WiTHIN days of Mr. Gromyko's visit to Pope Paul a three-day meeting began on an island in the Chiemsee near Munich which may yet prove to have been of equal historic significance. It was the third annual congress of the Paulusgesellschaft, an independent association of Christian intellectuals founded in West Germany by a Roman Catholic priest, Dr. Erich Kellner, to facilitate a dialogue with the ideological opponents of Christianity, in particular with Marxists.
As recently as two years ago this was thought to be such a far-out undertaking that little was expected of it. Although the inspiration for the project could be easily traced to the revolutionary pontificate of John XXIII, the Pope who declared a truce in the Catholic Communist confrontation, its future was far from assured.
The Catholic Church, it is well to remember. has reacted in many countries with considerable scepticism to the warmhearted but, as some thought, naive "opening to the left" on the part of the late Pope.
The Communist regimes were quick to recognise that something significant had happened, but their immediate reaction was cautious and confused. They are still somewhat bewildered by the Roman olive branch. The politicians have blown hot and cold on the Church ever since.
While Khrushchev still held sway, he declared repeatedly that whereas political coexistence was essential, ideological coexistence was heretical. There are plenty of Christian ideologists — perhaps one should call them crusaders— who readily say Amen to that.
The Congress—its subject 'Christian Humanity and Marxist Humanism"—was an impressive demonstration that the hard-core dogmatists in both camps have lost more ground in two years than once seemed conceivable. It brought together over three hundred Christians and Communists, the great majority teachers in universities, colleges of technology and theological seminaries.
A daunting list of names. The theologians were the largest single group, mainly Roman Catholics from Germany, Austria, Italy, France, Holland and, significantly, Spain. Three were from Britain.
A few Lutheran scholars and three Anglicans attended. But laymen (ecclesiastically speaking) were not overshadowed. Scientists, psychologists, doctors, philosophers made much of the running.
And then the Communists, in every way a match for their Christian hosts : Communists from France, Italy, Austria and Spain-in-exile. Communists from Czechoslovakia. Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.
Poland's party philosopher, Adam Schaff, a bold pioneer of Christian Marxist detente, was an inevitable victim of his country's current medieval struggle between Church and State, between Party Secretary and Prince Primate.
The East German academicians were the equally inevitable victims of the internal German cold war. They wrote letters deeply regretting their inability to come, not a little resentful at their rulers' refusal to let them travel. Their names appeared in the list of participants. Nor were there any West German Communists. The Party is as illegal in the Federal Republic as in Spain.
SO MUCH THE MORE significant then, that this conference took place in Germany, under German auspices. The Social Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats, but not the ruling Christian Democrats, sent representatives.
The atmosphere was relaxed, almost jovial. The discussion was often hard-hitting, yet never lacking in good humoured mutual respect.
Above all and most significantly both Christians and Communists began from a position of penitancc. I use this term advisedly, even of the Communists, who lost no opportunity to stress that they were ashamed of the past and present failures of Communists, where they hold power, to live up to their principles.
The Christians were aware that, if anything, their failure to practise what they preach has been and still is even more blatant. Scoring points off the other side's lapses was a temptation to which neither succumbed.
Communists assumptions took their hardest knocking— yet with equally unsparing Christian self critique—from Professor Jules Girardi of the Papal Salesian University in Rome. This was Bernard Levin with a Roman collar. a remarkable physical and intellectual likeness. But with charity!
Two intellectual giants stood out; and how human they were. On the Marxist side there was the leading ideologist of the French Central Committee. Professor Roger Garaudy. His gallic brilliance and his warm humanity were matched by the erudition and self-effacing radicalism of the most eminent and widely respected of German theologians, Professor Karl Rahner. It is no secret that some of the best texts agreed by the Vatican Council come from his pen.
Present, too, was the veteran Czech Protestant pioneer of dialogue. Professor Josef Hromadka. Much maligned among Christians in years past, he had come to witness the fruition of much of what he had worked towards for a decade and more. His book "On the Threshold of Dialogue" was now happily—here at least— out of date. The threshold had been crossed.
THERE HAVE ALWAYS BEEN affinities between Communist idealists and radical Christian socialists to whom Communism is a Christian heresy resulting from the Church's failure to give expression to the social hope of the Gospel.
This was not, in essence, an encounter of that nature. Here were committed Communists and equally committed Christians determined both to discover common ground and to face up to deep differences.
Of basic importance was
that neither side was prepared to see in the other the embodiment of evil. Each was trying to discover more of the other's understanding of the meaning and purpose of man. This surely was the right and essential question. What is true humanity? Can Marxist regimes create "the new man"? Or even a new, truly human society? Can the Church do in—after some two thousand years of trial and error.
It is of no small significance that when a speaker from the floor made the point that ideological anti-Communism is both heretical and sinful his next words were drowned by applause. Yet the point was not made in an emotive context. Theologians and scientists simply believed it to be true.
A charming and pretty young sociologist from Prague told of her fight against reaction and Stalinism in high places at home. She was asked in the ensuing discussion how Western countries could help to further this struggle. Her answer made good sense: "by combating blind and irrational anti-Communism in your own country."
The point was not lost on the numerous West German journalists and broadcasters. Yet not everyone at the Congress was ready to accept it. There were. for instance, emigres from Eastern Europe who were sufficiently bitter, or at any rate sceptical, to call the whole dialogue in question. They were listened to with respect. But somehow history seemed to have passed them by.
TENSIONS THERE WERE, but not antagonisms. The tensions arose as much as anything from the constant awareness that those talking do not make policies or execute them. Yet they can influence them. That, in the long run, may mean a great deal.
And it is beginning to happen. A considerable volume of Marxist theoretical writing outside the Soviet Union has. over the past year, concerned itself with contemporary religion. Much of it has appeared in the official World Marxist Review. written largely by Italians and Spaniards.
All of it demands that the Party should lock again at the influence of religion in present day societies. It is no longer seen to he alsVays or even commonly on the side of reaction and oppression. In short, Christians might well contribute and in fact do contribute to the building of a better future.
The Communists at the Berlin discussions had undoubtedly abandoned the assumptions that belief in God was incompatible with Marxism. And the Christians no longer felt a need to point out that their faith was not in essence a preparation for the afterlife, but a working out of Christ's principles for men and societies in this.
What is man?
THE GREAT UNANSWERED QUESTIONS were anthropological. What is man? What are his true needs? How can they be met?
On these, there were widely varying views. Karl Rahner stressed that Christians do not a priori know the answer to the problems posed by the future of man in a rapidly changing world. He challenged the Marxists to admit this of themselves too.
They did as much, and in their turn, they challenged Christians to join them in the exciting venture of changing the world, rather than just analysing it.
There was total agreement that tomorrow's world would need to be developed and made more truly human (whatever that means) as a joint venture, not just of Christians and Communists. but of all men.
The Communists. Professor Garaudy foremost among them, readily admitted how much they owed to their Judeo-Christian origins. The theologians admitted how much the Churches needed to be recalled to those origins.
All the participants had discarded cut-and-dried blueprints. Scriptural fundamentalism was out. Marxist and Christian. While both sides had clear points of departure for the debate, neither cared to predict where it would lead. The hope was that it would help to guide a divided world towards greater unity in justice and peace. And all this for the sake. not of principles, but of men.
It could so easily have been an ivory tower entertainment, a weekend of intellectual adultery for spiritual playboys. For some few it might have been, but despite the good humoured exchanges most of these people were in earnest.
Both sides knew that their major task now was not so much to convert the other, but to break the rigidity of their own ideological kith-and-kin. Slogans would have fallen on deaf ears at this meeting but the Christians assumed something that the Church is reluctant to proclaim: they assumed (to quote the historic words spoken by Dr. Gustav Heinemann in a Bundestag debate). that "Jesus Christ did not die against Karl Marx, but for him".
YET THE MATTER does not end there. The dialogue can begin. One of the Christian's greatest problems. still unresolved within the Church, is that Jesus also died for Fascists and murderers. How does the truly human society deal with its real enemies?
The difficulties at this conference were seen to be immense. In fact the organisers probably over-estimated them and were a little too eager to prevent emotive political issues from clouding matters of principle. They need not have worried.
One young and ardent West German seminarist broke the "politeness barrier". Turning to a Czech Communist he challenged him to state whether he was prepared to fight for the release of those unjustly imprisoned in his country.
He was interrupted by the Chairman and reminded of the Communists and Christians in the prisons of Catholic Spain. The Czech Communist came up to me after that discussion. What he said made me recognise that genuine encounter was now really possible. "I admire that young man's indignation. He is right to ex press it. He is so, so right. He is so much more right than the glib theologian who has just
spoken and attempted to 'deal' with Communism from a position of uncommitted neutral
ity. making a caricature of
what we stand for by creating an arbitrary definition of
Marxism and then asking a whole set of unreal questions based on it."
This Marxist who was fighting for more humanity in his
own ranks appreciated a West
ern student's indignant sincerity. But he was scathingly hard on the one theologian whose address had been given a mixed reception, the Lutheran exponent of Christian ethics, Professor Helmut Thielicke.
His address skated over most of the issues, pinned none of them down. At best it was Western traditional man conducting a conversation with himself and with a Marx of his own devising.
In the discussion that followed Professor Thielicke's
address, Dr. Gustav Wetter of the Papal Oriental Institute in Rome pointedly stated the ob vious: a dialogue with Marx ists presupposes a knowledge of Marxism. The point, one hopes, mutatis mutandis. was also taken by the Communists. But on both sides those who most need to learn the mes sage of this encounter were far away. For that reason Professor Garaudy suggested that it was high time for a regular
journal of Christian-Marxist dialogue to make its appear
ance. No one dissented. This might well be the most tangible and lasting result of a weekend that gives rise to sober hope.
The unspoken assumptions of this dialogue are to be found at the heart of the Christian Gospel; they are still some distance from the heart of Communist Parties and Christian Churches.
A German psychologist reminded the delegates that Don Camillo and God had been an fait with the situation a decade ago. Don Camillo: "Lord, why am I not allowed to hate your enemies, the communists?" God : "How do you know who my real enemies are? More to the point. how do you know that you aren't one of them?"