Lessons From the East

Politics matter. If there’s one cogent thought my jet-lagged, exhausted, and somewhat overwhelmed self can express in the wake of my two-week tour through Eastern Europe and parts of the former Soviet Union, that’s it.

As some of you know, I spent the latter half of September collecting stories from graduates of the Language and Catechetical Institute in Gaming, Austria, most of whom grew up under communism and are now working to rebuild the Church in the East…some quite literally. One graduate in Ukraine has coordinated the construction of 160 plus parish churches, all needed because the buildings seized by the Soviet Union were never returned to the Church there.

When I set out on the trip, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I guess I thought I’d get some great stories, eat some great food, and share some great laughs with the friends with whom I traveled. And I did, a hundred times over.

But what I didn’t expect was that the devastation left by Communism would still be so pervasive. The Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago. The Berlin Wall fell 22 years ago. Surely, in that time, I thought, the evil Communism had wrought would have been rolled back.

But evil, it seems, has a way of lingering.

In some places, it’s lingered in the governments, where the nepotism, corruption, and graft that dominated Soviet politics dominates still.

Ukraine: Signs of long neglect and decay are everywhere.

In other places, it lingers in the buildings and infrastructure. It seemed as if the farther east we traveled, the more homes and roads alike were scarred by poverty and indifference and the landscape marred by architecture that smacked of politburos and central planning.

Most of all, however, it lingers in the people.

For some, it lingers in the wounds they carry with them—wounds inflicted when parents and grandparents were betrayed by friends and neighbors, arrested, and never seen again. For others, it lingers in their fear of authority, their lack of trust in the Church, and their belief that honesty and openness are dangerous habits. It lingers in their work ethic, their expectations of government, and their suspicion of outsiders.

It also lingers in their hunger for something more than what their culture offers them, a hunger far too many are increasingly filling with the West’s most prolific exports—materialism, consumerism, and hedonism.

There are, of course, exceptions. Some countries have fared better than others in the post-Soviet years. Some individuals have done the same. Over the past two weeks, I spent many a wonderful hour in and with those exceptions.

But, the fact remains, communism undermined human dignity and broke the human spirit wherever it reigned. It taught people that they didn’t have to sacrifice or work hard, that they didn’t have to give generously or receive humbly, that diligence and attentiveness would not be rewarded, that life wasn’t sacred, that families weren’t necessary, that neighbors weren’t to be trusted, and that God wasn’t real.

Those lessons took. And 20 years of “freedom” hasn’t changed that.

Like I said at the outset of this article, the trip left me tired and overwhelmed. We didn’t so much sleep at night as take brief naps, and there is so much I’m trying to process. But it’s hard not to do that processing in the light of our own upcoming election.

I know there are people out there who think it doesn’t matter who wins or loses in November, that Mitt Romney isn’t much better than President Obama, and that maybe an Obama victory is, in fact, exactly what this country needs to bring it to its knees. Some of those people are people whom I consider dear friends. I love and respect them. But after my two weeks in Eastern Europe, I’m more convinced than ever that they’re dead wrong.

Too much of what the Obama Administration stands for is rooted in the communist tenets of old. The lack of respect for private property and individual initiative, the preference for big government and statist solutions, the denigration of a lived faith and traditional values, the desire to increase not decrease government dependency, and grow the welfare state—not only are those bad policy ideas, proven time and again not to work, but they’re also part and parcel of what has done so much damage in the East.

Hungary: Large leaden balls mark the spots where Soviet bullets ripped through crowds of peaceful protestors gathered outside the parliament in Budapest in 1956

It wasn’t just KGB agents, bullets, and torture rooms that undermined human dignity in the former Soviet Union. It was also many of the same policy initiatives that President Obama is peddling. To let him win in November is to let the ideas behind those initiatives tighten their grip on our culture. It’s to give them a firmer foothold. And there is simply no guarantee that we’ll be able to undo their effects after one or five or even twenty election cycles.

Mitt Romney is a far cry from being the perfect presidential candidate. He’s not who I would have chosen. Electing him may be the equivalent of the little Dutch boy plugging up the proverbial hole in the dike with his finger. But if that’s the only option I’ve got, I’ll take it. I’ll take the guy who does the smallest thing to preserve the dike over the guy who takes a sledgehammer to the dike. I’ll take whatever time that affords to find better solutions and better people to implement those solutions. I’ll also take whatever time that affords to transform the culture with the truth of Christ.

We need that time. We need it badly. The state of the former Soviet Union is proof positive that politics matter and bad governments can quickly and effectively destroy civil society. But it’s also a reminder that government can only effectively rebuild when it’s led by truth. That’s one of the reasons why the now democratically elected governments in the once Eastern Bloc haven’t been able to undo the damage. It’s not democracy that heals. It’s Christ. The governments and the people of the East need him. The governments and the people of the West need him too. And it’s up to us, those who know him, to give people what they need—to give them who they need.

That is our most important and most urgent task. But right now, preserving our right to carry out that task is equally urgent. So too is holding the line against policies shot through with lies and half-truths, policies which contain within them echoes of the beliefs that have wrought so much damage in the East.

Doing anything less is a gamble a visit to Ukraine has made me utterly unwilling to take.

Ukraine: Four stone tablets bear the names of the Greek Catholic priests who lost their lives in the Soviet takeover of Transcarpathia.

Emily Stimpson is a Contributing Editor to “Our Sunday Visitor” and the author of “The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years,” where she dishes on the Church’s teachings about women, marriage, sex, work, beauty, suffering, and more.



  • sdd

    Excellent article, but the one sentence shoud read “He’s not WHOM I would have chosen.” Let’s hear it for proper grammar and proofreaders!

  • http://www.facebook.com/AlanGHartman Alan Gerard Hartman

    To suggest that Obama’s administration seeks to create a communist, or even socialist, system is laughable. I would recommend that this writer keep her focus on religion in Eastern Europe.

    • Joe M

      Alan. The concept of Obamacare alone is a shift toward a more socialist system.

      • Rich

        So was the Catholic Hospital systems when we first started them in the US. Or the origin of Catholic Schools. In fact their funding in many parishes has a very “Socialist” component.
        There is nothing anti-catholic is socialism, it was the anti-faith ideology withing Marxism that was later labeled as “atheistic communism” that bothered the Church. Our church is not a very big fan of Capitalism in all cases. We still believe that we must hold our own earnings and wealth in faithful tension with the command of Jesus to Sell All You Have and Give It to the Poor. No one refers to the Lord as a Socialist just because he favored wealth redistribution.
        Beside universal healthcare has long been considered a good thing by the Church. The problems with ObamaCare for the Church has nothing to do with Socialism. The HHS mandate is called into question, not the individual mandate. And despite the rhetoric, the period of reconsideration is current.

        • Joe M


          Privately run hospital systems and schools cannot be more socialist as they are not being managed by the government.

          If you think that there is nothing anti-Catholic in socialism, you should refer to both Catholic social teaching and the track record of treatment Catholics have received in more socialist countries.

          You can’t “Sell All You Have and Give It to the Poor” if the government takes all you have and gives it to their political allies. Paying higher taxes so that a secular government can dole it out as they see fit is not an example of Catholic charity.

          There is no evidence that the Lord “favored wealth redistribution.” Government taking money via taxes to spend in a secular manner is not an act of individual charity. Read Catholic social teaching. This is addressed there.

          Regarding the problems with Obamacare, the HHS Mandate is a SYMPTOM of the conflict the Church has with socialist systems. The government should not intrude upon our private lives to the point of making moral decisions for us. Entangling the government into healthcare exposes people to the reoccurance of this type of problem.

          • Rich

            Wow – Joe, you haven’t read much about Jesus or Catholicism. You might actually like the guy, even if he seems a bit liberal for you.
            You might also look at Catholic Social teaching as to what is says about Wealth.
            But you cannot pay taxes on your wealth if you have given it all away. (You get a complete deduction on top of your exemption and tax credit.)

          • Joe M

            Rich. So, what you’re saying is that Obama is not in accordance with Jesus for keeping most of the enormous amount of wealth he accumulated in 2012?

          • abadilla

            Rich, “Wow – Joe, you haven’t read much about Jesus or Catholicism.” Why do you presume we are all ignorant simply because we do not interpret history the way you do? Is that not arrogant?

          • abadilla

            Rich, “even if he seems a bit liberal for you.” This is the problem when one ascribes present politcal models to the Jesus of 2000 years ago. Was He ahead of his time? Yes. Was He like the liberals of today who are incapable of recognizing sin even when it hits them in the face? No. Liberals today believe in abortion, sexual promiscuity under the guise of freedom, the Nany State, and controlling everyone’s life through governmental agencies. The present Holy Father has warned us not to make of Jesus a political figure in the style of present-day politicians, but folks like Rich don’t get it.

        • abadilla

          Rich, “There is nothing anti-catholic is socialism, it was the anti-faith ideology withing Marxism that was later labeled as “atheistic communism” that bothered the Church. Our church is not a very big fan of Capitalism in all cases.” In all the social papal encyclicals from Rerum Novarum to Caritatis in Verita, socialism has been condemned and unbridle Capitalism has also been criticized. The fact is, no system is “perfect” but one system, imprisoned the people of Eastern Europe for a long time and that is an undeniable fact unless one denies history. That’s precisely what Emily writes about in her article.

  • Hello Pogos

    Comparing Obama’s adminstration to Stalinist Russia is tripe but please keep doing it because it will actually help him get elected. And guess what? It now appears that Russia is looking to God to help the State, just like you. Putin is allying himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and vice versa. Putin has even have
    made protests against the Church illegal. He has gone so far as to point out that cooperation
    between the church and state is the key to his success. Maybe it’s time for you and all the CatholicVote.org devotees to move to Russia because, actually, you’d probably feel much happier there.

    • Joe M

      Why would recognizing accurate comparisons between Obama’s principles and other government-centered modes of thought help him to get elected? The only people who are in denial of these observations are going to vote for Obama no matter what, just as Romney noted in the faux-scandalous Mother Jones video.

      • We Love Joe M

        @ Joe M: You are the best Pogo of ’em all. Keep up the good work! Us Obama supporters love you best of all!

        • Joe M

          Thank you. I intend to continue. Unfortunately, I have to ask that you raise the bar a little on your end. You don’t seem to be very prepared for these debates beyond googled talking points and ad hominems.

  • Janet E. Smith

    Really fantastic column; deep, prophetic and beautifully written. You always do superb work, but this suggests going without sleep may take you to even higher levels of excellence.

  • Jason

    The other thing your experience suggests is the stark difference between freedom of “Worship” and freedom of “Religion”. These are not remotely the same thing as can be evidenced by the fact that the USSR had freedom of Worship, but not Religion. In the days following the HHS mandate and the uproar it generated, it is telling that President Obama changed from using the words “Freedom of Religion” and started using the phrase “Freedom of Worship”.

  • HyacinthClare

    You are a fine writer with the ability to create visual images with your words, powerful visual images. Thank you, Ms. Stimpson.

    • Are These People Bolsheviks?

      This is what this election is all about … in images… and Mitt Romney’s words: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B9xCCaseop4

      • HyacinthClare

        Would you be more clear, please? An Obama campaign ad seems to say you agree with his encouraging government dependency. I don’t want to respond to something you’re not saying.

        • Rich

          The ad is showing who the 47% are. The low wage HARD WORKING people who do not earn enough for the income to be taxed. But they pay other payroll taxes, maybe property tax and other taxes. The 47% who do not pay income tax are not all on any entitlement programs. Some are on social security or SSI-disability, not many of us blame retired or disabled people for being so poor that they do not pay federal income tax. Somehow we should have respect for people who are poor and not refer to them as drains on the economy.
          May you never have to use any of the safety net programs, but we should at least be glad that they are available for people who need them. Remember that Jesus said whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters who do not pay federal income tax, that you do unto me.

          • Joe M

            Rich. Romney was referring to unmovable Obama supporters. Not poor people. 47% of Americans are not poor and in need of safety net programs. That 47% do not pay any income taxes discredits the liberal claim (and Obama’s claim) that the system is not progressive enough.

          • Rich

            Actually Joe, perhaps Romney is best at explaining who he was talking about, and his answer is not yours.
            The percentage of payers has nothing to do with progressive or regressive scales.

          • Joe M

            Yes. Romney is best at explaining what he was talking about. That’s why I gathered his meaning from the entire context of his speech. You and Mother Jones have cherry-picked one sentence and ignored the point he was making.

            And in what fantasy world does the percentage of people paying income tax not have anything to do with how progressive that income tax system is? Obama, along with other liberals have been braying that the wealthy are not paying their fair share of taxes. In reality, the upper income brackets are paying all of the taxes already. Our tax system is already among the most progressive in the world.

          • Rich

            Joe M Report Card
            F- in economics
            A+ in imagination
            BTW – you may want to tell Romney that he is wrong about his explanation of his comments at the Fund Raiser. He still seems to think he was talking about the 47% who do not pay federal income tax. And trying hard to find a fitting apology.

      • Joe M

        The only people that buy that ad are the unmovable Obama supporters Romney was referring to in the faux-scandalous Mother Jones video.

        • Rich

          “Faux Scandalous”?!?!?!?!?
          Even the GOP is upset about the video. Don’t be ridiculous, Joe. Even the Mittster is trying to back-pedal away from his gaffe. The scandal is real, and it should be upsetting to everyone. The attitude is not very Catholic. We are about the poor, the Widow and the Orphan. Wake up and smell the Incense.

          • Joe M

            Rich. A couple of talking heads being upset about the video does not make “the GOP upset about the video.”

            It was a minor gaffe. Instead of citing the 47% that don’t pay income tax he should have cited the 40% or so that will vote for Obama even if it turned out he was friends with Bin Laden. The only people who don’t see that was the point Romney was making are in the 40% anyway. That’s how we end up with a faux scandal.

            Romney’s proposals would do more to help the poor, widow and orphan than another 16 years of Obama, let alone another 4. It’s really laughable to try to compare Obama favorably in Catholic terms. Do we really need to re-hash all of the ways that Obama has governed contrary to Catholic principles?

          • Joe M for GOP Chair

            Uh, Joe. . . . Obama killed bin Laden. But we love you most of all.

          • Joe M

            Haha. “We” love it when Obama claims to have done the dangerous work that our troops did. Keep it going!

          • We Love Joe

            Uh, Joe . . . President Obama is the Commander-in-Chief who ordered the raids that Chickenhawk Bush didn’t. Your troops, indeed. We really do love you.

          • Joe M

            Jimmy Carter would have ordered that raid. The idea that Obama played a significant role in getting Bin Laden is laughable.

          • Joe M

            PS: Who is the “we” that you keep referring to? Are you making an income posting comments here? Or, do you have multiple personalities?

          • abadilla

            Correct, Obama killed bin Laden because he followed the policies of George Bush, but, of course, he never gave Bush any credit for that, typical of self-centre individuals like the man who now occupies the White House!

          • Rich

            Earth to abadilla.
            The is not the Website for alien abductions.
            The truth is out there (and certainly not found at CatholicVote

          • abadilla

            If CV is just about lies, why do you come here to voice your opinions. Are you so naive as to think you will change our minds?

          • Rich

            no, actually I come here to confront the lies with truth.
            I doubt there is anything that will change your mind until you are open to the truth.
            God will wait for you, but I have better things to do.
            But thanks for the question.

          • abadilla

            “no, actually I come here to confront the lies with truth.
            I doubt there is anything that will change your mind until you are open to the truth.”
            Strange is it not? I feel the same way about you, it is you who refuses to see the truth.
            I don’t seek to change your mind. If the bishops have failed so miserably in changing your mind, why would I fare any better?

          • RIch

            But you have no tools to change my mind with. You are not using truth, but a party line. My faith will not be swayed with the mere use of your political views.
            It is not so strange really that you want to classify me as the enemy. I do not hold that position about you. I do think that this website has helped you maintain being lost.
            Know that I don’t care who you vote for, I just care why you are voting for them. In this may be the biggest difference. You speak of absolutes as if you have some insight when you do not. I speak of using faith in your conversations with God as you determine how you vote. I further speak of bringing civility into the discourse and of love for the other, including political opponents.
            I am only a philosopher and only interested in expanding the conversation so that each persons considerations can be a broad as needed.
            You will have to consider why you want to continue to try and prove me wrong. That ball always remains in your court.

          • Joe M

            Rich. Statements like “earth to abadilla” do not line up with the way you have characterized yourself in this comment. You clearly intend to insult and disrespect others. Do you really think such statements “expand” the conversation?

          • abadilla

            I’m not here to try to convince anyone. Either you are a Catholic who believes four more years of a pro-abortion President will be wonderful for this country, or you are a Catholic who believes the pro-abortion President is a disaster for this nation and you won’t vote for him.
            I already listed the reason for my voting Romney, that’s all. Either you embrace those reasons or you don’t. That simple.

          • Joe M

            Rich. If not to change minds, what purpose do you have for coming here to “confront the lies with truth?” To make yourself feel better? I’m pretty sure that there are many people in your life that will give you a pat on the back whether they agree with your politics or not. Isn’t there?

          • RIch

            Yes Joe we need to rehash until you learn how to read the facts and tell the truth.
            It is OK if you want to believe that Romney is the new Savior, but there are many right minds with good intelligence and good theology that are not gonna believe it.

          • Joe M

            Rich. Thank you for the pointless ad hominems. Do you have any substantial arguments that address the points that I made?

          • abadilla

            Rich, “The attitude is not very Catholic. We are about the poor, the Widow and the Orphan. Wake up and smell the Incense.” And, above all else, the protection of the unborn because dead people can’t be poor and dead people can’t be widows and orphans. I also wonder why liberals who care so much about the poor, would want them condemned to a life of dependancy under a government willing to give them anything except the tools for poor people to find economic independence by themselves.
            BTW, we do smell the incense and unlike progressives who say incense is bad for one’s respiratory system, we love the smell of it.

          • Rich

            It is sad to see someone so invested in the politics, that they cannot see the religiousness. Perhaps it is not jut the east that lost the beauty and inspiration of faith.
            I am not sure what you are arguing about, as the care for the widow and the orphan would naturally cover the unborn. Your concern cannot stop at fetal protection only, but a full livelong commitment to really care for those while also loving care about those that oppose you as well.
            You have no idea of what you are talking about regarding anyone’s wish to condemn anyone to a live of dependency. You may have missed the reality that the people he was talking about are not dependent on the Government, and most are not even receiving any federal benefits. It was a complete and total misunderstanding about the 47% who do not pay Federal Income tax. Many are the working poor and others are retired on fixed incomes. They are no more dependent than you or I.
            Many “liberals” – if you mean people who work with the poor, the abused, the homeless and mentally ill – the 47%, many of us have some pretty good track records of helping the homeless find homes, or protecting the abused child, getting a person on needed medication, and even helping a person get the education or skill needed to advance in a paid WORK position.
            I don’t how successful you have been in those areas, but I gotta say though, that that is not incense that you are smelling, it may the crap that you are throwing around without knowing what you are talking about.

          • abadilla

            Rich states,
            “It is sad to see someone so invested in the politics, that they cannot see the religiousness. Perhaps it is not jut the east that lost the beauty and inspiration of faith.”
            If I were to vote Republcan even in cases in which a Republican supports the murder of the unborn, then your accusation would make sense.
            As for the beauty of religion, how is that beautty not soiled when you support a pro-abortion candidate?

          • Rich

            Well, for one thing, there are no pro-abortion candidates.
            Those who through the word abortion around on the election cycles and treat it as if it is only something to bash a candidate with, are missing the reality of faithful citizenship.
            Marching on Abortion clinics and voting “against” abortion is worst form of slacktivism – thinking that you are doing something without really putting anything at risk.
            But when the only reason that you promote yourself as pro-life is to be anti-obama, then you are just a hypocrite if you make believe this is what you faith commands you to do. Your waste your time writing on a low class website, hoping only to have the support of those who already believe like you do – what good is that?
            And you need to swallow the whole CV pill, making sure that you add foreign policy and the totality of the HealthCare reform, thinking that if Obama doesn’t tell the Romney lie, then he is the ONLY bad guy.
            If you really endorse Romney, then you better start challenging his now, or else you will be unable to hold him accountable later.
            But you and I both know that this website is not about anything really Catholic. Sure the Writers belong to some parish, and some even publish in the so called Catholic Press – in fact one is even a website manager for a Catholic College. None of this gives them credence, as none have really sat to reflect on what is being said in Faithful Citizenship. They use and abuse the Catholic Church for the political and not for the faith. They are not evangelist, but bloggers, and not the cream of the crop there.
            They benefit from blogging instead of serious writing though, in that truth and solid research is not required in blogging – the standards for a blogger are quite low – have a keyboard and web access and … nothing else.
            Perhaps you are closing your eyes to the beauty of religion around you, but it is not soiled but the politician as much as by the Pharisees who blog with bad intentions, condemning based on political ideology, and feigning a promotion of faith.
            Perhaps it is unfair to expect the bloggers to be able to express their faith in terms other that political, them may not yet have found the joy in living as a Christian even within the secular structure of our government.
            To be a Faithful Citizen is to be first a person of Faith, and faith in Jesus, and faith that the Holy Spirit has not abandon the world. Without this, it is no wonder that the main message here on CV is about staying in the upper room and locking the door for fear of… Sadly, they embrace a religion based on the fear, and use the fear for a political agenda.
            No one should ever think that the evil of abortion is just in the law, and until we understand what each you and I are doing to create the conditions for one of our sisters (also created in God’s Image and loved by Almighty God) to contemplate abortion, and only use the word as an insult to politicians and our brothers and sisters whose political ideology is different, then we are the sounding Gong. If we do not have love for each other (including the candidates) then we are not people of faith. This is the true lesson that is missing from CV to really make it Catholic.
            It seems ever our Bishops have become people of little faith, though they still embrace the doctrine. But doctrine only makes sense with Faith, and faith is our life blood.
            The opportunity to evangelize on how faith can shape our civic decisions is indeed a great privilege. How wonderful it would be if this website were truly used for this purpose. Like the pro-life movement that has morphed into the anti-abortion movement because it has lost the focus on the PRO of life, this website only crawls in the darkness and despair, thinking the only solutions are not to Embrace Romney, but to Bash Obama, when we should be embracing neither. People of Faith will never be completely at home in a Political Party. Faith instructs us to ask for more from each, but always remember we are building a different city they they are, we are building the city of God.

          • abadilla

            Yes Rich, there is a pro-abortion candidate and that’s Obama and he himself has said that much, especially when he addressed Planned Parenthood. Apparently, you missed it. I didn’t. Before being a faithful citizen, I must be a faithful Catholic, and as such, I can’t vote for anyone who supports an intrinsic evil.
            The message of CV is to alert Catholics like you that you are on the wrong pad by voting for someone who holds an intrinsic evil as if were a virtue.
            Our bishops for the first time in a long time are doing their job, which is to tell us clearly what are the principles at stake that we must not forget during an election year. They don’t have to worry about you because you are too far gone!
            Neither I nor anyone has said that people of faith feel completely at home in any political party. I have repeatedly told you I am voting for the lesser of two evils but you don’t get my meaning.

          • Rich

            Many of us have known the principles for making good decisions for a long time and did not need the bishops to give us any directions. You must not be familiar with the theology here.
            And if you heard Obama say he was Pro-Abortion, you must have been listening to something other than him talking. You can continue to play your games, but they are only harmful to you and those who would choose to believe you – a larger group here granted than in the real world.
            Sadly you continue to mock your own faith as you disrespect that in others. I will keep you in prayer. Maybe you will actually choose to listen to the voice of God that you are trying to quiet.



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