Evangelical challenges for Vatican diplomacy

The bilateral diplomacy of the Holy See is unique in world affairs, in that it has little or nothing to do with the things with which diplomats typically occupy their time: trade issues, security matters, visas. Rather, the reason why the Vatican engages in bilateral diplomacy is to secure the freedom of the Catholic Church to be itself in the countries with which the Holy See has, or wishes to have, diplomatic relations. To be sure, in crisis situations, the Holy See’s representative in a crumbling or violence-ridden state can also serve as an honest broker amidst contending local parties, or a voice for persecuted Catholic communities, or a channel for humanitarian assistance. But whatever the situation, the first task of the pope’s representative to another sovereignty is to help maintain free space for the Church’s evangelical, sacramental, educational and charitable missions, all of which are essential to what it means to be “the Catholic Church” in any human situation.

This unique character can create unique challenges; two such challenges today involve Cuba and China.

In Cuba, the role played by Vatican officials and the archbishop of Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, in facilitating the recent agreement between the United States and Cuba to restore full diplomatic relations has significantly raised the stakes for how the local Church in Cuba, and the Holy See, play their respective hands in the last days of the Castro regime.

Those “last days” may, alas, be a matter of years; still, that Castroism has no future seems obvious to everyone except the brothers Castro. Some Catholic leaders in Cuba are understandably concerned to use what openings may now be available to build up the Church’s infrastructure in that long-suffering island. But if that build-up involves a kind of relationship with the present Cuban regime that precludes strong, vocal and visible Catholic support for those hard-pressed Cuban human rights activists who form the core of the post-communist Cuban civil society of the future, the evangelical mission of the Church in a post-Castro Cuba could be seriously imperiled.

Building-while-resisting, and thus helping accelerate the change toward a post-Castro future: that is the challenge for Cuban Catholicism, which will face the daunting task of re-converting Cuba in the 21st century. The local Church should be firmly supported in both aspects of that work, the building and the resisting, by the Holy See.

Then there’s the new thaw in the Holy See’s relations with the People’s Republic of China. It’s no secret that senior Vatican diplomats have long sought full diplomatic exchange at the ambassadorial level with the PRC; the theory is that such diplomatic recognition will give the Catholic Church a more secure place at the table as China determines its future. But here, too, there are evangelical concerns to be considered.

Full diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the PRC would require the Vatican to sever its diplomatic ties with Taiwan—the first Chinese democracy in that ancient country’s 5,000-year history. And while there is nothing inexorable about a transition to democracy in mainland China, there does seem something inherently unstable about communist regimes—especially if they’ve been sitting atop a substantial middle class that’s not going to accept political disenfranchisement indefinitely. If and when a Chinese democratic revolution happens, too close a relationship with a faltering communist regime with a long history of persecuting Christians and pro-democracy activists could be an obstacle to the evangelization of China—which, when it fully opens itself to the world, will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the western hemisphere in the 16th century.

We may be sure that Evangelical Protestants and Mormons, who will not be burdened by having had diplomatic relations with the PRC, are already thinking hard about their missions in a post-communist China. That, too, should concentrate Catholic minds on how the alleged benefits of a deal between the Vatican and the current regime in Beijing are to be weighed against the potential perils to the new evangelization in a post-communist China.

COMING UP: Q&A: USCCB clarifies intent behind bishops’ Eucharist document

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Last week, the U.S. bishop concluded their annual Spring meeting, during which much about the Church in the U.S was discussed. In particular, the bishops voted to draft a document on the meaning of Eucharistic life in the Church, which was approved by an overwhelming majority.

Since then, speculation about the nature of the document has run rampant, the chief of which is that it was drafted specifically to instigate a policy aimed directly at Catholic politicians and public figures whose outward political expressions and policy enactment do not align with Church teaching.

The USCCB has issued a brief Q&A clarifying the intent of the document, and they have emphasized that “the question of whether or not to deny any individual or groups Holy Communion was not on the ballot.”

“The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life,” the USCCB said. “The importance of nurturing an ever
deeper understanding of the beauty and mystery of the Eucharist in our lives is not a new topic for the bishops. The document being drafted is not meant to be disciplinary in nature, nor is it targeted at any one individual or class of persons. It will include a section on the Church’s teaching on the responsibility of every Catholic, including bishops, to live in accordance with the truth, goodness and beauty of the Eucharist we celebrate.”

Below are a few commonly asked questions about last week’s meeting and the document on the Eucharist.

Why are the bishops doing this now?

For some time now, a major concern of the bishops has been the declining belief and understanding of the Eucharist among the Catholic faithful. This was a deep enough concern that the theme of the bishops’ strategic plan for 2021-2024 is Created Anew by the Body and Blood of Christ: Source of Our Healing and Hope. This important document on the Eucharist will serve as a foundation for the multi-year Eucharistic Revival Project, a major national effort to reignite Eucharistic faith in our country. It was clear from the intensity and passion expressed in the individual interventions made by the bishops during last week’s meeting that each bishop deeply loves the Eucharist.

Did the bishops vote to ban politicians from receiving Holy Communion?

No, this was not up for vote or debate. The bishops made no decision about barring anyone from receiving Holy Communion. Each Catholic — regardless of whether they hold public office or not — is called to continual conversion, and the U.S. bishops have repeatedly emphasized the obligation of all Catholics to support human life and dignity and other fundamental principles of Catholic moral and social teaching.

Are the bishops going to issue a national policy on withholding Communion from politicians?

No. There will be no national policy on withholding Communion from politicians. The intent is to present a clear understanding of the Church’s teachings to bring heightened awareness among the faithful of how the Eucharist can transform our lives and bring us closer to our creator and the life he wants for us.

Did the Vatican tell the bishops not to move forward on drafting the document?

No. The Holy See did encourage the bishops to engage in dialogue and broad consultation. Last week’s meeting was the first part of that process. It is important to note that collaboration and consultation among the bishops will be key in the drafting of this document.


Featured photo by Eric Mok on Unsplash