Moral Renewal in East Europe

January 20, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

VATICAN CITY. CO. WILLIAM PFAFF — Vatican City -- The market economy is an economic mechanism which obeys its own imperatives. It has no internal ethical code; it is a machine for making, buying and selling.

In the old and experienced capitalist countries the market therefore is constrained by law and professional regulations, and beyond that by what people long accustomed to this way of running their affairs understand to be the rights and wrongs of doing business. The system is regularly abused, but we know how to handle the abuses.

This is not so in the newly freed economies of the ex-communist world, where people were educated by communism to believe that capitalism, exploitation and racketeering are all pretty much the same thing -- and recently have unfortunately been finding confirmation of that argument in the realities about them.

The Vatican is much involved in this because it has taken a major part in liberating the East. It has not done it for the sake of capitalism, enlightened or otherwise. Freeing the East-bloc countries was from the start a principal theme of the papacy of Karol Wojtyla, after he was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978. His trips to Poland and elsewhere in the communist countries, and the response they evoked, were major factors in weakening the communist governments' claims to legitimacy.

This was at a time when most Western governments -- certainly the U.S. government -- were content to leave things in the East pretty much as they were for the sake of stability. The ''rollback'' of communism was an idea abandoned 20 years earlier. The Western governments were content with detente.

That was not how John Paul saw it. He wanted political liberation in the East because he recognized in the devotion and militancy of Christianity in his native Poland and elsewhere in the East a base from which he might launch the re-Christianization of the Western countries, which he sees as today dominated by largely materialist values, a sterile consumerism, robbed of the spiritual dimension of existence.

To many, if not most, in the modern West, the pope's version of Catholicism is too conservative, his Christian morality too unyielding, to make him a comfortable presence. But many in the communist countries have recognized the pertinence of his moral preoccupations. However bad the economies in their countries, the moral landscape there in communism's aftermath is far worse.

Dissidence produced a superb and selfless moral resistance in many places. But communism also devastated vast regions of the common life, making people into liars, time-servers, thieves, spies and betrayers of their neighbors. Evidence of this is the drama in Czechoslovakia and East Germany in recent weeks, concerning the revelation and punishment of those who collaborated in the past with the Stasi and the Czechoslovak secret police.

The greater the number of collaborators denounced, however, the more apparent it has become that survival in communism society demanded constant betrayals of others. The relevant questions were of degree. You betrayed your brother or wife or friends -- but how badly did you betray them? How much else of value did you save from betrayal by betraying others? Whom did you save by betraying someone else? These are questions that Western Europe last had to face during and after World War II. They have been spared Americans for nearly all of our national life. Only the Civil War and its aftermath gave us a taste of this.

The papacy wants moral integrity, a just society, restored in the East -- and beyond. It wants prosperity too, obviously; but not at any cost. Virtue has never been entirely at ease with wealth, as the Christian churches have (usually) preached, frequently to the displeasure of their members.

John Paul's encyclical on social justice last year, marking the centenary of the publication of the first authoritative statement of modern Catholic social doctrine, Leo XIII's ''Rerum Novarum,'' quoted Leo as saying that ''those whom fortune favors are admonished . . . that they should tremble . . . and that a most strict account must be given to the Supreme Judge for the use of all they possess.'' It is a doctrine with a resonance in today's East, where unemployment and profiteering too often seem two sides of the same thing.

The yawning lack in Eastern Europe and the Soviet successor states is a functioning civil society, where people grasp and respect mutual obligations and duties in the common enterprise of reconstructing an economy and government.

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