The Vatican, China, and evangelical prudence

Recent remarks by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, have fueled speculation about a possible exchange of diplomatic representation between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China. Unfortunately, the cardinal’s remarks did not address any of the serious questions that have been raised about the evangelical and prudential wisdom of such an agreement at this moment in history. Those questions involve the nature of the PRC regime; the doctrine and canon law of the Church; the impact of such an agreement on Vatican diplomacy in promoting human rights; and the Church’s 21st-century mission in China.

  1. Rather than liberalizing, the communist regime of President Xi Jinping is relentlessly turning the screws on human rights activists, Christian dissidents, and anyone else imagined to be a threat to regime stability. Some of repulsive tactics employed in this campaign of repression were described last month in a powerful article in First Thingsby a Chinese Christian convert, Yu Jie, that ought to be required reading in the Holy See’s Secretariat of State: Yu’s testimony also raises the question of whether any “agreement” with the Chinese communist regime would actually be honored by Beijing.
  2. For decades, the sticking point in negotiations between the Vatican and the PRC has involved the appointment of bishops. The communists insist that the government play a role in this process. Yet Canon 377, par. 5, in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, following the lead of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Pastoral Office of Bishops in the Church, states that, “In the future, no rights and privileges of election, nomination, presentation, or designation of bishops are granted to civil authorities.” It took over a century of deft Vatican diplomacy, disentangling the appointment of bishops from various political imbroglios, to make that canon possible, and the 21st-century Church now has the capacity to choose its leadership by its own criteria. Why should that great accomplishment – arguably the most notable in the modern history of Vatican diplomacy – be compromised, Vatican II undermined, and Church law de factosuspended, to mollify totalitarians determined to make the Catholic Church a branch of the Chinese communist state?
  3. The throw-weight of the Holy See, the papacy, and the Catholic Church in 21st-century world affairs reflects the perception that the Church has become the world’s preeminent institutional defender of basic human rights – and thus the greatest bulwark, among the great world religions, to the freedom project around the globe. Yet a diplomatic deal between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China would require severing Vatican diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, where, on Taiwan, a robust democracy – the first in millennia of Chinese history – has been developed. What would throwing the democratic Taiwanese over the side for the sake of a deal with communist Beijing say about the Vatican’s commitment to human rights and democracy? What would such a deal do to the moral standing of the Holy See in the world – which in fact (if not in Italianate fantasy) is the only standing, and the only leverage, the Holy See has?
  4. While evangelical Christianity in growing rapidly in mainland China, some statistics indicate that Catholicism is not doing nearly as well in a cultural environment in which many people are seeking answers to life’s questions that go beyond consumerism. Why this lag? In part, one suspects, because the longstanding divisions in Chinese Catholicism between regime opponents and regime-friendly laity and clergy have sapped the Church’s evangelical energy. Some of those rifts have been healed in recent decades. But a premature Vatican agreement with the Beijing regime would almost certainly harden the lines of division for the foreseeable future, and in ways that would further jeopardize the missionary thrust enjoined on the whole Church by Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium. Might not something be learned from the experience of those Chinese “house churches” that are flourishing despite no formal recognition from the Chinese government? How precisely does a nuncio in Beijing accelerate the Catholic Church’s evangelical mission in the PRC? That’s another, and perhaps the most serious, question that has yet to be addressed by Cardinal Parolin and others.

COMING UP: They’re confessors, not ‘culture-warriors’

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Like Shelby Foote’s three-volume masterpiece, The Civil War: A Narrative, Francis Parkman’s seven-volume colossus, France and England in North America, is worth reading and re-reading for its literary elegance as well as its historical insight. Parkman, like Foote, wrote history from a point of view: in Parkman’s case, the Whiggish conviction that, when Wolfe defeated Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, North America was won for liberty against popish authoritarianism. Yet, again like Foote, the elegiac southerner who recognized Lincoln’s greatness, Parkman was bigger than his point-of-view and could thus celebrate the heroism of the 17th-century Jesuits martyred in the raw wilderness of the New World.

Re-reading the last volume of Parkman’s massive work, I was struck, however, not by the Bostonian’s occasional historiographic dyspepsia, but by his keen insight into the future. Here, in the late-19th century, was a man who had spent decades chronicling the pre-history of the United States. Yet at the very end of it all, he turned his mind to the challenges ahead of his country, and did so in ways worth pondering today. The prose is a bit old-fashioned, but the message is spot-on contemporary in this election season:

“The disunited colonies became the United States. The string of discordant communities along the Atlantic coast has grown into a mighty people, joined in a union which the earthquake of civil war only served to compact and consolidate… [Americans] have become a nation that may defy every foe but that most dangerous of foes, herself, destined to a majestic future if she will shun the excess and perversion of the principles that made her great, prate less about the enemies of the past and strive more against the enemies of the future, resist the mob and the demagogue as she resisted Parliament and King, rally her powers from the race for gold and the delirium of prosperity to make firm the foundations on which that prosperity rests, and turn some fair proportion of her vast mental forces to other objects than material progress and the game of party politics. She has tamed the savage continent, peopled the solitude, gathered wealth untold, waxed potent, imposing, redoubtable; and now it remains for her to prove, if she can, that the rule of the masses is consistent with the highest growth of the individual; that democracy can give the world a civilization as mature and pregnant, ideas as energetic and vitalizing, and types of manhood as lofty and strong, as any of the systems which it boasts to supplant.”

For some years now, courageous Catholic bishops in these United States have been issuing a similar challenge: to avoid a “perversion of the principles” on which American democracy rests – a deterioration that reduces freedom to willfulness; to “resist the mob and the demagogue,” when the people fall for the blandishments of the sound bite and embrace candidates unworthy of public office; to see in the American democratic experiment “something more than the race for gold;” and to live the truths of Catholic social doctrine in order to “make firm the foundations on which…prosperity rests.”

In doing all this, these bishops have followed the lead of the Second Vatican Council by calling their people to live freedom nobly, not as self-indulgence but as a method of responsibility. Theirs has been a genuinely public service, for in challenging U.S. Catholics to give our country a new birth of freedom rightly understood, these bishops have called the entire country to reclaim the “principles that made her great,” including those principles that the social doctrine calls “the dignity of the human person,” “the common good,” “subsidiarity” and “solidarity.”

For their pains, these bishops are now derided in some quarters as “culture-warriors.” It’s a title that St. Augustine, St. Charles Borromeo, and St. John Paul II (in his days as archbishop of Cracow) would have regarded as an apt description of their responsibilities when faced with cultural aggressions of various sorts. But the real term for the American bishops who have issued a challenge similar to Francis Parkman’s is another that could be applied to Augustine, Borromeo, and Wojtyla: “confessor” – a synonym for defenders of the faith.

For the faith includes the truth about the human person and human communities, which nations ignore at their peril.