In China, the communist government, ignoring the protests of a dozen nations, sentenced 53-year-old literary critic Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison. His crime? Peacefully agitating for democracy. In Iran, thousands of agitators for democracy -- broadly acclaimed as "freedom fighters" -- continued their efforts in opposition to their country's standing Islamic totalitarian government in spite of violent and deadly reprisals.
Both Mr. Liu and the freedom fighters, as noted by the editors of the Wall Street Journal last Monday, are viewed as dangers by their respective totalitarian states because they wield "the power of the unbreakable individual spirit."
What do the Mr. Liu's of the world in countries like China or North Korea ultimately intend? Beyond democratic reforms, what are the ultimate goals of the freedom movement in Iran? I don't profess to know. Are they fighting, for instance, for religious freedom writ large, one that would be inclusive of Judaism and Christianity free of harassment? We can only hope so. History has often demonstrated that once hard sought after political freedom is attained -- and we might go all the way back to the French revolution -- the freedom impulse is too often overpowered by the impulse to sanction every form of licentiousness and moral depravity.
But as I pondered these developments, I could not help wondering what Karol Wojtyla -- Pope John Paul the Great -- would think of all this, the Pope of 1989, the Pope who with his own unbreakable individual spirit, dealt a death blow to the then regnant totalitarianisms beyond the Iron Curtain.
And I think the answer is simple: he would be watching these developments with great hope and high expectations. He would be supporting them in much the same way he supported the initial impulse of the Solidarity movement in his native Poland: by reminding freedom fighters of his most signal and prescient insight, namely, that totalitarian regimes rise on a grossly distorted vision of the human person, and that they fall when enough of that regime's citizens get the true vision.
"Authentic democracy is possible," he wrote in his 1991 encyclical Centessimus Annus, "only in a State ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person." The fundamental flaw and moral depravity of any totalitarianism -- communist, Islamic, or otherwise -- is to sacrifice the supreme value of the good of the person, subordinating it to the larger project of the totalitarian state.
It was his own experience of totalitarian brutality in Poland that moved John Paul to be an outspoken advocate of any impulse for genuine political freedom, because he understood that a genuinely democratic way of ordering public life was the best seedbed for human and Christian flourishing:
The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological ends (Centessimus Annus, 46).
But in the same breath that he upheld the time-tested value of democracy, he was equally adamant that democratic freedoms amount to little without the possibility of encountering the full truth about human reality:
But freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth. In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden (idem).
The conquest of genuine democratic freedoms is an enormous first step toward attaining that fullness of truth. And that's why Christians need to support these movements throughout the world.
Could 2010 be for Iran what 1989 was for Poland? We'll know in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, we can only hope that divine Providence will allow the freedom fighters in Iran and the Mr. Liu's of the world to get their hands on a copy of Centessimus Annus. Or perhaps they already have.
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).