Seven decades ago, on January 12, 1953, the imprisoned archbishop of Zagreb Alojzije Stepinac was named a cardinal by pope Pius XII. Stepinac was imprisoned in 1946 by the Yugoslav communists because he refused to accept the regime’s proposal of forming a »national« Catholic Church in Croatia. By naming Stepinac a cardinal, pope Pius XII showed that he is not giving up on the »case« of the imprisoned archbishop. At the first news about Stepinac becoming cardinal, the Yugoslav regime abruptly cut off all diplomatic ties with the Vatican. In understanding the relationship between the Vatican and Yugoslavia, many questions remain unanswered until this day. The occasion of the date gave Glas Koncil enough reason to interview prof. dr. Massimiliano Valente, Italian researcher of Vatican diplomacy and professor from the European University in Rome. The interlocutor proved to be an excellent expert on the history of the Catholic Church in Croatia. Valente readily spoke even about some »controversies« related to Vatican diplomacy.

Your historical research is focused on Vatican diplomacy during the 19th and 20th Centuries. Also, you have published books and many scientific papers on Vatican’s diplomacy in Yugoslavia. So, for the beginning of our conversation, a question needs to be answered – why Yugoslavia?

The first reason is that after my Ph.D., I also attended the Vatican School of Archival Sciences and had the opportunity to work for the Vatican Secret (now Apostolic) Archive. Among many activities, I had the opportunity to rearrange the archives of the Apostolic Nunciature in Belgrade in the interwar years. I had some previous knowledge about that country’s history. Since I rearranged the documents that are related to the pontificate of Pius XI the religious situation in Yugoslavia became more interesting to me. There are also some family reasons and connections with Croatia that got me more interested in this topic. When I got a tenure position at the university I decided, based on the knowledge, that I got from this experience to focus my research on the Vatican’s relation toward Yugoslavia. Currently, I am dealing with the pontificate of Pius XII and the relations toward the Independent State of Croatia and the mission of »regent« of the nunciature Patric Joseph Hurley. I am also a part of the Croatian research project »Moderne europske diplomacije i istočnojadranski prostor« with professor Jadranka Neralić from Hrvatski institut za povijest.

If we want to understand the complexity of the Vatican’s relations with Yugoslavia the years 1952 and 1953 are an unavoidable topic. At this time, the Vatican has shown that it is not »giving up« on the imprisoned archbishop of Zagreb – Alojzije Stepinac. He was proclaimed a Cardinal, but the Yugoslav authorities could not stand it up – the regime broke up its diplomatic relations with the Vatican. How do you interpret this turning point?

The origin of the crisis goes back to the period after WW2. As it is known Pius XII and the Vatican, in cooperation with US diplomacy, were trying to find ways for coping against communism in Eastern Europe. The case of Yugoslavia is peculiar since the split between Tito and Stalin in 1848, changed the perception of Yugoslavia among the Western countries. Before it was an enemy state. After 1948 we still cannot say that Yugoslavia became a friend of the West, but rather a less enemy country that had to be somehow supported. So the Holy See was »left alone«, above all without the US support, and Tito felt being »hand-free« to increase his strategy against the church and the Vatican.

Then, in 1949, the »Sant’Offizio« issued a document against communism, and that was a second reason for Yugoslavia’s breakup of relations because this gave the argument for local bishops in Yugoslavia to say – we cannot have the relations that the communist government wants to impose on us. And, of course, it had consequences on the refusal to the birth of Yugoslav priestly associations that could not be accepted by the Church in Yugoslavia, and neither by the Vatican.

After 1950 there were some attempts in Belgrade of proposing a negotiation for a modus vivendi between Chruch and the regime but this did not have a real basis because, while negotiating, was going on the anticatholic policy of the government.

Then the » cardindal Stepinac« case. He was a model for the Catholic hierarchy in Yugoslavia, for resisting the government. No compromise with the communist regime, remaining faithful to the pope and the Catholic doctrine. But he was also the main enemy of Tito and the communists. When Pius XII decided to appoint Stepinac cardinal it was too much for the regime. Moreover, Tito got this news on November 29, on Dan Republike: during a diplomatic reception, he was informed about it by the Belgian ambassador to Belgrade. Tito was terribly shocked by this decision but he hoped that Stepinac, becoming a Cardinal, can lead him to Rome. But soon he realized this is not the case.

As, we have seen before, Tito before he was not confident in breaking diplomatic relations with the Vatican because it was supported by Western countries. At that moment in 1952, with the international situation changed, the decision taken by the Vatican to appoint Stepinac a Cardinal, was a drop that got out of the glass.

We have to make a small digression. In your research, you have for sure encountered the name of bl. Alojzije Stepinac. Therefore, an important question arises – have you come across documents that could »compromise« the efforts for his canonization?

I can only answer this question from a perspective of a historian because I cannot interpret the procedure of the Congregation for the Saints that deals with Stepinac’s canonization. So I can only speak about my impressions after reading many documents written by Stepinac and what was had been published on this issue. Since he was archbishop of Zagreb and then president of the Bishop Conference of Yugoslavia, Stepinac had to deal with tremendously difficult situations in terms of Church and state relations. There were three regimes: Radical party leadership in the period of Karađorđević, Ustasha of Ante Pavelić, and Tito’s Communists. Although the Independent State of Croatia was accepted at the beginning among the Croats as a liberation from the Orthodox and authoritarian regime of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, it soon became clear that this is a puppet state, controlled by the Nazis and Fascists. So this state had no independence and Stepinac’s activity showed that he realized what were the positive sides of this state, but also its negative sides. He tried to do his best to help the victims of the civil war, those who were persecuted, independently of their nationality and religion. And this is evident from the documents. When Tito took power in 1945 he tried to use Stepinac for his purposes, to create the Church under the control of the state. Stepinac refused to do this and protested in his first meeting with Tito for the crimes of his partisan and his anticatholic policy. And this was one of the main reasons for antagonism against Catholics from the government in Belgrade.

So I would like to reformulate your question if it is possible. I am surprised up to now that there are authors that write the history about Stepinac using the sources that were invented for Stepinac’s staged trial, saying that Stepinac was a helper of Ustasha, a helper of Germans, and so on… or citing books written in the period of Yugoslavia and that was obviously influenced with this ideology.

Let’s get back to the main thread of our conversation. After the break of diplomatic relations, in the mid-sixties, there was a warming of the relationship between Yugoslavia and the Vatican. But the communist regime during the 1970es and 1980es often used renewed diplomatic relations to »sue« Croatian bishops to the Vatican, expecting that the pope would then »discipline« them to »preserve« relatively stable relations with Yugoslavia…

For this question, it is important to change our perspective and understand the role of pope Paul VI. Because he was supporting the politics of dialogue, the Vatican during his pontificate became a member of almost all international organizations. He was open to cooperating with anyone, to cooperate for peace. The international elements are also important to consider. It was the time of a non-aligned movement – and Tito was one of the main actors of this initiative –, and this was also a reason for pope Montini to have more intensified relations with Yugoslavia and Tito. The pope was convinced of the need to talk.

Considering the talks about the renewal of diplomatic relations, which were led by Casaroli, the Vatican was criticized that it did not get anything new – because the Vatican was just asking for the application of what was written in the Yugoslav constitution, nothing else. Again, considering the diplomatic relations between Belgrade and Vatican, the Croatian bishops were not trusted about the possibility that any agreement would be firmly accepted by the regime. And during this renewal of diplomatic relations, there was an influence from the Croatian Spring. It was a way of offering the impression that the relations between the church and the state in Yugoslavia were good.

It must be also considered, to understand the relations between the Vatican and Yugoslavia, that the government of Tito thinks that the Vatican is leading pro-Italian politics since the Vatican Secretariat of the State at the time almost all diplomats were Italians. So, when the relations between Yugoslavia and Italy worsened, because of Trieste, then the relationship with the Vatican got worse also. When relations with the Italian government improved, then the Yugoslav relations with the Vatican improved.

Within this frame, the Belgrade Protocol (1966) signed by the Holy See and Yugoslavia was an element of a sort of the new face of Tito’s foreign and interior policy. And for the Holy See a first step toward the improvement of diplomatic relations with a communist regime and for a better religious life in the Country.

So is it possible a situation in which the pope could become a mediator in the current crisis in Ukraine?
The Vatican diplomacy, along with the fact that is highly valued because is the most ancient diplomacy in the world, is also now highly considered and international leaders consider pope Francesco someone that could find a solution to the crisis. But the wish of the countries at war to open talks for ending the conflict is necessary. In another way, it is not possible. The pope said that he is available to go to Ukraine and to Russia, but he has to be welcomed for finding the solution.


Who was the winner, and who was the loser of this diplomatic process? Is it possible to make such an assessment? So, from today’s point of view, is it possible to make an unequivocal assessment of »Ostpolitik«? What is your stance?

A similar question was asked to Casaroli when he became cardinal. He said that in Eastern Block there are giants of the faith, heroes of the faith (as Stepinac), and those who were ready to face persecution and prison, but on the other hand there were also ‘normal’ Catholics and they can get normal access to religious life, to sacraments. So this is a part of the answer to the question of who was, in the end, the winner or loser. In the contemporary age, the Vatican always wants to find a way for the Catholics to profess their faith in the world. But in general, we will probably not find the winner and the loser, but the Vatican was more aware of what its goal was. Of course, they were aware of the fact that it was not possible to have a real normal relationship with a communist state, but they achieved somehow their main goal.

The Ostpolitik is a part of the strategy of the Vatican diplomacy with relations with the State in the contemporary age. In fact, we can often see that the concordats and the agreements by the Holy See on authoritarian or totalitarian regimes are criticized, especially during the 20th century – with Nazi, Fascist or Communist regimes. But when we look at the international situation, the states usually sign an agreement with the states with which they have friendly relations and some kind of common goals. But that is contrary to Vatican diplomacy. If there would be a country that would be ruled with the Gospel in the hand, the Vatican probably would not have to make an agreement. The more a State is far from the Catholic faith, the more is necessary for the Holy See of such an Agreement. Sometimes is the only way to protect Catholics in one state, to make them able to practice their faith. So Vatican diplomacy works in this sense in a contrary way. But the limit of this policy is that it is based on international law and on the goodwill of the state on keeping the agreement. In fact, the pope is the head of a »micro State« and a »world moral authority », always open for dialogue and even in the worst situations the Holy See never breaks up the relations with the States. But cannot do more, using f.e. forms of retaliations or declaring »a war«, as a normal State could do in case of violation of agreements.

Let us go a few weeks ahead of our conversation. On January 27, in Europe and other parts of the world, we commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII is often criticized for his alleged silence regarding the crimes of Nazi Germany. What insights did you come to in your research about the role of Vatican diplomacy in World War II, especially in the context of saving people from the Nazi death machine?

That is an interesting question, many times there were scholars asked questions about what were the consequences of the pope talking publicly, similar is with pope Francis now. Pius XII openly said that the war has no sense, and as much are his purposes were for the good, many times his intentions were misinterpreted. We have many examples of popes that talked during the war, for example, Benedikt XV. during WWI. He was many times speaking against the war, although many misunderstood that he chooses one or another side, supporting one or another coalition. His policy was that the Holy See was against war and for the peaceful solution of conflicts. He said that openly. But the goal was not achieved because no one listened to the pope, on the contrary, he was accused of being the pope of the Germans, the pope of the French… Pacelli was a diplomat that worked as the Secretary of the State and then as apostolic nuncius in Bayern during WWI, so he learned a lot from that experience. I think that becoming a pope he tried to talk considering the fact that Catholics were at war in all countries and tried to act in a diplomatic way, considering his background. If we read carefully some of his speeches, he could not mention a particular state because of the risk of retaliation against Catholics in these countries. In any case, it was at that time possible to understand his position against the war, war crimes, and his closeness to the victims.

We must be focused not just on what the pope said during the war, but on what the pope did. In mid 60ies Paul VI decided to publish a selection of documents on Vatican policy during WWII. Many spend more time criticizing the Vatican for what was not included in these edited documents, instead of studying what was published. And these books demonstrate the Vatican’s »diplomacy of assistance« to help the victims of war.

About this, then in mid 2000 was avalaible to the Vatican Apostolic Archive the Archive of »Ufficio Informazioni Vaticano per i prigionieri di guerra« . Uncountable requests from Italy and from all over the world were sent to the Vatican to receive information on missing persons. This was a huge charitable activity of the Holy See, but also by the Catholic hierarchies in the rest of the world. These sources are still not studied enough, although they are extremely important.

In 2020 there was the opening of Vatican archives from the pontificate of Pius XII, and now everyone can enter the archives and be more aware of the political, diplomatic, and charitable activity of the pope and the Vatican institutions. Within this frame, there is another thing regarding the Jewish population that is now available on the website of the Historical Archive of the Secretariat of the State. It is online, all the »Serie Ebrei«, and now everyone can click and find information in the alphabetic order of names of those who were helped. But by reading these documents it is possible to be aware which were the activities made by the central institution in the Vatican that was dealing with the Jews, but also with whom they were in touch, officially and unofficially to solve these problems such as laws on Jews in different countries, in Italy and in other countries occupied by the Germans, Italians or other states in alliance with the German. And from this, we can see which were the efforts, and which were the limits. So the archives can help us in researching what the pope has done. This means that if on one side we already know the main lines of the policy of pope Pius XII and the central and peripheric institutions of the Catholic Church during WW2, the outcome of research focused on this field will progressively add more detailed information on the role of Vatican diplomacy in WW2.

Biography: Prof. dr. Massimiliano Valente is a full professor at the Department of Humanities of the European University in Rome, where he teaches courses related to contemporary history, politics and society, and European integration. He is the author of numerous scientific works focused on Vatican diplomacy in the period of modernity. Within the spectrum of topics he researches, there is also the relationship of the Vatican towards Yugoslavia, so he is also familiar with the Croatian church history of the 20th century, especially in the period of communism. Among the international scientific and educational institutions with which he cooperated, there are several of them from Croatia.