The Vatican Plays Politics with China

This past Sunday, Pope Francis spoke to the Catholic faithful during the traditional Angelus prayer.  Many throughout the world, especially those in Hong Kong, anticipated that the Bishop of Rome would speak out against the suppression of political and religious freedom by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) the week prior -- as per protocol, the pope normally gives an exegetical explanation of Scripture followed by a brief address, normal on an international current event.

To the dismay of many, Francis made reference to the resolution adopted by the United Nations Security Council that proposed some measures to deal with the devastating consequences of the coronavirus, particularly for areas in conflict zones -- the request made is for a global and immediate ceasefire by countries that are currently engaged in combat with each other.

As reported and confirmed by various news agencies throughout the world, there was a bulletin distributed to journalists before the Pope’s Angelus prayer that contained some important words on the crisis in Hong Kong -- the speech was to be read immediately after the Angelus exhortation:

“In recent times, I have followed the development of the complex situation in Hong Kong with particular attention and not without concern, and I would like first of all to express my cordial closeness to all the inhabitants of that territory.  In the current context, the issues addressed are undoubtedly delicate and affect everyone’s life; therefore it is understandable that there is a marked sensitivity in this regard. I therefore hope that all the people involved will be able to deal with the various problems in a spirit of far-sighted wisdom and authentic dialogue.  This requires courage, humility, non-violence and respect for the dignity and rights of all.  I then express the vow that social life, and especially religious life, express themselves in full and true freedom, as indeed various international documents provide for it.  With my constant prayer I accompany the whole Catholic community and the people of goodwill in Hong Kong, so that they can build a prosperous and harmonious society together.”

Vatican personnel did not provide an explanation, let alone acknowledge, why the Pope omitted the prepared statement at the last minute.  Not only would it not have been an overly condemning proclamation against the CCP, it would have not been a significant intervention.  Why this abstention?  It appears that it is part of the Vatican protocol to refrain from any direct criticism with a rogue nation after a mutual agreement has been made.

In 2018 the Holy See -- the universal government of the Catholic Church -- made a provisional agreement, designed by the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, with China with the hope of “reconciling... to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics,” in particular, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, that is, the clergy and the faithful of the State Church.

The immediate impression is that Catholicism has found real serenity in China. Although the details of the 2018 agreement have not yet been made public, we know that the Communist Party of China (CPC) has the authority to appoint bishops; the Pope confirms them.

Brief History of Vatican Agreements with Rogue Regimes

This is not the first time the Holy See has agreed with an authoritarian state, such as:

  • The Lateran Treaty of February 11, 1929, which ended a long and troubled historical, diplomatic and political journey that led to the dual recognition between the Italian State and  the Vatican City State.  The paradox was that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was able to consolidate his power, and with the support of almost the entire Italian Catholic hierarchy, he led Italy into two wars: the one against Ethiopia (1935) and World War II.
  • The Reichskonkordat between the Holy See and Nazi Germany, which was signed on 20 July 1933, by the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII) -- despite the misgivings of Pope Pius XI -- and Franz von Papen, the Vice Chancellor for Adolf Hitler.  It also ensured the loyalty of bishops to the state through an oath and required that all priests be Germans and subjects to German superiors.  Restrictions were also placed on Catholic organizations.

In the 1960s, the Church began, under its principal architect, Archbishop Augustine Casaroli, the strategic policy of Ostpolitik -- the policy of normalizing relations and openness towards the Warsaw Pact nations: the satellite countries of the former Soviet Union.  The tactics included ending all public criticism against communist regimes and endless negotiations with such rogue governments.  The results were, to put it gently, terrible:

  • In Hungary in the mid-1970s, the leadership of the Church and its properties were micromanaged by the Hungarian Communist Party, which also had de facto control of the Hungarian College in Rome.
  • In Czechoslovakia, the ostpolitik empowered a band of Catholic collaborators who served as a front for the Communist Party and its repressions.

All of this began to end with the election of Pope St. John Paul II in 1978 who unmasked the  hypocrisy of the Warsaw Pact communist dictatorships -- it was through the efforts of this pope, together with then-President Ronald Reagan, that communism in Poland collapsed, triggering a domino effect that brought down the other communist regimes including the U.S.S.R.

Present-Day Relation with China

Let us not forget that Communist China has one of the greatest human rights violators in the world, as demonstrated by the CCP’s demographic genocide pursuit of Uighur Muslims.  The U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China and have reported that -- I shall limit myself to one example -- Chinese authorities have demolished the crosses on top of churches, such as in the Diocese of Xinxiang in Henan Province. A priest, Father Shanren Shenfu, explained that silence in the face of the destruction of crosses is part of the price for the Vatican's agreement with the CCP:

“Now when a cross is removed, Christians must be calm and smile.  Accepting the removal of crosses as a daily occurrence therefore seems to be the only great contribution that the Chinese Catholic faithful and all the people of God can make to the continuation of the agreement.”

The 88-year-old Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, condemned the entire China-Hong Kong affair as “the most cruel thing” the Vatican has done concerning the Catholic Church in China, and “absolutely against the doctrine of the Church, because it encourages people to be part of a schismatic Church.”

One could perhaps understand the Pope’s reluctance in condemning the China’s suppression of democracy in Hong Kong for fear that the Xi regime will renege on the provisional agreement, which is expected to be renewed for another two years this September -- the Holy See has yet to establish formal diplomatic relations with China.  That being said, as conveyed by Cardinal Zen -- who said this week that he is prepared to be arrested by the CCP under Hong Kong’s new draconian National Security Law -- the Vatican silence is deafening. 

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