Martyrdom has been an integral part of Christian life since the Acts of the Apostles. Yet to many Christian minds, “martyrdom” is imaginatively confined to first-century Christianity—a matter of Richard Burton and Jean Simmons defying Jay Robinson’s Caligula while Michael Rennie (St. Peter) looks on paternally and a chorus of “Hallelujahs” brings The Robe to a glorious Hollywood conclusion. This, however, is a serious misconception of the history and geography of martyrdom. Modern totalitarianism caused an effusion of blood in odium fidei that was orders of magnitude greater than anything experienced before. The Commission for New Martyrs of the Great Jubilee of 2000 concluded that there were likely twice as many martyrs in the twentieth century than in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history combined.
The great majority of these twentieth-century martyrs gave their lives for Christ at the hands of communism. Thanks to the new political situation behind the old Iron Curtain it is now possible to describe this almost-forgotten communist war against Christianity in detail and to unlock some of its once closely held secrets. For this was an undercover war as well as a matter of mass murder: It involved spies and spymasters, moles and agents of influence, propaganda, disinformation, and other “active measures,” just as it did slave labor camps and the bullet in the nape of the neck.
Over the past decade, research has begun in the archives of communist-era governments and secret police organizations in Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and even briefly in Moscow. My work on the biography of Pope John Paul II put me in contact with scholars mining this lode of information, several of whom shared materials and insight with me. Thus, over the past several years, and through access to previously top-secret cables and memoranda, I have been able to “eavesdrop” on Stasi spymaster Markus Wolf and KGB chairman Yuri Andropov as they speculated on the threat posed by the 1978 election of a Polish pope: speculations shaped by the reports of communist-bloc moles inside the Vatican. I have likewise been able to “sit in” on negotiations between the Polish communist government and the Holy See on the terms and conditions of John Paul’s second pastoral visit to his homeland; and I have been able to “watch” an effort by the Suba Bezpieczestwa (or SB, the Polish secret police) to influence those negotiations by trying to blackmail the pope. These newly available materials also shed light on Vatican diplomacy’s efforts to find a modus vivendi with communist governments, even as those governments were intensifying their efforts to penetrate the Vatican.
It’s all the stuff of great espionage fiction. Yet it happened. The way the communist war against Catholicism was conducted, the forms of ecclesiastical resistance to it that failed, and the resistance strategies that succeeded all contain important lessons for the future, even as they clarify the immediate past. That past commands attention and respect because of the vast human sacrifices it entailed. It also commands our attention for what it can teach about twenty-first-century Catholicism’s engagement with new threats to religious freedom.
In a dinner conversation in late 1996, Pope John Paul II’s longtime secretary, Stanisaw Dziwisz, said, when speaking of the Catholic Church’s struggle against communism in Poland, “You must understand that it was always ‘them’ and ‘us.’” That is, the struggle between communism and Catholicism was not a matter of episodic confrontations, nor could it be understood by analogy to a parliamentary government and its opposition. It was all war, all the time.
That was certainly the communist view of the matter. From the beginnings of the Bolshevik Revolution, the leaders of Soviet communism regarded the Catholic Church as a mortal threat to their program and their interests. To Lenin and his successors (including Yuri Andropov, the only KGB chairman to become leader of the USSR), the Catholic Church was a vast, wealthy, unscrupulous international conspiracy whose aims included the demise of communism and the destruction of the workers’ state. In the post–World War II period, when the United States was known in KGB circles as the “Main Adversary,” the Catholic Church was understood to be a formidable ideological adversary. Its influence was feared for what it could do to the Soviet position in various countries of the Warsaw Pact. Its historic cultural links to nationalist sentiment in Lithuania and Ukraine threatened Stalin’s inner empire. And it was known to be a principal obstacle to Soviet global objectives, including the export of Marxist-Leninist revolution to the Third World, especially Latin America.
The communist war against Catholicism intensified exponentially in the last years of World War II as the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) sought to change the mentality of the populations of the central and eastern European countries that were to be brought into the Soviet orbit. It was in these years, for example, that the black legend of Pius XII’s alleged indifference to the fate of European Jewry and his alleged sympathies for German National Socialism was manufactured and disseminated by the Soviet intelligence service. Destroying the reputation of the pope and the Church was thought useful in preparing the ground for the triumph of the new socialist man east of the Elbe River.
In this season of brutality, clergy and consecrated religious men and women throughout the new Soviet outer empire were subjected to harassment, imprisonment, and death, mere months after being liberated from their Nazi torturers. Some of the surviving resistance heroes of the first decade of the communist assault on religious liberty are reasonably well known: the Polish primate, Stefan Wyszyński, who led that intensely Catholic country’s vigorous resistance to communist attempts to make the Church a subsidiary of the Polish United Workers Party; Hungarian primate Jozef Mindszenty, the living symbol of his people’s crushed hopes after Soviet tanks ground down the 1956 Hungarian Revolution; Czech primate Josef Beran, who survived three Nazi concentration camps only to be imprisoned by the Czechoslovak communist regime; the Croatian leader of Yugoslav Catholicism, Alojzije Stepinac, who, like Mindszenty, endured a classic show trial and who was eventually martyred; the Slovak Jesuit, Ján Chryzostom Korec, clandestinely consecrated a bishop in 1951 at twenty-seven, who spent three decades conducting an underground ministry that frequently landed him in labor camps. The most brutal communist campaign against the Catholic Church in the immediate post-war period is not so well-known, however.
It involved the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine, Byzantine in its liturgy and polity but in full communion with the bishop of Rome. Feared by Stalin as the repository of Ukrainian national consciousness and hated by the leadership of Russian Orthodoxy for their adhesion to Rome, the Greek Catholics were caught in a political-ecclesiastical vise that closed on them with lethal force in 1946, when an illegal Sobor, or church council, was held in L’viv in western Ukraine. Staged by the Soviet secret police with the blessing of Russian Orthodoxy’s Moscow patriarchate, the L’viv Sobor dissolved the 1596 Union of Brest, which had brought Ukrainian Greek Catholics into full communion with Rome, and announced that this local church had been “reunited” with Russian Orthodoxy. In one stroke, four million Ukrainian Greek Catholics who declined “reunion” with Russian Orthodoxy became the largest illegal, and underground, religious body in the world. Thousands of Greek Catholics, including numerous priests and all but two of ten Ukrainian Greek Catholic bishops, died in the Gulag.
By the late 1950s, a rough if variegated status quo had been established between the Catholic Church and communism throughout the Warsaw Pact. The Polish Church was getting stronger under Cardinal Wyszyński’s leadership. Hungarian Catholicism was severely weakened by the failed uprising of 1956, while the Church in Czechoslovakia, often functioning underground, was under constant, brutal pressure. The Greek Catholics of Ukraine were worshipping in forests, where they also conducted clandestine schools and seminaries. The Latin-rite Catholics of Lithuania were holding out against relentless campaigns of both Russification and secularization. It was, as Stanisaw Dziwisz said, always “them and us.”
The election of Angelo Roncalli as Pope John XXIII in 1958 marked the beginning of a new phase of this war. Roncalli was concerned that the Church had experienced a certain sclerosis in the latter years of Pius XII. In the first decade of his pontificate, Pius XII had been something of a reformer, encouraging the liturgical movement, giving new impetus to Catholic biblical studies, and trying to get the Church to think of itself in biblical and theological, rather than canonical and legal, categories. If these tentative movements toward reform were to take hold, Roncalli believed, the energies they represented should be focused through an ecumenical council. This papal concern for the renewal of Catholicism’s internal life quickly bumped up against the problem of the communist war against the Church: How were the bishops behind the Iron Curtain to participate in the Second Vatican Council?
This turned out to be less of a problem than anticipated, because the KGB and its sister intelligence services throughout the Warsaw Pact saw Vatican II as a golden opportunity to penetrate the Vatican, deploy new intelligence assets throughout Catholic institutions in Rome, and use the council’s deliberations as a means of strengthening their own grip on restive Catholic populations behind the Iron Curtain. John XXIII’s concerns about central and eastern European participation at Vatican II, and the new pope’s conviction that it was time to test the possibility of a less frozen relationship between the Holy See and Moscow, combined to give birth to what was known as the Vatican’s new Ostpolitik. The Ostpolitik, in turn, seemed even more urgent when the opening of Vatican II coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Where the pope and the Vatican sought a new dialogue in the interests of world peace, however, the KGB and other Soviet-bloc intelligence agencies sought a new beachhead inside Vatican City in their war against the Catholic Church. The atmosphere of cordial hospitality extended by the Holy See to observers and “separated brethren” at the council created an ideal atmosphere for this communist effort to penetrate the Church’s central administration.
Perhaps the most dramatic Soviet-bloc attempt to manipulate the work of Vatican II involved an old nemesis, Cardinal Wyszyński of Poland. During its first two working periods, the Council had debated how it should discuss the Blessed Virgin Mary—through a separate document or by incorporating a reflection on Mary’s role in salvation history into the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church? Colonel Stanisaw Morawski, the director of Department IV of the Polish secret intelligence service, charged with anti-Church activities, saw in these theological debates an opportunity to damage Wyszyński’s reputation in the world episcopate. So, working with theologians who were SB collaborators, Morawski prepared a memorandum charging Wyszyński with doctrinally dubious views of Mary. The memorandum, “On Selected Aspects of the Cult of the Virgin Mary in Poland,” was circulated to all the bishops attending Vatican II, widely distributed in Europe, and regarded as authentic by journalists covering the Council. The Polish primate’s standing at Vatican II was at least temporarily weakened.
The manipulation of theological debates for political ends was but one of the methods used by Soviet-bloc intelligence services during Vatican II. From the beginning of the Council’s preparatory phase, Polish secret intelligence monitored the work of the Council’s preparatory commissions and conducted operations against Polish participants at the Council, including electronic and other forms of surveillance and intensified efforts to recruit collaborators. One well-placed Polish secret police collaborator in Rome, Father Micha Czajkowski (code-named JANKOWSKI), worked with the SB chief at the Polish embassy in Rome and directly with SB Department IV in Warsaw to furnish the secret police and the Polish communist government with regular reports. The evolution of conciliar texts touching on social and political matters was of obvious interest to Czajkowski’s spymasters, but so was the development of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, in which communist intelligence services saw new opportunities to create trouble, sow the seeds of division, and weaken local churches.
The Second Vatican Council ran parallel to the first years of the Vatican Ostpolitik, whose principal diplomatic agent was the Italian curialist Agostino Casaroli. In his memoirs, Casaroli described the countries of the Warsaw Pact in the early 1960s as a “vast, immobile swamp” that had “finally begun to ripple, though only lightly, under the winds of history.” In Casaroli’s view (and, one may assume, that of John XXIII and Paul VI), that immobility could not be blamed solely on the animosity of the Kremlin and its satellites; it also reflected the confrontational approach of Pius XII, whose sharp anticommunist statements allowed the communist authorities to treat any contacts with the Vatican by citizens of Soviet-bloc countries—such as bishops—as acts of espionage. Casaroli also believed that the 1949 Holy Office decree banning Catholic participation in communist parties under pain of excommunication was taken by communists to be an ongoing “declaration of war.”
Casaroli, John XXIII, and Paul VI were also worried about the internal life of the Church behind the Iron Curtain, which, as Casaroli later wrote, was being “suffocated by the coils of a hostile power,” such that it would eventually “succumb to a ‘natural death.’” To prevent this, provision had to be made for the Church’s sacramental life: that required priests; ordaining priests required bishops; and getting bishops in place required agreements with communist governments. So it was thought necessary to find a modus non moriendi, as Casaroli put it, a “way of not dying” until such time, perhaps long in the future, when the Cold War would dissolve as a liberalizing Soviet bloc met an increasingly social-democratic West.
From the communist point of view, however, the Ostpolitik and the general atmosphere of Vatican openness during the Council provided welcome opportunities to penetrate the Holy See while continuing the work of disintegrating the Catholic Church inside the Warsaw Pact. Thus Casaroli’s initial agreement with the Kadar government in Hungary was used by that regime to take control of the Catholic Church in Hungary. Most bishops nominated under the 1964 Vatican-Hungarian agreement cooperated with Hungary’s internal security and foreign intelligence services; by 1969, the Hungarian bishops’ conference was in large measure controlled by the Hungarian state. So was the Pontifical Hungarian Institute in Rome, all of whose rectors in the late 1960s and half of whose students were trained agents of Hungarian secret intelligence. Roman collaborators who informed their masters in Budapest of Vatican negotiating positions from 1963 on put Vatican diplomats in very disadvantageous positions in their ongoing work with the Kadar regime. The most accomplished of these moles, Fritz Kuzen (MOZART), was an employee of Vatican Radio; MOZART helped prepare Hungarian negotiators for years, not least in efforts to get Cardinal Mindszenty out of his internal exile in the American embassy in Budapest.
Even as the Ostpolitik’s early years ran parallel to intensified Soviet persecution of independent elements within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the Soviet government concurrently gave permission for the ROC to be officially represented at the World Council of Churches in Geneva—another opportunity, as the KGB saw it, for disseminating disinformation and propaganda while deploying agents of influence to blunt criticism of the repression of religious freedom behind the Iron Curtain. Later in the 1960s, the Ostpolitik succeeded in gaining permission for a few Lithuanian Catholics to study in Rome. Two Lithuanian KGB agents, Antanas and VIDMANTAS, studied at the Gregorian University, while two others, DAKTARAS and Zhibute, participated in meetings of the Vatican commission charged with the reform of canon law.
In 1969, KGB chairman Andropov authorized a new series of active measures against the Vatican, aimed at convincing the Holy See to cease its “subversive activity.” KGB assets in the ROC with good Vatican contacts (including the agents DROZDOV—the future Patriarch Aleksi II—and Adamant—Metropolitan Nikodim, who would die in the arms of Pope John Paul II in 1978) were instructed to “cause dissension between Vatican organizations such as the Congregations for the Eastern Church[es], the Secretariat for Christian Unity, and the Commission for Justice and Peace.” Adamant was also ordered to warn his curial contacts that he feared the Soviet government would establish autonomous Catholic churches, “independent” of Rome, throughout the USSR. During this same period, the KGB intensified its efforts to destroy the underground Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, charging one of its leaders, Volodomyr Sterniuk, with sexual improprieties; those charges were also leaked to the Vatican.
All war, all the time, indeed.
Prior to his election as pope, Karol Wojtyła was the object of intense scrutiny by both the Polish SB and the Soviet KGB. Like every other seminarian and priest in postwar Poland, Wojtyła had an SB file and an SB watcher from the outset of his ecclesiastical life; the file thickened and the number of watchers intensified after Wojtyła’s consecration in 1958 as auxiliary bishop of Kraków. During the next twenty years, the SB came to loathe and fear Wojtyła even more than they feared Cardinal Wyszyński. It was not a question of Wyszyński losing his edge; rather, the dance between Wyszyński and the regime was one with which both sides were familiar. With Wojtyła, the regime never knew what might happen. And as the archbishop of Kraków found his voice as a defender of the human rights of all, he came to be seen as an even greater threat than Wyszyński.
In November 1973, the SB’s Department IV created “Independent Group D,” which was assigned the task of “distintegrating” Polish Catholicism through a coordinated attack on the Church’s integrity. The leader of Independent Group D, SB colonel Konrad Straszewski, had been the secret-police contact of one of Wojtyła’s colleagues at the Catholic University of Lublin for years. The reports on Wojtyła from Straszewski and other SB agents led Polish prosecutors to consider charging the archbishop of Kraków with sedition on three occasions in 1973–1974. Things had changed since the heyday of Polish Stalinism, however, and communist leader Edward Gierek did not dare do to Wojtyła what his predecessors had done to Wyszyński in 1953. So the surveillance of the archbishop increased, as did the efforts to suborn his associates in the archdiocesan chancery. And then there was the brutality: Msgr. Andrzej Bardecki, ecclesiastical advisor to the lay-run Catholic newspaper Tygodnik Powszechny, was beaten senseless by SB (or SB-inspired) thugs one night after leaving an editorial meeting that Cardinal Wojtyła also attended. Visiting the elderly priest in the hospital the next day, the archbishop said, “You replaced me; you were beaten instead of me.” (Interestingly enough, the SB never attempted to suborn Wojtyła’s close lay friends, thus exhibiting a peculiar communist form of clericalism.)
The SB did not discover the clandestine ordinations of priests for underground service in Czechoslovakia that Cardinal Wojtyła conducted in Kraków. But the secret police did know about, and could not have been pleased by, the archbishop’s increasingly close contacts with lay (and often agnostic) Polish political dissidents in the mid-1970s. At a 1975 KGB-organized conference of Soviet bloc intelligence agencies, summoned to plan further anti-Vatican activities, the Polish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovak secret services all reported “significant agent positions” in the Vatican, while the Hungarians warned that Wojtyła would be an especially dangerous opponent as pope.
Yuri Andropov evidently agreed. Shortly after the election of Pope John Paul II on October 16, 1978, the KGB sent several clandestine agents, known in the trade as “illegals,” into Poland to gather what intelligence they could. One of them, Oleg Petrovich Buryen (DEREVLYOV), posed as the representative of a Canadian publishing company interested in Polish missionaries in Asia and made an assiduous effort to cultivate the new pope’s old friend and fellow-philosopher Fr. Józef Tischner. The Polish SB, for its part, marked their countryman’s election as bishop of Rome by deploying to the Eternal City a particularly sophisticated agent, Edward Kotowski (PIETRO), who, for the previous three years, had been given intense Italian-language training and told to learn everything he could about the Holy See and its ways. Working clandestinely under the cover of a diplomatic posting at the Polish embassy in Rome, PIETRO cultivated an extensive network of Vatican contacts, including men who had at least some access to the papal apartment. PIETRO later told Polish historian Andrzej Grajewski that, during the early years of John Paul II’s pontificate, more than half of the “diplomats” working at the Polish embassy in Rome were in fact working for the SB, as were Rome-based employees of the Polish state airline and travel agency, members of the Polish trade mission to Italy, and various “illegals.”
John Paul II suspected that the Holy See had been penetrated by Soviet-bloc intelligence and changed the papal routine to provide some measure of counter-intelligence capacity. Materials dealing with Poland and other sensitive matters were no longer archived for ready reference in the Secretariat of State; rather, they were kept in the papal apartment, where there was no chance for mischief-makers to prowl about. John Paul also declined to dictate memoranda of conversations with notables such as Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko, evidently concerned that such notes might fall into the wrong hands somewhere along the curial paper trail. So he and his secretary, Stanisaw Dziwisz, got together every night to review the day’s appointments and conversations, Dziwisz keeping notes in a series of diaries that remained under his control in the papal apartment.
Of particular interest throughout Soviet-bloc intelligence was the proposed papal visit to Poland in June 1979. Prior to the visit, the Polish SB mounted an enormous damage-limitation operation, LATO-79 (Summer-79), which managed to insert at least one clerical mole into the Church’s planning commission for the papal visit. On this occasion, the SB worked in close collaboration with the Stasi, whose legendary spymaster, Markus Wolf, had his own intelligence asset in the Vatican: a German Benedictine, Eugen Brammertz (LICHTBLICK), who worked for the German edition of L’Osservatore Romano. While the pope was in Poland, igniting a revolution of conscience that quickly spread throughout the region, the SB deployed 480 agents in Kraków alone to monitor events and cause what trouble they could.
The intensity of concern displayed by the SB and the Stasi before and during the June 1979 papal pilgrimage was matched in Moscow, where the KGB charged the Polish pope with “ideological subversion.” Moscow was particularly upset that John Paul had referred to himself as a “Slav pope”; this led the Soviet communist party’s Politburo to conclude, in what would have been a surprise to Vatican diplomats, that the Holy See had launched a new “ideological struggle against the socialist countries.” Five months later, the Central Committee secretariat of the Soviet communist party approved a six-point plan, entitled “Decision to Work Against the Policies of the Vatican in Relation with Socialist States,” which included an active-measures campaign in the West to “demonstrate that the leadership of the new pope, John Paul II, is dangerous to the Catholic Church.” In this context, “active measures” meant propaganda, disinformation campaigns, blackmail, and an attempt to persuade the world press that the pope was a threat to peace. Soviet fears intensified by an order of magnitude the following year with the rise of the Solidarity movement—an enterprise that Yuri Andropov immediately sought to influence through the infiltration of more “illegals” into Poland. The pope’s warning against an anti-Solidarity Soviet invasion of Poland in December 1980 added yet another item to the bill of indictment that eventually was served on John Paul by Mehmet Ali Agca on May 13, 1981.
The failed assassination attempt was not the end of the communist war against John Paul II, however. That war took a nasty turn during the difficult negotiations preceding the second papal pilgrimage to Poland in June 1983, when the country was still under martial law. Eager to gain the upper hand, the SB decided to blackmail John Paul. The instrument chosen was a fake diary, said to have been written by a deceased former employee of the archdiocese of Kraków during Wojtyła’s archbishopric, in which the “diarist,” Irina Kinaszewska, reported that she had been the archbishop’s lover. The plot unraveled when Grzegorz Piotrowski of Independent Group D, the man charged with planting the fake diary in the home of a prominent Cracovian priest, got roaring drunk after the successful break-in, crashed his car, and told the traffic police what he had been up to. Word of the plot began to leak out of police circles, as it did from the Kraków chancery when the fake diary was discovered and recognized for what it was. Thus the plot to blackmail the pope self-destructed.
The diary affair has something of the feel of the Keystone Kops about it—until one recognizes just how deeply the SB (and the Polish government) feared John Paul II, even in a country under martial law, and how low they were prepared to sink in order to undermine his moral authority. As for Captain Piotrowski, he would reappear a year and a half later—as the man who beat Father Jerzy Popieuszko to death and dumped his battered body into the Vistula River.
All war, all the time.
It will be decades, perhaps centuries, before the full story of the communist war against the Catholic Church is told. Yet given the new availability of materials from communist governmental and secret-police archives, some lessons from this struggle can be suggested. The first involves the nature of the conflict.
Catholicism and communism offered the world two radically different visions of human nature, human community, human origins, and human destiny. These visions were fundamentally incompatible, which explains in part the ferocity of the animus communism directed against the Church. That incompatibility also suggests that the strategic vision of John Paul II, which encompassed the victory of freedom over totalitarian tyranny, was more acute than those who imagined a slow convergence between liberalizing communism and an increasingly social-democratic West. There would be no convergence here. Someone was going to win and someone was going to lose. As it happened, the truth about the human person proved its strength over time. The sacrifice of the martyrs reminds us that that proving involved severe testing and great heroism.
This truth about the nature of the conflict bears reflection when considering the threats to religious freedom and other basic human rights posed by China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba, and by jihadist Islamism (which, in power, takes on many of the characteristics of Western totalitarianism). What lessons might be drawn from experience of the Vatican Ostpolitik in the 1960s and 1970s for the Church’s relations with China, Vietnam, and Cuba today? What lessons might be drawn from that experience for the Church’s struggle to survive in the Arab Islamic world? And, to press the question into territory where Western political leaders do not want to go, does the Church’s experience vis- -vis communism offer lessons about the twenty-first-century Church’s relationship to aggressive, exclusivist secularism and its attempts to establish what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism”?
In reflecting on those questions, it should be recognized that the Catholic attempt to find a modus vivendi (or, in Cardinal Casaroli’s term, modus non moriendi) with communist powers rarely, if ever, paid significant dividends. In fact, the problem of the Church’s relationship with political systems that attempt to fill all space in society long antedates the rise of Russian Bolshevism. Appeasement did not work with Napoleon; it did not work with Mexican or Spanish anti-clerical regimes; it did not work in post-Anschluss Austria; so it should not have been a surprise that it did not work with communism.
The most poignant of the Ostpolitik’s failures was in Hungary, where the Church’s integrity was gravely compromised by the post-Mindszenty episcopal leadership and its acquiescence to the Hungarian communist regime; the effects of that failure are still felt today. The countercase to Hungary was Poland, where history will judge Cardinal Wyszyński a better strategist and tactician than the architects of the Vatican Ostpolitik. Resistance, unapologetic and unrelenting, helped keep Catholicism alive in Lithuania and Ukraine; acquiescence and appeasement were destroying the Church in Bohemia and Moravia until John Paul II inspired the octogenarian Cardinal František Tomášek to become a resistance hero in the 1980s.
Successful resistance, in turn, was based on a strong sense of Catholic identity, coupled with the kind of political shrewdness displayed by Stefan Wyszyński and Karol Wojtyła—a shrewdness that combined steadiness of strategic vision with tactical flexibility. Wyszyński’s attempts to find space for the Polish Church to recover its strength after World War II were not always appreciated by the Vatican of the late 1940s, where the strategic vision was clear—communism must be defeated—but the tactical circumstances in Poland were not so well understood. The situation was reversed in the 1970s, with the Vatican urging tactical flexibility (aimed at establishing formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the Polish People’s Republic) while Wyszyński took a tactical hard line, correctly fearing communist efforts to play divide-and-conquer, with the diplomats of the Holy See as unwitting pawns on the chessboard.
For his part, Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, was shrewd enough to understand that appointing the architect of Paul VI’s Ostpolitik, Agostino Casaroli, as his own secretary of state created tactical advantages for the Church. As the pope preached moral revolution over the heads of communist regimes, speaking directly to their people, Casaroli continued his diplomacy, thus denying the communists the opportunity to charge that the Church had reneged on its commitment to dialogue. It cannot be said that Cardinal Casaroli’s memoirs reveal any great appreciation for this division of labor. In fact, Casaroli’s 1990 praise of Mikhail Gorbachev as the pivotal figure in the Revolution of 1989—in a lecture in Kraków, no less—suggests that this ablest of Vatican diplomats never really grasped the full genius of John Paul II’s approach. Still, John Paul and Casaroli made a formidable team, if not precisely in the way Casaroli (who once said, wistfully, that “I would like to help this pope but I find him so different”) would have wanted.
The Catholic Church’s experience with Soviet communism may also hold lessons for the Church’s relationship with Russian Orthodoxy and the Russian state today. Russian Orthodoxy counts many thousands of noble martyrs among its twentieth-century gifts to God. Yet from the end of the Second World War through the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Orthodox leadership was largely a subsidiary of the KGB. The 1974 “Furov Report” by the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs distinguished three categories of Russian Orthodox bishops; the first category included those “who affirm in word and deed not only loyalty but patriotism towards the socialist society; strictly observe the laws on cults, and educate the parish clergy and believers in the same spirit; realistically understand that our state is not interested in proclaiming the role of religion and the Church in society; and, realizing this, do not display any particular activeness in extending the influence of Orthodoxy among the population.” The bishops in this category included Patriarch Pimen, who refused to invite John Paul II to Moscow for the 1988 celebration of the millennium of Christianity among the eastern Slavs, and Patriarch Aleksi II, the successor to Pimen who refused to allow John Paul II to come to post-communist Russia.
Patriarch Pimen’s praise for the “lofty spiritual qualities” of Yuri Andropov, chief persecutor of Soviet Christians for decades, is an example at the outer boundaries of toadying to power. But praise for the czar of the day is not an anomaly in Russian Orthodoxy history. That pattern of collaboration continues today with the current patriarch, Kirill, whose support for the revanchism of Vladimir Putin has put a considerable strain on relations between the ROC, on the one hand, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox communities in Ukraine, on the other. Kirill’s appointment as an ROC representative to the World Council of Churches in Geneva when he was a twenty-five-year-old newly ordained priest could not have been anything other than the work of the KGB. One hopes that this intelligent, sophisticated man has disengaged himself from his previous political entanglements. But the early years of his patriarchate, with their insistence on certain territories being the exclusive cultural sphere of Russian Orthodoxy, have not been reassuring. Thus perhaps the time has come for the Catholic–Russian Orthodox dialogue to focus on certain basic questions of Church–state relations. Proposals by the Moscow Patriarchate for a joint Catholic-Russian Orthodox “new evangelization” in Europe will likely lie fallow until a mutual baseline of understanding about the proper relationship of Christian churches to state authority, and about the non-ethnically-determined character of the free act of faith, has been established.
Finally, the ferocity of the communist assault on the Church, in which Christians were fed to wild animals and crucified for the first time since the days of Diocletian, offers an important lesson about ultramundane politics wedded to modern technology in societies devoid of transcendent moral reference points that provide a cultural check on state power. The slaughters of the European wars of religion took place almost four centuries ago; the far greater slaughters of twentieth-century communism took place within living memory. That historical fact might usefully be raised in Brussels, Washington, and various European capitals when alarms are sounded about the alleged dangers of religiously informed moral argument in the public square.
The communist war against Christianity was a bloody affair, in which Christian martyrdom reached new heights of sacrifice. That war also involved billions of man-hours of work and billions of dollars of public expenditure and was thus a form of theft from civil society. Deeply committed and politically shrewd Christian pastors and laity eventually won out over communism. The blood of martyrs, however, was the seed of the Church’s victory. Their sacrifice and what we can learn from it about the cardinal virtue of fortitude—courage—must never be forgotten.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. Parts of this essay, which formed the basis of the 2011 Simon Lecture, are based on his recent book The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy.