Kung-pao diplomacy?

George Weigel

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State of the Holy See, recently told an Italian journal that relations between the Vatican and the People’s Republic of China “are living a positive phase, as there have been signals from both sides that there is a wish to keep on talking in order to find together solutions to the problems of the presence of the Catholic Church in that huge country.” The cardinal continued by saying that “perspectives are promising,” and expressed the hope that “the blossom will flourish and bear good fruits…”

The language was flowery-diplomatic, but the message seemed clear: discussions were proceeding with regard to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing. Which is curious, in that the PRC isn’t getting on very well with just about anyone else these days. Its saber-rattling in the South China Sea has got Vietnam and the Philippines nervous. Anti-Japanese propaganda from Beijing sources has been ratcheted up. Indian efforts to improve relations with China have gone essentially nowhere.

Then there is that new law being pushed by President Xi Jinping, which would drastically hinder the work of Chinese non-governmental organizations and foreign human rights and pro-democracy agencies trying to aid their compatriots in China. And as if all that weren’t enough, President Xi’s regime has been cracking down on dissidents, including Christians who don’t kowtow to the party-regime’s demand to control everything that looks like civil society.

So why, one wonders, is the same PRC government that’s becoming ever more menacing abroad and repressive at home getting along rather well with the Holy See, such that relations are “in a positive phase”?

It’s well known that Pope Francis would like to go to China, and so far as the papal diplomats are concerned, it’s inconceivable that such a visit could take place without diplomatic relations being established between the Holy See and the PRC. That’s what I was told more than fifteen years ago, when I was working on my biography of John Paul II, and the same conviction seems to be in play today. But why is that the case?

Yes, a papal visit to a country that doesn’t have an apostolic nuncio would be logistically more difficult; but since when did Peter’s mission to strengthen the brethren (Luke 22.32) depend on formal diplomatic relations? Paul VI went to the United States, Jordan, and Israel years before the Holy See had diplomatic relations with those countries. Surely Pope Francis, whose disregard for precedents and procedures is part of his appeal to many, isn’t going to be constrained by what his diplomats regard as the proprieties – although he might be blocked by the PRC, which would clearly use diplomatic relations as a bargaining chip in negotiations for any papal visit.

This passion among Vatican diplomats for getting a deal done with the PRC has always puzzled me. It would almost certainly mean severing diplomatic relations with the Republic of China in Taiwan, the first democracy in Chinese history. If Taiwan is thrown over the side for the sake of a deal with Bejing, what signal does that send to the world, and to Chinese democrats and human rights activists on the mainland – including Christians – about the Catholic Church’s commitment to free societies? Moreover, one can’t draw a lot of satisfaction from recent Vatican attempts to get along by going along with dictators and authoritarians. Being nice to the brothers Castro has done nothing for a human rights situation in Cuba that has actually gotten worse.

My bottom-line concern here is for the Church’s evangelical future in China, not for diplomacy. If the Holy See makes a deal that seems to abandon Chinese democrats on Taiwan, while seeming to turn a blind eye to the pressures intensifying on civil society institutions (including churches) on the mainland, the Church’s evangelical mission is going to be seriously damaged, now and in the future. And at what price? The price of a place at the diplomatic table with one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world, which is currently perfecting methods of political and social control beyond the dreams of Chairman Mao?

Not worth the candle, I should say.

COMING UP: Intolerance and evangelization

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Cardinal Robert Sarah is one of the adornments of the Catholic Church, although it’s very unlikely that this man of faith, humor, intelligence, and profound humility would appreciate my putting it that way. His 2015 book, God or Nothing, is selling all over the world, currently available in twelve languages with more to come. The book tells his story, that of a contemporary confessor of the faith who accepted episcopal ordination knowing that he might well be killed for his witness to Christ by the madcap Marxist dictator who then ran his West African country, Guinea. But the point of God or Nothing is not to advertise the virtues of Robert Sarah: the book is an invitation to faith, addressed to everyone, but with special urgency to those parts of the world dying from a suffocating indifference to the things of the spirit.

The cardinal, who was appointed by Pope Francis as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments with the mandate to continue the reform of the liturgical reform accelerated by Benedict XVI, was in Washington recently to address the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. Cardinal Sarah is not a showman, but he made a deep impression on the 1,300 in attendance by the depth of his faith and the lucidity of his presentation. He spoke movingly of the solidarity of which human beings are capable because we’re made in the likeness of the original communion of solidarity – the Holy Trinity. And in that context he defended the weakest and most vulnerable among us, in all stages of life, calling his American audience to live the truths on which the nascent nation staked its independence.

He then warned, quite rightly, that the “death of God” too often results, not in God’s burial, but in the “burial of good, beauty, love, and truth” through their inversion: “Good becomes evil, beauty is ugly, love becomes the satisfaction of sexual primal instincts, and truths are all relative.”

This accurate description of one root of today’s culture wars earned Cardinal Sarah the usual rebukes in the left-leaning Catholic blogosphere, where that shopworn parade of horribles – Manichaeism, culture-warrior, not-with-the-Pope Francis-program, etc. – was dusted off and trotted out yet again. Ironically, however, Cardinal Sarah’s address and his portside critics’ predictable response more-or-less coincided with a striking blog post by a Harvard Law School professor, Mark Tushnet, who seems not to have gotten the memo from the Catholic left that we should all just get along. Thus Professor Tushnet, writing in a post entitled “Abandoning Defensive Crouch Liberal Constitutionalism:”

“The culture wars are over; they lost, we won….For liberals, the question now is how to deal with the losers in the culture wars. That’s mostly a question of tactics. My own judgment is that taking a hard line (‘You lost, live with it’) is better than trying to accommodate the losers who – remember – defended, and are defending, positions that liberals regard as having no normative pull at all. Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War…And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945….”

There is intolerant, aggressive, God-burying secularism in a nutshell: those of us who believe in marriage as it’s been understood for millennia, the right to life of the unborn and the elderly, men using men’s bathrooms, and religious freedom in full are the equivalents of post-Civil War lynch mobs, Nazis, and kamikaze-inducing Japanese militarists. Instead of berating Cardinal Sarah for speaking truth to dominant cultural and political power, might it not behoove his carping critics in the progressive Catholic blogosphere to challenge those in their political camp, like Mark Tushnet, who commit such calumnies – as some of us on the other side of the aisle, so to speak, have challenged the calumnies of Donald Trump? Is there no courage to be different left on the Catholic left?

Leon Trotsky, the old Bolshevik eventually liquidated by Stalin, famously said that “you may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you.” Change “dialectic” to “culture war” and you’ve got the truth of our situation, as Cardinal Sarah understands. Recognizing that truth is the beginning of any serious effort to follow Pope Francis and heal, evangelize, and convert the culture today.