The old and new Ostpolitik of the Holy See (I)
by Stefano Caprio*

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 US 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).


(End of Part One)


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