George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Ukrainian Lessons for the West

This article is adapted from Mr. Weigel’s remarks in the above video, which were delivered at “Religion in the Ukrainian Public Square: An Analysis of the EuroMaidan and Its Aftermath,” a conference sponsored by the Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky Institute of Eastern Christian Studies and held at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, on November 15, 2014.

On May 13, 1982, one year to the day after the assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square, John Paul II made a pilgrimage to the Marian shrine at Fatima in Portugal in thanksgiving for his life’s being spared. There, he reflected on the seemingly random fact that he had been shot on the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima: “In the designs of Providence,” he said, “there are no mere coincidences.” What seems to us “coincidence,” he was suggesting, is simply a facet of Providence that we’ve not yet grasped.

With that in mind, let me suggest that the Maidan “revolution of dignity” that is still unfolding in Ukraine has a two-fold providential character.

The first aspect of the Maidan’s providential character has been the subject of our reflections all day. The religious communities of Ukraine — Orthodox, Roman and Greek Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim — have cooperated as never before over the past year. And they have done so in the face of severe Russian aggression in various forms: political aggression, military aggression, and even ecclesiastical aggression. In the process, a baseline, a new foundation, has been set for ecumenical and interreligious cooperation in building a vibrant civil society for the free, prosperous, and virtuous Ukraine of the future.

The second providential aspect of the Maidan “revolution of dignity” points outward, toward the West. For this revolution of conscience — which now coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of European Communism — teaches five lessons the West badly needs to relearn about its own civic and political project, and the relationship of religious conviction and moral truth to that project.

The first lesson: Freedom is never free.

After the Revolution of 1989 and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, too many in the comfortable and complacent West succumbed to the temptation to imagine that stable, free, and law-governed societies are the norm, that living in freedom under the rule of laws tethered to the moral law is humanity’s natural condition. The truth of which the Maidan “revolution of dignity” has reminded the West is that freedom lived nobly is a cultural and social accomplishment, which must be renewed in every generation on penalty of decadence and decay. And the corollary to that truth is that democratic self-governance is not inevitable, only possible.

The second lesson: Democracy and the free economy are not machines that can run by themselves.

This is the mechanistic fallacy: the notion, fashionable in both political and economic theory in the 21st century West, that the real work of democracy and the free economy lies in getting the machinery of free politics and the market set up properly; then it’s just a matter of inserting the key, firing up the ignition, and letting the machinery run by itself. To be sure, the machinery is important, but the institutions of free politics and free economics are not all there is to the exercise of freedom.

It takes a certain critical mass of people, living certain virtues, to make the machinery of democracy and the market work so that the net result is genuine human flourishing. This is perhaps the central theme that Catholic Social Doctrine teaches 21st century societies, and it has been embodied both by the Maidan “revolution of dignity” and (along the via negativa) by what sparked that revolution. The Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004–2005 failed because, in its wake, there simply wasn’t that critical mass of citizens living the virtues necessary so that freedom might work for the benefit of all; instead, rampant corruption was the order of the day. By rejecting that culture of corruption, the Maidan “revolution of dignity” reclaimed for Ukraine — and ought to have reminded the West — that only a virtuous people can be free, in the noblest sense of freedom.

The third lesson: Historical and moral clarity count.

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and look forward to the silver jubilee of the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution” in December, perhaps we in the West can now see more clearly another lesson the Ukrainian experience of the past year should have taught us: that it was a grave error not to undertake, in the aftermath of the Cold War, serious de-Communization efforts on the pattern of the de-Nazification efforts that immediately followed World war II — efforts that were understood then to be an essential component of securing the victory of freedom over tyranny. The results of that error are evident not only in post-Communist states (and especially in Russia); they are evident in the West itself.

How? The vulnerability of the West to Russian propaganda today is a direct result of the post–Cold War failure to culturally delegitimize — to shame and shun until they had acknowledged their errors — those who, for reasons of ideological intoxication or stupidity or both, had misrepresented the realities of Communism in political life, in the universities, in the press, and in the religious communities. Unrepentant and unchastened (indeed, in the case of academics such as Stephen Cohen, boldly defiant), many of the purveyors of falsehood then are the purveyors of falsehood now. Those who made excuses for Soviet aggression then make parallel (and in some instances, identical) excuses for Russian aggression now.

There were certainly complexities to be faced in the first years after the fall of the Wall: No one knew in June 1989 that the Soviet Union would permit a non-Communist prime minister of Poland to take office in September of that year; no one knew during the fall of 1989, as one Communist domino after another fell across the Warsaw Pact, that the USSR would cease to exist in 1991; questions of how to reunite Germany and reunite Europe had to be considered, as did the complex question of individual degrees of complicity in Communist secret-police activity in the Warsaw Pact countries, which is still being sorted out today. All of that can be acknowledged. And still the fact remains: The vulnerability to propaganda and lies that has characterized too much of Western elites’ response to Russian aggression in the face of the Maidan “revolution of dignity” is a direct result of the failure to hold accountable those were wrong — often dead wrong — about Communism during the Cold War. That failure soiled the political culture of the West; a public accounting of the errors of those who were so wrong about Communism would have cleansed Western public life and helped prepare it for the challenges ahead.

Here in Canada, it is an honor to note that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been a notable exception to the reticence of Western leaders to name things for what they are — to say, without fear of exaggeration, that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is an up-market version of Joachim von Ribbentrop, deploying the tactic of the Big Lie (as Ribbentrop did for Hitler) in service to the aggressive strategies of his master, Vladimir Putin. Indeed, the prime minister’s frontal rebuke to President Putin at the G-20 summit in Australia was the most direct and courageous statement by the leader of a Western power since the Maidan revolution of conscience began a year ago. But much more is needed. For until other Western leaders recognize the many untruths about the Cold War they have manifestly failed to confront, the kind of Western policy paralysis and pusillanimity we have seen in response to Russian aggression — which reflect Western vulnerabilities to Russian distortions of history and to blatant Russian propaganda that can be traced back to the Cold War — will continue.

The fourth lesson: Reality-contact is essential for the future of freedom.

The West’s postmodern deracination about the moral truth of things is arguably the greatest threat to international security and world order in these early decades of the 21st century. Of course there are other security threats: Putin’s revanchism throughout the Russian “near abroad”; world dependence on petroleum from some of the most volatile regions of the planet; European dependence on Russian oil and gas, and the corruption of influential Western leaders who make considerable amounts of money from that dependence; the social-welfare spending that has driven most NATO members’ defense budgets below the 2 percent of GNP to which they are formally committed; ISIS; Iranian nuclear ambitions; Chinese muscle-flexing in East and southeast Asia. It’s a long list, in the new world disorder that is a direct by-product of recent Western failures of will and wit.

But the fundamental cause of the West’s seeming incapacity to address any of these issues is a cultural unseriousness, a lack of reality-contact, which is itself rooted in the postmodern denial that there are truths built into the world and into us, truths that we can know by reason. That habit of evading the truth, or pretending that the truth of things is a matter of my subjective impressions or consciousness, has had a great impact on Western public life. How could it not? And it is one cause of the lack of reality-contact we see in Western foreign policies, which cannot even name Russian aggression for what it is much less devise an adequate response to it.

The Maidan “revolution of dignity” has reminded those with eyes to see and ears to hear of truths that form the moral and cultural foundation of the Western experiment in democracy and ordered liberty:

  • the inalienable dignity and value of the human person;
  • the equality of all before the law;
  • the relationship between the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and moderation to democratic public life;
  • the accountability of positive law to a higher moral law;
  • at bottom, the truth that only a virtuous people can be free, for only those living courageously and prudently can make self-governance work.

All of this has been on display in the Maidan revolution of dignity in Ukraine for the past year. And all of this has been — or certainly should have been — a  profound reminder to the West that there is not just “your truth” and “my truth,” that there are truths built into the world and into us, and we ignore them at our personal and civic peril.

The fifth lesson: The ecumenical movement within the Christian churches must be recalibrated for the 21st century.

As one of our primary concerns here is the role of religious communities in Ukraine over the past year, let me point out what the experience of Ukraine’s struggle for civic self-renewal in the face of Russian aggression ought to teach the West, and specifically the Holy See, the Vatican.

To put it as simply and bluntly as possible: Theologically serious ecumenical dialogue is impossible with agents of Russian state power. For a year now, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and his “foreign minister,” Metropolitan Hilarion, have engaged in lies and propaganda on behalf of the Russian state — most recently at the World Synod of Bishops in Rome in October, where he blatantly lied about the role of the Greek Catholic Church in the Maidan revolution and even questioned the integrity of that Church as an ecclesial body. This pattern of lies in service to the aggressive agenda of the present Russian political leadership can no longer be accommodated in the name of ecumenical dialogue.

For to continue the accommodation is not only self-demeaning, in the case of the Vatican. It is worse. Maintaining the fiction that ecumenical dialogue is possible with those who are functioning as agents of Russian state power damages the cause of Christian unity and impedes necessary reforms in the Russian Orthodox Church, which some brave Russian Orthodox churchmen have been proposing. Nothing is served by accommodating to falsehood; indeed, accommodating to lies magnifies their impact. If ecumenical dialogue between the eastern and western wings of Christianity is going to advance a common understanding of the Churches’ proper role vis-à-vis state power in the third millennium, it must face the hard truth of what happens to Christian witness when it mortgages itself to state power and serves as its chaplain.

And that brings me, at the end, to a lesson from the West for the future of Christian social action in the new Ukraine: The Church best serves the common good by forming the men and women who form the civil culture — the civil society — that makes democracy possible.

Thus the key relationship here is between the Church and civil society, not between the Church and the state.

The Church asks two things of any just state. The Church asks – and, if necessary, demands – the freedom to be itself in its worship, its evangelization, its catechesis, its training of its ministers, and its work of charity and social service. (This, I might add, is the battle we have been fighting in the United States for the past several years against the Obama administration’s abridgements of religious freedom in the implementation of health-care reform.) And the second thing the Church asks the state is to remember that, like all human activities, it is under judgment — the judgment of the moral law. That’s all the Church asks, or should ask, of the state.

But the Church’s public life is much broader, and involves all the ways and means by which the Church helps shape and nurture civil society — the ways in which the Church forms the culture of the free society. That formation is the Church’s principal public task and its chief contribution to democracy.

It took several hundred years for this understanding to crystallize in the Catholic Church, although it involves ideas whose roots reach back to medieval Christendom. But crystallize they finally did, thanks to the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II’s 1991 social encyclical, Centesimus Annus. And that understanding — “Culture first,” or, if you prefer, “Civil society first” — should be a major point of conversation in the Catholic-Orthodox dialogue of the future.

In my recent interview with Major-Archbishop Sviastoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the archbishop had a message for the West: “This is not only about us; this is about you.” That is exactly right. The Maidan is about us, about the West: It has been a profound reminder of the truths on which Western democracy rests. Ukraine is not a country far away, populated by a people of whom we know very little. Ukraine’s quest for a free society has become a mirror in which the West, looking at the courage embodied in the Maidan revolution of conscience, can measure its own civic, political, and moral and cultural health.


This article was originally published on National Review Online

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