One of the strangest conspiracies to surface in the wake of the Cold War is that John Paul II was elected to the papacy by the machinations of Zbigniew Brzezinski, former director of the Trilateral Commission (1973-1976), national secret advisor to President Carter, and mentor of Barrack Obama. There even is a photo (which I cannot find as of now) that shows Brzezinski walking in St. Peter’s Square after the election of John Paul in October of 1978 with an enormous grin on his face. While there are a number of gaps in the narrative, the relationship between Brzezinski and John Paul II opens up an interesting can of worms that helps us peel back the layers of the aura that surrounds John Paul and allows us to come to grips with an often complicated and confusing pope whose true story has yet to be written.
In his sentimentally hagiographic and deeply manipulative work, Witness to Hope, the most prolific of Catholic neocons, George Weigel, presents a few interesting passages that show us that both Brzezinski and John Paul had a number of rendezvouses in the 1970s and 80s. An examination of the language that Weigel uses reveals some curious clues as to what John Paul and Zgib were up to. While Cardinal Wojtyla was visiting America in the summer of 1976, Brzezinski went to hear the Cardinal lecture at Harvard. It would seem perfectly normal for a Polish-American Political Scientist to want to hear the lecture of a powerful Polish Cardinal coming to America’s premier university. However, Weigel oddly feels as though it is necessary to reassure readers that it was a “spur-of the-moment decision” that prompted Brzezinski to meet see John Paul’s lecture. Weigel then later provides a detailed description of the scene: “Zbigniew Brzezinski, who ‘hadn’t been in the habit of attending social functions of visiting Polish bishops,’ was vacationing in Maine. But ‘for some reason’ he could never understand, the Columbia University political scientist and future national security advisor to the President of the United States accepted an invitation to Cambridge to have tea with Cardinal Wojtyla, and came away struck by his combination of ‘intellgience and calm strength.'” Again, Weigel goes out of his way to reassure that reader that there was no special reason for Brzezinski to visit Cardinal Wojtyla, and certainly the meeting was not planned in advance. Well, no one said it was.
In Witness to Hope Weigel further notes, not so strangely this time, that when he arrived in Boston in October of 1981, John Paul II was greeted by Rosalynn Carter and Brzezinski at the airport. Weigel uses similar careful language to describe Brzezinski’s later meeting with John Paul on his trip to the USA: “That afternoon, John Paul spent several hours at the Vatican embassy in Washingtton, discussing the international situation with Zbigniew Brzezinski. The meeting hadn’t been on the official schedule. When Brzezinski, responding to the Pope’s invitation, mentioned that there were some family logistical problems that weekend afternoon, John Paul told him to bring his wife and children along. As they were finishing, Brzezinski said that, when he talked to President Carter, he sometimes thought he was talking with a religious leader, and when he talked with John Paul II, he had the impression of talking to a world statesman.” Again, Weigel goes out of his way to emphasize that Brzezinski had no special reason to meet John Paul, and it was so unofficial that even the wife and kids were brought along. Finally, Weigel defuses the situation with a heart warming joke.
And then there is the conspiracy. The Soviets in Weigel’s work are always depicted as bungling miscreants being foiled by the clever snow skiing Polish pope, so it comes as no surprise that the patriarch of Catholic neoconservatives laughs off the belief among Soviet intelligence and the Soviet press that tied John Paul to Zbigniew Brzezinski “in a plot to destabilize the USSR.”
Weigel provides of description of the Soviet theory: “The report, which reflected the KGB spymaster’s view that history worked throught plots, concluded that Wojtyla had been elected as part of a German-American conspiracy in which key roles were played by the Polish American archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal John Krol and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. The goal of the plot was, presumably, the destabilization of Poland as the first step toward the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact. The analysis was comical, but the threat analysis was acute.” This is not the first time Weigel has laughed off a conspiracy. Like most neocons, even the footsoldiers who don’t financially benefit from lying, Weigel cannot abide any questioning of the mainstream narrative—Weigel has even gone so far as to defend Cardinal Bernadine from the harsher accusations against him (we’ll have a blog post on that issue later). However, what is weird is the intensity with which Weigel attempts to assure the reader that there was no conspiracy. In fact, if Weigel wouldn’t have been so adamant about reassuring his reader that there was no conspiracy, your humble author may have skipped over the passages.
Witness to Hope is not the only time and place that we hear of the suggestion that Bzezinski influenced John Paul II’s election. This suggestion is repeated again in a November 27, 2013 Politico article in which reporter Charles Gati led Brzezinski with the statement: “The Soviet leadership believed that you engineered the election of Pope John Paul II…”
Brzezinski’s response is revealing in its nonchalance:
Sure. The Soviet Politburo was briefed on the proposition that I allegedly got Cardinal [John] Krol of Philadelphia to organize American cardinals. Then the American cardinals organized the German cardinals in an American-German Coalition of Cardinals, then some others, and therefore I was responsible for his election. The pope had heard of this “grand conspiracy.” I remember saying goodbye to him once, and he said, “Come and see me soon.” I said, “Oh, I can’t do that so often. This is too much. You know, it’s a privilege.” And he replied, laughing, “You elected me. You have to come and see me.”
Brzezinski, like Weigel laughs off the suggestion that he could have influenced the election, but his calmness and the clear absurdity of the story also leave the reader with some pause. The narrative that both Weigel and Brzezinski give of using American and German cardinals seems outrageous; in fact, it seems too outrageous. Is there more to the story? Is there another story that is true? Was that the only way Brzezinski could have influenced the election? Aren’t there more clever ways? Is it really true that the KGB was so completely inept as to fall for such accusations? What was the real relationship between Brzezinski and John Paul?
(As a side note, a point not mentioned by Weigel is that John Paul Met Bzezinski at the Vatican in 1983 along with the entire Trilateral Commission).
Again, there is a lot of weirdness around John Paul II. In many ways, he was the most confusing of popes whose writings and personal actions ranged from intense devotion to Our Lady and Our Lord and genuinely orthodox traditionalism to acts and statements that sound more like something from a new age teacher. The biggest question is: what did John Paul really believe? Was he just a confused, liberal Catholic, or is there much more to the story?