A Surprising Reversal
THE U.S. overtures to Peking and Moscow were remarkable in themselves. But an even more astonishing change had already preceded this. What?
Think back just a decade or two in the past. Do you remember how, throughout the Western world, Communism was regularly and violently being condemned as “godless, atheistic Bolshevism”?
Who were the chief sources of this denunciation? It was the churches of Christendom, particularly those of the West. Yet a surprising reversal has taken place. To appreciate how big the change has been, consider this:
Religious “Cold War” Against Communism
In 1937, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical (Divini Redemptoris) in which he said: “Since Communism is intrinsically evil whoever wants to save Christianity and civilization from destruction must refrain from aiding it in the prosecution of any project whatever.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), Vol. IV, p. 924.
This was, in effect, an official declaration of war on the part of the Vatican against Communism. What followed?
During the second world war, Nazi Germany suddenly broke its pact with Russia and, on June 22, 1941, attacked the Soviet Union. The Roman Catholic bishop of Eichstätt, Germany, then sent out a pastoral letter calling the German invasion “a crusade, a holy war . . . for faith and church.”—The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (1964), by Guenter Lewy, pp. 230, 231.
Similarly, in Italy, Archbishop Constantini referred to “Bolshevik Russia” as that “boundless land where Satan seemed to have found his instruments and his best collaborators,” and he prayed God’s blessing on the Italian and German soldiers who, “at this decisive hour, are defending the ideal of our freedom against Red barbarism.”—Pius XII and the Third Reich (1966), Saul Friedländer, p. 79.
The German invasion failed, of course, and the war ended with Russia among the victorious Allied powers.
But, if anything, the Catholic Church’s opposition now stiffened. When postwar Italy came to have the largest Communist party outside the Soviet Union, the Vatican issued a new pronouncement. In 1949 it decreed that, not only those enlisting in the Communist party, but even anyone ‘showing favor to the Communist party’ should be excommunicated.
Though this decree was never clearly enforced, a steady barrage of denunciations continued to flow from religious authorities on through the decade of the 1950’s. In 1955 Richard Nixon, then vice-president of the United States, praised the Catholic Church as “one of the major bulwarks against communism.” Though not so prominently, the Protestant organizations voiced similar animosity toward world Communism.
A Religious Turnaround
Then, suddenly, beginning in 1963 a “thaw” set in. That year the icy Vatican-Communist relations began to warm up.
A major sign of the “thaw” came with Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). In it he said, in effect, that world peace could not wait upon settling ideological rivalries, political power struggles or even the triumph of religion over atheism.
Then, to the consternation of conservative elements, the pope followed this up by receiving in private audience the daughter and son-in-law of the then top Communist, Khrushchev.
The next year, on September 15, 1964, the Vatican signed a major agreement with the Communist regime of Hungary—this just fifteen years after the Vatican decree of excommunication against anyone ‘showing favor to Communism.’ Rome now allowed Catholic priests in Hungary to take an oath of loyalty to the Communist government of Hungary.
Further ‘peace feelers’ went out. In the spring of 1966, for example, Pope Paul VI carried the “thaw” along by granting papal audience to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Reporting the audience, Newsweek magazine relates that the pope, “smiling broadly, met Gromyko at the door of the library and held out both hands in greeting.” The years following saw continued Vatican negotiations with Communist lands.
So, now in 1972 when the Peking and Moscow summits took place there was not even a murmur of disapproval from church leaders. An amazing transformation has thus taken place. The “red barbarians” of Communism have suddenly become socially acceptable, respectable. The “godless” ideology of Communism, which holds that religion is the “opium of the people,” is no longer viewed as a serious obstacle to cordial relations.
The changed attitude of the religious leaders has been paralleled by the political powers of the West. In his television address from Moscow to the Russian people, for example, President Nixon stressed that the Soviet Union and the United States should view each other no longer as ‘hostile enemies’ but as ‘peaceable competitors.’
In their “Declaration of Principles” both countries agreed that “differences in ideology and in the social systems [which, of course, includes religious systems and attitudes] . . . are not obstacles to the bilateral development of normal relations.”
What seemed to be mountainous barriers appear to have been hurdled. Attention now focuses on a “European Security Conference,” agreed upon by the world powers for 1973. And the French newspaper Le Monde (June 25-26, 1972) quotes Monsignor Casaroli, head of Vatican diplomacy, as saying that “the Vatican proposes to participate” and is already recommending what the agenda should embrace, including a balanced reduction of the NATO and Warsaw Pact armed forces.
What will the coming months bring? Is what we have seen been just ‘run-of-the-mill’ political maneuvering, mere ‘window dressing,’ or is something big in the making? There is reason to believe the latter is the case.
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Pope John XXIII signing encyclical “Pacem in Terris,” April 11, 1963, initiating the “thaw” in the Vatican’s attitude toward world Communism
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Pope Paul VI continued the “thaw” by granting papal audience to Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko