Popes, Atheists and Freedom

Daniel Henninger | Wall Street Journal

Secularists should recognize that the pope’s fight is their fight.

This being the season of hope, Islamic extremists of course have been engaged in their annual tradition of blowing up Christian churches.


Hours before this, from a window above St. Peter’s Square, Benedict also took a pass on the holiday pabulum handed out by other world leaders this time of year by explicitly criticizing China. He said the “faithful of the church in mainland China [should not] lose heart through the limitations imposed on their freedom of religion and conscience.”

For some, the Vatican’s efforts on behalf of Christian minorities in Islamic countries or among China’s population of 1.3 billion is regarded as worthy and admirable, but only a footnote against the grand sweep of current geopolitical concerns. Iran’s bomb, China’s economic importance and all that. This is a mistake. In these times, the pope’s agenda is the civilized world’s agenda. The pope’s agenda is individual freedom.

To the extent that the goal of freedom still occupies a high place in the purposes of foreign policy, then the pope remains an important strategic ally, as he has been since Karol Wojtyla left Poland to become pope in October 1978.


In 1984, after John Paul had completed two pastoral pilgrimages to Communist Poland, a conference was convened by members of the KGB, Warsaw Pact and Cuban intelligence services. Its purpose: to discuss “joint measures for combating the subversive activities of the Vatican.”

The pope’s “subversive activities” are relevant to our disagreements today over whether the West should engage or confront Iran, North Korea, China and Russia. Then as now, the issue was not one or the other. Instead, it was about understanding the nature of the opposition and forming policy to fit that reality.

“On being elected pope,” Mr. Weigel writes, “John Paul II did not believe that the day was close at hand when communism would lose. But he did understand the nature of the confrontation.” That meant deploying his best weapon: a direct, public moral challenge.


Days after Benedict XVI chastised China before thousands in St. Peter’s Square last week, a Chinese newspaper run by the People’s Daily replied to his defense of Christians there: “The Vatican has to face the fact that all religious beliefs are free in China, as long as they do not run counter to the country’s laws.”

“Face the facts” sums up nicely the worldview and foreign policies of China, Iran and Russia. Get over it. John Paul said no. Benedict again says no.

It has been odd in recent years to see prominent atheists make so much effort to diminish Judeo-Christian belief. In the modern world, and certainly in the U.S. from the Pilgrims onward to the Bill of Rights, religious practice has been bound up in the idea—now the principle—of individual freedom. I don’t think secularist arguments alone for individual freedoms have sufficient strength and fiber to stand against their current opposition. Benedict’s fight for freedom and that of recent Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo are the same. Wojtyla and Walesa proved that once already.

Read the entire article on the Wall Street Journal website.


  1. Geo Michalopulos :

    I agree that the Pope is an ally of the civilized world but that does not necessarily include the secularists. In fact, I remain convinced that Islamofascism is an adjunct of the Secular Left to continue its onslaught against Christianity, espcially now that Communism has failed.

  2. A great battle is being fought o earth and we are called on to defend Christ and His Church against anti-Orthodox and blasphemous movements. I am not worried about being “small” and having no “powerful speech”. It is more important to keep the true faith that saves. The unity of Christianity is meant to be nothing else but subjugation to the pope, “the only representative of Christ on earth” and is unlikely to be achieved. In case it will be achieved, the reality is that due to the pope’s infallibility Christians cannot be certain about what they will be demanded to believe tomorrow.

    Why I abandoned Papism – By Hierodeacon Paul Ballester-Convolier.

    In the columns of a Portuguese book review, I replied: “The reality is that due to this infallibility you are the only Christians who cannot be certain about what they will demand that you believe tomorrow”. My article ended with the following sentence: “Soon on the road you walk, you will name the Lord, vicar of the Pope in heaven”.

  3. Scott Pennington :

    I’m curious as to why Henninger cites Russia in his list of offenders.

    “In the modern world, and certainly in the U.S. from the Pilgrims onward to the Bill of Rights, religious practice has been bound up in the idea—now the principle—of individual freedom.”

    And it is precisely in the modern world that Christianity has consistently lost ground to secularism and, more recently, Islam. If his beef is with a lack of democracy, then he is at odds with all of Christendom during the period during which there was such a thing as Christendom. He should really reflect on ominous implications of that last sentence.

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