The Holy See and thug regimes

The list of grave issues that must be addressed during a future papal interregnum, and by the cardinal-electors in a conclave, continues to grow. 

The finances of the Holy See are arguably in worse shape than at any time since the papal interregnum of 1922; then, money had to be borrowed to pay for the conclave as Benedict XV had virtually bankrupted the Vatican in his efforts to aid refugees and POWs during World War I. Notwithstanding the reforms Pope Francis has put into place, the Holy See now faces a vast, unfunded pension liability; incompetent investment management (and worse) has done serious damage to the Vatican balance sheet; and contributions, not least to Peter’s Pence, are down dramatically. 

Then there is the Church in Germany, many of whose leaders seem bent on transforming German Catholicism into a form of liberal Protestantism. Is there any contested issue on which the great majority of the German bishops, and the lay leaders of the ongoing German “Synodal Way,” have not embraced the secular culture of lifestyle libertinism, rather than trying to convert it? Has the leadership of the German Church completely abandoned Vatican II’s teaching that Catholicism lives within certain doctrinal and moral boundaries? 

There is also the festering wound of clerical sexual abuse, made worse by inept episcopal leadership in responding to these grave sins and crimes. The past several years have demonstrated that this crisis is by no means confined to the United States. In that same period, it has also become clear that too few national episcopates have adopted the practices of transparency and accountability that, despite limits and defects, now characterize the U.S. Church’s response to this societal plague. 

And then there is the Holy See’s “foreign policy” and the assumptions that guide Holy See diplomacy.

How many informed Catholics and senior churchmen are willing to defend the Holy See’s current China policy, which has given the Chinese communist party a leading role in the selection of bishops? Very few, I would wager. Critical voices among bishops and cardinals may be muted, now, out of loyalty (or fear). But they are there, and they will be heard when a papal interregnum permits candor. And what those voices should (and likely will) say is that the current policy is an evangelical disaster. Irrespective of Vatican diplomats’ claim that “something had to be done,” the fact remains that what was done has violated the Church’s own canon law, demoralized Chinese Catholics loyal to Rome, failed to assuage the anti-Christian rancor of the Chinese regime, and created new opportunities for that regime to penetrate and control Chinese Catholicism. All of this has made Catholic evangelization in China far more difficult, even as Chinese Protestant communities continue to grow. 

Then there was the recent situation in Belarus. On August 31, 2020, Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz of Minsk-Mogilev, who had been visiting family in neighboring Poland, was blocked from reentering Belarus (his native land) by the thug regime of President Alexander Lukashenko. Kondrusiewicz had been supportive of the many Belarussians who were peacefully protesting what every objective observer knew was a rigged presidential election in early August of last year. Lukashenko and his thugocracy evidently took offense at this pastoral courage and cooked up excuses to punish Kondrusiewicz by keeping him out of his see. 

The situation seemed to have been resolved when the archbishop was allowed back into Belarus to celebrate Christmas with his people, who received him with enthusiasm and veneration. But then on January 3, the very day he turned 75, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz’s canonically mandated letter of resignation was instantly accepted and an apostolic administrator named in his place. Did the two Vatican diplomats sent to Minsk to negotiate the archbishop’s return to Belarus – neither of whom is renowned for a capacity to stand up to thuggery – agree to a deal in which the Vatican would remove an irritant to the Lukashenko regime, if the regime would provide the fig leaf of a last Christmas in Minsk for the archbishop? It seems more than likely; indeed, it seems probable.

The current Vatican practice of attempting to appease thug regimes in the name of dialogue is doing serious damage to the Catholic Church’s international reputation as a proponent and defender of basic human rights. Even more importantly, it is hurting the Church’s evangelical mission. A Church that will not speak truth to power is not a Church that can credibly proclaim Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14.6). Appeasement never works with thugs, politically. It doesn’t work evangelically, either. 

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”