Jester and Priest: On Leszek Kolakowski
John Paul II was charismatic, if not messianic, in his very personal approach to promoting spirituality, more so than any Catholic leader in memory. He seemed to enjoy a “mystical union” with God in the terms Kolakowski celebrated as foundational in his studies of mythology. Even atheists who heard him praying said he seemed to be talking to God. In trips that crisscrossed the globe, the Polish pope took messages of courage and faith to millions, especially his fellow Poles. Without his 1979 pilgrimage to his homeland, the trade union Solidarity would not have emerged the following summer, and without Solidarity, it’s hard to imagine the sequence of events leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall nine years later.
Yet John Paul II’s “management” style was authoritarian. The Second Vatican Council had enshrined a stronger role for the laity—the “people of God”—as well as “collegiality” for bishops, but ideas from below never rose to John Paul II. For twenty-five years, he used his powers of appointment to pack the ranks of the episcopate with men who never wavered in supporting his own positions on controversial issues like birth control (sinful), celibacy in the clergy (essential) and ordaining women (impossible). His “reconsolidation” of authority also had the effect of placing child abusers and their protectors beyond scrutiny. The religious orders he disciplined were ones that harbored dissent: particularly painful was his imposing an interim head of the Jesuit order in 1981, in defiance of its constitution. Sniffing Marxism, he silenced the advocates of liberation theology in Latin America. Advocates of social justice found themselves, in John Allen’s words, consumed by “self-censorship in order to ward off a new round of scrutiny.” In 1995, the pope even prohibited the clergy from speaking about the theological possibility of women’s priesthood. This was fatuous because, as theologians have argued, the question of female clergy is a matter not of Catholic theology but of church tradition.
Kolakowski the faithful Marxist would have found much to satirize in John Paul II’s repressive intolerance, but instead the reluctant fundamentalist mocked the pope’s Western critics, claiming they would never be satisfied until the pope said “there is no God, there is no salvation, abortion is fine, as is homosexual marriage, and the Church is a leftwing political party.” Readers of Polish can take the full measure of Kolakowski’s thoughts on Catholicism in Kosciol w krainie wolnosci (The Church in the Land of Freedom), a thin hardcover adorned in papal white; some may hear in his conservative defense of a reactionary posture strong echoes of the “good advice” offered by Western leftists to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. Like Kolakowski the non-Catholic, such outsiders did not have to endure the regimes they extolled. Did Kolakowski ever have to explain to young girls why the church condemned them to second-class status for life? Or comfort divorced people denied the sacraments? Or explain to people in AIDS-ravaged Africa why the use of condoms is immoral?
As a scholar, Kolakowski overreached in his writings about the contemporary church. His defense of the pope’s moral intransigence was as theologically threadbare as it was heartless. He justified the ban on women priests by saying that to lift it would mean departing from “the injunction by St. Paul [in 1 Corinthians]: let the women be silent in church.” Yet leading theologians agree that these words are not Paul’s, but were inserted by a later author, perhaps a transcriber. They directly contradict Paul’s words earlier in this letter, according to which women should publicly pray and prophesy. Paul believed in the equality of men and women, and in a striking departure from the practices of his day, insisted that women be admitted to worship and not be segregated from men. As Garry Wills writes, Paul “gives every kind of honor to women he works with—as emissaries, as prophets, as attendants (diakonoi).” Even scholars who do believe the words of the injunction are Paul’s say that they apply to the situation in Corinth, and were not meant to be a general rule for the church.
Kolakowski’s defense of the church’s prohibition on birth control is no less obtuse. He writes that “one may not define the meanings of sexuality purely in terms of pleasure.” But critics in the church do not claim sex involves only pleasure; and even the Vatican (after Vatican II) has not said that sex should serve procreation alone. Rather, for the church, human sexuality has the dual purpose of expressing love between partners in marriage and fostering procreation. Theologians differ on whether every single act must be open to procreation; the overwhelming majority say it does not.
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John Paul II, without whom the Cold War would not have ended, led a cold war against modernity into the heart of the church, reviving reactionary currents and leaving Catholics so deeply divided that, just as they did before 1989, Poles still conjure “the West” as a different political and cultural world. In his critical Marxist phase, Kolakowski might have noticed the parallels between the Polish pope’s Vatican and the Polish communist bureaucracy. But in the calm of All Souls, Kolakowski managed to overlook the malaise gripping Catholics across Europe, the intensity of which can be traced to John Paul II and his stubborn disregard of critical voices.
For all his youthful anticlericalism and criticism of Polish chauvinism, it seems that Kolakowski could never escape the gravitational hold of traditional Polish culture. When John Paul II visited Poland, his appearances could have been mistaken for a stadium show of the Second Coming: the charismatic man in white, adored by millions, some screaming in ecstasy, on a stage with dozens of flags, Polish and papal, with his homeland blanketed by posters, books, videos, shrines and altar decorations. Not surprisingly, criticism of this “son of the Polish nation” is socially unacceptable, and iconoclasts are quickly ostracized. Before a late papal visit, the Jesuit Stanislaw Obirek made the obvious point that the pope had become a “golden calf.” For this, he was silenced by his order and later denied all contact with students. (He is now a lay scholar.) Other critics eke out an existence on the tiny anticlerical margins that call themselves—as Kolakowski’s father once did—freethinking. Even Poland’s leading secular newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, edited by Poland’s leading secular intellectual, Adam Michnik, features a website devoted to the Polish pope, including the latest news on his canonization and updates on the arrival of various papal relics, such as a vial of John Paul II’s blood recently secured by a church in Krakow. News of the vial was met with a gale of sarcasm. One disaffected reader, noting that Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz had ordered placing the relics of St. Stanislaw on a church tower to stanch the floods threatening Krakow, recommended lending the Polish pope’s relics to Australia to prevent flooding there.
Yet there was more to Kolakowski’s unordained priesthood than defending a deified countryman from liberal critics. If his words resonate differently in East and West, they also differ according to whether or not one adheres to the strictures of religious belief. Kolakowski strove to impress upon readers the desperation of existence without God, yet instead of praising the believer, he ridiculed the skeptic: as Michnik has noted, Poles may not fault their clergy, but they can fault God.
In a remarkable essay written toward the end of his life, Kolakowski wondered whether God could be happy. Because humans can experience the sacred and the profane, he dared to judge God in human terms. To be human is to participate in the pain and joy of others, to “feel compassion.” Only those ignorant of suffering, such as small children with “no experience of great pain or death among those close to them,” can therefore know true happiness, if only for a time. The same must apply to God: “If He is not indifferent, but subject to emotion like us, He must live in a constant state of sorrow when He witnesses human suffering.” Jesus Christ—for Christians, the son of God—“was not happy in any recognizable sense. He was embodied and suffered pain, he shared the suffering of his fellow men, and he died on the cross.”
The religious may accuse Kolakowski of impiety, of presuming to know the designs of God, but the issue is more complicated. For decades, Kolakowski had been writing that all human lives end in failure or tragedy. When he looked to the Poles of his generation, he saw many with gifts like his own whose lives had been cut short. The cream of the Polish intelligentsia died in Warsaw in 1943 and ‘44, and if Kolakowski had been spared this fate, it was due to the good advice of communist partisans. One always enjoys fortune (szczescie) adumbrated by others’ misfortune (nieszczescie). To the extent that we are fully human, our sense of fortune is always partial, compromised, unsatisfying—everything true happiness, however fleeting, is not supposed to be. Thus he wonders: If God is at all like us (we are created in His image), can He be happy? Kolakowski’s answer, again perhaps impiously, is yes—but only if the universe is one in which everybody is saved, and hell and purgatory do not exist, and there is bliss for all. We can imagine such a situation, but “it has never been seen. It has never been seen.”
Such bleak theism is hardly the opiate that Kolakowski once equated with religion. But the idea of a world abandoned by God, one where History is simply “history,” a series of accidents whose meaning cannot be ascertained, was even more unsettling than a meager faith to Kolakowski, who once helped to build utopia, and witnessed genocide and totalitarianism firsthand. We have put the “cosy world of Enlightenment atheism” far behind us, he writes, and have seen modern thinkers and politicians who acted as “unconstrained legislators on questions of good and evil” transform the world into a “place of endless anxiety and suffering.” For Kolakowski, the failures of the dictatorship of idealism he once served proved that no political or intellectual system could explain or soften the bitter complexity and contradictions of human experience. In such a world, the problems of the modern papacy faded into insignificance for the old jester, and the church remained above all a bulwark against nihilistic viciousness. And yet we remain haunted by ultimate questions, Kolakowski insists, “intensely aware of God’s absence.” The “Absolute can never be forgotten,” for God is “present even in our rejection of Him.” If anything is certain about Kolakowski, it is that the life he devoted to critically examining elementary truths turned his thought into just the sort of unnerving intellectual paradox that he could accept on faith, but never bring himself to explain.