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When I met Cardinal Agostino Casaroli on February 14, 1997, the architect of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik and its soft-spoken approach to communist regimes in east central Europe in the 1960s and 1970s could not have been more cordial. I was then preparing the first volume of my biography of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope, and in requesting a session with the retired cardinal, I emphasized two points: I wanted to understand the theory behind the Ostpolitik, and I was eager to learn Casaroli’s impressions of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła before the archbishop of Kraków became pope. We spoke for almost two hours, and as I look back over my notes from that encounter, I still find the cardinal’s observations fascinating.

Interestingly, he expressed admiration for Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, who was beatified on September 12. The two men had battled for years—Wyszyński thought the Ostpolitik singularly ill-advised—but Casaroli went out of his way to praise the Polish primate, whom he dubbed “a real prince . . . although he came from a rather poor family.” What the Vatican diplomat admired in Wyszyński, it seemed, was the latter’s acute tactical sense. Thus, at one point the cardinal said that the primate was “like one of those boys’ toys that you wind up”—and then it stops just before crashing (a maneuver Casaroli illustrated by walking his fingers to the edge of the coffee table between us). As for the man who made him secretary of state of the Holy See, Casaroli thought “Poland was too small for the large personality of Cardinal Wojtyła [which was] more fitting for a pope.”

Cardinal Casaroli discussed at length his relationship with Pope Paul VI, portraits and photographs of whom were amply displayed throughout the cardinal’s apartment in the Palazzina dell’Arciprete. The Ostpolitik Casaroli conducted for Pope Paul began with a premise and a question: Saving the Church behind the Iron Curtain required Catholics’ access to the sacraments; but how best to sustain that access under totalitarianism? The Ostpolitik’s answer followed: Access to the sacraments required priests; ordaining priests required bishops; getting bishops in place meant making deals with communist regimes; getting those deals meant avoiding rhetorical confrontations. Paul VI understood that this was “not a glorious policy” (as he once put it to Casaroli). “It was hard for [Pope Paul] not to speak out openly and strongly” in defense of religious freedom, Casaroli recalled; self-censoring was a “torment for him.” Paul VI would often say, of various situations of persecution behind the Iron Curtain, “This is impossible, I have to say something.” But the pope remained “faithful to the vision” of the Ostpolitik, although that required Casaroli to “restrain” him, and “this was an agony for us.” Unsurprisingly, Casaroli called his posthumously published memoir The Martyrdom of Patience.

Whatever its intentions, that strategy failed to create a viable Catholic situation behind the Iron Curtain. And the claim still heard in Rome that the Casaroli Ostpolitik was a great success, which paved the way for the non-violent Revolution of 1989 and the communist collapse in east central Europe, has no foundation in historical reality. The Ostpolitik turned the Catholic Church in Hungary into a virtual subsidiary of the Hungarian communist party and state. The Ostpolitik demoralized the living parts of the Church in what was then Czechoslovakia. It unnecessarily complicated the Polish Church’s situation. And it gave maneuvering room throughout the region to faux Catholic organizations composed of supporters and fellow travelers of communist regimes. Those were the realities on the ground. Every serious student of the period knows this. 

The Ostpolitik also provided opportunities for communist intelligence services to penetrate the Vatican and further compromise the Holy See’s negotiating positions: a nasty business I documented in the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning, using original materials from the archives of the KGB, the German Stasi, the Polish SB, and others.  

I was grateful for Cardinal Casaroli’s courtesy when we met twenty-four years ago. And while I confess that, unlike his recent papal reviewer, I found his memoir uninformative, I bear him no animus. Nonetheless, the ongoing Roman celebration of the Casaroli Ostpolitik as a triumph for Vatican diplomacy and a model for the future is sheer mythmaking—and damaging mythmaking at that. For that mythology shapes twenty-first-century Vatican policies of accommodation and “dialogue” that undercut the Catholic Church’s moral witness against repression in Hong Kong, China, Venezuela, Belarus, Cuba, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. 

The persecuted Church deserves better. So does a world in dire need of moral clarity.   

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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Photo by Barbara Bartkowiak via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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