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John XXIII and the Cold War.


roncalliON SUNDAY, 27 April, Pope Francis presided over the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. When Angelo Cardinal Roncalli, the Patriarch of Venice and a former Vatican diplomat, was elected pope on 28 October 1958 at age 76, both Time magazine and the New York Herald-Tribune dismissed the assumption that he would just be a “caretaker” pope. During his short papacy (1958-1963), John XXIII earned considerable acclaim, including from non-Catholics (and even a few anti-Catholics), for supporting peace and nuclear disarmament, improving relations with Jews and other religious groups, and convening the historic Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). As the second Cold War-era pope, John XXIII’s attitudes toward the Soviet Union and communism continue to be misunderstood.

Pope John XXIII reigned during some of the most frightening years of the Cold War. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union nearly escalated into nuclear war during the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Under Pope John, the Vatican’s relations with the Soviet Union appeared to improve. In December 1961, he exchanged friendly messages with the Soviet Premier Nikitia Khrushchev. In March 1963, the pontiff received Khrushchev’s daughter and son-in-law in a private audience. These moves led the conclusion that Pope John XXIII was moving away from the “rigid anti-communism” of his predecessors so he could play a more active role in promoting peace in the nuclear age.

Much of the communist world enthusiastically welcomed John XXIII’s final encyclical, Pacem in Terris (11 April 1963). In an interview with Pravda (24 April 1963), as translated by the Current Digest of the Soviet Press (May 22, 1963), Khrushchev praised John XXIII and accurately summarized the encyclical’s points as calling for “an end to the arms race, a ban on nuclear weapons, the halting of nuclear weapons tests, for disarmament under effective international control, for peaceful coexistence among states, for relations of equality among states and peoples, and for the elimination of war psychosis.” Communist Party leaders such as Palmiro Togliatti in Italy, Maurice Thorez in France, and Gus Hall in the United States all said that the pope, with the encyclical, finally made it possible for Catholics and Communists to work together to support peace and social progress around the world after decades of hostility.

The sudden enthusiasm for the pope by the communists and those on the left who had long attacked the Catholic Church as reactionary and pro-fascist alarmed many conservative Catholics such as the late journalist William F. Buckley. If the Catholic Church’s longtime enemies were now on the pope’s side, could it be that he was in the process of selling out to them and even turning a blind eye to the communist persecution of Church that had intensified with the Cold War?

The communist adulation for Pacem in Terris, which ended up dominating how the world press covered the encyclical, overlooked the obvious fact that John XXIII repeated much of what his immediate predecessor, Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), had said throughout his papacy. Of 73 endnotes in Pacem in Terris, 34 cite Pius XII’s addresses and encyclicals, many of which he delivered during World War II.

From the beginning of the Cold War until his death in 1958, Pope Pius continued to repeat his appeals for peace among nations and, on several occasions, supported nuclear disarmament. Eight years before the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the pope, in his 1955 Christmas message, urged an end to atomic tests, warning that they were gradually filling the atmosphere with dangerous “radioactive products.” A few months later, on Easter Sunday in 1956, the pontiff denounced the nuclear arms race as “homicidal and suicidal madness.”

Pius XII may have condemned communism as an ideology, the communist persecution of Catholics and others, and, in 1949, excommunicated Catholics who were “knowingly and freely” supporting communism. However, it certainly did not follow that the pope wanted NATO forces to liberate Eastern Europe and end the Soviet menace by dropping atomic bombs on Russian cities. Likewise, Pope John XXIII’s peace efforts and his cordial contacts with Nikita Khrushchev and his family did not mean that the pontiff was going soft on communism. In 1959, the pope renewed the 1949 excommunication decree and, in January 1962, excommunicated Fidel Castro for persecuting the Church in Cuba. Although both popes held nearly identical views on peace, nuclear disarmament, and communism, Soviet officials explained that John XXIII was “different” and willing to work with them.

Since early 1944, Soviet propaganda bitterly attacked Pope Pius XII, alleging that he had supported Adolf Hitler and Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. In the postwar years, the pope, according to Soviet writers, was busy conspiring with the capitalist nations, including the United States, and other “reactionary” and “antidemocratic” elements to start a new war of extermination against the Soviet Union. The Vatican always denied these charges and pointed to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which led to the invasion and brutal occupation of Poland by both dictatorships in 1939. Communist propaganda and the persecution of the Church in Eastern Europe made it clear that the Soviets had no interest in engaging Pope Pius XII.

Pope John XXIII never modified the Vatican’s attitudes toward communism and the Soviet Union. Instead, it was the Soviets who changed, tempering their long-standing hostility to the Vatican and the Catholic Church for political expediency.

The relationship between the Soviet Union and the Vatican was altered in 1960 by the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president and a vocal anti-communist. During the presidential campaign, Kennedy repeatedly made misleading statements about a “missile gap,” how President Dwight Eisenhower allowed the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities to surpass those of the United States. By suddenly embracing John XXIII as a voice for peace, Khrushchev hoped that the pontiff could be able to persuade the young Catholic president, directly or indirectly, to modify his policies and tone down his rhetoric. If not, Khrushchev could still reap the propaganda benefits of showing that, despite being an atheist, his views were actually closer to the pope’s than the Catholic Kennedy’s.

Pope Pius XII’s reputation suffered while John XXIII’s benefitted, in part, from the odd double standard that the left helped create: defending negotiations with communists as prudent acts of statesmanship while condemning even the slightest contacts with Nazis, fascists, and Latin American military dictators as appeasement, collaboration, and giving moral legitimacy to evil.

Pope John XXIII never modified the Vatican’s attitudes toward communism and the Soviet Union. Instead, it was the Soviets who changed, tempering their long-standing hostility to the Vatican and the Catholic Church for political expediency. John’s successor, Pope Paul VI (1963-1978), kept the Vatican’s relations with the much of the communist world on polite terms. The pope met with the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko several times and granted private audiences to other communist leaders such as President Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia in 1971 and President Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania in 1973.

The cordial atmosphere that the Soviet bloc cultivated with the Vatican provided the freedom that allowed Pope John Paul II to make his triumphant return to Poland in 1979, which inspired millions of Polish Catholics and helped set the events in motion that eventually led to the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. By then, both Soviet and Polish communist leaders were no longer in a position to block the visit without risking serious political consequences and undermining the progress they thought had been made with the Vatican since the early 1960s. Instead of co-opting the Vatican, as some traditionalist Catholics alleged, the Soviet Union’s friendly overtures to Pope John XXIII—and his prudent decision not to rebuff them—actually laid the groundwork for its own eventual demise.

Dimitri Cavalli is a freelance writer in New York City.



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