As the Church celebrates the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, there is one lesser-known—and some would argue highly disturbing—aspect of the Council that has tended to be overlooked: the absence of any reference to, or condemnation of, Communism in the Council’s documents, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was at that time at the height of its powers.
Over the years, many have speculated over the causes of the omission, while others have pondered the consequences, both for today’s Catholic Church and the wider world.
In recent years, the veil of mystery over the omission has gradually been lifted, as historians have uncovered irrefutable evidence explaining how the absence of any reference to Communism in the documents came about.
The omission came as a surprise at the time, as until the Second Vatican Council, the Church had repeatedly spoken out against Communism in its teachings. Its condemnations were clear and unmistakeable, consistent with those of Pope Pius XII, who was unfaltering in his denunciations of Communism until his death in 1958.
In the vota of the Council Fathers—thousands of recommendations gathered from key Church figures just prior to the Council sessions—Communism figured high on the lists of concerns. Indeed for many, it appeared to be the most important area singled out for condemnation.
Historians argue that a number of factors contributed to Communism not being mentioned at all during the Council. The first was the unfortunate timing of the Council. “It was the sixties and a new spirit of optimism hung over the world,” explains Italian Church historian Roberto De Mattei, author of Il Concilio Vaticano II – Una storia mai scritta (Vatican II – An Untold Story). “It was during this period that a ‘thawing’ of realities, already defined by the Magisterium as antithetical, ensued.”
In particular, Pope John XXIII’s last encyclical, Pacem in Terris, is thought to have played a key role in this change of approach to Communism. For De Mattei, the encyclical “proved decisive,” as it gave the impression of “wanting to overturn the Church’s position against Communism, removing, in fact, every condemnation, even if only verbal.” The Vatican’s policy of “Ostpolitik”—opening the Church up to the Communist countries of the East through dialogue—is believed to have found its roots in the 1963 encyclical. It was taken up by Msgr. Agostino Casaroli, who, at that time, was effectively the Holy See’s deputy foreign minister, but who would later become Vatican Secretary of State.
But why would John XXIII allow such a break with the hitherto firm line against Communism? Some believe that he had, if not sympathy, then a predisposition to look upon Communism with a degree of ill-founded optimism.
“One commonly held theory, which one can’t prove, is that John XXIII had good relations with [Soviet President] Khrushchev,” says Father Norman Tanner, a Jesuit expert on the Council at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University. Certainly, it has been recorded that Khrushchev visited the Pope at the Vatican, and that John XXIII was delighted to receive birthday greetings from the Soviet leader when the Pope turned 80. In response, John XXIII asked Khrushchev to demonstrate the Soviet leader’s sincerity for better relations by improving the plight of Catholics—in particular, allowing the imprisoned head of the Ukrainian Uniate church, Archbishop Jozsef Slipyi, to emigrate, a request Khrushchev granted in 1963.
Paul VI also met several times with Soviet officials. These meetings mostly took place after the Council, however, and the efforts were largely in vain: Soviet concessions to the Vatican proved to be mostly meagre in the years that followed.
But another motive stood behind this push towards détente: that of fostering better ecumenical relations with the Russian Orthodox Church. As part of his desire for greater openness of the Church to other Christians and faiths, John XXIII strongly wanted members of the Russian Orthodox Church—then deeply entrenched with the Kremlin and the KGB—to take part in the Council. The Pope also wanted Catholic bishops from Russia and its satellite states to be allowed to attend the Council sessions. It would be “a kind of quid pro quo,” says Tanner. But to achieve these goals, John XXIII appears to have been prepared to make an extraordinary concession: that the Council refrain from making “hostile declarations” on Russia.
In a 2007 book called The Metz Agreement, veteran French essayist Jean Madiran gathers a number of sourced claims, testifying that a deal was hatched during Soviet-arranged secret talks in 1962. The meeting, Madiran says, took place in Metz, France, between Metropolitan Nikodim, the Russian Orthodox Church’s then-“foreign minister,” and Cardinal Eugène Tisserant, a senior French Vatican official. Metropolitan Nikodim was, according to Moscow archives, a KGB agent.
Various sources have since confirmed that an agreement was reached, instructing the Council not to make any direct attack on Communism. The Orthodox then agreed to accept the Vatican’s invitation to send a number of observers to the Council.
Being a secret, verbal agreement, concrete evidence has proven elusive, but De Mattei says he found “a handwritten note” from Paul VI in the Vatican’s Secret Archives confirming the existence of this agreement. Madiran also backs De Mattei’s claim, saying that in the memo, Paul VI stated he would explicitly mention “the commitments of the Council,” including that of “not talking about Communism (1962).” Madiran stresses that the date in parentheses is significant, as it refers directly to the Metz agreement between Tisserant and Nikodim.
The Vatican would firmly adhere to the agreement during the Council, insisting that Vatican II remain politically neutral. Even a petition of more than 400 Council priests, representing 86 different countries, to include a formal condemnation of Communism in the decrees was rejected. The petition, presented during the Council’s final session on October 9, 1965, “was not even sent to the Commission working on the document,” De Mattei says, “resulting in a huge scandal.” Surprisingly, even Bishop Karol Wojtyla, who would later become John Paul II but was then a bishop at the Council, was one of those who rejected the petition.
The result is that the constitution Gaudium et Spes, the 16th and final document promulgated by the Council and intended as an entirely new definition of the relationship between the Church and the world, lacked any form of condemnation of Communism. “The Council’s silence on Communism,” says De Mattei, “was indeed an impressive omission of the historical meeting.”
In view of the current consensus among historians of the existence of this secret agreement with the Soviets, perhaps the more interesting question to ask today is: what effect did it have on the Church and the world from that time on? Did the Council nevertheless help bring about the fall of Soviet Communism, or did lack of any condemnation actually prolong the brutal, atheistic ideology?
Some have little doubt that the Second Vatican Council played a key role in ending the Marxist-Leninist experiment. The post-conciliar Church, argue some historians, featured a new emphasis on religious freedom which hastened Communism’s demise, largely thanks to the insistence of Bishop Wojtyla, who helped convince a wavering Paul VI to sign off on the decree Dignitatis Humanae. And, for the first time, the Council allowed bishops behind the Iron Curtain to meet each other and to talk together outside their countries.
“It gave them a sense of influence and unity,” says American theologian Michael Novak, who reported on the second session of the Council. He adds that when the bishops returned to their homelands, they would set up churches as meeting places for people of all faiths or none, thanks to the Council’s new spirit of openness and dialogue—something particularly true in Poland. “A broad alliance was formed of those who loved freedom and wanted to resist the ‘Regime of the Lie,’” Novak explains, adding that Iron Curtain bishops “now had close friends in the West and elsewhere whom they met at the Council.”
Remaining “silent” about Communism and at the same time being open to dialogue was also seen as an avenue worth trying if, as many thought at the time, Communism would last hundreds of years more (Paul VI did explicitly repudiate Communism in his 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam, although that was not, of course, a conciliar document).
Father Tanner, author of a new book on the Council called Vatican II: The Essential Texts, points out just as there was no condemnation of Communism, neither was there any formal condemnation of any other evil political ideologies in the Council’s 16 decrees. “There are no formal condemnations [of these ideologies],” he says. “There were condemnations of war and so on, but not of Nazism and fascism, which were of recent memory at that time.”
But he concedes that these political movements were different from Communism, which was “still very much alive,” and he adds that “many people and bishops in those countries suffered horrendously.”
“They wanted a formal condemnation and urged the Pope to make one,” he said.
This point was eloquently taken up by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, former archbishop of Bologna. In his 2010 autobiography, Memoirs and Digressions of an Italian Cardinal, the cardinal points out that Communism was “the most imposing, most lasting, most overpowering historical phenomenon of the 20th century” and yet the Council, which contained a decree on the Church in the contemporary world, “doesn’t talk about it.”
For the first time in history, he adds, Communism had “virtually imposed atheism on the subjected people, as a sort of official philosophy and a paradoxical ‘state religion,’ and the Council, although it speaks about the case of atheists, does not speak of it.”
Moreover, he stresses that in 1962, Communist prisons were “still all places of unspeakable suffering and humiliation inflicted upon numerous ‘witnesses of the faith’ (bishops, priests, and laypeople who were convinced believers in Christ), and the Council does not speak of it. And some want to talk about the supposed silence towards the criminal aberrations of Nazism, for which even some Catholics (even among those active at the Council) have criticized Pius XII!”
And if the omission, together with Ostpolitik, was aimed at ending Soviet Communism more speedily than other approaches, some historians doubt that was the case. Church leaders remained incarcerated, tortured, and persecuted by Communist regimes after the Council, and Soviet Marxism endured until the fall of the Berlin Wall, nearly 25 years after the meeting’s final session (and of course Communism continues in China, North Korea, and elsewhere).
“If the Second Vatican Council would have condemned Communism, it would have helped accelerate its decline,” says De Mattei. “The opposite occurred. The Vatican’s Ostpolitik prolonged the survival of true socialism in the East bloc countries by 20 years by providing a foothold for Communist regimes in crisis.”
De Mattei adds: “Today we must ask: were those who denounced the brutal oppression of Communism in the Council, calling for its solemn condemnation, prophets? Or were those who believed, as the architects of Ostpolitik, that it was necessary to come to an agreement with Communism —a compromise— because Communism interpreted humanity’s anxieties over justice and would have survived one or two centuries, improving the world?”
Even in the so-called post-Soviet Communist world, some see the omission of any condemnation as having enormous negative consequences on today’s Church and society. Christopher Gillibrand, a respected Catholic commentator in the UK, believes that the lack of a Vatican II condemnation means in modern times “that the Church’s response has been ineffective to the assaults on human dignity by the arbitrary and all-powerful state.”
Others agree that a failure to single-out Communism for the evil ideology that it is has prevented the Church from recognizing socialist thinking within her ranks. “People are concerned about saving the planet, global warming, and there are some certain legitimate concerns here, but we’ve lost an awareness of the salvation of the soul,” says Edmund Mazza, professor of history and political science at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles. “That’s Communism, that’s socialism, and that’s what [Antonio] Gramsci [one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the 20th century] wanted.”
In wider society, too, Professor Mazza notes that an increasingly secular society is precisely what the Communists desired.
“The main error of our times is that we’ve lost the transcendent,” he says. “What has happened over the last 50 years? The errors of atheism and socialism, a world without God, has ‘Marxized’ the world so that we’re ready to embrace socialism if it’s couched in the right terms.”
“If you need a job, food stamps, money,” he adds, “then when the government promises to take care of you, you’ll go along with it.”