An eminent distortion of history

As the world marked the silver anniversary of the Polish elections of June 1989, which eventually brought to power the first non-communist Polish prime minister since the Second World War, a conference met at the Vatican to consider “The Church in the Moment of Change in 1980-1989 in East Central Europe.” (The habit of devising succinct, punchy titles is not overly-developed in Rome.) There were moving testimonies, by former Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa and from Ukrainians who are living a similar drama today. And then there was an address by the former cardinal secretary of state (and current dean of the College of Cardinals), Angelo Sodano.

The burden of Cardinal Sodano’s remarks was that John Paul II’s achievements in central and eastern Europe in the 1980s had been “prepared” by the Vatican’s Ostpolitik in the 1970s, as conducted by Pope Paul VI, his chief diplomatic agent, Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, and Casaroli’s principal deputy, Msgr. Achille Silvestrini (both of whom became cardinals). Cardinal Sodano laid particular emphasis on Paul VI’s 1977 meeting with Polish communist party leader Edward Gierek and the Casaroli/Silvestrini conversations with Polish politburo member Stefan Olszowski. All of this, Sodano concluded, was like John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord.

Outside certain Italian circles, it would be difficult to find a knowledgeable historian who believes that any of that analysis is sustainable.

The Ostpolitik of Paul VI (who worried that he was not conducting a “policy of glory”) was based on the premise that the Cold War division of Europe would be a feature of the international landscape for decades, if not centuries; that the Church had to “save what could be saved” while making whatever deals it could with communist governments; and that Catholic criticism of the human rights violations of communist regimes should be muted. The results of this strategy included the effective destruction of the Church in Hungary, whose leadership became a subsidiary of the Hungarian communist party; the thorough penetration of the Vatican by Warsaw Pact intelligence agencies (to the benefit of communist negotiators); and the undercutting of Catholic leaders in Poland and in what was then Czechoslovakia.

John Paul II’s approach to east central Europe was based on different premises: that the post-war division of Europe was immoral and historically artificial; that communist violations of basic human rights had to be named for what they were; and that the “captive nations” could eventually find tools of resistance that communism could not match, if they reclaimed the religious, moral, and cultural truth about themselves and lived those truths without fear. John Paul shrewdly let the Casaroli/Silvestrini diplomacy continue. But behind that clever façade—“See, nothing has changed!”—the Polish pope led a morally-driven campaign of resistance to communism that was vindicated in the Revolution of 1989: a complex historical event, to be sure, but one for which the Vatican Ostpolitik of the 1970s can credibly claim no credit.

The refusal of Italian curial diplomats like Cardinal Sodano to recognize the truth of the Ostpolitik’s sad effects on the security and integrity of the Holy See itself is especially unfortunate. The deep penetration of the Vatican by Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies has been documented in numerous scholarly studies, many of which are cited in the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning (which has been available in a fine Italian translation for two years). When intelligent men like Cardinal Sodano—who is not alone among his countrymen in defending the Ostpolitk—fail to reckon with the ample documentary evidence of what was in fact going on in the 1970s, between the Vatican and communist governments in east central Europe, one has to assume that something other than concern for the historical record is afoot.

What is going on, I suggest, is an untoward national hubris married to the defense of an outdated model of the Church’s role in world affairs: a model that worked reasonably well at the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna but that came close to causing disaster in the 1970s.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash