The public eulogies for Pope John Paul II may have ended, but another one lurks in the files of the Central Intelligence Agency. There, the pope’s fight against Communism is depicted not as a crusade of uncompromising moral force, but as a careful, calculated political campaign.
Take the intelligence report on Poland of November 7, 1980, after the rise of the Solidarity movement, only a year or so after John Paul’s historic first papal visit to his country. The author writes: “It is clear … that the Church has decided to aid the regime at least indirectly by cautioning the trade workers and unions to pursue a moderate line.” This theme is repeated a month later, when a secret State Department cable says the pope was “asking for calm and unity” in his homeland.
A special national intelligence estimate, or SNIE (“Gesundheit!”) composed that December summed up the careful game the Vatican was playing: “The Church has significantly enhanced its effectiveness as a political force. But it has used its influence cautiously—usually behind the scenes—and has extended its support to the government in times of national crisis.”
The SNIE adds that the pope had called for calm to head off a Soviet invasion and that he offered “support to both solidarity and regime but has avoided committing itself to an alliance with either.” It might seem odd that the absolutist pope was playing both sides. But then again, the SNIE notes, “the regime can retain the support of the Church only so long as it eschews the use of force.”
But it’s still a complicated tactic, as the March 25, 1982 SNIE points out when it notes that because the Church “has avoided becoming the focal point of active resistance to martial law . . . the regime counts on this self-limitation and thus believes it can ignore many of the demands of the Church, although it is also apprehensive of Church influence–especially at lower levels.”
Even the papal presence cut both ways. The Soviets believed the pope’s 1979 trip to Poland helped launch the Solidarity movement. But the pope worried that visiting again, in the summer of 1982, might strengthen the other side. “The pope probably has reservations about coming to Poland out of fear of bestowing legitimacy on the martial law regime,” the agency reported.
As 1982 went on, CIA documents show, the pope’s potential visit became a major issue, with the Vatican playing a crafty hand against the Commies. “Potential stumbling blocks in the continuing negotiations over the visit include the Pope’s reported desire to visit internment camps and his possible refusal to meet with Premier Jaruzelski,” reads a June 1982 bulletin. “Church leaders are seeking to force the regime to take a stand on a papal visit and take the blame for any postponement.”
Ultimately, according to a July 1982 report, the pontiff “decided that political conditions are not right for a visit to Poland in August.”
But he didn’t stop playing hardball. A CIA report later that year noted:
In other words, JP II did the moral math and decided that the pain the Communist regime was enduring under sanctions outweighed the suffering of his own people.
Not the kind of “sermon on the mount” stuff you’d expect from the guy in the big hat, but it was a tough call and he made it. Love him or hate him, history will give John Paul II a lot of credit for what eventually happened in Eastern Europe. America’s spy files reveal the gritty nuts and bolts of what he did.