary, where a minuscule 1.9 per cent of the population is Russian Orthodox. Hilarion was being punished for insufficiently supporting the invasion. In meeting with him, Francis was taking a stand against the bellicosity of the Russian Orthodox Church but, because the global public is ignorant about the inner workings of the Russian Orthodox Church, people instead railed against the Pope meeting with a top representative of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Throughout the centuries, the Holy See has been a powerbroker because it was so influential and located in the heart of Europe. Perhaps Europeans are naïve in thinking that a religious community that has most of its members outside their continent would make their continent its focus whenever the need arises. The next pope may, in fact, come from an African nation, and would be justified in suggesting that the Holy See needs to direct more of its attention towards conflicts and other crises on that continent. A secular Europe might need to find another moral authority that can be called upon when crises erupt.

As for the dilemma of how the religion of love should treat invaders, nobody has expressed it better than Karl Barth. When, in the spring of 1939, it was becoming clear that Adolf Hitler might invade Denmark, Danish theologians wrote to the world-renowned theology professor in Switzerland. What was a Danish Christian to do if the Nazis invaded – resist or refuse armed duty on the grounds that killing others is always wrong? Barth responded: ‘I can’t give you a programme. But I can give you the first point: pray! And the last one: buy cannon!’ And because Switzerland faced invasion, too, he signed up for voluntary military service in his home country.


Elisabeth Braw