Was Cardinal Wyszyński’s Approach to Communism a Guide About How the Vatican Should Engage With China?

COMMENTARY: The Chinese regime’s unilateral appointment of a new bishop for Wuhan invites reflection upon how the Church deals with totalitarian regimes.

A monument in the courtyard of the the metropolitan curia in Lublin, Poland, commemorates Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who will be beatified Sept. 12 in Warsaw
A monument in the courtyard of the the metropolitan curia in Lublin, Poland, commemorates Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, who will be beatified Sept. 12 in Warsaw (photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via AP / Associated Press)

The recent ordination of a new bishop for Wuhan, China, has drawn attention to the still-unpublished accord between the Holy See and China on the appointment of bishops. The agreement is de facto with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which holds authority over all religious affairs in China.

There are few details, but AsiaNews, a respected Catholic news source, is reporting that the CCP selected only one candidate for the post, and Pope Francis approved it. There also appears to be a dispute about the territory of the Wuhan Diocese, as the Chinese regime amalgamated several dioceses without Holy See approval.

Other reporting, drawing upon confidential sources in several departments of the Roman Curia, suggests that the CCP is proceeding as it wishes, with minimal, or perhaps no, consultation with Rome. Indeed, it is increasingly plausible that Pope Francis has decided to accept the CCP’s “effective control” over episcopal appointments in China.

All of which invites reflection upon how the Church deals with totalitarian regimes. The beatification on Sunday of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, primate of Poland from 1948 to 1981, is instructive in that regard.

During Cardinal Wyszyński’s 33 years as primate, he functioned with special powers granted by Pope Pius XII, serving as a de facto nuncio in Poland, as well as titular head of the country’s episcopate. In effect, Cardinal Wyszyński provided the nominations for bishops to be approved by the Holy See and subject to negotiations with the communist regime.

The cardinal was often at odds with Rome. For the last three years of his life there was greater harmony with Rome; his fellow Pole was Pope John Paul II. Thus the man declared “Blessed” on Sunday would have no difficulty in concluding that that Holy See’s current China policy is gravely mistaken; he often thought that about the Holy See’s Poland policy.

Cardinal Wyszyński was appointed primate — archbishop of Gniezno (the ancient primatial see) and at the same time of Warsaw (the political capital) — in 1948. Stalinization was being imposed upon Poland. The dominant view among the diplomats who served under Pope Pius XII was that the new communist regimes were to be treated as illegitimate. Resistance, not dialogue, was the order of the day. 

The dominant Catholic figure behind the Iron Curtain was Hungary’s Jószef Mindszenty, created a cardinal in 1946. Cardinal Mindszenty was lionized as a genuine hero in the West for his fearless resistance to the communist regime; he would make no agreement with it whatsoever. 

In time, Cardinal Mindszenty would be subject to a communist show trial and made a political prisoner. He was briefly freed in 1956 during the Budapest uprising. When Soviet tanks arrived to crush the rebellion, he took refuge in the U.S. embassy, where he lived for 15 years before going into exile in the United States.

Cardinal Mindszenty was imprisoned and then forced into internal and external exile. Soon after, the Catholic Church in Hungary was crushed. That Cardinal Mindszenty was a valiant “white” martyr for the faith in beyond dispute. But Cardinal Wyszyński chose another way.

“From the very beginning of my work, I had taken the stand that the Church in Poland had already shed too much blood in German concentration camps to afford to squander the lives of its surviving priests,” Cardinal Wyszyński would write. “Martyrdom is undoubtedly an honorable thing, but God leads His Church not only along an extraordinary way, that of martyrdom, but also along an ordinary way, that of apostolic work. Indeed, I was of the opinion that the modern world needed another kind of martyrdom — the martyrdom of work, not of blood.”

That kind of thinking made Cardinal Wyszyński somewhat suspect in Rome. He was too soft on communism, went that line of thinking; Cardinal Mindszenty was the model. Yet Cardinal Wyszyński continued on his path, negotiating with the communist regime in Warsaw to allow space for the Church to operate. He reached a secret “Mutual Understanding” in 1950, permitting the Church relative liberty to go about her work and ongoing dialogue with the regime across a range of matters. While the Church remained in control of episcopal appointments, Cardinal Wyszyński’s deal permitted the communists a role in choosing from a list of candidates that he would provide.

The current China deal reportedly reverses the process. The CCP chooses only one candidate; the Holy See can only veto it. Critically, it appears the Holy See-China deal requires official Vatican silence on religious repression in China — and Hong Kong. Cardinal Wyszyński would never have agreed to that. 

In the “Mutual Understanding” of 1950, Cardinal Wyszyński gave the communists what they wanted, a tacit acknowledgment, but not endorsement, of their status as the government of Poland. The Church got what Cardinal Wyszyński thought was needed — room to live, not to die.

The cardinal went to Rome in 1950 to consult Pius XII on the “Mutual Understanding.” His diaries confirm that the Holy Father gave his support. But Cardinal Wyszyński had forced the Vatican’s hand. What else could he do? There was only one primate in Poland, and it would serve no purpose for Rome to force him to renege on the agreements he had made.

Cardinal Wyszyński was not surprised when the Polish communists did not fully keep their end of the “Mutual Understanding.” When, in 1953, the regime made further demands on the appointments of bishops and the assignments of the priests, Cardinal Wyszyński led the Polish bishops in issuing a thunderous statement, echoing the cry of the fourth-century Martyrs of Abitinae. The 1953 statement echoes even today in Poland:

“When Caesar demands to put his throne on the altar of God, we respond: Non possumus! (We cannot!)

Just to make the point absolutely clear, Cardinal Wyszyński issued the statement on May 8, 1953, feast of St. Stanisław, the martyr-bishop of Kraków killed by the king in 1079. 

The communists returned the favor. A few months later, on the feast of Blessed Władysław, patron saint of Warsaw, Sept. 25, 1953, Cardinal Wyszyński was arrested at his home in the middle of the night. He spent the next three years as a political prisoner in rural Poland. There was no trial.

The suspicions in Rome were unfounded. Cardinal Wyszyński would compromise as much as he could, but would not compromise on what could not be compromised. He was, as one veteran Vatican diplomat would remember him, “moderate in his demands, but exceedingly immoderate in defending them.”

After he was freed in 1956, Cardinal Wyszyński became the undisputed father of the nation. He negotiated a new “understanding” with the regime. He alone would present a single candidate for bishop; the regime could only accept or refuse. That way there would never be a bishop forced upon the primate or the Holy See. 

That process would produce Karol Wojtyła as the new archbishop of Kraków in 1964. Cardinal Wyszyński thought him, at 43, too young. The communist regime, mistakenly thinking him more pliable, vetoed a half-dozen candidates, insisting that they would veto every candidate until they got Archbishop Wojtyla. Cardinal Wyszyński considered that violating the spirit of their agreement, but he eventually gave in. Even when Cardinal Wyszyński’s plans were frustrated, Providence prevailed!

After 1956, throughout the remainder of the pontificate of Pius XII and during that of St. John XXIII, there was little second-guessing in Rome. The Church in Poland spoke with one voice, and it was that of the primate, not the Vatican.

Things changed in the 1960s. Pope St. Paul VI launched a new diplomatic initiative for Eastern Europe, the Ostpolitik, or “eastern policy,” and its architect was Archbishop Agostino Casaroli, a Vatican diplomat of exceptional brilliance and skill. Archbishop Casaroli would make repeated trips behind the Iron Curtain to seek some breathing space for the oppressed local Churches. 

The roles were now reversed. 

Cardinal Wyszyński knew that he was dealing with the Polish regime from the moral high ground, territory he had bought and paid for with his imprisonment. He was exceedingly wary of Vatican diplomats, whom he regarded as not fully appreciating the duplicity and depravity of communists, making deals. He knew that the Polish communists desperately wanted an agreement with Rome that would sideline the “intransigent” Cardinal Wyszyński.

Just as Vatican diplomats are keen to open a nunciature in Beijing now, so too a nunciature in Warsaw was the great prize sought then. Cardinal Wyszyński was adamantly opposed and sought to frustrate the Ostpolitik at every chance. Now the primate once thought too soft on communism was considered by Rome to be too hard.

Throughout the 1970s, repeated Vatican diplomatic trips to Warsaw attempted to go around, above or behind Cardinal Wyszyński. He would protest, but he was being ground down. 

By 1977, the Vatican Secretariat of State was well advanced in its proposals for a nunciature in Poland and the end of Cardinal Wyszyński’s unique role as the singular locus of authority for the Church in Poland. The cardinal could only delay in 1977 and 1978, hoping to get Paul VI to put off a decision. In this he had the support of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Kraków. 

In the event, St. Paul VI died in August 1978. John Paul II was elected in October 1978. Cardinal Wyszyński no longer had to fight the Vatican. Poland, in terms of dealing with communist tyranny, had conquered Rome.

The news from the afflicted Church in China can be discouraging in light of a Holy See policy that has, in the very words of Pope Francis, achieved “questionable” results. Blessed Stefan Wyszyński would sympathize with the afflicted. He spent most of his primacy questioning Rome’s policy.