The Next Pope and Vatican Diplomacy

George Weigel

During a short papal flight from Boston to New York on October 2, 1979, Father Jan Schotte (later a cardinal but then a low-ranking curial official) discovered that Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, had done some serious editing of the speech Pope John Paul II would give at the United Nations later that day. Schotte, who had helped develop the text, found to his dismay that Cardinal Casaroli had cut just about everything the Soviet Union and its communist bloc satellites might find offensive – such as a robust papal defense of religious freedom and other human rights. Schotte took the revised, bowdlerized text to John Paul II’s private cabin on Shepherd One and explained why he thought Casaroli, the architect of the Vatican’s attempt at a rapprochement with communist regimes in the late 1960s and 1970s, was wrong to dumb down the speech.

John Paul looked over the marked-up text, thought a bit, and then took Schotte’s advice. Speaking at what the world imagined to be its greatest rostrum, he would make a strong, principled defense of human rights. And if tyrannical regimes were upset by that, too bad.

They were indeed upset, and their unease was palpable to all of us in the General Assembly Hall that day. But embattled Catholics behind the iron curtain were reminded that they had a champion in Rome who was not going to play world politics by the world’s rules. The Pope was going to play by evangelical rules.

Cardinal Schotte’s recollections of that incident, which he recounted to me in 1997, have taken on a new salience, for Vatican diplomacy seems to be reverting to a Casaroli-style accommodation of thuggish regimes. Earlier this month, for example, a Sunday Angelus address in which Pope Francis would express, in the mildest possible way, concerns about the new National Security Law in Hong Kong and its chilling effect on human rights was distributed to reporters an hour before the noontime Angelus. Then, shortly before the Pope appeared, reporters were told that the remarks on China and Hong Kong would not be made after all.

It is not difficult to imagine what happened: a disciple of the late Cardinal Casaroli likely persuaded the Pope to avoid saying anything that could be regarded as criticism of the Chinese communist regime.

In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (recently published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that the institutional default positions in Vatican diplomacy do not reflect two lessons taught by the late 20th century: the only authority the Holy See has in world politics today is moral authority; that moral authority is depleted when the Church fails to speak the truth to power, especially totalitarian and authoritarian power. The truth can be spoken prudently and in charity; but it must be spoken. If the truth is not spoken, the Vatican tacitly confesses its weakness and is always playing defense on a field defined by the enemies of Christ and the Church.

Recent papal diplomacy has constantly stressed the importance of “dialogue.” And yes, “Jaw, jaw is better than war, war,” as Winston Churchill famously said. But Vatican efforts at dialogue that do not begin from the understanding that authoritarian and totalitarian regimes regard “dialogue” as a tactic for maintaining their power are not going to get very far. The current Chinese regime, for example, is not interested in “dialogue” about or within Hong Kong; it is interested in crushing the liberties it swore it would honor after the city reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. To pretend otherwise makes the situation worse. The same cautionary rubric applies to Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Russia, and other systemic violators of human rights.

In The Next Pope, I underscore that truth-telling in Vatican diplomacy is also essential for evangelical reasons. In countries that systematically abuse their people, the Church’s mission to proclaim the Gospel is impaired when those people do not perceive the Catholic Church as their defender. Thus the next pope, I propose, should mandate a wholesale reevaluation of Vatican diplomacy in the post-World War II period, bringing qualified lay experts into the discussion. That study must include a thorough, unblinkered evaluation of the Casaroli legacy, which remains a force in the papal diplomatic service and the curial bureaucracy – despite incontrovertible, documented evidence that Cardinal Casaroli’s approach to communist powers failed, and in fact made matters worse.

The Holy See’s moral authority, and the Church’s evangelical mission, are at stake.

COMING UP: The Next Pope and Vatican II

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Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous  affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.