Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

In Belarus, Vatican diplomacy fails a religious-freedom test

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 06, 2021

The resignation of Archbishop Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, announced on January 3, was “highly unusual,” a Reuters news story remarked, adding that it looked like “a face-saving deal.” John Allen of Crux was more direct, saying that it looked like a “deal with the devil.” In this pontificate, in Belarus as in China, Vatican diplomats seem anxious to preserve amicable relations with a repressive regime, even if it means sending loyal prelates out to pasture.

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We don’t know exactly what happened when a special papal envoy met with President Aleksandr Lukashenko a week before Christmas—just as we don’t know the actual contents of the secret Vatican agreement with Beijing. But we do know the sequence of events:

  • In August, after a short visit to Poland, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was denied re-entry into Belarus; Lukashenko declared him persona non grata.
  • After diplomatic talks in September failed to resolve the impasse, Pope Francis sent a special envoy to meet with Lukashenko in December, and evidently a deal was struck.
  • Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was allowed back into Minsk on December 24: just in time to celebrate Christmas Mass. And then…
  • On January 3, which was his 75th birthday, the archbishop’s resignation was announced.

Every Catholic bishop is expected to submit his resignation to the Roman Pontiff when he reaches the age of 75. But it is exceedingly unusual—in fact I cannot think of another case—for the Pope to accept the resignation on the prelate’s birthday. It is also exceedingly unusual for the Vatican to announce a resignation on Sunday. This was obviously a special case.

What happened? Some background is needed to understand the situation properly.

Belarus is a former Soviet republic, located between Russia and Poland. President Lukashenko, a former Soviet Army officer, has been the country’s leader since Belarus regained independence. He is strongly pro-Russian, suspicious of other “foreign” influences, and intolerant of political dissent at home. His re-election last summer was generally regarded as fraudulent, prompting widespread public demonstrations. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz expressed sympathy for the protests, and support for true democratic elections. He thus incurred the wrath of Lukashenko, who denounced the Catholic Church in general, and the archbishop in particular, as enemies of the state.

(An important side note: Lukashenko supports the local Orthodox Church, and the Orthodox hierarchy generally supports him. The government is tolerant but more than a little suspicious of the Catholic Church, which is often seen as representing Polish influence. Archbishop Kondrusiewicz, who was born in Odelsk near the border with Poland, falls under the same suspicion.)

In August the archbishop traveled to Poland to visit with relatives and to undergo a surgical procedure that had been scheduled long in advance. When he tried to return to Minsk he was stopped at the border. Lukshenko eventually explained that the archbishop had been barred because he had been in Poland plotting against the government of Belarus—a charge which, of course, the archbishop dismissed as absurd.

In September, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, traveled to Belarus, hoping to resolve the archbishop’s status. He returned empty-handed, and said that he was not optimistic that Kondrusiewicz would be allowed back into his archdiocese. In October, Archbishop Kondrusiewicz visited Rome, to confer with Vatican officials about his situation.

Also in October, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, denounced the exile of the archbishop as “an injustice and an affront to religious freedom.” No such denunciation was heard from Rome. In November, Archbishop Ante Jozic, the papal nuncio in Minsk, met with President Lukashenko and delivered a message from Pope Francis congratulating the strongman on his re-election.

Then on December 17, Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti spoke with Lukashenko, on a special mission from the Pope. And suddenly the stalemate was broken. The Vatican announced an apparent diplomatic victory: the archbishop would be allowed back into Minsk. But then, just ten days after his return, his resignation was announced.

A report from the AsiaNews service stated the obvious: “The negotiations between the Vatican and the Belarusian authorities for his return obviously presupposed the immediate departure of the prelate.” That is, Lukashenko’s government offered the Holy See a face-saving option: the archbishop could come home from exile, but he could not remain as Archbishop of Minsk.

The Vatican clearly accepted that deal, and agreed to jettison Archbishop Kondrusiewicz—just as the Vatican has agreed to depose several Chinese bishops who had been loyal to the Holy See, and replace them with bishops who had been appointed by the Beijing regime. In each case the Vatican has seemed determined to achieve a diplomatic accord for its own sake, even if the accord damaged the cause of religious liberty and the standing of the Catholic Church.

Archbishop Kondrusiewicz has been an avatar of religious freedom through nearly thirty years of episcopal ministry. He was apostolic administrator for the Catholic Church in Russia—operating in a difficult environment, with Russian Orthodox clerics sensitive to any hint of competition—from 1991 to 2002. When the Holy See established a Catholic archdiocese in Moscow (naming it the Archdiocese of the Mother of God, to avoid direct comparison with the Moscow Patriachate) in 2002, he was named the first archbishop, and bore the brunt of hostility from the Orthodox officials angered by the move. Then in 2007 he returned to his native Belarus as Archbishop of Minsk. In all those posts he has been regarded by government officials as an alien presence—in part because of his Polish ethnic roots, but also because of his loyalty to Rome. Is this is how the Vatican repays such loyalty? Ask the bishops of the “underground” Church in China.

So now Archbishop Kondrusiewicz is removed from the scene; President Lukashenko is saved from the distress caused by “that turbulent priest.” And Vatican diplomacy has made the world just a bit safer for tyranny.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jan. 09, 2021 5:43 PM ET USA

    This pope doesn't seem to get it - or he is indeed a communist sympathizer. Evidence is mounting supporting the latter.

  • Posted by: Retired01 - Jan. 06, 2021 3:59 PM ET USA

    Interesting message to any US bishop that may dare to make much unwanted noise once the Biden administration starts doing mischief.