On cages and evangelization in China

George Weigel

Joshua Wong is a young Chinese human rights activist, recently sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison on the Orwellian charge of “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly” – meaning, in Chinese Newspeak, urging others to protest peacefully the tyranny now throttling Hong Kong. In his first letter from prison, the uncowed Mr. Wong wrote, “Cages cannot lock up souls.” Indeed, they cannot. But the failure to defend the caged by standing in solidarity with them can do the gravest damage to evangelization.

Jimmy Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent Catholic defenders of religious freedom and other basic human rights, was back in jail in early December; his bail in a civil lease dispute was revoked on the grounds that he might flee and is a national security risk to boot. The real reason for his incarceration, of course, is that keeping Mr. Lai in prison stifles his ongoing challenge to repression. In numerous interviews, Jimmy Lai has emphasized that his Catholic faith undergirds and sustains his commitment to human rights for all, even as the Xi Jinping regime tries to ruin his business and threatens his life. Has Jimmy Lai been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against his persecution since he became a prime target of China’s overlords? No.

Martin Lee is another devout Catholic, a distinguished barrister, and pro-democracy activist, who has seen his work undone as Beijing tightens its stranglehold on Hong Kong in brazen disregard of the commitments it made in 1997, when Great Britain reverted sovereignty over the territory to China. Profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lee rebuffed any suggestion that he would ever leave Hong Kong: “If I have the choice of dying peacefully in bed outside Hong Kong, or dying in pain in a Chinese jail, the question for me is not how I die, but will I go to heaven? Dying without my convictions is what would really give me pain.” Has this Chinese embodiment of the spirit of St. Thomas More been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against Beijing’s tyranny? No.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Vatican initiated a meeting between Pope Francis and a group of NBA players and their union representatives, evidently to discuss issues of justice in the United States. Has any similar outreach been made to Chinese Catholic human rights activists – or even to the redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and another courageous defender of religious freedom throughout China? No.

Attempts to defend this shameful Vatican reluctance to support beleaguered Chinese Catholics publicly remain unpersuasive, even ludicrous. Some argue that current Vatican China policy is necessary to regularize the Catholic situation in China, which suffers from a deficit of bishops; how a method of appointing bishops that leaves the opening moves in the process to the Chinese communist party, in violation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (which was given legal effect in Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon Law), is not self-evidently clear. Others argue that the Church must take thuggish regimes as they are and try to create open space for Catholic life under those circumstances; but this makes no sense in today’s Chinese situation, where the Xi Jinping regime uses intimidation and torture to impose on the entire country what amounts to an alternative religion – canine fealty to the Chinese communist party and its maximum leader. As for the risible claim that the arrangement begun in 2018 is an advance because it recognizes the pope’s position as head of the Catholic Church: Of what use is that recognition of the obvious, in the face of ubiquitous regime propaganda touting Xi Jinping as a quasi-divine figure to whose benevolent wisdom all must defer?

Like Catholicism-vs.-communism in east central Europe during the Cold War, Catholicism-vs.-communism in China is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. There is no middle ground of accommodation where everyone lives happily ever after. Someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose. The Ostpolitik of the Vatican in the 1960s and 1970s never grasped this; John Paul II did, and the self-liberation of Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries followed in 1989. 

Chinese communism is not immortal. When it ends, China will be the greatest field of Christian mission in centuries. A Catholicism identified with the old, despised regime will be at a serious evangelical disadvantage in post-communist China: not least because it will be seen to have failed Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Joseph Zen, and so many other noble and courageous confessors of the faith. 

Featured Photo by Alejandro Luengo on Unsplash

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!