Henry Kissinger’s 4 Key Catholic Moments

COMMENTARY: By his own estimate, Kissinger was about the protection and promotion of hope in the midst of geopolitical conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger turns the pages of an ancient book he was just presented with by Pope Paul VI, left, during a special audience on Nov. 5, 1974, in Rome. Kissinger was in Rome to attend the World Food Conference.
U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger turns the pages of an ancient book he was just presented with by Pope Paul VI, left, during a special audience on Nov. 5, 1974, in Rome. Kissinger was in Rome to attend the World Food Conference. (photo: AP photo)

Coverage of the death of Henry Kissinger was slightly less extensive than that of his 100th birthday last May. His centenary marked the last great triumph before his death, an international celebrity turn that included extensive interviews (20,000 words in The Economist) and a valedictory trip to Beijing to commemorate his role in Richard Nixon’s historic opening to China. 

On the occasion of Kissinger’s death, Paul Kengor in these pages wrote a critical view of his 1970s policy of détente with the Soviet Union, drawing attention to differing approaches to the Cold War.

“To be sure, Kissinger was despised, even vilified, by much of the political left, but he was also a source of friction within the right, with many conservatives disliking him and his policies,” wrote Kengor about those who thought Kissinger was too soft on the Soviets.

It’s a complex history. Reagan, too, came in for criticism from anti-communists for his dealings with Moscow — and from Kissinger himself. The former secretary of state took to The New York Times in 1982, lambasting Reagan’s foreign policy as being too soft on the Soviets after the imposition of martial law in Poland. He lamented that “freedom-loving Poles” had looked in vain for help from the West, echoing some of the criticisms Reagan had made earlier of Kissinger’s approach.

As I noted elsewhere, it is significant that the first volume of his authorized biography is titled The Idealist. The ideal of protecting and promoting liberty was always a part of Kissinger’s realpolitik approach. 

About Kissinger, there have already been 46 years of debates about his time in office, which concluded in 1977. On the occasion of his death, it may be of interest to recall four important Catholic moments.


Benedict and Religious Violence

I first spoke with him in 2007 at a Vatican conference, where he delivered a Kissingerian tour d’horizon to members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. At one point, I was startled to find him beside me at a coffee break, and he asked me what I thought of Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg address of the previous year. It had caused an enormous uproar in the Islamic world, as the Holy Father explored the theological roots of religious violence. I would learn later from people who actually knew Kissinger that he regularly did that — ask total strangers for their views.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Kissinger pronounced Regensburg the most important speech given since 9/11, as religious violence could not be overcome only by the tools of diplomatic and military strategy. A change in culture and values required a religious response and a theological critique; Kissinger praised Benedict for being courageous enough to offer one. 

Kissinger had seen how Pope John Paul II — for whom he had great admiration — wielded moral power against the Soviet empire. Perhaps bearing moral witness to theological truths might also be effective in the challenge of violent jihadism. Kissinger held Joseph Ratzinger, who belonged to the same generation of Germans as he did, in high esteem. 


William F. Buckley and Faith

My next encounter with Kissinger was at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral in April 2008, when he eulogized his dear friend William F. Buckley Jr., whose Catholic faith animated the entirety of his life.

“Over a decade ago, Bill and I discussed the relationship of knowledge to faith,” he said. “I surmised it required a special act of divine grace to make the leap from the intellectual to the spiritual. In a note, Bill demurred. No special epiphany was involved, he argued. There could be a spiritual and intellectual drift until, one day, the eyes opened and happiness followed ever after.”

Kissinger spoke then of a “gift” that he had not received. Did he wish that faith — “that special act of divine grace” — might be his? When I asked him about that, he replied that if he were to become Christian, he would be a Catholic, for the “coherence of its teaching” and “stability of its history.” Yet to become Christian requires the gift of faith, “a gift which I have not received.” Some of his visitors encouraged him to ask God for it. If he did, there is no public record of it.

About his own Jewish faith, Kissinger was observant as a young man but drifted away in adulthood. He admired the piety of the devout his whole life, whether Jewish or Christian. Of his own adult practice, he famously wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, that he was “an American first, secretary of state second, and a Jew third.”

Meir replied, “In Israel, we read from right to left.”


Adenauer and Leadership

My only extended conversation with Kissinger was last December, an interview about his recent book, Leadership. His views on the importance of moral witness remained unchanged, and he stressed that churches should offer it.

“The world does not need another leftist NGO,” he commented about the tendency of churches to trade moral theology for social activism. He would have found the Vatican’s NGO turn at the Dubai climate conference regrettable.

About the six leaders he profiled in Leadership — Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Lee Kuan Yew, Anwar Sadat and Margaret Thatcher — he thought that personal religious faith was a key contributor to their capacity to lead peoples toward goals not yet visible on the other side of the horizon.

Certainly it was true of Adenauer, who faced the deepest challenges of any of them, restoring Germany to the family of nations, reconciling with the Allies who defeated it, reconciling with France with whom it had fought three wars in 70 years, and reconciling with Israel after the Holocaust. 

Kissinger’s chapter on Adenauer can serve as an introduction to many who know nothing of the post-war chancellor who faced perhaps the most complex task of any leader of his generation. Arguably the greatest Catholic statesman of the 20th century, Adenauer was praised by Kissinger for his “strategy of humility” — another indication that Kissinger did not regard foreign affairs as an arena devoid of the spirit.


Smith and Reconciliation

The last public speech of Kissinger’s long life was at the nation’s premier Catholic dinner, the Al Smith Dinner in New York. Famous for its prominent guest speakers, Kissinger was invited to speak in October 2023 in honor of his 100th birthday. He had been the dinner speaker 49 years before, in 1974. His topic was “the leadership of reconciliation,” another theme which does not fit easily in the realpolitik box. He had spoken about it before.

“At the 1974 dinner, during a moment of national upheaval, I suggested that ‘a society thrives not on its victories, but on its reconciliations,’” said Kissinger this year, quoting himself from a half-century ago. “That sentiment is still applicable today, amidst international tension, domestic division, and breathtaking technological change. We should remember Al Smith and his enduring spirit of reconciliation.”

“National renewal in our time requires leaders who can channel the crosscurrents of America as Al Smith did,” Kissinger said, as if to add an epilogue on Al Smith to his Leadership book. “In that spirit, let me say a few words about leadership. … The leader achieves consensus by affirming a clear sense of purpose. A view of the future is the only inducement to shouldering the sacrifices that greatness demands.”

Kissinger died discouraged about the state of leadership around the world — and, for that matter, in the Church. He concluded his Al Smith address by quoting, as he often did to Catholic audiences, from the late Holy Father. 

“Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed that ‘diplomacy is the art of hope,’” he said. The same is true of leadership — a great leader is the giver and protector of our hope.”

Kissinger’s complex legacy evades easy resolution. But in his own estimate, he was about the protection and promotion of hope in the midst of geopolitical conflict. It was a vision of diplomacy that, notwithstanding the particulars of disputes in which he was engaged, included a transcendent vision of liberty and peace.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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