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HELSINKI 1975-2005
from issue no. 07/08 - 2005

Agreements about honest and possible things

Thirty years since the signing of the Helsinki Act, an example of foreign policy based on dialogue and realism. It was also signed by the Eastern block countries and the Church used it to better the situation of the faithful behind the Iron Curtain.

by Giovanni Cubeddu

On 1 August 1975 the 35 States participating in the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Helsinki, the CSCE, signed the final Act, still today an important acquisition of international diplomacy. That day all the greatest leaders of the world were there, from East and West. It happened that the young Monsignor Achille Silvestrini was, from the beginning, a protagonist on behalf of the Holy See in the Helsinki process, which in 1955 led to the creation of the OSCE (the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe), and which since then is synonymous with a foreign policy – in which pontifical diplomacy participated fully for a long period – based on realism and dialogue to obtain “honest and possible things”.
Above, from left, Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of the CPSU Leonid Breznev, the US President Gerald Ford and Andrey Gromyko in Helsinki 
for the signing of the final Act of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe

Above, from left, Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of the CPSU Leonid Breznev, the US President Gerald Ford and Andrey Gromyko in Helsinki for the signing of the final Act of the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe

We met Cardinal Achille Silvestrini thirty years from that historic moment.
Your Eminence, how does one go about convoking a conference on security and co-operation in Europe?
ACHILLE SILVESTRINI: In the absence of a peace treaty after the Second World War, things went ahead in a “de facto” situation. The process of political dialogue that culminated in Helsinki wanted to stabilize a context of “possible” relations between East and West, and did so with the famous final Act, that contained ten principles shared by all the participating States.
In practice there was an equilibrium created between the necessities of East and West in Helsinki. For example, if on the one side the affirmation of the inviolability of the frontiers and the territorial integrity of States reassured Moscow, on the other it impeded the Soviets from further expansions, excluding the recurrence of episodes such as the Russian tanks in Hungary or the interventions in Czechoslovakia. In fact, after ’75 there was no other Soviet invasion in Europe.
The Catholic Church participated from the beginning in the CSCE. And your commitment was consecrated in the final Helsinki Act.
SILVESTRINI: The seventh principle, relative to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought and of religious conscience and creed, was an important objective for us. Whereas the West, the “ free” countries and the neutrals, sought respect for the rights of man, we obtained in addition that freedom of conscience, of religion and creed be underlined, by the formula according to which the participating States «recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to practice – alone or in common with others – a religion or a creed, acting according to the dictates of his own conscience».
This had an immediate practical usage?
SILVESTRINI: It legitimated us in the bilateral relations with the participating States in the CSCE, for example with Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, to obtain better treatment of the local Catholic communities. After Helsinki, a signatory country could not refuse a bilateral negotiation with us.
In the Church not everyone was in agreement with trusting in dialogue with the East. Vatican diplomacy experienced, according to an image of Cardinal Casaroli, the “martyrdom of patience”.
SILVESTRINI: Paul VI took care of undoing the knot, in Ecclesiam Suam, when he affirmed that the Church engaged in dialogue in all situations. At the same time the Pope added that in regard to Marxist totalitarian regimes this appeared almost impossible, for two reasons: no common language existed, and in those countries the Church was reduced to silence. Therefore, it was almost impossible to hope in dialogue. Except that the Pope added a reference to Pacem in terris of John XXIII.
SILVESTRINI: «We do not despair», said Paul VI, «remembering what our predecessor John XXIII wrote in the encyclical Pacem in terris, that is that the doctrine of such movements, once elaborated and defined, remain always similar, but the movements themselves cannot but evolve and be subject to even profound changes. We do not despair that one day they may open up to the Church another positive discussion, not that which is the object of our disapproval and our obligatory complaint». Casaroli often quoted this passage of Paul VI and placed the emphasis on the fact that the dialogue was “almost” impossible, not impossible.
What fruits did this testimony of Casaroli’s yield?
SILVESTRINI: It made an improvement easier. If we think that in the pontificate of Pius XII there were violent breakdowns that covered practically the whole of the Stalin period – the trial of Cardinal Mindszenty, the deportation of the archbishop of Prague Monsignor Beran, the exile of Cardinal Wyszynski, the condemnation of the archbishop of Zagabria, Monsignor Stepinac. Then in the ’sixties, Khruschev and Kennedy met and began a dialogue; then there is the Cuba crisis, that was resolved thanks to the appeal of John XXIII of 25 October 1962, in which he asked both leaders to feel responsible for the fate of millions of people in the face of the threat of nuclear war. A process of approach was established in which the Helsinki Conference inserts itself. In Helsinki epoch making changes did not come about, but this work of bilateral negotiations with the Church was encouraged and results were also reached concretely.
For example?
SILVESTRINI: In Hungary there was the problem of Cardinal Mindszenty, and with difficulty Paul VI was able to invite him to leave, at the request of the Hungarian bishops who wanted to reach some modus vivendi with the State.
What did you aim at with this modus vivendi?
SILVESTRINI: First of all to give priority to the dioceses having bishops again, because many were without them. The alternative to this could sometimes have been the “underground Church”, as in Czechoslovakia. But the underground Church could not satisfy the normal pastoral and religious necessities of a Catholic community … So that being able to install bishops there where they had been eliminated was already a notable result.
But was there a risk of electing prelates subservient to the regime?
SILVESTRINI: No, absolutely. The criterion consisted in indicating ecclesiastics not openly deployed against the regime nor servants of power, who possessed however the qualities required in a bishop, that is integrity of life and doctrine, pastoral capacity, and so on. In some countries this was achieved, especially in Hungary. In Poland the situation was simpler, because the power of the Church impeded the government from succeeding in imposing its own candidates. The force of Cardinal Wyszynski, who directed the nominations, placed everything on the resistance of the Polish Church and was a winner. The weakest was Czechoslovakia …
Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, special delegate of Paul VI at the Helsinki Conference

Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, special delegate of Paul VI at the Helsinki Conference

In what sense?
SILVESTRINI: The government wanted to impose its own candidates through the pro-government association Pacem in terris. When an episcopal see was vacant, a capitular vicar was made to be elected by the parish consultants, who according to canon law could not remain for more than three months, and instead went on for years … The curious thing is that, in certain cases, those who were elected like this, went well, they were good bishops, as in the case of Archbishop Gabris, of the diocese of Olomouc. Casaroli knew well that for the moment the results could not have been very much better … And naturally within the Church there was a certain skepticism … I don’t wish to say hostility. Casaroli responded that it had to do with allowing the Church to breathe in such a way that it could resist “until…”, until the moment of political change that is. This was the Ostpolitik when in 1978 John Paul II was elected.
What happened then?
SILVESTRINI: The Polish Pope knew the Helsinki declaration and was using it in Poland to ask for religious freedom. The final Act bore the signature of the Soviet Union and John Paul II used it as an instrument of claim. For that matter, Charta 77 in Czechoslovakia asked for freedom on the basis of the final Act of Helsinki. But Pope Wojtyla naturally gave a new impulse, different.
SILVESTRINI: Up until then it had been as a nagging dilemma. For all the years of the Ostpolitik there was a tight confrontation in the Church … not about the entrenched positions to which the Church was in any case constrained, but about the options of ecclesial politics. No one could say if and when Communism would fall, and in those years we thought that a change would come perhaps only through a war, inevitably nuclear… for the fathers of Vatican Council II, «humanity was in the anguished prospect of not being able to experience other peace if not that of a horrible death», as Gaudium et spes says. And the equilibrium of terror distanced the hope of the liberation of the peoples of the East from their regimes.
The confrontation in the Church therefore?
SILVESTRINI: It was not that between an intransigent and a collaborationist clergy – a very reduced minority and without credibility -, because the positions of communism were so absolute that they did not propitiate yielding or personal compromises. The program of the “demolition” of the Church was pursued so decisively that, at most, the only toehold of hope came from the fact that the real effect of the anti-religious battle turned out to be inferior to that projected. The dilemma however was whether it was of more help to the Church to confront Communism with all out resistance, or whether this resistance, unyielding in its principles, admitted, according to John XXIII and Paul VI, limited agreements about “honest and possible things”.
And on what grounds did you discuss?
SILVESTRINI: We asked ourselves if negotiating could gain breathing space for the religious life or whether it would issue in an illusion useful only to the prestige of the regimes, without lasting results for the Church. Better therefore the challenge – a position of total resistance by the Church that, impavidam ferient ruinae, would one day exit glorious from the test while the whole world collapsed – or an attempt to gather for its own children the scraps that might fall from the table of power? The Church, one observes, more than preoccupying itself with the reputation that history would reserve for it, could not but provide, as a mother, for the actual needs of the faithful. As a mother does: we had to think of those who were living then and not of what the historians would say thirty years later.
This was the pastoral option of John XXIII, that Paul VI made his own, repeating: «We do not despair». It is along this road that we arrive at the Conference of Helsinki. Then the Pope who came from the East is elected.
And there is a change?
SILVESTRINI: First of all Wojytla is a pastor of a Church that has suffered oppressions and injustices, he himself saw and underwent them personally. In the second place, he affirms that human rights are founded in the unique root of the dignity of the person and that choices of conscience, expressions of thought, freedom of association, of work, etc., are inter-connected and respect for them constitutes the verification of the legitimacy of governments. Here again is a global challenge: John Paul II, through the final Act of Helsinki, throws down the gauntlet to these governments of the East because, he writes in Redemptor hominis, they are legitimate only if they respect the freedom and the dignity of the person. In this way the Pope gave impetus to Solidarnosc and inflamed the dignity of a nation that, as Cardinal Wyszynski said, «having had their freedom and sovereignty confiscated, claimed their own historical and Christian dignity».
How would you define in an image the relation between John Paul II and Ostpolitik?
SILVESTRINI: More or less like this: the Pope said: «Fine, you go ahead with your negotiations, meanwhile I will carry forward my challenge from this other side». Pope Wojtyla never intended to substitute Ostpolitik with his challenge, and wanted the negotiations to be conducted to the end.
But the space for diplomacy was restricted however.
SILVESTRINI: It’s true. Further, while Ostpolitik occupied itself with religious freedom, the final Helsinki Act provided a base to challenge the government on social liberties also, as Solidarnosc did. The Quadrigesimo anno points out that the great change happened peacefully, at the level of the free association of the workers. Here we are faced with something much broader than Ostpolitik, which concentrates on the request of a possible freedom, even though subject to conditions, of the ecclesial communities.
This interpretation of Helsinki led to a theoretical elaboration of human rights that deemed humanitarian interference possible and desired.
SILVESTRINI: In the celebrated seventh principle of the final Act, the States recognize «the universal significance of human rights and of fundamental freedoms, respect for which is an essential factor of peace, justice and well-being necessary to insure the development of a friendly relationship and of co-operation between them as between all the States». To say “universal” means establishing a general interest in overcoming the preceding indifference about the internal affairs of a State in the matter of human rights. But human interference is a double-edged weapon.
Who can say that an Islamic country is directly responsible for what happened in London? The situation today reminds me rather of the Red Brigades.
The protection of human rights was invoked in favor of the intervention in Iraq.
SILVESTRINI: To remain faithful to the process of Helsinki and the area of the interests of the Church, it is necessary to look at the decisions then taken in Vienna and in Paris. In Vienna a notion of religious freedom was formulated that was more detailed than any other United Nations document had ever been; in Paris the bases for creating the OCSE were laid, which today should guarantee the application of all these principles for the whole complex of participating States.
What remains of the Helsinki process? Can one think today of revaluing the OCSE?
SILVESTRINI: I would say so. One can begin again perhaps by keeping in mind the message that, exactly thirty years ago, Paul VI sent to Monsignor Casaroli delegating him to sign in Helsinki. There everyone can note that it mentions not only the Christian roots of Europe but also those of reason, culture, art…
The lack of dialogue and insecurity preoccupy today because of terrorism. Certainly Ostpolitik is not applicable to the context of asymmetrical war.
SILVESTRINI: But it is desirable to recover the spirit again, while taking account of the differences. Then it was the sovereign States that had difficulty in understanding each other, and as a rule there weren’t State attacks in others territory, but there was the threat of a possible war. Today also the countries well-disposed toward international “Islamic” terrorism cannot be taken on as particular interlocutors for negotiating a practical action against terrorism. Who can say that an Islamic country is directly responsible for what happened in London?
So then?
SILVESTRINI: The situation today reminds me rather of the Red Brigades. Against the government there was an opposition of a social kind, broad, also extremist, but not violent. Then unexpectedly forms of violence appeared that were motivated by a social opposition, but in reality it was never known what was behind it. For me this is the problem. Today there is a kind of invisible organization that plots ambushes everywhere.

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