Communist China is a bit on the nose internationally these days, but not with the cash-strapped Vatican. President Xi and Pope Francis might not see eye to eye on many things, but they do have a cosy understanding. It’s all set out in a deal, up for renewal next month, in pursuit of which the Pope has allowed Chinese members of his flock to be thrown under the bus. The deal was signed two years ago and it now looks like Beijing is using it as blackmail to ensure that this normally talkative Pope doesn’t criticise China for its increasingly well-attested abuses of human rights, of which Roman Catholics are among the many victims.
Also, less publicised but more numerous, are the unfortunate Uyghurs, the Muslim ethnic minority in north-west China herded into concentration camps for ‘re-education’, forced abortion and worse in true totalitarian genocidal style. The Pope has said not a word about them (though come to that, neither have many of their fellow Muslims, and certainly not those in the West who are so quick to condemn their host nations for ‘Islamophobia’). Nor has he criticised Chinese repression in Hong Kong.
Details of the agreement between China and the Vatican have never been made public, but in general terms it involved the recognition by the Vatican of the ‘patriotic’ Chinese Catholic Church established by Mao Zedong, previously disowned by the Vatican in preference for the much-persecuted ‘underground’ Church loyal to successive Popes. The ‘underground’ Catholics have now been abandoned to their fate and the ‘patriotic’ Church, whose hierarchy is composed of Beijing’s nominees and sympathisers, supposedly reconciled to Rome.
And for what? Observers in China continue to report that even ‘patriotic’ Catholics are enduring another wave of church demolitions, imprisonments and ‘sinification’ of the liturgy, with hymns to the Chinese nation and images of Mao and Xi venerated in worship. But what did the Vatican expect? The Chinese government is a Marxist party. Marxists despise and hate religion and would never facilitate its free expression or its growth – children in China, agreement or no agreement, are not allowed to attend religious instruction. Further, we now know that the Chinese communist government is deceitful beyond measure, witness inter alia its duplicity and scheming over Covid-19, its hacking and political and industrial espionage, here in Australia as much as anywhere, and its shameless Belt and Road Initiative that uses the techniques of the Mafia to trap small countries into becoming China’s vassal states. Why would anyone expect it to keep its word to the Vatican?
If faithful Catholics in China are worse off after the Pope’s efforts at Sino-Vatican diplomacy, what does the Vatican get out of the agreement? Why is it planning to renew it?
According to religion writer Damian Thompson, the most likely answer is money. There is no concrete evidence, but rumours have been persisting that the Chinese are channelling up to $3 billion a year to Rome. The Vatican’s finances are known to be depleted – finding out exactly why was Cardinal Pell’s brief before Victoria’s ‘justice’ system got its claws into him, a coincidence that not only conspiracy theorists have wondered about – and a cash injection from China would undoubtedly be useful. Has Beijing bought the Pope’s silence? Is the Vatican now a Chinese client? Has the man who is styled Christ’s representative on earth made a deal with today’s equivalent of the Romans and chief priests?
It is all very mysterious, and it is made more so by the Pope’s general loquacity on the subject of human rights. Human rights in America? – he’s right onto it. He actually rang and thanked an idiot bishop in Texas for kneeling ‘in prayer’ (for murdered thug George Floyd) holding a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign. He described President Trump as ‘not a Christian’ for proposing a wall to keep out illegal immigrants. He told a conference in Rome on ‘Human Rights in the Contemporary World’ that ‘everyone should, according to his or her specific gifts, fight to protect the fundamental rights of individuals.’ Yet, with all the international influence that is among his own ‘specific gifts’ he says nothing about the fundamental rights of Beijing’s hapless victims.
Perhaps it’s to be expected. Pope Francis has shown a marked selectivity in his strictures. He’s not keen on devout conservative Catholics (‘too rigid’) but he has breathed no public criticism of dirty old men like the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, who used to entice comely seminarians to sleep with him at his beach house. He’s been similarly taciturn on some dodgy South American prelates. And this reticence while the Catholic Church is still in disfavour everywhere over child sex-abuse scandals.
At 83, Pope Francis is approaching the end of his pontificate – at least one book has already appeared evaluating potential successors, which is a bit tactless but there you go – and it will be interesting to see history’s verdict on his papacy. But many Catholics have already come up with one: it has been a disappointment. There has been too much playing to the spirit of the age, too many goofy pronouncements on, for instance, economics – he recently suggested a worldwide basic wage, though there’s no sign that he has the faintest idea how it could be calculated – and, even more on message, eco-nuttiness and the ‘climate emergency’. ‘Creation is groaning,’ he announced recently, decreeing a fiftieth-anniversary celebration for the infantile Earth Day. Not that that has led him to utter a word against the coal-fired pollution spewed out by China, the worst on the planet.
But from a Catholic perspective, his record is puzzling. He has deliberately muddied Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce, yet sometimes sounds almost medieval in his defence of traditional doctrines, such as the existence of the Devil. Some attribute these apparent contradictions to his upbringing in Peronist Argentina where the technique for hanging onto power was to tell all interlocutors what they wanted to hear, even if that meant saying one thing to one and the opposite to another.
Pope Francis doesn’t have to hang onto power, he’s there for life. And it would do his reputation and, vastly more importantly, many suffering and oppressed people much good if he were to speak out against China’s aggressive human rights abuses for all the world to hear. Pope Pius XII, to protect German Catholics, never clearly condemned the Nazis and his reputation will be forever tainted. Francis should avoid that error. Appeasing Beijing is no longer convincing realpolitik nor is it winning any concessions for China’s Christians.
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