The old and new Ostpolitik of the Holy See

[“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: The more that changes, the more it’s the same thing ;  or, The more things change, the more they stay the same – AQ moderator Tom]

Stefano Caprio
Professor of History and Russian Culture at the Pontifical Oriental Institute of Rome

The Vatican’s latest openings to China resemble the path traced by the old Ostpolitik of Card. Agostino Casaroli. Then as now, the Holy See’s moves have provoked and provoke disagreements, criticism and charges of forgetting the persecuted Church and human rights violations. Casaroli himself had doubts about his effectiveness, although he was eager to implement the dimension of dialogue, rediscovered with the Second Vatican Council. Part One.

Rome (AsiaNews) – In recent months, and perhaps in recent years, the Holy See’s renunciatory and radically negationist approach in its “foreign policy” is prompting more and more questions and perplexities. At times it recalls the Vatican Ostpolitik of the last century, which saw the Church compromising with the most adverse regimes, from Hitler’s Nazism to the Soviet Union of Stalin and Chruščev. Even today the Vatican is launching itself headlong into reckless openings and generic acquiescence, of which the most resounding seems to be the possible agreement on the nominations of bishops with post-modern communist China.  It had not even bent to this in the Casaroli era.

In reality, the new Catholic partnership with the Russia of Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill, with whom Francis met in the surreal scenario of the Havana airport on February 12, 2016, is no less radical. Unconditional support for Russian politics, which has so greatly scandalized the Ukrainian Greek Catholics, who are in perpetual conflict with Moscow, has naturally integrated itself with the desire of the Russians to regain a lost geo-political centrality, to the detriment of the Vatican’s self-denial.

The analogies between the current Vatican policy and last century’s Ostpolitik are noteworthy, but at best partial and perhaps somewhat inconclusive. The Holy See, beginning with the papacy of John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, decided to renounce a great deal to save a little, but above all to save the future. Today this renunciation seems to be not so much the means, as the aim: to open oneself to an unpredictable future, without assigning a pre-established role to the Church. When it was decided to leave the unbending Cardinals Mindzenty and Slipyj in the confinement of the Hungarian embassy or the Ukrainian convent in Rome, and to gloss over the persecutions of Christians to promote the signing of the Helsinki Treaty, the diplomats led by Agostino Casaroli worked to leave Church a space for survival, and perhaps push totalitarian regimes like the Soviet one to reform and abandon conflict with faith and Western civilization.

Post-council and the dialogue

The new season opened by the Second Vatican Council pushed the Catholic Church to dialogue with the Orthodox world and in particular with the Russian Church. Thanks to the Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, to the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, to the Russian metropolitan Nikodim and to the Dutch cardinal Willebrands, who led the Secretariat (later Pontifical Council) for the Unity of Christians for 20 years, there was an unrepeatable opening “Season of dialogue”. The seal was reached on December 7, 1965, at the conclusion of the Council, with the mutual cancellation of the anathemas between the Catholic and Orthodox Church.

The leadership of the Soviet Union seemed to lukewarmly support these openings, hoping to obtain benefits for their own purposes, and the Russian Orthodox succeeded in forming a group of “dialogue specialists” who coagulated around the charismatic and energetic figure of Metropolitan Nikodim and to his closest collaborators, including the emerging and very young rector of the St. Petersburg Academy Kirill (Gundjaev), the current patriarch of Moscow.

Meanwhile, thanks to the overcoming of strong tensions, at the international level a convergence was created on perspectives of peace and drawing closer of those powers engaged in the “Cold War”, linked to the personalities of Presidents Kennedy and Chruchesev and Pope Roncalli: exploiting the propaganda rather than the substance of this convergence, the Soviet leaders launched the slogan of the “struggle for peace” as the great aim of their foreign policy action, and in this sense the international contacts of representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate seemed to offer effective support to the propaganda itself.

This policy of “détente” was also favored by the initiative of some personalities like that of Giorgio La Pira, a Christian Democrat politician then mayor of Florence, a fervent Catholic dedicated to the poor, who personally wrote several letters to Chruščev.

On 25 November 1961, also thanks to the diplomatic efforts of La Pira, a telegram of greetings was sent by Chruchesev for the Pope’s 80th birthday. On 7 March 1963 Aleksej Adžubej, son of Chruščev and director of Izvestija, visited Pope John with his wife Rada, daughter of the PCUS secretary. Paul VI then met Soviet Foreign Minister Andrej Gromyko at the United Nations (October 4, 1965), and then met him again when Gromyko accompanied Soviet President Nikolai Podgornyj on a visit to the Vatican in February 1967, November 1970, February 1974 and June 1975.

The Ostpolitik of Card. Casaroli

Seizing the opportunity offered by international political openings in those years, Vatican diplomacy essentially aligned itself with the line of the European Ostpolitik launched by the German chancellor Willy Brandt. The great interpreter of this phase was Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, as a simple official and later a leader of Vatican diplomacy, who led the Holy See in opening a dialogue with the atheist regimes of Eastern Europe throughout the transition from the post-council until the gorbachevian perestroika. In 1963 he participated in the United Nations Conference on Consular Relations in Vienna, signing the relevant convention on behalf of the Holy See. Departing from Vienna, he made, at the Pope’s behest, two trips to Budapest and Prague to resume contacts with the communist governments that had been interrupted for years. On 4 July 1967 he was appointed secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, which the following year, in 1968, will assume the new name of the Council for Public Affairs of the Church. On the 16th he was ordained bishop by Paul VI in the Vatican Basilica. In 1971 he went to Moscow for the first time. In July 1979 he was created cardinal by John Paul II and appointed Secretary of State. In 1988 he participated in the celebrations for the Millennium of the Baptism of Rus’, where he met Mikhail Gorbachev. On December 1, 1990 he resigned, and died in 1998.

Achille Silvestrini was one of his closest collaborators since the early days and who later became cardinal and today Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.  He describes the approach and hopes with which he gave life to the new Vatican policy of those years: It is a fact that for all the years of the Ostpolitik there was a close and pressing confrontation in the Church, moved by the dramatic question that periodically emerged. This confrontation was played not on the trench positions to which the Church was obliged, but on the level of ecclesial ‘political’ options … The challenge was whether it would benefit the Church more to counter communism with a resistance to the bitter end, or if this resistance , firm in the principles, admitted limited agreements on possible and honest things. It was debated whether the negotiation could create  breathing space for religious life or whether this would only be an illusion exploited by regimes to lend themselves prestige without lasting results for the Church”. Casaroli himself found himself interpreting, with all the ductility of an excellent diplomat and the sincere faith of a great man of the Church, the directives of three popes, very different in temperament, but united in their trust in the “dialogue of charity”, “and untiring in their dedication to the” martyrdom of patience “. Educated in the solid realism of the ecclesiastical tradition, he was already questioning the first openings of John XXIII: “Illusion? Or if it is founded, although tenuous, the hope of new possibilities for the Church? What, precisely, was going through the soul of a pontiff in which, at the end of a long life, the natural optimism, the almost incorrigible trust in the fundamental goodness of man seemed to unite in an almost prophetic vision that surpassed, without excluding or depreciating them, the rational analyzes of experience and diplomacy? “(quotations taken from Casaroli Agostino, Il martirio della pazienza. La Santa Sede e i paesi comunisti (1963-89), Turin 2000).

 

 

 

 

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6 comments on “The old and new Ostpolitik of the Holy See

  1. Criticism of Ostpolitik, persecution and dissent (II)
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    Stefano Caprio
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    Paul VI consistently defended Vatican overtures to the USSR, although they scandalized many in the Church. Benevolent politics did not stop persecutions, which instead intensified. But a form of ecumenical and cultural resistance was born and was lived by Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox in the concentration camps. Part Two of an expert analysis.
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    Rome (AsiaNews)/ 2/20/16 – The attempt by Vatican diplomacy to find its way through the cracks in the wall of Soviet anti-religious politics was also highly criticized both inside and outside of the Catholic Church itself. Many felt it was inadmissible and almost immoral to cultivate relations with those who continued to harshly persecute believers. The case of the Jesuit Father Alessio Floridi, one of the best Catholic specialists in relations with Russia, was a sensational one. Since 1950 he has been the chief expert on the problems of the Russian and Soviet world at the magazine Civiltà Cattolica. Due to his publications he was refused a visa for the USSR. From the mid-sixties his collaboration with the journal ended in controversy over the Vatican Ostpolitik, and led to the publication of his book denouncing Moscow and the Vatican. In the introduction to his book, the Russian dissident historian Mikhail Agursky wrote: “The problem raised by the author is truly tormenting: for reasons still unclear the Vatican, which enjoys such high global moral authority, unexpectedly has arrived at a strange and unnatural association with a force diametrically opposed to those values ​​on which any religion is based and which not only denies them, but actively combats them”.
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    By the mid-seventies, an overview of the Vatican’s now ten-year policy towards Eastern Europe could be traced. The balance was weighed down not only by the criticisms arriving from the East (in 1974 the same primate of Poland, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, expressed his opposition to the institution of a “permanent contact” between the Polish government and the Holy See, almost a premise of future diplomatic relations) and by characters like Father Floridi. The results did not seem satisfactory, despite the great change that had taken place on the Vatican side. In 1975, Paul VI publicly sketched a problematic picture. The Pope expressed his dissatisfaction, even if he reiterated the objectification of Ostpolitik: “If in some cases – he told the College of Cardinals – the results of the dialogue appear scarce, insufficient or overdue, and if others can see in this a reason enough to interrupt it, we instead consider it our serious duty to proceed with enlightened constancy on a path that seems, in the first place, exquisitely evangelical: of long-suffering, of understanding, of charity. Not without hiding, of course, the bitterness and worry that causes us to continue, or the aggravation of many situations contrary to the rights of the Church, or of the human person; and admonishing not to misunderstand our responsible attitude, as if it were a matter of acquiescence or resigned acceptance ” (citation in Il Vaticano e Mosca. 1940-1990, 1940-1990, RICCARDI Andrea, Rome-Bari 1992, page 314).
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    Religious persecution
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    In fact, the Vatican policy did not lead to a substantial change in the conditions of the believers of the countries under an atheistic regime. Their conditions remained one of near clandestinity. Indeed, taking advantage of the overtures of the West and Vatican, those regimes often deliberately exacerbated the pressure and direct persecution of believers, putting the Holy See in a somewhat embarrassing position. The case of the short regency of Khrushchev, who while proposing himself as one of the great protagonists of international détente, at the same time decided to implement the most systematic anti-religious campaigns in the history of the USSR, with the declared aim of “televising the repentance of the last pope “. The situation, however, did not improve after the removal of Khrushchev in 1964; during the long Brezhnevian “stagnation” the control over religious aspirations was continuous and suffocating, and included the institution of special mental psychiatric hospitals where the most active believers were incarcerated.
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    The faithful, however, continued to exist, despite all the harassment and attempts at extermination of the faith. Indeed, one of the effects of the contradictory openings of the post-war period, of the Council and of political relaxation was the emergence of a spontaneous social, cultural and religious protest movement throughout Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, the so-called “dissent”, also identified with the semi-clandestine copying and distribution of literature banned by the state, the samizdat. The dissent took on clamorous public expressions only in countries closer to the West by history and mentality (and mostly Catholic) such as Poland and Hungary, where they were repressed with extreme violence by the Soviet tanks, while in the heart of the USSR empire was channeled mainly towards poetic and literary forms, in which the religious manifestation found natural and lush expression.
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    Religious dissidents, of course, could not understand or justify the acrobatics of Vatican diplomacy, which it often considered a true betrayal of the “Church of Silence” in which faith was preserved at the cost of suffering and humiliation, often risking one’s life. This persecution produced unexpected ecumenical convergences among the representatives of the different Christian confessions: united by an unhappy destiny, in the Soviet archipelago of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant lagers they returned to experience the harmony and fraternity of the Christians of the first centuries, overcoming without effort the most difficult doctrinal and disciplinary differences. In 1972, an orthodox theologian, Mikhail Meerson-Aksenov, published the essay The People of God and pastors, which states that “the Church founded by Christ, one and Catholic (universal, sobornaja) in history has been divided and separated in two (the Western and Eastern Church) and then again into several contrasting parts. The forces of hell cannot defeat the Church in its fullness, but what confession enclosed in itself and opposed to others will dare to demand this fullness for itself? “. In this way, “from under the boulders”, according to Solženicyn’s expression, a new Christian renaissance flourished, by its nature inter-denominational and not very institutional: the local ecclesiastical hierarchies were often imprisoned by the forced collaboration with the anti-religious regime, while the Pope’s emissaries bent down to continuous compromises in the complex search for space to manoeuvre.
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    If in the periphery of the satellite countries the reference point of the Catholics remained the Polish clergy, who better than others had been able to defend the central role of the Church even in the communist society, within the USSR the Catholics clung to the two great islands of Catholicism Lithuanian Latin, which resisted in the same spirit as the Polish neighbors, and the Greek-Western Catholicism of Western Ukraine, which was organized in total clandestinity, having been officially suppressed by Stalin in the pseudo-Synod of 1946 with the complicity of the Orthodox Church itself after the arrest of its leader, Metropolitan Josif Slipyj.
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    While, high-ranking Vatican spheres tried to keep a balance between diplomatic efforts and the defense of persecuted believers, in the West there were many more or less organized attempts to support the “Church of silence” with the material and spiritual solidarity of those who enjoyed all liberties. In fact, in the initial post-war period, associations, cultural centers and lay movements were formed to support brothers and sisters of the USSR and Eastern Europe. These initiatives expanded and deepened their skills in directives and intervention after the Council, adding to the anti-communist resistance, and the preservation of violated traditions, the Church’s ideal of renewal and the ecumenical openness that the Council itself had offered to the whole world.

  2. Quite interesting but heavily labored with conciliar and ecumenist blah blah.
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    Up front, I remain strongly swayed by the distinct “possibility” that J23 and P6 were compromised by blackmail in the latter case and worthless sentimental aspirations in the former. If true that J23 read the Roman Communist periodicals while in office, recommending the papers to intimates (Bellegrande) and Montini’s alleged police record (vice) pre-dating his pontificate (Villa?), then two of the four primary reasons individuals became Soviet agents during the Cold War were sufficiently present to allow reasonable suspicion of compromise.
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    Roncalli was twice called on the carpet for pro-Communist enthusiasm long before he became pope. Either time he could have been busted back to PFC status by Pius XII but it never happened. Also, while serving as “acting” Sec’y of State under Pius. XII, Montini’s own secretary gave the KGB names and entry points of heroic priests Pius XII secretly charged with entering Russia to provide the Sacraments to trapped Catholics. In each case, the priests were detained and subsequently executed. It is reported that the pope became temporarily incapacitated upon learning of what had occurred. However, instead of busting Montini back to PFC, he appointed him archbishop of Milan.
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    Once he became Paulo Sesto, Montini welcomed his traitorous former secretary (now a defrocked priest) and his openly Communist wife back to the Vatican and found the Soviet agent a job right in Vatican City. An aside: Montini met at length with Saul Alinsky through his close friendship with Jacques Maritain, whose praises for the infamous atheist and community organizer could not have been more absurd or hyperbolic.
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    Ostpolitik has been a black mark on the papacy since the 1920s. It marked the egregious decline of papal prestige in the 20th Century, save for JPII’s stance on his homeland – which actually did flummox Brezhnev and Andropov according to KGB records released after the USSR fell apart.
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    One must dread what lies ahead for innocent Chinese Catholics as Jorge’s Sinopolitik catastrophe unfolds. If history someday determines Francis to have been the third, thus far, of six conciliarist pontifex maximi to have been compromised by Communist blackmail, it should not come as a surprise.

  3. P.S. The four classic reasons traitors betray their homeland are ideological, sexual, financial or to forestall highly unpleasant exposure of their personal lives (blackmail). Typically, Communists add a fifth: mortal or economic threats against loved ones.

  4. The Ostpolitik of today and the ‘outgoing’ Church (III)
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    Stefano Caprio – 2/21/16
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    The collapse of Soviet communism gave reason to the Vatican political choices in opening up to Russia and Eastern Europe. The new Ostpolitik announces a new world without geographic or confessional delineations. Pope Francis pushes the Church towards the peripheries and towards the high sea, as St. John Paul II had hoped. Part III of an expert analysis.
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    Rome (AsiaNews) – The collapse of Soviet communism and the “religious renaissance” of Eastern Europe in the era of the Polish Pope seem to have justified Vatican calculations. Yet the victory did not lead to the hoped reconciliation of peoples, nor to the re-evangelization of the secularized world. The conflicts between East and West are more extensive and frightening than ever, not only because of the threats of Middle Eastern terrorism or the North Korean race to nuclear weapons, but above all because of the globalized economic war of the new peoples against the old ones, of China and India against America and Europe, with the endless economic crisis of the financial markets and the unstoppable migration of excluded peoples in all directions of the globe.
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    In this latest edition of Ostpolitik, today the Church seems to be detaching itself from this scenario, as the announcer of a different world, of a different civilization, without geographic or confessional delineations. Rome is no longer caput mundi not because it has been replaced by Moscow or Beijing, but because it believes it has to re-establish itself in a world with no head or center, or perhaps by accrediting new centers and reference points. Everyone can take responsibility for everyone: if Russian Orthodoxy believes the world needs to be saved from moral degradation, the Vatican supports it by contradicting its own more liberal openings; if the neo-Communist China pretends to command the laws of the market, both material and ideological, the Pope supports it, even sacrificing the clandestine structures that have barely survived decades of persecution.
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    All this also happens with the work of the Argentine Pope Jorge Mario Bergoglio who in today’s Catholicism is leading a truly revolutionary movement of detachment from the Italian and European context, in which it has always gravitated.
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    And it is not just a matter of “Third Worldism”, consistent with the paupers choice to bring the Church closer to the “peripheries” of the neediest humanity, but of a true geopolitical conversion: the Roman Catholic Church, as it is customarily defined, is becoming an a-centric Church. It is as if Pope Francis, like his namesake and saintly inspirer, has come to rupture the residential bonds of the papacy itself, dispersing it on the streets of the world as did the medieval Medicean orders with their members.
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    The Church of Francis is actually moving outwards from itself, not only from the Vatican walls which hold its temporal power, but from the demands a of historical-political centrality with which it has exercised itself throughout the second millennium. If the “Byzantine” imperial Church was erased by the Ottoman invasion, and only lives on in the illusions of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate and its ancient and modern tsars, the Roman Papacy as we have always conceived it is disappearing amid the enthusiasm of the few and the indifference of the many. The ship of Peter is being launched onto an open and unknown sea, which , in the end, was the express wish of Saint John Paul II with the evangelical Jubilee motto: Duc in altum
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    Only time will tell if the new Ostpolitik, a politics of self-reduction or the “evangelical growing smaller”, is a true prophecy or a new flight from the world, like that of the Egyptian monks at the time of Constantine. What is certain is that the Church of Pope Francis is forcing everyone to abandon the certainties linked to the positions and outcomes of history, and partly also to the reassuring definitions of dogmas. Perhaps, more than a Pope who comes from the “ends of the world”, he is a Pope chosen by God to guide us towards the end of an overwhelmed and crystallized world, to open ourselves up to a new creation.

  5. Nope.
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    Time does not permit a detailed rebuttal of Mr. Caprio’s closing, conditional thesis, however he appears to not recognize the essentiality of both heroic perseverance and unambiguous PRESENCE necessary to any effective exercise of the Papal Office. In each case wherein the Papal Throne removed itself from Rome, many disasters occurred.
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    The Bergoglian Catastrophe is nothing if not the Head of the Church, Christ alone, manifesting the inevitable consequences of Liberalism, Modernism and clerical surrender to heresy and apostasy from Tradition (which is Revelation itself) ever since Pope St. Pius X’s successors became “more and more ‘tolerant’ and appointed more and more stupid men as bishops” (Canon Gregory Hesse, STD, STL, Secretary to Cd. Strickler).
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    Thus, the “mountain” upon which a pope must die in mortal combat against vast armies of heretics, heathens and very bad Catholics (clerical and lay, alike) is not in France, nor in a skyscraper in NYC nor even a luxurious hacienda.
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    Pope Benedict XVI indicated his gloomy musing that the Church would diminish in size, which prognosis was, naturally -since he was a Liberal, an ingredient in the poisoned cake served by his dopey colleagues to seminarians and pew sitters alike, soto voce, by rabid, anti-Catholic Revolutionaries since the 60s.
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    Since Rome welcomed Euro-American heretics to undermine 1900+ years of clear, precise teaching, when the non-council began, it will be more than fitting that Rome will necessarily be where that War of the Worlds ends, as well. Fini!

  6. OOOPS! It was the late and very, very, very great Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton, STD, peritus to Cd. Ottaviani before and during Vatican Twice, who wrote the line I quoted. Canon Hesse, also late and also very, very, very great quoted it and I mixed that up. Mea culpa.

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