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Pope Remembered as World Leader

April 5, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: The tens of thousands of people crowding St. Peter’s Square today seem to come from everywhere on earth. And Friday’s funeral will be attended by more than 100 political leaders from around the world, who recognize that this pope’s influence extended far beyond his Church. John Paul II, the first truly global pope, traveled to nearly 130 countries.

And he did more than rally the Catholic faithful. He also weighed in on secular and political issues. He confronted dictators and pressed for human rights in Latin America and Asia. Yet he quashed the so-called “Liberation Theology Movement,” in which leftist priests challenged despotic Latin American regimes on behalf of the poor.

His most enduring political legacy was encouraging the nonviolent democratic revolution that ended communist rule in his native Poland, and beyond. The pope publicly opposed all the recent U.S.-led wars in the gulf, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet Secretary of State Rice hailed John Paul this week, calling him “a world statesman.”

MARGARET WARNER: And for more about the pope’s impact in the world of geopolitics, I’m joined by Zbigniew Brzezinski. He was national security adviser to President Carter when John Paul became pope. A native of Poland himself, he knew John Paul personally, before he was elected pontiff and afterwards. Welcome back.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Nice to be with you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Does the pope deserve all the credit he’s getting for the end of communism in Eastern Europe?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: He certainly deserves an enormous amount of credit for it, but not in the way it’s being expressed, particularly in the American mass media. He is only too often in my view presented as somehow or other having colluded with the U.S., Even with the CIA, to overthrow communism. It didn’t work that way.

Now, he and President Carter had much in common in terms of their emphasis on human rights. We as the United States and then later Reagan promoted human rights very directly politically. The pope did something very different, which was not political but it had a political effect. He stripped communism of its myth of invincibility. He demonstrated that the appearance of unanimity in communism was a sham, that people were universally against it, and that is what had that effect.

MARGARET WARNER: So is that — I was going to ask you why that one trip, that first trip to Poland in 1979 had such impact. Was that it? Suddenly, these masses turned out to see him.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: That’s right. The masses in a country which is intimidated, in which there are many informers, in which people were afraid to communicate freely. The country all of a sudden discovered that they all share the same aspiration and the same resentments, and the regime discovered that it was weak and isolated.

MARGARET WARNER: Where did this willingness — more than willingness, determination — to confront totalitarianism, at least the communist sort, come from? I mean, we hadn’t seen that from other Church leaders, necessarily.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Probably from the combination of personal experience and profound conviction of a broader type which that experience generated. He grew up as a young adolescent under the Nazi occupation. Then he lived under Stalinism. I think that taught him what happens when violence is institutionalized and tramples the human being. And then that became deepened with a philosophy, a theology in which he really placed fundamental and central emphasis on the sanctity of the human being and on the mysterious divinity within each human being.

MARGARET WARNER: I read that he said once, “I learned the great lesson of my generation: Humiliation at the hands of evil.”

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: That’s very strong and very good. Humiliation at the hands of evil, but also — and this always struck me about him — total serenity and certainty that the evil ultimately will fail. That was even in the worst days. There was just no doubt when you spoke to him that he was confronting evil; that he was serenely confident that it will fail.

MARGARET WARNER: Did the regime in Poland who knew him, of course, as priest Karol Wojtyla, did they know when he became pope that that was trouble?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: They certainly knew. I can even tell you an anecdote which I think illustrates that, but I have to warn you it’s slightly off-color, I hope that’s permissible, but it’s true. It’s an authentic story. The communist writers in the city of Krakow – the communist writers — were having a party cell meeting, and a secret police colonel was giving an oration on subversion. And he really referred to Karol Wojtyla, the name of the pope, as being the source of this subversion.

MARGARET WARNER: Before he was pope.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Before he was pope. He wasn’t pope yet. When all of a sudden, the lady who presides over the buffet– I assume probably an alcoholic buffet– bursts into the courtroom and screams loudly “Wojtyla has just been elected pope.” The colonel comes to a dead stop. Sitting next to him on the podium was the first party secretary and the second party for the region. The first party secretary was so stunned that he forgot that the microphone was on. He turns to the second party secretary where the colonel is silent and says to him loudly, “My God, my God, from now on we’ll have to kiss his ass;” whereupon, the second secretary turns to him and equally loudly says, but in a whimper, “Only… only if he lets us.” That tells you how the communist regime felt and immediately recognized that they were now dealing with a formidable force.

MARGARET WARNER: Now how do you explain his willingness to confront authoritarianism in Eastern Europe and his very different record in Latin America? I mean, at least people on the side of the so-called liberation theology school, in which the leftist priests really allied themselves with revolutionaries, were devastated when the pope came in and fired, retired and otherwise expunged many of these priests and made it very clear…

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It’s very easy to answer you. It’s part of your own introduction to the show that contains the answer. You referred to him as having been so instrumental in the peaceful democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe. Christianity is not about violence. What liberation theology tried to do was to combine the sense of outrage at injustice with Marxist concept of the class struggle and violent revolution. This pope knew and he preached that violence begets violence. Yes, he was for the oppressed, but he wasn’t for violent revolutions, either against a communist regime or in Latin America. He was being consistent. He was being a Christian. Christianity does not believe in violence.

MARGARET WARNER: And does that explain his opposition to many of these recent wars? And by the way, I misspoke in that tape and I thought we fixed it, he did not oppose the Afghanistan War. I thought they had fixed it. If you take the Bosnian, the Kosovo conflict, the first Gulf War, whatever, that he spoke out against them.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Because –

MARGARET WARNER: But yet, let me add this. He had a spokesman say that the pope is not a pacifist. Explain that.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: That’s right, because basically the doctrine which he was propounding — which is not just his; it’s the doctrine of Christianity and Catholicism — is that the use of violence has to be a last resort, that you have a right to self-defense and therefore even to kill in self-defense. But it has to be self-defense. And some of these wars didn’t qualify as such. In contrast, and you’re quite right in drawing attention to the fact that he did support U.S. military action in Afghanistan — that was an obvious, direct reaction to the World Trade assault, the World Trade Center assault, to the killing of thousands of Americans and the immediate need to defend ourselves against further attacks.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there were also things he wanted to accomplish on the world stage that he did not, are there not? I mean, other than he failed to stop these wars.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, I think his greatest mission was to revive the sense of spirituality in the increasingly materialistic, even somewhat decadent west. I think, to a great extent, what we see today is that he accomplished that to a degree with younger people. Secondly, he certainly contributed to the fall of communism, which he expected but as I said wasn’t directly involved in fighting it but had the effect of defeating it. What he did not accomplish were two important wishes, one publicly known and one not known. The first was to close the gap between the Catholic Church and Greek orthodox and Russian Orthodox and particularly Russian Orthodox. And he was rebuffed on this by the Russians.

The second one was something that he used both in terms of verbal instructions but also in the transfer of some documents, namely to initiate negotiations with the Chinese government, with Deng Xiaoping, about an opening between the Roman Catholic Church and the People’s Republic of China. He wanted that very fervently. I think he wanted to visit China at some point. He wanted to open the opportunity for Catholics to be Catholics in China in a true sense but the Chinese government was not receptive.

MARGARET WARNER: From all your conversations with him — and I know you had many in meetings and correspondence — did he see himself as a political actor on the world stage, and did he see himself as different from his predecessors in any way?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I don’t know how he saw himself in relationship to his predecessors. I do know that he was interested in politics and liked to discuss politics. At least, that’s where we related more. We didn’t talk that much about theology. But again, I want to stress that this was a view of politics as a kind of arena on which events happened which he could influence from above, so to speak, like the Christian-Jewish dialogue, a very important thing, but it also helps peace in the Middle East, et cetera.

We just shouldn’t instrumentalize him as a politician. He was not in the same sort of league as FDR or Churchill or Gorbachev or Reagan, which some people have been saying. He was apart, in my judgment, above that because he tried to deal with the totality of the human condition and he really saw as his mission the creation of a direct bond between humanity and divinity I think in a unique way, transdenominational. He achieved that in a significant degree on a global scale.

MARGARET WARNER: And why do you think he was able to achieve that as much as he was? I mean, was he the right man in the right time? Was it more the right time or was there something really special about him and his gifts?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Probably it was the right time, in a sense. That’s hard to judge. But he had two gifts, one kind of fundamental and one instrumental. Fundamental was a faith and a charisma that was really infectious. It was very hard to understand it, but there was something about him that was serenely confident and yet strong. Secondly, he was a very good communicator. He was an actor at one point in his life, and he knew how to reach out. He had an enormous impact, particularly on young people, which I think tells you something about his magnetism. I think the combination of the two made him a man of the time but probably a pope for the ages.

MARGARET WARNER: Zbigniew Brzezinski, thank you.