Few people have the courage to resist a totalitarian system from within; fewer still have the intellectual and moral grounding to plant the seeds of its metamorphosis into a free and virtuous society. The world lost one such person on the last day of 2020.
“A wretched year came to a sorrowful end when Father Maciej Zięba, O.P., died in his native Wrocław, Poland, on December 31,” wrote George Weigel in First Things. The 66-year-old Dominican, who suffered from cancer, worked closely with the Solidarity movement and the late Pope John Paul II to expose the spiritual, philosophical, economic, and anthropological fallacies at the heart of communism – and then to raise up a young cadre of leaders educated in Christian principles that could restore the nation’s lost promise.
Polish President Andrzej Duda posthumously awarded Rev. Zięba the nation’s prestigious Order of Polonia Restituta “for outstanding services in the anti-communist opposition and commitment to the fight for freedom of speech in the times of the Polish People’s Republic, for cultivating the heritage of John Paul II’s thoughts and popularizing the social teaching of the Church.” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and former President Bronisław Komorowski also attended the nationally televised funeral Mass.
“I, personally, lost a good friend. Poland, and the Church in Poland, lost one of the significant figures in their pilgrimage from fear to dignity,” wrote Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Philadelphia.
Maciej Zięba was born on September 6, 1954, in Wrocław, Poland, into an overwhelming Roman Catholic nation struggling under the yoke of communism. He earned his college degree in physics but soon after hearing Poland’s most famous son, formerly Karol Wojtyla, preach in Warsaw’s Victory Square that “the exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man,” Zięba took up intellectual and spiritual arms. Intellectually, he joined forces with the Solidarity movement, contributing to its journal, Tygodnik Solidarność, alongside future Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Spiritually, he joined the Dominicans (Order of Preachers) in 1981, being ordained in 1987 and serving as provincial for the order within Poland from 1998-2006.
In both tasks, he defended “democracy on the basis of Christian anthropology, with its understanding of God-given human dignity,” wrote Archbishop Gudziak. He relied on the theology of then-Pope John Paul II who, in turn, displayed great personal affection for the Polish priest.
In 1992, Rev. Zięba joined with Weigel, Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, and Rocco Buttiglione to found what is now the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society. The organization seeks “to deepen the dialogue on Catholic social doctrine between North American students and students from the new democracies of central and eastern Europe.”
“The school’s program included excursions to sites of genocide from the totalitarian epoch and to places where desperate, free intellectuals had prepared responses and ripostes to an inhumane, mendacious system” known as Marxism, wrote Archbishop Gudziak. “There were meetings with communities and individuals who had defended freedom and human dignity in extremely dangerous circumstances.”
Rev. Zięba expressed his commitment to dissidents, in part, by commemorating the Solidarity movement that was so close to him as a leader at the European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk. And, although he maintained his freedom, he experienced the depths of betrayal by Marxists himself. Even “the cancer that finally killed him” proved “less intense than the spiritual suffering he experienced on learning that once-trusted friends had been doubling as informants for the communist secret police in the 1970s and 1980s,” Weigel wrote.
Rev. Zięba sought not merely to curse the darkness but to enlighten students’ minds with Christian and social principles that could liberate them and empower them to create a flourishing society. “In a creative, sincere, personal way, taking into account a subtle analysis of the present time, he sought to open young minds and souls to the eternal truths about human beings and society, and to form their relationship to contemporary socio-politico-economic problems,” the archbishop noted. To that end, Rev. Zięba wrote numerous books, including Papal Economics: The Catholic Church on Democratic Capitalism, from Rerum Novarum to Caritas in Veritate. Respect for human creativity must allow individuals to participate adequately in economic and political life, or society will stagnate.
Perhaps his most influential accomplishment came when he co-edited The Social Agenda: A Collection of Roman Catholic Magisterial Texts with the president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, Rev. Robert A. Sirico. The florilegium traverses every topic of social importance, from the human person and the natural family to abiding Christian principles for the economy and the environment. (You can download the full PDF here.)
Above all, Rev. Zięba emphasized that a successful society must rely fully on God’s grace and providence. He “had the wisdom – and self-awareness – to preach convincingly about the futility of our own efforts and our ultimate dependence on grace,” Stephen White, the director of The Catholic Project at the Catholic University of America, told Crux. Man-made utopias of any variety will surely fall, bringing tragedy to those impacted under their rubble.
Rev. Zięba’s understanding came forged in the crucible of socialist persecution. “Of course, it is good that the horrors of totalitarianism are behind us. But we will miss those who defeated it,” wrote Archbishop Gudziak. “Their experience is again becoming necessary” during a time of what he called “surveillance capitalism,” in which faceless “algorithms in social networks and an archive of metadata about all of us” are engaged to “determine our conduct … politically.” Furthermore, the economic system that fueled the Eastern Bloc’s repression, socialism, has become distressingly popular among young people in the West.
If we do not heed the abiding biblical truths that he spent (and risked) his life teaching, we may find ourselves replicating the society that suppressed him, improving only the all-pervading quality of their surveillance and social control.
Rev. Maciej Zięba, O.P., requiescat in pace.