[Papal] Secretaries of State Compared. Low Marks for Casaroli, Too
In his new biography of John Paul II, George Weigel shows all of the limitations of the cardinal who was his first collaborator. But with him, the Vatican curia still functioned. The disaster came with his two successors
by Sandro Magister
ROME, July 16, 2012 – In a Church ever more impatient over the mismanagement of the Vatican curia, the natural regret of many turns to the times in which the secretariat of state was directed by personalities of the highest caliber and of solid diplomatic formation.
Moving backward, and hopping over the second-to-last of the series – Cardinal Angelo Sodano, under whom the curia was plunged into its current state of disrepair – the general wistfulness goes above all to Cardinal Agostino Casaroli (in the photo), the secretary of state in the first years of the pontificate of John Paul II, remembered and celebrated as a remarkable diplomat and as the wise architect of Vatican policy with the communist countries.
In reality, Casaroli and his Ostpolitik were also long contested in their time. In a Church like that of Poland, the opposition was intense. One memorable quip was spoken in Latin by the cardinal of Warsaw, Stefan Wyszynski, at a synod of bishops of the whole world: “Vir casaroliensis non sum.” I am not a Casaroli man.
This led to the astonishment at the decision of pope Karol Wojtyla, shortly after he was elected pope, to appoint none other than Casaroli as his secretary of state. An astonishment – almost always unresolved – that can also be found in many of the biographies of this pope.
The latest in terms of time, but among the most important, has been in bookstores for a few months in English-speaking countries, and now also in Italy.
Its author is the American theologian and political analyst George Weigel, already the author of an imposing first biography of Wojtyla published on the threshold of 2000, and therefore with the pontificate still underway, which met with immense success and was translated into many languages, with the title “Witness to Hope.”
In this second work, complementary to the first and entitled “The End and the Beginning,” Weigel not only dedicates himself to the last years of the pontificate of John Paul II, but he also presents a comprehensive reinterpretation of these, hinging on what he calls the “victory of freedom” and projected upon the heritage left by this pope to the present Church and world.
In the first of the two parts of the book, Weigel reconstructs, sometimes with previously unpublished material, Wojtyla’s victorious battle with the communist system.
And it is toward the end of this reconstruction that the author deals in very critical terms with the question of Casaroli and Ostpolitik.
Below are presented some of the passages of that chapter. Weigel’s thesis is that John Paul II was fully aware of the serious limitations of Ostpolitik and of the distance between his vision and that of Casaroli. But in calling him to his side as secretary of state, he wanted to add “another string to his bow,” albeit modest and marked by failures.
To this evaluation of a geopolitical nature can also be added the awareness of John Paul II concerning Casaroli’s aptitude in disciplining the Vatican curia, a task in which the pope had not the slightest intention of involving himself personally and which Casaroli effectively was able to perform at acceptable levels, before the disaster with the next two secretaries of state.
THE DIFFERENCE THE OSTPOLITIK DID, AND DID NOT, MAKE
by George Weigel
Cardinal Agostino Casaroli once said, rather wistfully, “I would like to help this pope but I find him so different.” As John Paul’s spokesman, Joaquín Navarro-Valls, noted afterwards, the “difference” was the difference between a man who had been a Church bureaucrat and diplomat for fifty years (albeit an exceedingly competent one) and a man from the front lines.
The man from the front lines, however, realized the skills that Casaroli brought to the Holy See’s diplomacy, even if Casaroli could never quite bring himself to acknowledge that this “different” pope had a deeper, more penetrating, and, ultimately, more realistic view of the European communist project than he did.
John Paul II took full advantage of Casaroli’s skills; promoting the author of the Ostpolitik of Paul VI to the second-highest position in the central bureaucratic leadership of the Catholic Church also gave needed cover to a more assertive papal stance on human rights and religious freedom.
That did not mean, however, that the difference Casaroli felt was not real. It was. John Paul II believed himself to be the voice of the voiceless, as he made clear at Assisi shortly after his election, when he said that the Church of Silence was no longer silent because it spoke with his voice. Cardinal Casaroli sympathized with the plight of the voices that had previously had no voice; yet, until the end, he remained convinced that their plight could be quietly resolved with governments, without much reference to the voices that had been silenced.
The Ostpolitik and Agostino Casaroli created diplomatic openings and contacts that were useful during the last decade of Karol Wojty?a’s struggle against communism; they added, as it were, another string to his bow. But it is not easy to see that the old Ostpolitik was successful beyond that – beyond being an accompaniment, and a minor one at that, to John Paul II’s moral revolution and its effects in central and eastern Europe.
Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, a former underground priest in Czechoslovakia compelled to work as a window-washer in order to avoid arrest as a vagrant, believed that the old Ostpolitik was designed and executed by men who didn’t understand communism because they hadn’t lived it. And because they didn’t understand it, they made serious strategic and tactical errors. As Vlk once put it, speaking of Czechoslovakia, Pope Paul VI “saw a Church without bishops” and tried to make deals with the government to rectify that; “he ended up with bishops who were puppets.” The same could be said for Hungary. [...]
Not infrequently (and not surprisingly), the most bitter criticisms of the old Ostpolitik came from advocates of the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, who often believed that the Curia and its diplomats were hopelessly naive about the Soviet Union and about the Russian Orthodox Church.
Fiercely loyal Greek Catholics charged that the Vatican’s efforts at a “dialogue of love” with Russian Orthodoxy meant, in practice, a “dialogue of love” with the KGB, which was clearly impossible, and just as clearly counterproductive. As one of those passionate Ukrainians said, a distinguished historian, once said, “Imagine Christians being torn to pieces by wild beasts while St. Peter conducts a ‘dialogue of love’ with Nero” – a dramatic, and perhaps exaggerated, image, but one that came easily to the minds of many in the world’s largest illegal Church, most of whose leaders had perished in the Gulag.
As for the more sophisticated analysts, they were no less critical of what they thought was the tactical ineptness of the old Ostpolitik: thus when Paul VI agreed that Ukrainian Greek Catholics without churches of their own could take holy communion in Russian Orthodox churches, he seemed unaware that the Orthodox would take this as an admission that the Greek Catholics (whose existence they continued to deny as a legal matter) didn’t really need their own churches, didn’t really need to celebrate Mass in the forests clandestinely, didn’t really need their own (clandestinely educated and ordained) clergy.
Given the intransigence of Russian Orthodoxy on a full array of ecumenical issues during the pontificate of John Paul II, this is not an easy critique to rebut.
Even as they miscalculated the degree to which ecumenical accommodation and a distancing of the Vatican from underground Churches could eviscerate morale and witness among Catholics determined to hold fast to their faith against communist persecution, the practitioners of the Casaroli Ostpolitik seem to have badly overestimated both the staying power of communism and the Ostpolitik’s role in preparing the ground for the Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Thus Cardinal Casaroli’s claim that Poland was “ripe” in 1978 and 1979 was true; but that ripening had virtually nothing to do with the Ostpolitik, for Poland was the country least affected by Casaroli’s initiatives and most resistant to some of them.
The extraordinary efforts made by Soviet and Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies to penetrate the Vatican, suborn and recruit Vatican officials, and thereby impede Church initiatives coincided precisely with the high point of Casaroli’s Ostpolitik; of this there can be no question. The more accommodating the Holy See was, the more aggressive the KGB, the SB, the Stasi, Hungarian intelligence, Bulgarian intelligence, and the rest of the sordid lot became.
Both the Italianate institutional culture of the Roman Curia and the innate aversion of diplomats to confrontation led to a situation in which those responsible for the Ostpolitik never grasped what Karol Wojty?a understood in Kraków: that it was “us” and “them,” all the time; that it was, in fact, all war, all the time.
This was not an adjudicable struggle of the sort to which diplomats were accustomed. Somebody was going to win, and somebody was going to lose. On being elected pope, John Paul II did not believe that the day when communism would lose was close at hand. But he did know that that was the nature of the confrontation, and he was convinced that a forthright moral challenge to the communist culture of the lie was the most effective response to it – because it was the truest response to it. [...]
The Ostpolitik of Agostino Casaroli and Pope Paul VI was the Vatican’s version of détente: a strategy of engagement and dialogue with communism that promised much and delivered little, primarily because the proposed dialogue partner was not interested in dialogue.
The Ostpolitik did not even manage to “save what was savable” in Czechoslovakia and Hungary; indeed, in those situations, it inadvertently made matters worse, just as détente did little to strengthen the hand of dissidents and human rights activists behind the Iron Curtain.
Détente did help make possible the 1975 Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which then-Archbishop Casaroli signed for the Holy See. And the CSCE’s “Basket Three” human rights provisions did help keep western public opinion focused on the plight of human rights activists in communist countries who appealed to the Helsinki accords for legitimation and protection.
But it took leaders like President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II – the men who deliberately moved beyond détente and beyond the Ostpolitik – to give those voices and those appeals for freedom global reach, and global effect.
Thus Henry Kissinger’s verdict on the negotiations that produced the Helsinki accords might well be applied to the diplomacy of the Vatican Ostpolitik between 1963 and 1978: “Rarely has a diplomatic process so illuminated the limitations of human foresight.”
George Weigel, “The End and the Beginning. Pope John Paul II: The Victory over Communism, the Last Years, the Legacy”, Doubleday, New York-London-Toronto-Sydney-Auckland, 2011.