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The Vatican and the Red Flag: the Struggle for the Soul of Eastern Europe. (Book Reviews).

THE VATICAN AND THE RED FLAG: THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF EASTERN EUROPE by Jonathan Luxmoore and Jolanta Babiuch London, Geoffrey Chapman Press, 2000, pages 351 and index.

A collaboration between a Polish politician's daughter and a feature-writer for the normally genteel-liberal "Tablet", the present book displays a civility and scruple that unfortunately are very unusual in Australia, not least within mainstream "Catholic" writing.

Though most chapters cover the post-1945 period, 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 Plus XI's reign (1922-39). After his pontificate's shaky start -- his condemnation of "Action Francaise" 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 Azana had rejoiced in his own anticlerical legislation: "With these measures, Spain ceases to be Catholic."

Pius' "Divini Redemptoris" (1937), surely the twentieth 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. But no; the next half-century demonstrated leftists' 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 nineteen emaciated Orthodox bishops from their gulags, that they might elect an N.K.V.D.-controlled Patriarch.)

Pius' own pedagogic opposition to the faintest trace of parochialism in his flock belongs among his greatest achievements. Every single 1950s Catholic, from future duchess to future dustman, learned as a child about the torments of Cardinals Mindszenty and Stepinac; about Father 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 feculent 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 Correa de Oliveira compared John XXIII to a shepherd who, however solicitous over his lambs' bee-stings, eschews 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 detente 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), Jozef Cyrankiewicz (Polish), Oskar Fischer (East German), or Gyorgy Lazar (Hungarian)? Who even recalls Wladyslaw Gomulka, who for fourteen 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 self-serving 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 Tomasek and Beran (Tomasek, 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.

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 naive Anglo-Saxons who still envisage Tomas Masaryk as some sort of cuddly rationalist Barry-Jones-style teddy-bear will receive instructive surprises from his vengeful atheistic calumnies.)

Occasional factual errors disfigure the text. The authors misdate by six years America's diplomatic recognition of the U.S.S.R.; while Admiral Horthy, here described as Lutheran, was actually (like most Hungarian Protestants) Calvinist. A second edition, though, can repair these relatively minor mistakes. 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.

Confronted with the tales of often stirring, always laudable, bravery which Luxmoore and Babiuch recount, Australian readers might well ask themselves: had Soviet troops conquered Australia, which of our own Catholic hierarchs would have opposed the resultant Communist satrapy, and which would have appeased it?
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Author:Stove, R.J.
Publication:National Observer - Australia and World Affairs
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
Words:988
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