Why John Paul II Believed National Identity Protected Human Freedoms

On May 18, 1920, Karol Józef Wojtyła was born in the Polish town of Wadowice to Karol, an army officer, and Emilia, a schoolteacher.

Little did this young couple know that their third child would eventually become one of the most influential leaders of the twentieth century, a hero to millions, and after his death, loved by many as St. John Paul “the Great.”

Wojtyła’s mother did her best to orient her son to what mattered most the moment he was born. According to one story, the day he was born, his mother “asked the midwife to open the window of their apartment so the first sounds her newborn son heard would be church bells and singing in honor of the Virgin Mary from the nearby parish church.”

When I first read about this story at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C., I found myself wondering what all was contained in this short and simple anecdote of his mother’s wanting the newborn Karol to receive God’s grace from the first moment of life.

Sure, there was the steadfast faith and focus on the Church that the Polish pope would quickly develop and nourish. But here, too, were his mother and Wadowice. His family and his Poland.

John Paul II’s heritage was a defining part of his life and his papacy from the start—which was not shocking, considering he was the first non-Italian pope in 455 years and came from a country that suffered continuously in the twentieth century under the totalitarian regimes of Nazism and communism.

He studied clandestinely for the priesthood as the Nazis occupied Poland—reportedly protecting several Jews from the fascist regime along the way. In 1957, he was appointed bishop and soon enough became one of the most influential members of the Polish Catholic Church, which was the primary shield for many Polish against communist tyranny.

When he visited his home country one year after being elected pope, John Paul II’s speeches to the people, asking God to “let your Spirit descend and renew the face of the earth, the face of this land,” started a new movement against the communist overlords—a peaceful “revolution of conscience”—and enthused the establishment of the Solidarnosc movement, which soon brought that totalitarian regime to its knees.

For Wojtyła, however, Poland was much more than his country—it was the extension of his family.

Christianity and Patriotism

As he argues in his thought-provoking 2005 book, Memory and Identity, love of one’s country is ingrained in Christian thought. While Christ’s coming universalized the faith and salvation across humanity, it did not destroy the concept of nation and home as such.

Patriotism continues to be “covered by the fourth commandment, which obliges us to honor our father and mother,” as well as by the Latin pietas, which applies primarily to the veneration of our parents but can also be extended to our country:

Patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. It is a love which extends also to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius.

Particularly in Wojtyła’s Poland, we can see how a national identity can be a great boon for one’s people and continued communal feeling, not the existential danger to a free world as it is often depicted as today. After all, Poland survived again and again through centuries of invasions in no small part thanks to the patriotic fervor of the Poles themselves, who never surrendered their culture to tyrants.

“Poland, having been struck off the map of Europe, reappeared in 1918 and has remained there ever since,” John Paul wrote. “Not even the insane storm of hate unleashed from East and West between 1939 and 1945 could destroy it.” Indeed, John Paul II was “the son of a nation which has lived the greatest experiences of history, which its neighbors have condemned to death several times, but which has survived and remained itself. It has kept its identity, and it has kept, in spite of partitions and foreign occupations, its national sovereignty.”

For the pope, the example—“the painful history”—of his own country showed “how important national sovereignty is when it is served by a state worthy of the name and free in its decisions; how important it is for the protection not only of a people’s legitimate national interests, but also of its culture and its soul,” as he noted in 1979.

National Identity Is Not Nationalism

It is precisely because this sentiment was fading across Europe at the time of his writing Memory and Identity that the pope was worried about the West’s future.

He believed European countries were rife with “post-Enlightenment ideologies” and had “arrived at a stage which could be defined as ‘post-identity.’” They had lost any notion of communal life, common good, national sovereignty, instead seeing all these concepts as little more than archaic constructs that would need to be slowly extinguished.

John Paul II believed this was a bitter loss, because “nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities,” providing “a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension” and through which the social fabric develops in the first place.

This bottom-up process through which national feeling develops out of other institutions, nourishing the people as a whole, stands in stark contrast to a top-down militant nationalist fervor, which John Paul II warned against: “One thing must be avoided at all costs: the risk of allowing this essential function of the nation to lead to an unhealthy nationalism.”

A nation, as well as patriotism, thrives only when at peace with the patriotic feelings of others and based in “a properly ordered social love” with everyone, not just one’s countrymen.

In many ways, John Paul II’s defense of the nation was a defense of free nations that act in friendship with one another, which is not overly surprising considering his lifelong fight against totalitarianism, fascism, and communism, as well as his defense of freedom for both individuals and communities.

After all, while it would go too far to argue that the pope was a staunch capitalist, he still cautiously defended free political and economic systems that recognize “the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property,” and “free human creativity,” if coupled with the “human ecology” of family, Church, and civil society.

A Polish Pope’s Vision for the World

John Paul II’s ideas transmit some important insights for our own time.

First, rejecting the nation or any other local and societal identity in favor of a large international community is not only wrongheaded and unrealistic but also dangerous. The nation is not the illiberal entity it’s often depicted to be. Poland has proved quite the opposite: the nation as a defense against tyranny and even a hope to those living under the yoke of invaders. Indeed, for Central and Eastern Europeans, “the fight to preserve national identity was a fight for survival.”

Yes, the nation can become “illiberal” when it loses sight of the eternal, and when it enslaves its own people or puts down outsiders. A world of free nations, however, where diversity and cross-border exchange can happen, is what John Paul II envisioned. His ideal is one we should emulate instead of further eliminating the local and national, on the one hand, and looking at others skeptically and shutting out our fellow human beings, on the other.

Amid debates on nationalism, the views of Karol Józef Wojtyła, born one hundred years ago in a small Polish town to the sounds of church bells, undoubtedly deserve a hearing.


About the Author

Kai Weiss is a Research Fellow at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute in Vienna, Austria.

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