Pope Francis and the Cardinal Mindszenty Treatment in China

Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty was a hero of the Cold War, persecuted by communists and ultimately abandoned by his Church. Beginning in 1956, after Red Army tanks rolled into Hungary, Mindszenty spent 15 years in voluntary confinement at the U.S. embassy in Budapest. He spurned repeated requests to leave Hungary and his flock. In 1971, he finally relented, particularly through the urging of President Richard Nixon, who paid homage to the golden calf of détente, and through the orders of his pope.

The presiding pontiff was Paul VI, a prophetic and wise pope, particularly on cultural-sexual issues. But it was hard to find comfort or wisdom in what he did to Mindszenty. Along with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Paul VI pursued a policy of Ostpolitik, a Western European-version of détente. He and Casaroli reluctantly had come to accept the Cold War division of Europe as the prevailing geopolitical situation into the far-foreseeable future. Thus, they sought to engage the communist world and work with it for a better relationship and improved human rights, including religious freedom.

This Paul VI-Nixon approach stood in contrast to that of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. Of course, as we know, the latter pair would have far greater success liberating the communist world. And yet, as George Weigel notes, there are Vatican officials to this day who believe the Paul VI-Casaroli approach was not only preferable but successful, and that that approach won the day, not the John Paul II-Reagan approach.

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Weigel, as John Paul II’s biographer, notes that Cardinal Karol Wojtyla never doubted Paul VI’s good intentions, sympathizing with the decidedly anti-communist pontiff’s torment, “torn between his heart’s instinct to defend the persecuted Church and his mind’s judgment that he had to pursue the policy of salvare il salvabile—which, as he once put it to Archbishop Casaroli, wasn’t a ‘policy of glory.’” Salvare il salvabile—to salvage the salvageable.

It certainly wasn’t a policy of glory. Paul VI’s Ostpolitik meant occasionally succumbing to Marxist demands. Like détente, it frequently entailed compromise and accommodation. It often appeared that the Vatican cared more about offending the Kremlin than defending religious believers. Of course, the opposite was the goal; but the actual effect sometimes looked timid, craven, self-defeating.

As a shameful case in point, in December 1973, Paul VI stripped the 81-year-old Mindszenty of his titles. The cardinal suddenly found himself retired from his Church posts. The pontiff declared the Archdiocese of Esztergom officially vacated. To his credit, he refused to fill the seat while Mindszenty was alive. Paul VI would never dream of, say, allowing communist officials in Moscow the right to fill the seat with handpicked bishops. That would be outrageous.

Communists were thrilled with Pope Paul VI stripping Mindszenty. To them, the dressing down was a delicious slap in the face of the cardinal, perhaps reminiscent of Mindszenty’s nightly naked beatings at 60 Andassy Street in Budapest in the winter of 1948-49. But this lash was even better for communists, because it came from the cardinal’s pope in Rome.

There would be similarly embarrassing byproducts of Ostpolitik with communist tyrants from Soviet Bloc dungeons like Bulgaria, where Casaroli cooed in the presence of tyrant Todor Zhivkov in June 1975. The Bulgarians reciprocated that love several years later, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima, May 13, 1981, when they and their Moscow masters hired Mehmet Ali Agca to murder Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Square.

History Repeats Itself?
So, why revisit this painful history now? Because to some it smacks of what might be unfolding with the current pope, his advisers, and communist China. And no doubt, the Mindszenty tragedy haunts me as I read reports. The closer I look, the uglier it appears. And I say this, as readers here know, as someone who has long defended Pope Francis. Above all, as I’ve written here at Crisis several times, I’ve been pleased with our pope’s bold statements on sexuality, the “demon” of gender ideology, same-sex “marriage,” abortion, transgender insanity, on evil, on Satan, on the Western forces of “ideological colonization,” and more. I’m bothered at how traditional Catholics seem to forget all of this when the pope expresses a view that doesn’t align with Donald Trump’s view of a border wall.

But as for this China thing? Well, it looks bad. There is surely much I don’t know, but here’s what we’ve learned so far:

The Vatican appears to be in the process of replacing two loyal, long-suffering Chinese bishops with two state-backed bishops who had been excommunicated when they were consecrated illicitly. The two that have been reportedly asked to step aside are 88-year-old Peter Zhuang Jianjian and 70-year-old Joseph Guo Xijin. As for the two bishops of the Chinese Politburo—again, both illicitly ordained—their names are Huang Bingzhang and Vincent Zhan Silu, handpicked by the Chinese Communist Party.

Charles Collins of Crux reported the situation as “a request by a Vatican diplomat visiting China that two bishops belonging to the underground Church loyal to the pope step down in favor of two bishops belonging to the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA).” The People’s Republic of China broke off relations with the Vatican in 1951, two years after Mao’s takeover, and not long thereafter established the farcical “Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association,” a communist-front to monitor Catholics. As Collins notes, “the CPCA does not recognize the authority of the pope, and a parallel ‘underground’ Church exists which recognizes papal authority.”

According to Collins, Zhuang—one of the two bishops the Vatican is abandoning—was in tears when the request was made for him to step down.

There has been widespread condemnation.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 86-year-old retired bishop of Hong Kong, who wrote an open letter posted on Facebook, believes the Vatican is “selling out” struggling Catholics. The Vatican, he said, has deferred to a “fake” Chinese structure. As Robert Royal reported, Zen felt compelled “to go to Rome without an appointment, stand outside the Casa Santa Marta, and ask to be allowed to present a letter from the underground believers—who are willing to resist despite personal costs—to Pope Francis. Reliable sources say the pope received the letter and promised to read it.”

Especially upset is Steve Mosher, who has decades of experience with the communist Chinese, including being tossed in jail by them. “Why should the Catholic Church participate in its own dissolution and destruction?” Mosher asks: “Why would we do this?”

Mosher told EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo that the Vatican’s negotiating strategy is “simply negotiating the surrender of the underground Church” to a false church created by China’s atheists.

Even secular sources are alarmed. Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, an analyst for Foreign Policy magazine writing in the Washington Post, says Francis “is giving in to the Chinese Communist Party” and warns that the Vatican risks losing its spiritual authority and dampening the spirit of Catholics.

The whole sorry episode leaves many questions. Who’s behind this move? What’s the pope thinking? Who’s advising him on China?

Well, a disturbing answer may have come last week:

Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, an Argentinian who stands as no less than chancellor of Pope Francis’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, just gave an interview to Vatican Insider gushing over communist China. In a stunning assessment that leaves one staring at the page, Sorondo asserted that the nation universally known for the one-child policy and performing countless millions of forced abortions (among innumerable other crimes) happens to “best realize the social doctrine of the Church.”

That, of course, is a jaw-dropper. You couldn’t find a radical leftie at the Huffington Post or even The Nation who would dare drop that whopper.

Sorondo noted that he recently visited China, where (surely lavished with the Potemkin Village treatment) he found that communist rulers everywhere “seek the common good.” The bishop was smitten by “an extraordinary China … the central Chinese principle is ‘work, work, work.’” He was inspired to invoke St. Paul: “As Paul said: ‘He who does not work does not eat.’ You do not have shantytowns; you do not have drugs; young people do not have drugs. There is a positive national consciousness.”

This “positive national consciousness,” Sorondo might want to know, for decades has included the world’s highest suicide rate of women, with China annually accounting for over half the world’s female suicides.

But need we waste time giving such examples? No, because no sane person buys the bishop’s assessment.

Sorondo heaped praise on this nation of banned speech, religion, assembly, press, elections, glowing at how it upholds “the dignity of the human person.” Getting to what really warms his heart about this 69-year-old one-party dictatorship, Sorondo hailed China’s work on “climate change.” The bishop marveled that China is allegedly implementing Pope Francis’s Laudato Si better than other countries and “is assuming a moral leadership that others have abandoned.”

Bishop Sorondo basked at the despotism’s “extraordinary” achievements. It’s so unlike awful places, such as America: “the economy does not dominate politics, as happens in the United States.” (Actually, the economic ideology of Marxism dominates all of China’s politics.)

Overall, the bishop assures, “China is evolving very well.”

The Need to Speak Frankly
Let’s be candid about this, as this is a dire moment that demands frank talk: These are the thoughts of a person who is ideologically unhinged. Pope Francis has warned of the corrupting force of ideology; our always-candid pope condemns ideological “fanatics.” Well, here’s a bishop close to Francis whose ability to comprehend reality has been corrupted by ideology.

I say that carefully, not as a blithe passing insult. A Google search of Sorondo understandably yields accusations of everything from a “laughingstock” to an “out and out Marxist.” I’m trying to be fair to the man. A friend of mine who has interacted with Sorondo was impressed. This friend, a European, is an unwavering advocate of the free market and an orthodox Catholic. He found Sorondo “very amenable to reason.” The problem, he hastened to add, is that Sorondo, like too many Latin American officials in the Vatican, is steeped in class and redistributionism. He drank deep from the socialist chalice. Can he overcome those roots? Not in the case of China, apparently.

One person not surprised is George Neumayr, former editor of Catholic World Report, who tells me: “I wrote about the pope’s capitulation to the Chinese communists in my book, The Political Pope. The most recent developments were telegraphed by the pope years ago.” As to Sorondo, Neumayr adds: “I also wrote about the bishop…. He has been a Vatican gateway for the Soros crowd and very much reflects the pope’s thinking. He is the one who set up the Bernie Sanders invite to the Vatican and made a point of telling everyone that Sanders was the only presidential candidate invited…. His academy is overflowing with socialists and communists.”

Neumayr has long been highly critical of Francis, but he might stand vindicated in this China-Sorondo fiasco.

Bishop Sorondo’s appraisal of China isn’t merely wrong but dangerous, and its painful emanating from a Church that for two centuries has issued trenchant admonitions about the errors and evils of socialism and communism. Sorondo’s views might be too far left for a junior faculty position at the Department of Social Sciences at Cal-Berkeley let alone heading the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Pope Francis ought to consider replacing Sorondo before replacing the two Chinese bishops who truly lived Chinese communism.

But Francis has not made that replacement, which brings us to the most troubling aspect of this whole scenario.

Bishop Sorondo is an old Argentinian friend of Francis who’s part of his inner circle. One assumes that Sorondo just returned from China on behalf of Francis. This would suggest that Francis not only will not be releasing Sorondo but, rather, is being influenced by his ideologically fanatical ideas.

In short, Sorondo’s testimony in all of this is crucial. Without it, one might be tempted to think that Pope Francis could be seeking a form of Paul VI Ostpolitik or Nixonian rapprochement based on “constructive engagement” with China, which has been U.S. policy. But Sorondo’s loving enthusiasm for the Chinese system seems to belie that possibility. The Sorondo mindset reveals Pope Francis’s team more along the lines of oblivious dupes to China than shrewd Machiavellians.

The Mindszenty Parallel
Finally, let’s bring this back to the Mindszenty parallel.

Cardinal Zen says that Pope Francis doesn’t want “another Mindszenty case.” Francis doesn’t have another Mindszenty case here. He might have something worse.

In the 1970s, Pope Paul VI and Cardinal Casaroli knew they were dealing with tyrants; they held their noses. That pontiff’s accommodating of communists stemmed from his belief that not trying to work with them was counterproductive. The Church could have no influence inside communist countries if barred altogether. Casaroli called it “the martyrdom of patience.”

What I fear with Pope Francis and China is nothing of the sort.

For one, Paul VI and previous popes wouldn’t dare allow communist regimes to choose preferred bishops. They drew a hard line there. If Francis reverses that, then this would be a humiliating capitulation.

But above all, there seems to be a total naivete and lack of comprehension of a genuinely malevolent regime. The likes of Sorondo display an embarrassing foolishness—a bishop who strokes the back of the tiger as it pretends to purr through its fangs.

Is Pope Francis surrendering to a Sorondo-politik?

We should continue to pray for Pope Francis. I truly will. I respect him. Again and again, I often see kneejerk responses to much of what he does or says. But from what I can tell thus far, Francis’s actions toward China look bad. Really bad.

(Photo credit: Cardinal Zen from Wikicommons)


  • Paul Kengor

    Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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