In recent weeks, many observers have been puzzled, and some deeply disturbed, by what appears to be an impending deal between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China. The agreement would concede a significant role to the Chinese Communist regime in the appointment of Roman Catholic bishops in China, as a step on the path to full diplomatic relations between Beijing and the Holy See. More than a few questions have been raised about such an arrangement.
Why would the Vatican trust any agreement cosigned by a totalitarian power, given its previous unhappy experiences with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Third Reich, both of which systematically violated concordats they concluded with the Holy See?
Why have the Vatican’s diplomats (and perhaps even Pope Francis himself) dismissed warnings from within China, and from the retired bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, about the negative impact of such a deal on those Chinese Catholics who have remained loyal to Rome rather than to the regime-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association?
Why would the Church violate its own canon law (according to which “no rights or privileges of election, appointment, presentation, or designation of bishops are conceded to civil authorities”) as a step toward full diplomatic exchange with a regime that routinely violates human rights, often with great cruelty?
What has motivated the dogged pursuit by Vatican diplomats of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China over the past four decades?
Answering these questions requires three steps back: first to 1870, then to 1929, and finally to 1962.
In 1870, when the forces of the Italian Risorgimento captured Rome and made it the capital of a unified Italy, the last vestiges of the old Papal States (which once encompassed all of central Italy) disappeared, and Pope Pius IX retired behind the Leonine Wall, styling himself the “Prisoner of the Vatican.” The Holy See, which international law and customary diplomatic practice have long recognized as the juridical embodiment of the pope’s role as universal pastor of the Catholic Church, continued to send and receive ambassadors even as it lacked any territory over which it exercised internationally recognized sovereignty. But Pius’s four successors tried nonetheless to reach an agreement with the new Italian state that would guarantee the pope’s independence from all earthly powers.
That goal was finally achieved by Pius XI in the 1929 Lateran Accords, which created the independent Vatican City State on a 108-acre tract surrounding St. Peter’s Basilica.
But while the Lateran Accords assured the pope’s freedom to conduct his global ministry without interference from another sovereign, the reduction of the pope’s sovereign territory to the Vatican City microstate underscored that, in the future, Holy See diplomacy would have to reply on the exercise of papal moral authority, not the usual tangible instruments of state power.
The largely Italian Vatican diplomatic service never quite grasped this implication of the Lateran Accords, though. Rather, it seems these foreign-policy professionals continued to think that the new Holy See/Vatican City was something like the old Holy See/Papal States: a third-tier European power. And as Italy itself became a less serious actor in world politics, it was natural for Italian papal diplomats to seek some significant role for “Rome” on the global stage, working the system as other third-tier powers did.
Then came October 1962. It has been insufficiently remarked that the opening of the Second Vatican Council — the four-year meeting of all the world’s Catholic bishops that became the most important event in Catholic history since the Reformation and set the foundations for Catholicism’s current role as a major institutional promoter and defender of human rights — coincided precisely with the Cuban missile crisis. Pope John XXIII and the Vatican diplomatic corps were sufficiently shaken by the possibility of a nuclear war that might have ended Vatican II before it got underway that they devised a profound redirection of Vatican diplomacy toward the European communist world. This became known as Vatican Ostpolitik, and its principal agent was the career Vatican diplomat Archbishop Agostino Casaroli.
Casaroli’s Ostpolitik, which unfolded during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), aimed at finding a modus non moriendi, a “way of not dying” (as Casaroli frequently put it), for the Catholic Church behind the Iron Curtain. In order to appoint bishops, who could ordain priests and thus maintain the Church’s sacramental or spiritual life under atheist regimes, the Vatican ended the anti-communist rhetoric that had characterized its public diplomacy in the 1950s, removed senior churchmen who refused to concede anything to communist governments (like Hungary’s Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty and Czechoslovakia’s Cardinal Joseph Beran), discouraged any public role for exiled Catholic leaders like Ukrainian Cardinal Josyf Slipyj, urged underground Catholic clergy and laity to cease their resistance to their local communist regimes, and diligently sought various forms of agreements with communist governments. One premise informing this remarkable volte-face was that the Vatican’s once-harsh anti-communist rhetoric had been at least partially to blame for communist regimes’ persecution of the Church; the theory was that if the Vatican showed itself more accommodating (the buzzword was “dialogue”), such mellowness would be reciprocated.
It wasn’t. And by any objective measure, Casaroli’s Ostpolitik was a failure — and in some instances a disaster.
In Rome, it led to the deep penetration of the Vatican by East bloc intelligence services, a counterintelligence debacle (now fully documented from original sources) that put the Church’s diplomats in an even weaker position in negotiations with their communist counterparts, who frequently knew the Vatican game plan thanks to the work of well-placed moles and informers inside the Roman Curia.
In the countries that were to be the putative beneficiaries of the Ostpolitik, there were no improvements of consequence as a result of Casaroli’s shuttle diplomacy, and in fact more damage was done. The Hungarian Catholic hierarchy became what amounted to a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hungarian state, which of course meant the Hungarian communist party. Repression increased in what was then Czechoslovakia, with regime-friendly faux-Catholic organizations achieving public prominence while underground bishops and priests worked as janitors, window-washers, and elevator repairmen, conducting clandestine ministries at night. The Ostpolitik did nothing to improve the situation of Catholics in the Soviet Union: The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church remained the world’s largest illegal religious community, and Lithuanian Catholic resistance leaders found themselves doing hard time in gulag labor camps.
The Ostpolitik had no serious effect in Poland, however, where the wily primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski and the charismatic archbishop of Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, nodded politely to visiting Vatican diplomats but continued to confront the Polish communist authorities with vigorous public protests when they thought that necessary to preserve the Church’s tenaciously held free space in a communist state. That strategy, in turn, strengthened the most vigorous national Catholic community in the Soviet sphere, even as the Vatican Ostpolitik was weakening local Churches in other Warsaw Pact countries.
When Wojtyla was elected pope in 1978, taking the name John Paul II, the Casaroli Ostpolitik was quietly buried — although the shrewd John Paul appointed Casaroli his secretary of state, thus creating something of a good cop-bad cop strategy. Casaroli would continue his shuttle diplomacy in east-central Europe. But that, John Paul understood, would provide him useful cover as he, using the megaphone of the papacy, boldly challenged communist human rights violations in his pilgrimages all over the world, most notably on his first papal visit to Poland in June 1979, and then in October of that year from the rostrum of the General Assembly of the United Nations. That two-track strategy was instrumental in igniting the revolution of conscience that shaped the Revolutions of 1989 and the self-liberation of east-central Europe from communism.
Yet the lessons that ought to have been learned from all this — that the Ostpolitik was a failure because the appeasement of communist and other authoritarian regimes never works, and that the only real authority the Holy See and the pope have in world politics today is moral authority — were not learned by the heirs of Agostino Casaroli, many of whom are influential figures in Vatican diplomacy today. At Rome’s Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the Ostpolitik is still presented to future Vatican diplomats as a model of success, and at no level of the Vatican Secretariat of State has there been an intellectual reckoning with the evidence demonstrating the failures of Casaroli’s diplomacy.
The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires as Pope Francis in March 2013 has not changed the “Casarolian” cast of mind dominating Vatican diplomacy; quite the opposite, in fact. Bergoglio brought to the papacy a record of resistance to the authoritarian Kirchner regime in his native Argentina, with which he had tangled on several issues. But he had no experience of world politics, and from the outset of his pontificate, Francis made it clear that he believed that “dialogue,” perhaps his favorite word when speaking of international affairs, is possible with the likes of Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad, Nicolás Maduro, and Raúl Castro.
Thus under Francis, the accommodating Casaroli approach to Vatican diplomacy has made a great comeback, while the world-changing achievements of John Paul II, the result of charismatic moral leadership, seem to be virtually ignored by the Church’s senior diplomats. And one result of that comeback is the new démarche with China, which the senior Italians among the Vatican’s diplomats regard as a rising world power with whom they must be a “player.”
John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI, could have had the deal now being proposed by Beijing, or something very similar to it. Both declined, because they knew it was not a step toward greater freedom for the Catholic Church in China but a step toward greater Catholic subservience to the Chinese Communist regime, a betrayal of persecuted Catholics throughout the People’s Republic of China, and an impediment to future evangelism in China. Both may also have weighed the fact that any formal Vatican diplomatic exchange with Beijing would necessitate ending diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the first Chinese democracy in history — and that would be a bad signal to the rest of the world about the Vatican’s commitment to Catholicism’s own social doctrine.
Vatican diplomacy today rests on shaky and insecure foundations — and on Italianate fantasies that the 21st-century Holy See can act internationally as if this were 1815, when Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, Pope Pius VII’s chief diplomat, was a significant actor at the Congress of Vienna. Those shaky foundations and that fantasy are not a prescription for diplomatic success. They are, rather, a prescription for both diplomatic and ecclesiastical failure, which is the likely result of the deal now being bruited between the Vatican and China.
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His 25 books include a two-volume biography of Pope St. John Paul II: Witness to Hope, a New York Times bestseller translated into 14 languages, and its sequel, The End and the Beginning, which documents the failures of the Ostpolitik from once-highly classified communist secret police documents.
This article was originally published on Foreign Policy