News of the pope's very prominent role in de facto ending America's long standing embargo against Communist Cuba has caused the secular press, again, to rejoice in the reigning pontiff's accomplishments. The media are comparing Francis' efforts in Cuba to John Paul II's efforts against the Red Russians, disregarding a strong difference in goals.Perhaps, when the writers at the New York Times are not goading on the mayors of that town to ban smoking, they will light up a Cohiba Esplendido in celebration. For those looking to make more serious sense of Francis' international politics, one must look back to the beginning of the 20th century.
Francis is continuing a dangerous and long disproven method of Vatican diplomacy called Ostpolitik. One could seek a formal definition using Mr. Google, but a practical definition would be something like this: whereas in previous times the Church exercised political power through alliances with like-minded and like-oriented parties, she now engages hostile parties directly, making concessions to her aggressors in hopes that said aggressor will be nice. His Traddiness suspects that Ostpolitik has a special appeal to the modern papacy because it disassociates from the now-detested "altar and throne" arrangement of previous times and instead substitutes direct engagement where Churchmen can be assured of their own do-goodism. Benedict XV—along with Pietro Gasparri and Eugenio Pacelli, a disciple of Cardinal Rampolla—tried to end the First World War by his effete appeals and by maintaining neutrality, understandable given the Church's fragile status. Gasparri, as Pius XI's Secretariat of State, ended the Cristero War by forcing the army which had achieved absolute victory to make an unconditional surrender, again to maintain "the peace" despite the fact that the Cristeros were fighting for the faith, although not for the Vatican or the disinterested Mexican episcopacy. Pius XII most successfully practiced Ostpolitik to save nearly 800,000 Jews during the Second World War, leaning on local relations to stop deportation trains, to create false Bapstismal certificates, and to hide Jews in local religious houses. However, in doing so he put the entire Church at risk by not maintaining neutrality and the Church in Europe was more or less destroyed by the War, nominally rebuilt with American money after the conflict. He furtively practiced Ostpolitik with the Russians after the War while publicly maintaining an anti-Communist facade, hence his support for the troubled Josef Cardinal Mindszenty; given America's prominence, he had to tow their anti-Communist line while secretly attempting to make Catholics' lives better behind the Iron Curtain. Unlike his efforts on behalf of Western European Jews, his efforts for Eastern Catholics failed and the Eastern Churches were nearly liquidated; only the Ukrainian Church survived strong. Paul VI continued his mentor's approach with the Russians and maintained the lines of communication they had opened in the 1950s (those Orthodox observers at Vatican II did not appear ex nihilo). The process failed, reunion with the Orthodox never happened, and the anti-religious campaign of Nikita Khrushchev became as active as Stalin's. There is even some evidence that Communists had agents within the hierarchy, which should not be written off as "conspiracy" given that they had agents in every major Western government just as we had agents there. Pope Paul's continuation of Ostpolitik ended the Church's important place in international affairs until the election of John Paul.
Papa Wojtyla may not have been the virulent anti-Communist we like to imagine. His philosophical training was quite tainted by his rearing, which was not his fault. He even had unique travel privileges that his predecessor in Krakow did not enjoy. Still, he wanted to make life better for the Church behind the Iron Curtain and, rather than pick up where della Chiesa, Gasparri, Pacelli, and Montini left off, he began a unique diplomatic approach by paying visits to Eastern Europe, to his native Poland, and by making friends of Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the ideology's chief political opponents. Simultaneously, he subverted the Soviet establishment in the East and strengthened its opponents in the West. If the Second World War and the Cold War taught Wojtyla anything, it taught him a lesson in real power politics.
And now Francis has revived Ostpolitik in dealing with Cuba: secret negotiations with Communists in hopes that the situation will improve. Why did he do this? We can only guess: dislike of the embargo formed by the non-alignment legacy of Peronist Argentina? Fantastical notions of the poor of Cuba becoming wealthy with new trade lines become available? His arrant admiration of Paul VI, the pope he quotes most of all? Was he seduced by the supposedly charismatic Barack Obama? Could the Pope himself still have some hitherto unknown political baggage? We will probably not know until this Pope has passed and the political play in Cuba unfolds. This return to Ostpolitik disconcerts at least this writer, who had happily read a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rapture in the diplomacy of John Paul and Benedict XVI.