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Foreign Diplomats Assess the Vatican’s Ostpolitik

by Tamara Grdzelidze

Image: iStock.com/PhotoBeto

It was a great opportunity to express solidarity to Ukraine by taking part in a panel discussion at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv on July 1. Four ex-ambassadors to the Holy See—Ukrainian,  Lithuanian, EU (originally from Poland), Georgian—were invited to speak about the history and contemporary challenges of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik. Ostpolitik emerged in 1963 as a term to define actions towards normalization of relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Later the term was applied to John XXIII and Paul VI’s efforts to engage Eastern European countries at several levels with the aim of helping Catholics behind the Iron Curtain.  As the panel invitation noted, “Some consider it (Ostpolitik) an ecclesial analog of Realpolitik, a betrayal of values and principles with the hope of achieving doubtful goals; others consider it ‘the art of the possible since it allowed to find a modus non moriendi for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain and the 1960s and 1970s, subsequently contributed to the decline of communism and the democratic transformation of East-Central Europe, and enables continuation of the ecumenical dialogue today.” Organizers and participants of the panel also took seriously another dimension of the conversation: the Greek Catholic Church of Ukraine. The university was built from scratch in the 1990s, soon after the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine could leave behind its underground life.

Relevance of the term Ostpolitik, coined with regard to the communist past, to issues under discussion was challenged in the very beginning, although some of its characteristics are found in the Vatican’s policies towards the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Namely, parallel lines can be traced in going soft on particular principles by the Vatican for the sake of reaching an agreement with the ROC. Another affinity with the original content of Ostpolitik is the present political alliance of the ROC with the Russian state while the latter shows much resemblance to its Soviet heritage. These two understandings are basis for using the term Ostpolitik in this reflection about an interaction between the Holy See and Moscow under the present pontificate, which has reached its peak in recent months. In other words, how does the Vatican sustain Ostpolitik in light of the war in Ukraine?

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