The glory days of the Reagan-John Paul II alliance are indeed in the past.
Lost in the media noise of the Pope Francis’ recent Acela visit to the East Coast, notwithstanding 8,000 accredited media folks, is his deepening concern about the ISIS slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, including 20 million Catholics; and future risks to 5 million Catholics in western Ukraine, if the Russian-backed separatists move more deeply into that nation.
So in the strategic realignments now in motion, the growing entente between the Holy See and Russia should not be overlooked.
Vatican diplomacy moves in mysterious ways.
In 1981 a quiet alliance materialized between the Reagan administration and (not yet a saint) John Paul II, with the binding force provided by a convergence of views between the Polish Pope and several prominent Catholic Reaganauts, notably:
Secretary of State Al Haig; Haig’s #2, Bill Clark; CIA Director Bill Casey; National Security Adviser Dick Allen; and Ambassador-at-Large Dick Walters – a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
A U.S. strategy of differentiation was adopted, namely reinforcing the administration’s across-the-board push against the entire Soviet Bloc by focusing on its weakest link – Catholic Poland.
Money (lots of it) flowed from Langley to the IOR – the Vatican’s fabled bank, and then throughout a grassroots network of parishes and labor activists in Poland. Of course there were frictional losses within this financial logistical system, but overall it worked, and the U.S.S.R. came tumbling down – for a while.
Two generations later, in today’s turbulent world the Vatican has significant stakes in two war zones – Ukraine, and ISIS-controlled areas of North Africa and the Middle East.
In Ukraine, more than 10% of the population (4.9 million out of 45 million total, according to Vatican statistics) consists of Catholics, mostly members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in communion with Rome.
And, by the same stats, there are close to 20 million Catholics across North Africa and the Middle East, almost all of the Eastern Rite, and concentrated in Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
From contacts in the Curia Romana, it is clear that Pope Francis is deeply worried.
The situation in NA/ME is much more acute than in Ukraine because Christians – Catholics and other Christian denominations – are being slaughtered for the mere fact of being ‘unbelievers’.
In Ukraine the current situation is short of the crisis point for the Catholic 10% concentrated in three western regions (oblasts), not yet within range of the eastern secessionists.
The Pope has met twice with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, most recently in June. Prior to that meeting, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See pushed hard for a papal condemnation of Russia’s cross-border invasions (Crimea and Ukraine’s East). But the Pope took an above-the-fray stance with Putin, emphasizing the “importance of dialogue and the needs for all concerned parties to implement the [Minsk] agreements.” (USA Today, June 10, 2015).
The clear and present danger for the Vatican is ISIS, which has threatened to come to Rome to deal with the Great Crusader.
In the face of this very real menace, it is not hard to discern that a grand bargain may be emerging, involving Russia and the Vatican.
In Syria the U.S. has remained on the sidelines for the past four years, notwithstanding 200,000 deaths there, and President Bashar al-Assad’s breach of a red-line by resorting to chemical warfare against his own people.
So Russia is now stepping into the geopolitical vacuum.
One of the levers of Putin’s domestic autocratic power is the Russian Orthodox Church. And although that hierarchy’s feelings for the Vatican are decidedly cool, ISIS is creating a broad coalition consisting of Russia, Iran, many EU countries beset by fleeing civilians; and the Holy See as a silent partner.
This is not mere supposition. There are audible Whispers in the Palazzo Apostolico about the activist role of Vatican diplomats now at the pinnacle of the Curia Romana:
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State and de facto prime minister;
Cardinal Dominique Mamberti, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura (replacing the inconvenient Cardinal Raymond Burke); and
Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy with direct oversight over 223 thousand Catholic parishes around the globe. Measure yourself against that, Donald Trump…It’s yooooge.
Russia brings to the table its readiness to deploy hard power against ISIS, and an apparent willingness not to push further west into Ukraine where millions of Ukrainian Catholics are concentrated.
The Vatican gets from Russia a more robust effort to protect all Christians as well as its’ own flock 20 million strong, against ISIS.
And – maybe – a standstill for a while in Russia’s aggression aimed at pulling Ukraine back into its buffer zone of vassal states. A deeper move of the local Ukrainian proxies (and sheep-dipped Russian troops) towards Ukraine’s west would expand a brutal civil war, given the vast cultural and religious differences between eastern and western Ukraine.
In return Putin gains from the Vatican increased international respectability, broadens European support for Russia’s return to the Middle East, and probably gets a loosening or outright lifting of EU sanctions.
So the Vatican’s reflexive anti-communism is a thing of the past. But then again, Putin is too smart to be a commie.
As for American policy in the Middle East, the George Washington of Egypt, from 1952 until his sudden death in 1970, was President Gamal Abdel Nasser. It is still debated whether he was a CIA asset, or just pocketed the agency’s money and did his own thing. This is what Nasser had to say about U.S. moves in the Middle East:
“The genius of you Americans is that you never make clear-cut stupid moves, only complicated stupid moves which make us wonder at the possibility that there may be something to them that we are missing.”