Opponents of Ostpolitik – Part 2: Father Alessio Ulisse (1920-1986)


Among the staunchest opponents of the Vatican Ostopolik, a figure of remarkable cultural and moral stature should be remembered: Father Alessio Ulisse Floridi (1930-1986).

A member of the Company of Jesus at a very young age, Father Floridi studied at the Pontifical Russian College, where he learned Russian perfectly and, in 1949, he was ordained a priest in the Byzantine Rite His hope was to be part of an underground apostolate in Russia, just like some of his confreres, but his superiors wanted him at La Civiltà Cattolica, the journal which was the pride and joy of the Company. Father Floridi became the sovietologist par excellence of this journal, collaborating with articles written from first-hand reading of newspapers, journals and documents coming [directly] from the Soviet Union. His articles rich in notes and personal comments, were read and appreciated for their accuracy by the Communists themselves, both in Italy and abroad.

The election of John XXIII and the calling of the Second Vatican Council were a turning point in the lives of the writers at La Civiltà Cattolica. In the obituary written for Father Floridi, on December 20 1986, the Jesuit journal writes that he had left La Civiltà Cattolica because the life of a writer was too “static and sedentary”. In reality, as Father Floridi informed me personally, he was abruptly liquidated for not bending to his superiors’ impositions. They had asked him to apply the St. Francis de Sales maxim to Communism, “a spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel of vinegar”. The same discourse had been made to Father Giovanni Caprile (1917-1993), who, on the other hand, had accepted the suggestion, and from being an implacable critic, he became an apologist for Freemasonry.

Father Floridi recalled that the Jesuit vow of obedience was not indiscriminate, as many suppose, but simply obliges: “to go wherever His Holiness sends them among the faithful and the infidels.” (Constitution § 7). And he didn’t back off when, from high places, it was decided he should be sent as far away as possible from Villa Malta, the headquarters of La Civiltà Cattolica in Rome. So he ended up first in Brazil, among the Russian refugees, and afterwards, in the United States, where he lead a fruitful mission among Ukrainian Catholics of the Oriental Rite, without ever giving in to the new trend.

When I met him in 1977, Father Floridi was an imposing fifty-seven year old, with a black beard framing his open, jovial, good-humored face, typical of authentic “Romani de Roma ”. In 1976 he published the book Moscow and the Vatican for La Casa Matriona, afterwards translated into various languages and which is still a text of capital reference for the study of the relations between the Vatican and the Kremlin. On November 28th 1977, he gave an extensive interview to the monthly, Cristianità, which I will reproduce here in its entirety. Re-reading it, it seems to me that his historical analysis helps us understand in-depth the Ostpolitik of both yesterday and today (On the Theme of Dissent and Ostpolitik, in Cristianità, 32 (1977). Pp. 3-4).

The Interview

Q. The slant of the volume you dedicated to Moscow and the Vatican is unusual. It carries as a subtitle: The Soviet Dissidents Faced with “Dialogue”. The politics of “the easing of tensions”[détente]between the Holy See and the Kremlin, appraised, that is to say, by Soviet dissent. What is the reason for your interest in “the Soviet dissidents”?

It’s very simple. I have continuously studied the Soviet Union and “The Soviet Man”, a man whose nature is no different from ours, despite the “unnaturalness” of the regime in which he lives. As a result I [began] to realize that there was something happening in this world, which was starting to produce a reaction.

Q. Is this reaction limited to a cultural elite or does it extend to the Soviet people? There is in fact, the suspicion that it is not a sufficiently deep-rooted phenomenon, but almost a cultural “fashion”…

R. The phenomenon is absolutely not limited to an intellectual elite. The religious dissent especially, is diffused in large segments of the population. I’m thinking, for example, of the Ukrainian and Lithuanian Catholics, the Baptists, the underground Orthodox Church, the followers of Father Dudko, or even what is happening in Poland, where dissent is growing and spreading among the workers. It should be said, however, that the reality of dissent doesn’t always coincide necessarily with the image that is projected in the West. In fact, only a certain kind of dissent is known in the West, the one which is filtered through intellectual channels. Whereas much less is known about the reality of the religious dissent of the peoples.

Q. So then, what is the judgment of the “dissidents” with regard to the “dialogue” between Moscow and the Vatican?

R. Extremely negative. The dissidents have no trust whatsoever in this dialogue of which they actually experience the consequences. They should be the beneficiaries of these politics of détente but they are in fact its victims. Let me add that it seems inconceivable to me that, from the Catholic part there is this desire to cast a shadow of diffidence and suspicion over them. I’m referring to an article by one of my Swiss confreres, Father Hotz, which appeared in La Civiltà Cattlolica and which, for that matter, was brilliantly refuted by your journal. To me it seems paradoxical that while the dissidents are entreating Western Catholics to distrust this dialogue, it is precisely the Catholics in the West who are inviting suspicion and distrust of the dissidents.

Q. What are the Kremlin’s interests in this “dialogue”?

Through dialogue the Soviet Union attains the Vatican’s silence. And this silence weakens the internal and external opposition to the Communist regime, thus contributing to the consolidating of the Soviet empire’s internal positions and favoring its international expansion. It’s clear that Moscow seeks support from Rome to increase its “credibility” on the international level. The more a détente is sought the more internal tensions are intensified.

Q. In your view, on the other hand, what are the motives impelling the Vatican to seek “dialogue” with the Kremlin?

R. Here the question is more complex. I’d say that we can identify at least two strategic lines. The first is diplomatic, of concordat, and aims at attaining a modus vivendi between the Vatican and the Communist State with the goal of safeguarding international “peace” as well as the Catholic ecclesial structure in the Soviet empire’s territories. The Vatican prefers, then, to ignore the underground Church, which has been conducting a heroic apostolate behind the Iron Curtain, to establish new types of relations “in the open” with the Communist authorities. This means, for example, that Catholic bishops must have the Soviet “placet” for their nomination. This strategy is under the direction of Archbishop Casaroli and his Secretariat. Casaroli himself drew up a sufficiently explicit program in his discourse on The Holy See and Europe, delivered in Milan on January 20th 1972.

Q. You mentioned a second policy…

R. Yes, it’s the one I’d call “ecumenical”, which is under the direction of the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians, headed by Cardinal Willebrands. We are talking here about “ecumenical dialogue” between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Patriarchy of Moscow. It was Willebrands himself, then Secretary of the Secretariat, who “ held discussions” (during a sojourn in Moscow – September 27 – October 2 1962) about the participation of the Russian Orthodox as observers at the Second Vatican Council.

The Russian representatives, were, in fact, the first Orthodox observers present in Rome right from the inauguration of the Council on the evening of October 11th. In fact, at this precise moment there is an Orthodox delegation at the [Collegium] Russicum – here – as usual – on pilgrimage. An ANSA communiqué specifies that the “meetings” take place in the ambit of periodic exchange visits between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Church, in coincidence with the visit of a Vatican delegation to the Patriarchy of Moscow. The Second Vatican Council was, thus, the historical “turning point” in the course of relations between the Church of Rome and the Patriarchy of Moscow, characterized, up until then, by a violent anti-Catholic stance.

Q. In your view, what are the reasons for this turnaround?

R. We mustn’t forget the link of the close collaboration and direct dependence of the Patriarchy of Moscow on the Kremlin. And it’s certain that, on the part of the Kremlin, there was keen interest in blocking any eventual attempt of the Council in condemning Communism officially. There were no lack of opportunities for the Russian guests to make clear that silence on the question of Communism was a sine qua non for the continuance of their presence in Rome. The Russian Orthodox Church relaxed their “reserve” about the Council only after it appeared clear that the Council would not have condemned Communism.

Q. What are the “obstacles” the Holy See faces in its “ ecumenical dialogue” with the Patriarchy of Moscow?

R. A principal one is created today by the troublesome presence of six million Ukrainian Catholics determined to remain faithful to their religious, historical and cultural tradition. The Holy See doesn’t want to recognize the Ukrainian Patriarchy – the only way to keep the Ukrainian Catholic Church alive in the nation and abroad – because the Orthodox Church of Moscow calls for the suppression of the Ukrainian Catholics. The Vatican today has greater regard for the schismatic Metropolitan Bishops Nikodim and Pimen than for the Catholic Patriarch Slipyi.

Q. Why this close relationship between the Kremlin and the Patriarchy of Moscow?

R. The Patriarchy of Moscow carries out two main functions. The first, internal, is as a filter function, a buffer. It consists of keeping the faithful subject to the Communist regime; the second, external, consists in convincing the heads of the other Christian Churches that Communism is in the end not as bad as it is depicted, and in crediting it, on the contrary, for its “effort” towards peace in the world. Significant, in this regard, is the function carried out by the Orthodox Church of Moscow inside the World Council of Churches which has refused to support the peaceful Soviet dissidents, whereas it doesn’t withhold its support of the “dissidents” – for the most part terrorists – in other Western countries.

Q. Don’t you think that the Kremlin considers the developments of its relations with the Vatican in a similar perspective?

R. Certainly. In Communist countries where a diplomatic relationship or a concordat is established, the governing authorities give their consent to the nomination of the bishops, on the condition that these accept all of Soviet law, including, evidently, the part regarding religion. In this way the government unloads the odious burden of having to respect iniquitous laws onto the ecclesiastic authorities. Today a zealous priest who teaches catechism is often punished by his bishop, before he is by the civil authorities.

Q. How do the faithful react to this dramatic situation?

R. The faithful behind the Curtain, find themselves faced with real crises of conscience. Generally they solve them, by choosing the hard but courageous road of resistance to the ecclesiastic authorities. This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the phenomenon: the spreading of dissent from the civil sphere against the ecclesiastic sphere. It is happening in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia and in Lithuania. More than a hundred Lithuanian priests have asked the Holy Father to stay without a bishop rather than betraying the mandate of Christ.

Q. Do you also consider a modus vivendi between the Soviet State and the Vatican impossible?

R. I fear that the Vatican has forgotten something confirmed also by the dissidents at the Sacharov conferences, which is that the Soviet State wants the destruction of every religion and hence the Catholic religion too. I don’t see, then, what elements there could be to base a modus vivendi between the Catholic Church and atheistic Communism.

Q. What do you think of the thesis that says a hardening of the Vatican might put international peace at risk?

R. We have always been taught since childhood what is contained in the Catechism: that God should be placed before everything else and that it would be better for the world to perish, rather than commit a sin, an offense against God. A nuclear catastrophe, then would be less grave than a single mortal sin. This faith seems to be shrinking in the ecclesiastic authorities, obsessed with a search for peace at any cost. The salvation of human lives seems preferable to them than the violation of God’s rights. This is a very grave problem and the solution to it rests with the theologians, the bishops and the Pope. To them I pose this interrogative. This stance, which makes its own, the teaching of St. Peter “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts, 5, 29). justifies, I believe religious dissent.

Father Alessio Ulisse Floridi died prematurely on November 7th 1986, in the Regina Apostolorum clinic of Albano (Rome), after unexpected complications following surgery. The nuns at the clinic were edified by how he faced his illness. Today we call on him as a ‘witness to the prosecution’ against “the sell-out” of the Chinese Church to the Communist regime by Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin.