Slighting the Vatican's 'Ostpolitik'

January 1987By A. James McAdams

A. James McAdams, whose name has graced the masthead of the NOR since its inception, is Assistant Professor of Politics at Princeton University. He is the author of East Germany and Detente and is a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

Moscow and the Vatican.  By Alexis Ulysses Floridi, S.J.. Ardis. 279 pages. $23.50.



All churches, like all states, engage in politics. This point is only controversial if we assume that the purposes of a religious institution, such as the Roman Catholic Church, are identical to those of a state. For while the mundane goals of political leaders are relatively straightforward (get elected, make speeches, etc.), Church leaders must always seek to balance the loftier aspirations of the “city of God” off against the day-to-day realities of communicating with the faithful, if not also with their unbelieving neighbors as well. On some issues, where crucial matters of faith and dogma are at stake, the Church can afford no compromise with the institutions of the “city of man,” and must remove itself from the nasty business of playing politics and retire to higher ground. But on other questions involving the simple practicalities of spreading the faith, Church leaders have repeatedly shown themselves to be equal to the greatest power-brokers, wheeler-dealers, and logrollers in history.

Consider, for example, the record of the Vatican’s relations with governments of communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. No one can rest easy with the fate of Christians in this part of the world. Far from living up to their promises of religious toleration, communist leaders have often singled out Christians as direct objects for persecution. While few would deny that the lot of Christians in the Soviet bloc has improved somewhat since the days of revolutionary terror, there are still countless cases where the Vatican has had no alternative but to condemn the practices of communist authorities.

But this does not mean that it has always been easy - or wise - for the Vatican simply to turn its back on relations with these countries. The Church’s leaders have frequently had no choice but to play politics with the very governments whose policies they decry. After all, how can you spread the gospel in a country whose communist regime reserves to itself the right to print Bibles? And where do you house the faithful if that government closes down church buildings and refuses to let you build new ones? Ultimately, you can’t hope to change the policies of regimes you oppose if you refuse to have any relations with them.

Hence, the Catholic Church has tended to pursue a two-track policy toward the communist world, at times directly condemning the authoritarian practices of these governments, but at other times reluctantly seeking a modus vivendi. In his polemical book, Moscow and the Vatican, Fr. Alexis Floridi gives a panoply of reasons for supporting the first side of this policy alone. Few readers will contest his accounts of Christian suffering in the Ukraine or Lithuania, where the Soviet regime has sought to drive Catholics into submission. Even today priests and bishops are arrested, imprisoned, or sent off to worse fates beyond the purview of Western chroniclers; religious education is squelched in the name of a militant atheism. In this respect, Floridi is probably right in suggesting that there have been moments when the Vatican could have been much more deliberate in denouncing some atrocities perpetrated under communist rule.

What is lacking in Floridi’s account, however, is any sense for the second, more practical side of the Holy See's dual-track policy toward communism. It seems as though, for Floridi, every kind of contact between the Vatican and communist regimes is only a vain and cowardly enterprise. In his eyes, ever since Pope John XXIII, the Church has been ruled by a coterie of bureaucrats who are obsessed with detente and Ostpolitik and fail to see that “under the communist boot, nothing changes and nothing moves.” Far better, he suggests, that the Vatican simply resign itself to condemning the practices of these governments than for it to court illusions about changing the communist world.

Thus, Floridi condemns the kinds of political compromises that have allowed the Church to keep operating in the East. Commenting on Lithuania, he notes that “the appointment of new bishops and administrators was possible only because the Vatican accepted the condition of the Soviet government that they should depend on the Lithuanian [republic’s] Deputy for Religious Affairs. The powers of this Deputy are practically unlimited and represent an evident interference in the internal affairs of the Church.” No one can doubt that such a condition must put the Vatican in a terribly uncomfortable position. One can hardly expect the Church to delight in any such diminution of its authority. On the other hand, we still need to know what the Vatican’s options are in such a situation. If the Church refuses to play politics and agree (at least partially) to Soviet terms, how then is it to guarantee the appointment of religious leaders in places like Lithuania? How is it to assure that Soviet apparatchiks will not simply close down the churches altogether, or even square off for open battle with the faithful? Surely, one would not callously wish the fate of martyrdom upon the entire Catholic population of the communist bloc.

Admirably, Floridi’s book is full of accounts of the heroic acts of priests and dissidents who have had the guts to stand up to communist rule and fight for their faith. But it is also worth noting that the one consistently safe refuge for such critics in the past has been the existence of viable religious communities under communism. These churches have never been as independent of government control as the Vatican might hope, and there can be no question that the securing of their existence has involved the Holy See in many an unsavory negotiation. But these efforts, as much as any outspoken condemnations of communist misdeeds, have been instrumental in keeping the faith alive in places where merely political institutions seek to dominate men’s minds.



DOSSIER: G.K. Chesterton



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