Xi’s Pope

As expected, the Holy See has announced an extension of its provisional agreement with the People’s Republic of China, concerning the appointment of bishops. Under the controversial agreement, episcopal candidates will be recommended to the Holy See by the Chinese Communist Party, then approved and appointed by the Holy Father. The plan’s experimental phase will now continue until October 22, 2022.

The treaty has drawn understandable ire from Catholics concerned that such deference to such a hostile regime will do great, material damage to the Chinese faithful. Whether or not the Vatican is acting in bad faith, anyone with more sense than your average curial apparatchik (which is far less sense than it should be) can see fairly easily that the Vatican is acting on bad judgment.

Pietro Cardinal Parolin, Pope Francis’ Secretary of State, has been the primary architect of the Church’s experimental appeasement policy in China. A longtime operator in Vatican diplomacy, Parolin’s poor judgment on the Chinese question has drawn stinging criticism from Joseph Cardinal Zen, retired bishop of Hong Kong and one of the fiercest critics of the communist regime, who said in the lead-up to the initial deal, “Pope Francis does not know the real Communist Party in China, but Parolin should know. He was there [in diplomatic service] so many years, so he must know.” The cardinal went further: “I told the pope that he [Parolin] has a poisoned mind. He is very sweet, but I have no trust in this person. He believes in diplomacy, not in our faith.” Despite such objection from such an authority, Parolin’s pet project in China has continued.

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There is some precedent for all of this. The Reichskonkordat—the Vatican’s diplomatic bargain with Germany in 1933, just as the Nazis were coming into power—is a favorite bugbear of the Church’s worldly critics. Eugenio Pacelli, who brokered the deal as Cardinal Secretary of State, would continue to uphold it after his ascension as Pope Pius XII, even as the war and the Holocaust raged. The bind in which the Church placed herself eight decades past led to Pius’s ongoing slander in mainstream history as “Hitler’s Pope”—this, in spite of deep personal goodness and holiness, not to mention heroic efforts to shelter Jews in Rome from persecution.

The Reichskonkordat still has its defenders, mostly among those hard pragmatists who seek a “Catholic realpolitik” that is practical first and Catholic when it can be. But it’s difficult, near a century of retrospection, to see the treaty as doing anything other than limiting the Church’s power to act and exert influence in German society, at a time when its intervention would have been most welcome. Especially as the human situation in the Reich worsened, and Hitler’s rabidly anti-Catholic regime took charge and threw its provisions to the wind, it is difficult to justify the Holy Father’s persistent adherence to Reichskonkordat restrictions.

This has all been hashed and rehashed a thousand times. But what matters most to us today is the long-term consequence. Can the capitulation to a totalitarian regime be redeemed by some delayed benefit? Has the German Church, by refusing to go underground in 1933, been able to flourish and thrive thanks to the lack of formal interruption? Hardly.

Three generations after kowtowing to a temporal order intent on its destruction, the German Church is dangerously close to fulfilling the Nazis’ wish. The bishops’ conference is on the brink of schism with the pedal to the floor. Cardinal Marx—their sometime leader and incumbent Svengali—is determined to live up to his surname. Were Martin Luther to march up to any German cathedral today intent on nailing up his theses, he’d find the door open and a red carpet rolled out in extravagant, synodal welcome.

Contrast all this with the present state of affairs in countries where the Church did not shake hands with the brutal regimes of the last century. Obvious examples can be found in the formerly communist nations of eastern and central Europe like Poland. Despite substantial efforts on the part of the Marxist government, attempts to suppress the Polish Church were never terribly successful. In fact, it was largely from resistance born in the Church and an upswell of Catholic social thought that the communist stranglehold was broken. It was the Polish Church that produced Pope John Paul II, whose forceful opposition to communism produced substantial, tangible results—not least of all the fall of the Soviet Union in the 13th year of his reign.

At risk of butchering Chesterton’s phrase, a Church that would not move with the world proved able to move the world. If there is any Catholic realpolitik we ought to pursue, surely it can be found in Poland’s example, not in the doctrine of appeasement. In 2020, as German Catholicism flounders, even Poland’s secular government is controlled by a party whose vision is deeply and profoundly Catholic.

John Paul provides another useful contrast here. The Polish pope was, by any reasonable measure, a great statesman. He was possessed of all the bold qualities required of a power-player on the global stage. The current pontiff, whatever his virtues, quite simply is not. There is great risk in an unskilled political actor undertaking sweeping, risky efforts in such a tense and complex political situation—to say nothing of the stakes.

Not to mention—and I repeat my skepticism of conspiracy or anything of the sort—that we must be wary of other actors besides the Holy Father Himself. The string of scandal whose end lies currently with Cardinal Becciu requires that of us. In fact, Becciu himself spent a number of years under Parolin as Substitute for General Affairs—a position equivalent to the secretariat’s chief of staff—in which capacity he was the direct, primary conduit between the pope and the Vatican’s diplomatic arm. This was the peak of his career, and the location of the scandals—many of them yet unclear—that led to his resignation and renunciation of cardinalatial rights. If a Secretariat of State headed by the future Pope Pius XII could enter so disastrous a deal as the Reichskonkordat, we can only imagine the dangers of similar efforts by a 2020 diplomatic corps. Pietro Cardinal Parolin is no Eugenio Pacelli—and yet, like Pacelli, Parolin is a young-ish Secretary of State whom intelligent observers like Edward Pentin consider a likely contender in the next papal conclave. I do not want my children to be subjected to any histories of the misdeeds of “Xi’s Pope.”

The Holy See has clearly struggled with the learning curve of modern geopolitics. As it continues to wade into the most challenging geopolitical arena of our time, it is difficult to forecast any positive outcomes.

At worst, the more totalitarian strains of the Chinese Communist Party will come to dominate. The Church, which has already been forced underground outside of the Beijing-controlled “Patriotic Catholic Association,” will go the way of our Mohammedan brethren in Xinjiang, where the Uighur minority are heavily persecuted and as many as a million people are estimated to be captive in “re-education camps.” That means the product of the Chinese Reichskonkordat will look a whole lot like Germany in 1943.

At best, the CCP’s liberalizing trends will take hold, and the state will develop into a secular, capitalistic superpower, free from both its own history and the religious traditions of any of its citizens. If we continue down this road, that means that the absolute best-case scenario for the faithful of China in 2100 is going to look a lot like Germany in 2020.

Maybe there is some invisible, ten-dimensional chess being orchestrated by the pastor from Buenos Aires and the bureaucrats in Rome. But I will not hold my breath.


  • Declan Leary

    Mr. Leary is associate editor of The American Conservative.

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