The China syndrome

The recent decision by China’s government-sponsored Patriotic Catholic Association (PCA) to ordain and install bishops whose nominations had not been approved by the Pope has, according to press reports, put the possibility of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing into the deep freeze. Why, though, did anyone think a real thaw was underway in the first place?

Perhaps this misperception was due in part to some wishful thinking (and subsequent leaking) on the part of senior Vatican officials, who regard full diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China as, primo, a good thing in itself and, secondo, the key to seizing the opportunities for evangelization that will be available when China opens itself fully to the world. Both propositions are questionable. Under current circumstances, establishing full diplomatic relations with the PRC means transferring the Holy See embassy to Beijing from Taiwan — which just happens to be home to the first Chinese democracy in five millennia. What would such a move do to the Catholic Church’s hard-earned (and well-deserved) reputation as the premier moral force behind the contemporary human rights revolution? And what would such a potential dent in the Church’s image (whether fair or unfair) do to the Church’s prospects in a future Chinese free market of religions, into which evangelical Protestants, Mormons, and others who won’t bear the burden of entanglement with the communist regime will eventually flood?

Is Pope Benedict XVI taking a harder line on China than his predecessor? That’s another media misperception, and it’s rooted, I expect, in historical myopia. In 1870, Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and certain missionary territories were the only places in the world where the Church could appoint bishops without interference from (or, as the euphemism had it, the “cooperation” of) the state. For the past 125 years, recovering the libertas ecclesiae, the Church’s freedom to order its internal life without state interference, has been a prime concern of Vatican diplomacy. Different accommodations have had to be made at different times, but the Church has never conceded to the state a right-of-appointment of bishops that is independent of the papacy. Perhaps an accommodation of a sort could be offered to the present regime in Beijing — but its acceptance seems unlikely, given the regime’s manifest determination to keep what it regards as the genie of religious freedom firmly corked in a state-sealed bottle. That determination, not any “hardening” on the part of Benedict XVI, is the heart of the matter today, as it was during the pontificate of John Paul II. And until that changes, nothing dramatic is possible.

Some light was cast on the complexity of all this during a recent conversation I had with one of China’s most prominent Catholic laymen (who, for reasons of prudence, must remain anonymous). He confirmed that there had been a significant grassroots rapprochement between members of the PCA and members of the underground Church, as he confirmed that many PCA bishops had made submissions to Rome and now prayed publicly for, and in communion with, the Pope. This reconciliation, which was part of John Paul II’s China strategy, is detested by the Chinese regime; the recent episcopal ordinations and installations, which took place under duress, were in part an effort to reinsert wedges between PCA Catholics and underground Catholics.

My interlocutor made two other important points. First, in his view (which he believes Pope Benedict shares), no deal with the Beijing regime is better than a bad deal — and a bad deal, in these circumstances, means a deal in which the government’s role in the appointment of bishops is unacceptably intrusive. Second, and despite the regime’s ritual rants about Christianity-and-colonialism, Catholicism is immensely attractive in China because the Chinese people associate Christianity with modernization, with a more decent society, and with a better way of life.

All of which prompts the thought that a Vatican that “thinks in centuries” can well afford to bide its time in dealing with a regime that is only fifty-seven years old — a regime that, on my friend’s analysis, may unravel in the next decade or two.


COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.