THE VATICAN AND THE RED FLAG: THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF EASTERN EUROPE
By Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch
Geoffrey Chapman Press, London
Available from News Weekly Books for $55.00 plus p & h
Reviewed by R. J. Stove
If we want evidence that British intellectual life (Blairite corruption notwithstanding) still has it all over Australia’s in terms of courage and refined scholarship, this civilised and scrupulous book will provide it.
Though most chapters cover post-1945 affairs, the authors rightly begin with pre- and post-1918 events (without which adequate understanding of the Cold War becomes impossible), and devote particular attention to Pius XI’s reign (1922-39).
After his pontificate’s shaky start – his condemnation of Action Franaise achieved nothing save to split French Catholicism asunder, meanwhile handing opportunities on a plate to future worker-priests and useful Popular Front idiots – Pius XI acknowledged, almost too late, Catholicism’s political weakness. Spain’s and Mexico’s travails alerted him. Well before 1936’s bloodbath, Spanish Prime Minister Manuel Aza–a had rejoiced in his own anticlerical legislation: “With these measures, Spain ceases to be Catholic”. (Two decades beforehand Afonso Costa, Aza–a’s counterpart in Lisbon, had bragged that within three generations Portugal’s religion would be eradicated.)
Pius’ Divini Redemptoris (1937), surely the 20th century’s most courageous single encyclical, contained this crux: “Communism is intrinsicially evil, and no-one who would save Christian civilisation may collaborate with it in any undertaking whatsoever”. Terms plain enough, we might have thought, for even the world’s Jim Griffins to comprehend. But no; the next half-century demonstrated their acumen at bowdlerising – and often at Orwellian reversing of – Pius’ simple statement.
The policy that Divini Redemptoris articulated remained, naturally, a constant under Pius XII. To its language the latter added his own trenchant phrase: “the Church of Silence”, denoting the millions of Catholics handed over (like so many Protestants and Orthodox also) by the West at Yalta to Stalin’s branch of Murder Incorporated.
Long before Yalta, Pius XII’s sufferings had included scarcely credible insolence from Roosevelt, who in a September 1941 letter assured the Pope: “I believe there is a real possibility that Russia may as a result of the present conflict recognise freedom of religion”. (Well, yes, two years later Stalin released 19 emaciated Orthodox bishops from their gulags, that they might elect a satisfactorily timorous Patriarch.)
Pius’ own pedagogic opposition to the faintest trace of parochialism in his flock belongs among his greatest achievements. Scarcely one 1950s Protestant in 500 knew or cared about Romanian Communists’ hideous tortures of the Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand. But every 1950s Catholic, from future duchess to future dustman, learned as a child about the torments of Cardinals Mindszenty and Stepinac; about Fr Miguel Pro’s Mexican martyrdom; and about the anti-Franco, anti-Salazar scuttlebutt which deracinated media tycoons served up, then as now.
Incidentally, Luxmoore and Babiuch fully exculpate Pius from charges of being the Third Reich’s sycophant. In this they concur with the Protestant scholar Owen Chadwick, and with all other historians who have actually studied Pius’ wartime actions, as distinct from relying on B’nai Brith’s propaganda.
The book’s account of Vatican II was possibly harder to write, and is indubitably harder to read: as Anne Roche Muggeridge’s chronicle (The Desolate City) showed, the Council broke too many hearts. Brazilian theologian Plinio Corra de Oliveira compared John XXIII to a shepherd who, however solicitous over his lambs’ bee-stings, omits the smallest action against wolves.
Regrettably, the authors omit this reviewer’s favourite Johannine anecdote: that of the French executive at Vatican Radio who, after voicing his shame at the contrast between Pius’ meticulously-argued broadcasts and John’s folksy fireside chats, walked out of the job with typical Gallic abruptness and was never seen again.
Not that the Vatican’s dŽtente ended with John’s demise; indeed, the present volume’s greatest value lies in its detailed coverage of what Alistair Cooke called “that dead zone between what you can read in the [history] books and what you have lived through”. Who outside specialist circles now remembers such grey Brezhnev-era apparatchiks as Alexei Adzhubei (Soviet), J—zef Cyrankiewicz (Polish), Oskar Fischer (East German), or Gyšrgy L‡z‡r (Hungarian)?
Who even recalls Wladyslaw Gomulka, who for 14 years ruled as Poland’s Stalinist strongman while posing as an anti-Stalinist?
Yet in the present volume all these figures come, if not to life exactly – Marxist devotion had extinguished all their cognitive faculties except that of rat-like cunning – then at least to mind. As do equally forgotten heroes of the struggle against human souls’ engineers: Mindszenty of course, but also the far less known Czech Cardinals Tom‡sek and Beran (Tom‡sek, having begun as a standard-issue yes-man, developed into something of a leader), as well as the Ukrainian Cardinal Slipyi.
Harder to bear for faithful Catholics than even the worst Communist maltreatment was Paul VI’s seeming determination to humiliate them by every possible means and a fair few impossible ones, his public excuses for such behaviour blurring the dividing line between papal primacy and outright papolatry.
No such intellectual confusion afflicted the Communists themselves. “Dialogue with Catholics does not signal ideological compromise or coexistence”, proclaimed Soviet theoretician L. S. Velikovich in 1965. (Nice to see that a few of their lot knew the issues involved, even if most of our lot didn’t.)
No review can indicate this survey’s range: a range achieved without waste of wood pulp, since at 351 closely-argued, lavishly-endnoted pages the publication is decidedly succinct. Repeatedly our authors compel reassessments of figures we thought we knew. (One example among a dozen: those na•ve Anglo-Saxons who still envisage Tom‡s Masaryk as some sort of cuddly rationalist Barry-Jones-style teddy-bear will receive instructive surprises from his vengeful atheistic snarls.)
Occasional factual errors disfigure the text. The authors misdate by six years America’s diplomatic recognition of the USSR; while Admiral Horthy, here described as Lutheran, was actually (like most Hungarian Protestants) Calvinist. A second edition, though, can repair these mistakes; and a second edition there should certainly be.
Of The Vatican and the Red Flag, as of precious little other modern historiography, it can be said: read it, or risk being exposed as forever unfit to discourse upon its subject.