The Catholic Church will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council this month — a time of great reform aimed at opening up the Church to the modern world.
To coincide with the anniversary, plenty of reflection on Vatican II is expected, with experts examining the positive and negative fruits of those momentous three years in the life of the Church.
|Four prelates of the Eastern Orthodox Church observe the Second Vatican Council in September 1965 at St. Peter's Basilica.
But one interesting and, some would argue, highly disturbing, aspect of the council tends to be overlooked: the absence of any reference to, or condemnation of, Communism in the Council’s documents, despite the Soviet Union at that time being at the height of its powers.
Many have speculated why, while others have pondered on the impact of excluding any condemnation on today’s Catholic Church.
According to a number of historians, “irrefutable evidence” claims to explain the reasons behind the absence of any reference to Communism in the documents. Pope John XXIII strongly wanted members of the Russian Orthodox Church — then deeply entangled with the Kremlin and the KGB — to take part in the council, and he was prepared to make an extraordinary concession to secure their presence: to refrain from making “hostile declarations” on Russia.
In a 2007 book called “The Metz Agreement,” French essayist Jean Madiran gathers a number of sourced claims, testifying that such a deal was hatched during Soviet-arranged secret talks in 1962. The talks, 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.
Various sources have since confirmed that, once an agreement was reached instructing the council not to make any direct attack on Communism, the Orthodox agreed to accept the Vatican’s invitation to send two observers to the council.
Being a secret, verbal agreement, concrete evidence has largely proved elusive, but Madiran cites a memo, written by John XXIII’s successor Pope Paul VI shortly before the end of the Council.
In it, the new Pope 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 fathers to include a formal condemnation of Communism in the decrees was rejected (surprisingly, Bishop Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, was one of those who voted against it).
Despite the omission, some believe the Second Vatican Council was in fact instrumental in bringing down Soviet Communism. It brought a new emphasis — or new doctrine, as some traditionalists argue — on religious freedom which hastened its demise, largely thanks to the insistence of Bishop Wojtyla.
And, for the first time, it allowed bishops behind the Iron Curtain a chance to meet each other and to talk together outside their countries. “It gave them a sense of influence and unity,” said American theologian Michael Novak, who reported on the entire second session of the council.
Novak added that when they 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.
“A broad alliance was formed of those who loved freedom and wanted to resist the Regime of the Lie,” he said, adding that Iron Curtain bishops “now had close friends in the West and elsewhere whom they met at the council.”
But notwithstanding these positive fruits of the council, some see the omission as having enormous consequences.
“The lack of condemnation of Communism at the council 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,” says Christopher Gillibrand, a respected Catholic commentator in the U.K.
Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, a former archbishop of Bologna, has eloquently summed up just why many find the omission so disturbing. In his autobiography, "Memoirs and Digressions of an Italian Cardinal,” he points out that Communism was “the most imposing, most lasting, most overpowering historical phenomenon of the 20th century” and yet the council, which even 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!"
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek, and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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