In talks with China, the Vatican seems too willing to sacrifice principles—and the faithful

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 26, 2018

In reporting on the Catholic Church in China, it is often difficult to establish the real facts. Some bishops of the “underground” Church practice their ministry openly, with the tacit consent of local government officials, while some bishops of the government-sponsored “official” Church have won the approval of the Holy See. Since Church leaders try to avoid open conflicts, in order to preserve the unity of their flocks, the lines of separation between “official” and “underground” are not clear—especially not to outside observers.

Still the divisions persist. Some “underground” bishops are arrested and harassed by government officials. Others might practice their ministry openly today, but live under the constant threat that they could face harassment if government policies change, since they have no official standing. At the other end of the spectrum, some “official” bishops were ordained and installed without the approval of the Holy See, and are therefore subject to the penalty of excommunication.

If there is a bargain to be struck between the Holy See and the Beijing regime, it would be natural to expect a mutual recognition: the Holy See would recognize the “official” bishops, and lift any ban of excommunication, while the government would recognize the “underground” bishops. But the latest reports, from the highly credible AsiaNews service, suggest that the Vatican is ready to accept a one-sided deal: the “underground” bishops will be eased out, and illicit bishops will take their places.

As always there are complications. The loyal bishops who are being asked to resign are well beyond the normal retirement age. To date they have not been able to resign, because the government has not allowed the Holy See to name their replacements. But if the AsiaNews report is accurate, the Vatican still could not name the replacements; the government’s choices would be accepted.

Why would the Vatican accept such a deal? For months Cardinal Joseph Zen has been warning that Vatican officials are too anxious to reach an agreement—virtually any agreement—with Beijing. The wily Chinese cardinal insists that the Beijing regime will exploit any accord to strengthen its hold on the Church on the mainland. This week Cardinal Zen was in Rome, standing in line in St. Peter’s Square to present an urgent petition to Pope Francis, pleading against acceptance of the rumored deal.

Yet again, the story is a bit more complicated than the Taiwan Times report suggested. It was a bit melodramatic to say that Cardinal Zen “lined up in the cold” at the papal audience; the weather in Rome that day was a sunny 55 degrees—perhaps cool by Taiwan standards, but certainly not bone-chilling. More important, it was wrong to convey the impression that Pope Francis would refuse to meet with the cardinal; in fact they had spoken at a private audience the previous week. Still the fact remains that Cardinal Zen was back at the Vatican, pressing his case, begging for the Holy Father to recognize the dangers that face the Church in China.

And the cardinal’s warning is impossible to dismiss. In negotiations, when one side feels that it must reach an agreement, and the other will not budge from its position, an accord can be reached only if the more flexible party abandons its own demands. In this case, there is a great deal of reason to fear that if the Vatican strikes a deal with Beijing, that deal will come at the expense of the loyal Catholics who have already suffered so much for the faith.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - Jan. 27, 2018 10:47 AM ET USA

    St. John Paul II understood very well the dangers the Church faces under totalitarian regimes. Pope Francis and his advisors do not seem to fully comprehend that type of reality. They all need our prayers: Pope Francis and the Catholics of China