Spadaro on the China accord: 2+2=5 again

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 25, 2018

Father Antonio Spadaro, the papal confidant who told us that in theology 2+2 can equal 5, has now turned to the study of music for an explanation of what is happening in the Vatican’s agreement with China:

It is helpful to understand this agreement as a true harmony of notes. That is to say, the beginning of a composition that has yet to be developed.

In an essay for Civilta Cattolica, the journal that he edits, Father Spadaro does not tell us how the theme of the new accord will be developed. He tells us, in fact, that we cannot know what the future will bring. “There are no automatic guarantees the quality of Chinese Catholic religious life will improve,” he concedes near the end of the essay. Yet he is fully confident—on the basis of the opening notes, the pleasant chord that he has heard—that this agreement represents another great success.

The challenge—for Father Spadaro and anyone else who seeks to justify the agreement—is to explain how it could possibly be prudent to give an atheistic regime the opportunity to appoint Catholic bishops. How can this be a step forward for the Church? Some observers have advanced the theory that the accord is a step toward the broader goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations between Rome and Beijing, with greater benefits to follow. But Father Spadaro dismisses that line of thought. This agreement, he says—following the line stressed in the official Vatican announcement of the pact—is not a political move. “The agreement between China and the Holy See is radically and essentially pastoral.”

Good. So the purpose of the agreement is to advance the mission of the Church in China. How will this be done? Father Spadaro asks that question himself—and watch how he begins his answer:

Which forms of evangelization and service can the Chinese Catholic Church offer to be near to these people in their ongoing quest for meaning? Is the Church ready to face this challenge?

The ‘political’ challenge...

Interesting. The “political” challenge came first in his own appraisal of future prospects. And just a few lines further down, Father Spadaro adds the “challenge of Sinicization”—that is, the challenge of ensuring that the Church in China is fully Chinese in outlook, in accordance with to the stated goal of the country’s Communist Party for all religious bodies. How this goal is connected with the pastoral priorities of the Catholic Church is not entirely clear.

Father Spadaro notes with approval that Pope Francis has spoken in the past about “politically constructive” relations with China. He quotes the Pope’s thoughts on the Chinese challenge:

For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with unending wisdom. As a boy, whatever I read about China would fill me with admiration. I admired China. Later, I studied the life of Matteo Ricci and I say that he felt the same thing I felt: admiration. I understood how he was able to dialogue with this great culture and its ancient wisdom. He was able to meet it.

A great culture, yes. Ancient wisdom, yes. And also, might I add, from a pastoral perspective, more than one billion souls in need of salvation, more than one billion people to whom we might preach the Gospel.

That is, if we are allowed to preach the Gospel. Despite the Vatican-Beijing agreement, there is no sign that the Chinese regime will relax in its drive to banish religious faith: to rule that preachers cannot use the airwaves, that believers cannot hold public office, that police may break up “unauthorized” household prayer services, that anyone who is truly in harmony with the spirit of China (see: “Sinicization”) will eschew religious ties.

The bulk of the Civilta Cattolica essay is devoted to a historical survey of Church agreements with various government regimes. Father Spadaro remarks: “The history of the Church [sc. with respect to episcopal appointments] is rather to be considered as the history of the search for agreements with political authorities on the nomination of bishops.” He cites, for example, the 1801 concordat with Napoleon, which helped the Church in France recover from the disastrous effects of the French Revolution. That concordat, our instructor tells us, brought “a new way to the relations between a modern state and the Catholic Church, between civil society and professed religion.” Which sounds to me like a political rather than primarily pastoral achievement. But whatever the benefits of the concordat with Napoleon, it was wrought more than two centuries ago. During that time the Church has battled for freedom from government interference—at considerable cost, but also with considerable success. A move back to the standard of Church-state relations in 1801 cannot be regarded as progress for the Catholic cause.

Looking more specifically at the relationship between the Holy See and China, Father Spadaro reminds his readers that the Vatican has been negotiating with Beijing for years, seeking to ensure the freedom of the Chinese Catholic community. The agreement that has now been struck, he tells us, is only slightly different from the accord that was under discussion during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI. We have no way to check the accuracy of that statement, since the terms of the accord have not been disclosed (nor, naturally, have the terms that were under discussion several years ago). But two facts are beyond dispute. First, whatever terms might have been discussed during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, the Pope did not approve an agreement based on them. Second, in his letter to the Church in China, Pope Benedict said that the government-backed Patriotic Association had no legitimate role to play in the governance of the Church. Now, under the new agreement, the Patriotic Association will apparently nominate bishops. That is not a minor change.

By the way, you might be wondering when Father Spadaro won his credentials as an expert on Chinese culture and history (as well as mathematics and music theory). That’s another question I can’t answer. But do you recall that he has also claimed some expertise on American political affairs? Last year the Italian Jesuit teamed up with an Argentinean Presbyterian to write a ferocious denunciation of American conservatism as an “ecumenism of hate.” In his essay on the agreement with China, Father Spadaro pauses for a moment to tell us more about American affairs: “For centuries Catholics in the United States have been accused of being faithful to the pope and not to Washington, and so they are called ‘papists,’ a derogatory term.” Really? I can’t recall ever being described as a “papist”—except in fun, by a fellow Catholic. But Father Spadaro—who can make 2+2=5, and appreciate a harmony even before the notes are written—will not let the absence of facts deter him from a conclusion.

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: shrink - Sep. 28, 2018 4:51 PM ET USA

    Pope Vichy (aka Pope Francis) will do what he can to help the underground church to embrace "suffering" for the greater good of Christian unity with atheists.