Soviet tanks in Prague's Wenceslas Square.
(Rome) A historical event is still very close in time and yet seems to have disappeared from general consciousness. At the end of August 1968, Pope Paul VI condemned the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which crushed the "Prague Spring".
Paul VI described the invasion as a "serious blow to the international order" in his condemnation and called for "that insight into every motive for the conflict is preferred and that peace can be ensured in the civil coexistence of the peoples affected". At the same time, the head of the Church made a larger sum available to support Czech and Slovak refugees, as the Osservatore Romano reported.
At the same time, the Pope asked Caritas and the international Catholic charities to help the refugees.
On August 21, when the invasion began, Paul VI was just on the way to Bogotá to attend the World Eucharistic Congress. The Pope announced that he would immediately interrupt his visit to Colombia: "We would be willing to give up our trip at once if we knew that our presence and action could in any way help ameliorate the evil that is already afflicting that nation so dear to us". He also said in that first statement:
"And may the Lord of Peace, to whose honor we make this journey, share His mercy with us and restore 'rest of order' to all."
During his stay in Bogotá and after his return to Castelgandolfo, he repeatedly expressed his concern for the people of Czechoslovakia.
In his September 1 address, Paul VI said that the presence of Warsaw Pact troops in Czechoslovakia meant "imposing an alien will on the life of a people." This is "a serious offense against freedom and national dignity and a threat to the security of other nations".
He reaffirmed his “solidarity with those who are suffering” and “the need to reaffirm with renewed energy the moral principles that must protect the dignity of the human person, on which social and political relations must be based.
"Those who suffer violence and those who look on helplessly," Paul VI. continued, “we often experience a sense of helplessness and despair, and then the resort to prayer, which becomes logical and compelling especially for us Christians.”
“God does not abandon human events to a bad fate. May God, who will one day be the supreme distributor of justice, generously enlighten those responsible for the destiny of nations, comfort the weak and make them a people of prophets and heroes. God can always save us.”
For the Vatican, the events of 1968 burst in the middle of its new "Ostpolitik" launched under John XXIII. and was seen as a "learning process" from communism. What Pope Roncalli had initiated had been systematized and rationalized by Pope Montini. The history of the Catholic Church behind the Iron Curtain is one of heroism and tragedy. The Catholics had against them the state power which the Communists used. From the late 1950s onwards, however, they could no longer be sure of Rome's support.
From the outset, some core concepts of communism, such as "atheism", "revolution", "class struggle" and the "non-recognition of private property", were particularly problematic for the Holy See with Pius IX. in the encyclical Qui pluribus and 1864 in the Syllabus Errorum and by Leo XIII. in Quod apostolici muneris (1878) and Pius XI. in Divini redemptoris (1937).
While the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge against National Socialism, which was promulgated in the same year, is still known today, hardly anyone remembers the encyclical against Communism. This has to do with the fact that communist propaganda successfully helped focus attention on the first in order to cause the second to be forgotten.
Pius XII, who was Cardinal Secretary of State at the time the encyclical was published, firmly maintained the Vatican's anti-Communist stance, but under his successor John XXIII. since 1958, the foreign policy of the Holy See had changed. Now, under the sign of "peace", a "normalization" of relations was sought in order to enable the approximately 60 million Catholics under Communist rule to lead a religious life. Paul VI it said in 1965, at the end of the Second Vatican Council, why this Church assembly did not comment on Communism, although this had been desired by many bishops beforehand:
"(...) so as not to provoke greater evil. (...) Also ready to look to the present and future and not to the recent painful past, wherever he encounters effective signs of good will”.
Moscow, through its agitprop departments, has supported the Vatican's "learning process" on how to deal with Communism. The sandwich to which he was even steered still awaits processing. This included the 1963 masterpiece, the publication of Rolf Hochhuth's play "The Deputy", with which Pope Pius XII. was basely discredited for failing to defend the Jews from the Nazi "final solution." In reality, it was about shattering the reputation of the most morally upright anti-Communist figure in the world and the anti-Communism he represented.
The election of John XXIII. meant a paradigm shift, including a move away from open anti-Communism. The new “Ostpolitik” he started was a huge stage victory for the USSR. The decision not to allow the Second Vatican Council to discuss Communism was strategic and exactly what Moscow wanted. There should no longer be a condemnation of Communism like in 1937. Paul VI, who had ruled since 1963, believed in this ironclad turning away from anti-Communism, and thus enabled a largely unhindered spread of Marxist ideas and more or less intensive attempts to unite socialism and Christianity in the Church. The forces sympathizing with the political left were openly advancing, while the official ecclesiastical line, which had lasted until 1958, was put on the defensive on all fronts.
Soviet reports indicate that in Moscow in 1968 it was very well received, for example by its agents at the fourth plenary session of the World Council of Churches, held in Uppsala, MN that summer, that the Vatican, in the run-up to the invasion of Czechoslovakia, remained diplomatically "passive”. This did not correspond to the attitude of the Catholics behind the Iron Curtain, nor to those in Czechoslovakia, although or precisely because the anti-Church measures there after the Communist seizure of power were particularly harsh. Czech and Slovak Catholics supported the "Prague Spring" while Rome stayed away from it.
Paul VI refrained from sharp protests even after the Soviet troops invaded. He focused on peace appeals and words of support for Czech and Slovak Catholics. He avoided naming the aggressors, above all the USSR and other Warsaw Pact states. The Communist "brother states", including the Central Committee of the SED, observed "attempts at the renaissance of the Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia, which must be countered". Moscow accused the Vatican of inciting the Uniates in Ukraine. The Eastern Bloc was anxious, perhaps also concerned, not to allow the conflict to spread to other Eastern Bloc countries.
While the Vatican hesitated, cardinals like the Uniate Ukrainian Slipyj and the Hungarian Mindszenty spoke out loudly to condemn Communism. That was also the reason why these churchmen were not only kept away from official Vatican foreign policy, but also excluded. Cardinal Slipyj, who had been imprisoned in communist camps for 18 years, lamented that Ukrainian Catholics had "no defenders".
Was the Vatican thanked for this attitude? As the Soviet tanks rolled through Prague, Soviet journalists published a kind of “White Paper” on the Prague Spring. In it, the Vatican was named among the “counter-revolutionary forces of world imperialism.”
Text: Giuseppe Nardi
Trans: Tancred firstname.lastname@example.org