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The Casaroli Myth

The ongoing Roman celebration of the Casaroli Ostpolitik as a triumph for Vatican diplomacy and a model for the future is sheer mythmaking.

Cardinal Agostino Casaroli at the Vatican. (CNS photo from Vatican); right: Cardinal Casaroli meeting with Ronald Reagan as Vatican Secretary of State in 1981. (Jack Kightlinger/Wikipedia)

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 24 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 21st-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.

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About George Weigel 419 Articles
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. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).


  1. Another great piece. We’re very lucky to have George Weigel. A really wonderful piece of writing. Still need a new mugshot though.

  2. Catholic observers recognize that “the vision of Ostpolitik” is only now revealed, in the declaration made by “His Excellency” Sorondo, speaking for the Pontiff Francis: “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” Yes…the brutal Communist totalitarian state is viewed as the social doctrine of “the Church” controlled by The Pontiff Francis and The McCarrick Establishment.

    Such men have done as Pope Paul VI did in his “Reorganization” of the Vatican, and have chosen to make world affairs their primary concern, and subordinated the Faith itself, which shows the priorities of the men of the Vatican Secretariat of State, and their life-long like-minded agents, such as Theodore McCarrick, and the Pontiff he helped to elect, The Pontiff Francis.

  3. Why does Weigel fail to draw the ineluctable conclusion that the “mythmaking” of Casaroli’s Soviet Ostpolitik of “policies of accommodation and ‘dialogue'” serves today as the explicit validation of Parolin’s Chinese Communist Ostpolitik? And what are the roots of either species of this “mythmaking” but Vatican II’s brutal repression of condemnation of Communism and its flaccid “policies of accommodation and ‘dialogue'”?

    • “A Catholicism that has become identified with a discarded communist regime, because the Vatican once conceded the communists a significant role in the Church’s internal life, will be at a grave evangelical disadvantage in the post-communist China of the future, where evangelical Protestants and Mormons will be very, very active. And that evangelical concern, I would respectfully remind Cardinal Parolin, has long been the core of my argument against granting the Chinese communist regime a significant role in the choice of bishops.” — Weigel, May 16, 2018

      “Attempts to defend this shameful Vatican reluctance to support beleaguered Chinese Catholics publicly remain unpersuasive, even ludicrous. Some argue that current Vatican China policy is necessary to regularize the Catholic situation in China, which suffers from a deficit of bishops; how a method of appointing bishops that leaves the opening moves in the process to the Chinese communist party, in violation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (which was given legal effect in Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon Law), is not self-evidently clear. Others argue that the Church must take thuggish regimes as they are and try to create open space for Catholic life under those circumstances; but this makes no sense in today’s Chinese situation, where the Xi Jinping regime uses intimidation and torture to impose on the entire country what amounts to an alternative religion – canine fealty to the Chinese communist party and its maximum leader. As for the risible claim that the arrangement begun in 2018 is an advance because it recognizes the pope’s position as head of the Catholic Church: Of what use is that recognition of the obvious, in the face of ubiquitous regime propaganda touting Xi Jinping as a quasi-divine figure to whose benevolent wisdom all must defer?

      “Like Catholicism-vs.-communism in east central Europe during the Cold War, Catholicism-vs.-communism in China is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. There is no middle ground of accommodation where everyone lives happily ever after. Someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose. The Ostpolitik of the Vatican in the 1960s and 1970s never grasped this; John Paul II did, and the self-liberation of Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries followed in 1989.” — Weigel, Dec 16, 2020

      “Nor are “solutions” to 21st-century dilemmas likely to be found through a stubborn insistence, against all the evidence, that the Vatican Ostpolitik of the late 20th-century was a grand success. It wasn’t. And if the same cast of mind – that accommodating totalitarians by failing to challenge their systemic human rights violations is an effective diplomatic strategy – shapes the Vatican’s China policy today, it, too will be a failure: for persecuted Catholics in China today, for the credibility of the Holy See, and for the evangelization of China in a post-communist future.”— Weigel, Sept 17, 2020

    • Exactly. Fortunately JPII was experienced enough with the commies to create his own – working- Ostpolitik. Greeting from the Czech Rep and thumbs up for George Weigel!

  4. I vividly recall those days of Ostpolitik in the Church. It always felt to me like Rome had abandoned both members of its flock and its principles. It felt like the Vatican was cooperating with evil.

    I was young then, of course. I didn’t understand that the Vatican is, above all else, a bureaucracy. And that bureaucracies tend, above all else, toward inertia.

    Fortunately, the Holy Spirit sent us John Paul II to show us how the Church, acting out of a commitment to principle and truth, is able to exert effective degrees of pressure upon worldly institutions.

    What an irony — what a tragedy — it would be if historians concluded that it was the rank appeasement and accommodation of Ostpolitik that was responsible for the fall of the communist oppressors.

    Because, if anything, through the sixties and seventies, the Church’s policies actually legitimized those ruthless regimes and enhanced their power and their influence.

  5. It is unfortunate that the Church leaders appear to have learned little from failed past policies. This has done no good for religion of any stripe and oddly, has not benefited the governments in question much. A sullen and unhappy population contributes little to making of a strong society. We have seen supposedly strong governments in the past fall mainly due to internal flaws that weakened the structure of society. In China today, President Xi is regarded as a strong man because of his actions in attempting to control all aspects of civil society. He obviously has learned nothing from history or he is so deluded that he thinks he will be the one to command the tide. Ultimately, he will know of the folly of his belief as will those who had cooperated in his efforts.

  6. Make allowances for this because it is not based on facts in hand and it may reflect an over-active ignorance.

    Let us admit for argument’s sake there could be merit in Ostpolitik. Would then the Provisional Agreement be a necessity or the ONLY option within it?

    Would the Provisional Agreement be the best or singular expression of it?

    If there are other expressions for the Ostpolitik, what could they be and how could they be gauged when the Provisional Agreement remains secret?

    And if the Provisional Agreement was crashing the merit in a more general Ostpolitik, what purpose would any of it serve? Or, for that matter, if it were crashing a more general apostolate?

    Presumably the Holy See / Vatican supposes that the Provisional Agreement gains some advantage for those involved within the “circle” of its work? (This has to be a question.) And therefore the secrecy between the strict parties to it is justified?

    But in view of the last two questions, does it mean that things otherwise outside the intended “circle” must be subjugated under the Provisional Agreement in order not to avoid clashes when overlaps occur?

    Should these overlaps occur portending clash, are the effects the same or different 1. if they are solely to do with China, 2. if they might involve other nations and 3. if they involve mixed issues and contents?

    How does anyone measure the Provisional Agreement to know when non-Chinese may be appointed bishops in China, according to the normal record and life of the Church?

  7. Curious how George fails to mention Papa Roncalli and the Vatican II modernists’ insistence on avoiding any condemnation of Marxism in the Conciliar texts…..funny, yet not surprising.

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