President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II influenced world history by assisting in the welcome task of eliminating from the Western world communism as a superpower in the form of the USSR, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Introduction: Two Actors on the World Stage
The American actor, Ronald Reagan, who was elected in 1980 and served as the 40th president of the United States until 1989, and the Polish actor who was elected pope in 978 and served in that papal position until his death on April 2, 2005, remain the pair of world leaders, who are most responsible for assisting in the demolition of the superpower status of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), heralding the demise of communism in Eastern Europe.
About President Reagan’s role in bringing down the communist curtain, distinguished historian Lee Edwards writes,
There is one Western leader above all others who forced the Soviets to give up the Brezhnev Doctrine and abandon the arms race, who brought down the Berlin Wall, and who ended the Cold War at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield. The one leader responsible more than any other for leading the West to victory in the Cold War is President Ronald Reagan.
Regarding the instrumentality of the president and pope, former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker writes,
Pope John Paul II and President Reagan worked together to bring an end to atheistic Soviet communism. The two had a divine plan to stop the Soviet empire that was engaged in a war on religion and individual liberties. The work of a pope and a president helped bring about the collapse of communism and yielded more freedom and opportunity for people all over the world.
A Renaissance Man: Karol Wojtyla
Pope John Paul II experienced a lifetime of accomplishment and an extended papacy. Born Karol Wojtyla, he was called to a monastic life dedicated to God and the spiritual life. In addition to serving as spiritual leader of the Catholic church, he was a poet, a professor, and a politician, as well as an actor. This pope was a true renaissance man.
In addition to Pope John Paul II’s books on theology, the pontiff also published a book of poetry The Place Within: The Poetry of Pope John Paul II. Included in this volume are poems from his earlier year is his poem titled “The Quarry” which features the poignant line: “But the man has taken with him the world’s inner structure, where the greater the anger, the higher the explosion of love.”
While the world can take delight in his talents as actor, poet, and professor, it must surely remain grateful for his political achievements as well as his spiritual leadership.
Before being elected to the papacy, this pope had suffered from communist domination of his native Poland for thirty years. The communist regime had closed down his university, Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where he was studying drama. He was forced to work in a quarry and later in a chemical factory or face deportation from his native Poland to Germany.
Even worse was the suppression of the Catholic church in Poland under the communist regime. After acknowledging his call to a religious life, the future pope was forced to study secretly at a seminary that would not have been tolerated by the communist government.
The large seminary had been closed. So this pope experienced first-hand totalitarian oppression from the communist regime. However, as a religious, he struggled spiritually but peacefully against that regime. More accurately, his kind of fighting should be defined differently— instead of battling against tyranny, he struggled for freedom.
This pope understood that the suppression of Catholicism in Poland was a violation of human rights; therefore, he worked hard to get the rights of religious freedom restored in his native country. Instead of complaining for more church buildings, he strived to get religion taught in the schools.
Instead of grumbling about a closed press, he labored to get access to the media without censorship. He also remained adamant about human rights, about which he talked quite openly and often.
How did the pope achieve the goal of stamping out the blight of communism as a superpower? According to Lech Walesa, the founder of the Solidarity worker movement in Poland,
The pope started this chain of events that led to the end of communism. Before his pontificate, the world was divided into blocs. Nobody knew how to get rid of communism. He simply said: “Don’t be afraid, change the image of this land.”
The pope gave the people the strength and courage to rise up, protest, and demand their rights. When he told them, “Be not afraid,” they took that command to heart and became fearless.
He also continued to aver that Poland’s history was inseparable from the life of Jesus Christ. In his speeches, the pope continued to emphasize that Christ was always to be the focus of every endeavor. The people’s united courage to trust in God and Christ led the rest of the way.
The President and the Pope
In 1979, the pope traveled to Poland, his home country, where he gave a speech that has been hailed as the beginning of the end of communism. At the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” the pope declaimed,
In how many places in Europe and the world has [a fallen soldier] cried with his death that there can be no just Europe without the independence of Poland marked on its map!
This passionate oration attracted the attention of the future U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, who himself had always been a great defender of freedom. During the Reagan presidency, an unofficial coalition was formed between the president and the pope, and that alliance proved to be extraordinary.
A pope can never condone violence or even countenance a just war for liberation. But President Reagan, as a political leader, was not under the same constraints as the pope; thus, all options were on the table.
During their conversations regarding bringing down the communist regimes, particularly the one in Poland, the pope would always retreat from confrontations that might cause harm to people such as sanctions or war.
However, upon receiving the 1982 message from Cardinal Achille Silvestrini of the Vatican secretariat of state regarding sanctions against Poland’s government after the arrest of thousands of the Solidarity labor movement, Reagan himself felt encouraged and realized that the pope was, indeed, with him in his efforts to achieve freedom for Poland.
President Ronald Reagan summarized the difference between the president and the pope on this issue:
The Vatican recognizes that the U.S. is a great power with global responsibilities. The United States must operate on the political plane and the Holy See does not comment on the political positions taken by governments.
After a visit to the pope 1984, Vice-President George H.W. Bush noted:
I then asked him if he had any advice for us on Poland. He discussed this for some time.… The most important problem is the question of human rights.… The government cannot be changed. Therefore you must influence [Polish leader General Wojciech] Jaruzelski to “have a more human face.”
Good Cop / Bad Cop
Despite the fact that John Paul II did not think that the government could be changed, he always called for “human rights.” He always maintained the distinction between the political and spiritual levels of operation, and though he could not agree to punishment of or war with a nation to bring about change, he understood that they might be necessary.
The unofficial cooperation between the president and the pope might be likened to the “good cop/bad cop” method of dealing with criminals: both leaders had the same goal in mind, but they operated differently.
Because the two former actors, President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, had in mind the restoration of liberty to humanity, their work remained complementary. And upon the dropping of the curtain on communism in Poland, that same curtain came down on the USSR thereafter rather quickly.
- Lee Edwards. “Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.” Heritage Foundation. January 27, 2010.
- Scott Walker. “When Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan engineered the collapse of communism.” Washington Times. October 8, 2020.
- Editors. “Pope John Paul II.” biography.com. Updated October 15, 2019
- Cal Thomas. “Pope strengthened church, weakened communism.” The Baltimore Sun. April 2005.
- George Weigel. President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. Catholic Exchange. June 25, 2009.
- Mark Riebling. “Freedom’s Men.” National Review. April 4, 2005.