A Nursery Rhyme Pope Francis Would Do Well to Read

“Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
“’Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlour is up a winding stair,
And I’ve a many curious things to show when you are there.”

Mary Howitt wrote 180 books with her husband, and was a friend of Wordsworth and Dickens, but is remembered perhaps most of all for her children’s parable about insects, written in 1828. She forsook her ardent Quaker roots sometime after moving to Rome, where she became a Catholic, less because of the Latin culture and more for her admiration of Pope Leo XIII and his social commentaries. She admitted that she loved the pope and not the papacy.

Combine her spider and fly with our Lord’s admonitions about sheep among wolves, and serpentine cleverness with dovelike innocence, and we have a whole menagerie as commentary on naïveté. It is possible to combine all the tragedies of the modern age into a montage of the perils of unwitting ignorance in the face of evil.

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The spectacle of Neville Chamberlain standing in an unprecedented protocol between the King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 1938, cheered for having secured “peace for our time”—horresco referens—is not the proudest moment in modern royal history. But on the death of the appeaser two years later, Churchill, with characteristic chivalry, paid him a tribute in the House of Commons:

Whatever else history may or may not say about these terrible, tremendous years, we can be sure that Neville Chamberlain acted with perfect sincerity according to his lights and strove to the utmost of his capacity and authority, which were powerful, to save the world from the awful, devastating struggle in which we are now engaged. This alone will stand him in good stead as far as what is called the verdict of history is concerned.

It remains that the verdict of history is more acclamatory regarding Chamberlain’s successor. While there is some confusion as to whether Churchill, in January 1940, as First Lord of the Admiralty, precisely said that an appeaser hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, he will be the last to be eaten, he did say verbatim: “Appeasement in itself may be good or bad according to the circumstances. Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal.” It was a trope on divine words: “For the simple are killed by their turning away, and the complacency of fools destroys them…” (Proverbs 1:32).

Posterity was not well served by the manner in which Franklin Roosevelt found humor in the verbal gymnastics between Stalin and Churchill at Yalta, the latter being treated as a fly by both Stalin and FDR. That searing moment in history was not overlooked by the author of the encyclical Centesimus Annus who came from the Poland that had been crucified by the moral lassitude of FDR and his “Uncle Joe.” There would be a flashback to Lincoln Steffens saying of the Soviet Union, that he had seen the future and it worked, and one of George Bernard Shaw clutching a small statue of Stalin. And then there would be Helmut Schmidt’s recollection of a conversation he had had about the Berlin Wall with the benighted Jimmy Carter: “Then, I realized how little my counterpart understood of the situation in a divided Europe and the power of the Soviet Union and its interests.”

Adroit diplomacy secures amity, but at its worst it lets loose ministers who are innocent as serpents and wise as doves. Charles de Gaulle, who was not subtle, said: “Diplomats are useful only in fair weather. As soon as it rains, they drown in every drop.” Without succumbing to cynicism, it is possible to see a mixture of calculation and callowness in the 2018 provisional agreement between the Holy See and Communist China, recognizing the primacy of the Pope, but at the price of a scandalously clandestine arrangement giving the Chinese government a role in the appointment of bishops. This is in direct abuse of Canon 377.5 in the Church’s own Code.

Ever since Constantine, and certainly since Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in 800, ecclesiastical and civil threads have been intertwined. The mediaeval Investiture Controversies were the background for the sixteenth-century appointment privileges granted to the French crown and the nineteenth-century Concordat between Pius VII with Napoleon. In the year that Mary Howitt wrote about the Spider, nearly five of every six bishops in Europe were appointed by heads of state. Right into modern times, Spain and Portugal invoked the Patronato Real and the Padroado respectively, but these involved governments that were at least nominally Catholic. The 1933 Reichskonkordat with the Nazi government was soon recognized as a maladroit concession for which the Holy See continues to justify itself. But Pius XI honored the Faith with his subsequent condemnations of Fascism. The Vatican’s accommodationist “Ostpolitik” in the 1960s made Cardinal Mindszenty a living martyr. The Second Vatican Council sought, largely successfully, to reserve the appointment of bishops to the Sovereign Pontiff (Christus Dominus, n. 20). But this was also in the context of an agreement with Russian Orthodox observers—and therefore obliquely with the Soviet government, not publicized—that the Council would never mention Communism by name, history’s worst oppressor of Christians. It was a jejune exercise in diplomacy, sterile in result, and remedied only by figures who rejected such supinity: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.

The mellow response of the People of God to the recent canonization of Pope Paul VI is in significant contrast to the reaction of many to the diplomatic betrayal of Cardinal Mindszenty in 1974. After years of heinous torture, the Primate of Hungary tasked the papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Villot: “Why do you appoint bishops in the countries of the Eastern bloc? It would be better if there were none, rather than those whom the government allow you to appoint.” When Mindszenty refused to renounce his see of Eszertergom and the primacy, Paul VI declared his jurisdictions vacant, informing the “white martyr” of this on November 18, 1973. The cardinal said it was a crucifixion worse than his physical tortures. Upon Villot’s retirement in 1979, Cardinal Casaroli succeeded him, pursuing the same “Ostpolitik.” This writer remembers graffiti in Rome during this period: “Mindszenty Si. Casaroli No.” There is a poignant conundrum today: Paul VI has just been canonized, and mention of Mindszenty remains mute.

It was my privilege to know Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei of Shanghai, who endured thirty years in prison, and Archbishop Dominic Tang Yee-Ming of Canton who was imprisoned for twenty-two years, seven of them in solitary confinement. The retired Cardinal Archbishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen, sees a betrayal of those who have suffered so much for Christ. Time will tell if the present diplomacy is wise. An architect of this agreement, Cardinal Parolin, said: “The Church in China does not want to replace the state, but wants to make a positive and serene contribution for the good of all.” His words are drowned out by the sound of bulldozers knocking down churches while countless Christians languish in “re-education camps.” A fly would be mistaken if it thought that the Communist spider would nominate worthy bishops. Cardinal Zen, just a few years short of his ninetieth birthday, has made two arduous and futile trips to Rome, hoping to staunch this diplomatic wound. Redolent of Mindszenty, he has said: “Pope Francis does not know the real Communist Party in China.” Of Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State who signed the agreement, he told a reporter: “I told the pope that he has a poisoned mind. He is very sweet, but I have no trust in this person. He believes in diplomacy, but not in our faith.”

Pope Francis agreed to recognize the legitimacy of seven Communist-approved bishops, previously excommunicated, while removing two bishops loyal to Rome.  Since the signing of the Vatican-China pact, a bishop appointed by the Vatican has been arrested by the Communist government and placed in a “re-education camp” with no comment from the Vatican. This was Bishop Zhumin’s fifth arrest in two years. Two government-sponsored bishops, one of whom was excommunicated by Pope Benedict in 2010, were welcome guests at this year’s Synod on Youth. One month after the diplomatic pact, the Chinese government contemptuously destroyed two Catholic shrines in the provinces of Shanxi and Guizhou. Uncertain is the fate of thirty bishops of the “Underground Church” loyal to the Holy See. Cardinal Zen laments the “annihilation” of the Catholic Church in China. State supervision of the Catholic Church has been placed under the total control of the Chinese Communist Party by a directive of Xi Jinping who, having abolished limits to his term of office, is a virtual dictator of the entire country. He has forbidden prayers, catechesis, and preaching to be published online.

Meanwhile, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Science, has hailed Communist China as the world’s best exemplar of Catholic social teaching and called it a “Land of Wonders.” Father Bernardo Cervellera, editor of AsiaNews, responded: “The idolization of China is an ideological affirmation that makes a laughing stock of the Church and harms the world.” There is a fourteenth-century maxim which warns: “He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.” The Vatican might need to change spoon to chopsticks. Cardinal Zen offers more edifying counsel to his persecuted Catholic flock: “They take away your churches? You can no longer officiate? Go home, and pray with your family. Till the soil. Wait for better times. Go back to the catacombs. Communism isn’t eternal.”

Groundwork for the recent Vatican-China accord was laid by ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick. He made at least eight trips to China over twenty years, advocating closer ties with President Xi Jinping. While privately inhibited by Pope Benedict XVI, who also cancelled negotiations with Communist China, McCarrick was rehabilitated by Pope Francis, in whose election he claimed to have been a protagonist, after which he was sent on another mission to China. In an interview in 2016 for a semi-official journal of the Chinese government, The Global Times, McCarrick said that similarities between Pope Francis and Xi Jinping could be “a special gift for the world.” He explained: “A lot of things that China worries about, [Pope Francis] worries about: about the care of poor, older people, children, our civilization and especially the ecology.” It is true that Pope Francis has frequently expressed more affinity for socialism than for capitalism. During his trip to Bolivia in 2015, he somewhat anachronistically invoked the fourth-century Saint Basil of Caesarea to condemn “corporations, loan agencies, and certain free trade treaties.” Indulging his propensity for coprological metaphors, the pope called capitalist profits the “dung of the Devil.”

Of the twelve apostles, only one was a diplomat, and he is the only one of them who was not a saint, having drunk a toxic cocktail of arrogance and naïveté. This recipe is still fatal. Mary Howitt, moral dissector of the Spider and the Fly, had reason in her generation for devotion “to the pope and not the papacy.” In the ticking hours of our generation, there may be some cause for reversing this. It is a matter too grave to be tossed about lightly in a mere essay, but there is wise counsel in the ending of her poem:

And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne’er give heed:
Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.

(Photo credit: Chinese bishop from an underground Catholic church holds a Bible during Palm Sunday Mass, April 9, 2017; Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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