What help can the Church’s baptised expect from the Vatican (as opposed to the Church itself) should they ever find their faith seriously facing persecution from a government with whom ambitious Vatican monsignori wish to reach a diplomatic ‘accommodation?’
In light of the provisional agreement reached between the People’s Republic of China and the Vatican in 2018, the question is neither obtuse nor irrelevant. One of the potential answers is disturbing because the answer may be ‘little’ or ‘none’.
Even worse is the possibility that such diplomats could be willing, ultimately, to effectively abandon the men, women, children, religious, priests and bishops who have remained heroically faithful to the Church over nearly a century – should those diplomats decide that such an abandonment is what it takes to reach their long-hoped-for accommodation.
If this was ever to turn out to be the truth, both a major scandal and a tragedy would undoubtedly have transpired in the Church.
The question at the beginning of this editorial is actually the question on the mind of every seriously interested party and observer of the agreement forged in 2018 between Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and – ultimately – Xi Jinping, the details of which remain secret to this day.
Setting aside for a moment the question of why it is secret and why the adult baptised of the Church are not allowed to know at least the important details (are we not adult enough?), the gravest concerns surrounding the whole affair continue to multiply.
With the estimated 12-15 million mainland Chinese Catholics clearly on his mind, especially the millions of faithful underground Catholics, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has been trenchantly and devastatingly critical of the agreement, the process which led to it and its effects.
Cardinal Parolin, he has bluntly told media, is misleading Pope Francis on the whole issue. Cardinal Zen is clearly dismayed by the seeming abandonment of the faithful underground Church by the Vatican. And he is not the only one.
Speaking to media in March he said the agreement has created despair among faithful Chinese Catholics. “When many of my brothers in despair come to me for advice, I tell them: Don’t criticise those who follow the guideline from Rome.
“But since the guideline leaves room for objection of conscience, you can quietly retire into the state of catacombs and don’t resist by force to any injustice, you could only suffer more losses.”
The last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, basically agrees and is on record as stating that the Vatican “got it badly wrong on China” and that he is sympathetic to the position of Cardinal Zen, whose book For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent on the Vatican and China was published by Ignatius Press late in 2019.
Last week the remarkable laywoman, Audrey Donnithorne, passed away in Hong Kong at the age of 95 (see obituary P24). Born and raised in China, the English-educated convert maintained a lifelong love affair with the country of her birth and went on to become a global expert in Chinese political and economic affairs and the state and progress of Christianity and the Catholic Church in China.
“The resumption of diplomatic relations between China and the Holy See will probably come eventually, but in God’s time, in this millennium or the next,” she wrote in her autobiography China – In Life’s Foreground, published in Australia in 2019.
“Also, we must bear in mind that, perhaps, the greatest long-term danger to the Church in China may come not from government oppression but from government patronage and that, as in the fourth century West, the switch from one to the other might arrive with surprising speed. Such a development would be facilitated by any concession made by the Holy See to allow the Chinese government a role in the appointment of bishops.”
Seen at this distance, Ms Donnithorne’s remarks, taken in conjunction with the readings of experts such as Cardinal Zen, former Governor Chris Patten and numerous others intimately more familiar with matters Chinese than Vatican diplomats, seem almost prescient. “Be as innocent as doves,” Christ famously told his followers, exhorting them at the same time to be as wise as serpents in their dealings with others.
It’s a shame that despite the overwhelming evidence of the radical increase in official persecution of Christianity – and other faiths – which has occurred throughout the term of the current agreement by Xi Jinping’s regime, Vatican diplomats such as Cardinal Parolin seem to have taken only half of those words to heart in dealing with Xi and the comrades.
If so, those who are paying the price are the baptised faithful, religious and clergy of China and this, ordinarily, would be called a tragedy. But perhaps, like Marx, we could also accurately call it a farce.