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The Vatican’s China Syndrome

How long can the Vatican remain silent about the Chinese repression in Hong Kong and about reports of persecution and re-education camps for religious believers [1] in the rest of China? Clearly, the figures in the Roman Curia (primarily Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin) who crafted the still unpublished accord with the Communist government have put themselves in a moral bind. If they speak out, they may jeopardize the agreement (which would not exactly be a tragedy, since it has only led to even more violent, more open acts against Christians in China). If they don’t speak out, they run the still greater risk of being accomplices, conspicuous accomplices, in the repression and potential liquidation of a heroic Catholic people of confessors and martyrs.

It didn’t have to be this way. Just as the Vatican PR machine is able to gin up campaigns to promote Pope Francis’ preoccupations about the environment, immigrants, the death penalty – and now nuclear weapons – it could also have made crimes against Christians, particularly Catholics, far more visible, and an urgent priority for anyone, anywhere in the world who pays attention to the moral leadership of the Church. And not only in China, because persecution of Christians exists in various hotspots around the globe and there are increasingly anti-Christian attacks even in Western nations like France and the United Kingdom [2], to say nothing of our own country.

Many Catholics were rightly upset when Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Council of the Social Sciences, returning from a trip to China, said [3], “Right now, those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese.” That was so absurd – considering the religious repression, the environmental damage, the forced abortions, the Orwellian surveillance of their own people – that it doesn’t bear a moment’s thought.

The misjudgments, however, are not limited to China. The Vatican currently pursues a steady line of anti-Western criticism, against the alleged xenophobia, rapacious economies, and environmental “sins” of both Europe and North America. There are debates worth having on those and other public questions. But the simplistic progressivism Rome has adopted about these quite complex subjects renders its positions largely useless – and eminently ignorable by the nations of the world.

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Meanwhile, in the past few months alone, we’ve seen attacks on Catholic churches – organized attacks, not just sporadic violence – in China, but also Argentina [5], Chile [6], Nicaragua [7], Venezuela [8], Egypt [9], Iraq [10], India [11], Sri Lanka [12], Nigeria [13] (where several priests have been kidnapped [14]), and the list goes on. But are these direct threats to the Church given the attention they warrant by Rome? To call out the perpetrators and the governments that often enable them would require some tough talk that doesn’t just say, sentimentally, that we all seek the same common good and need to practice dialogue.

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We don’t know what we have in common even in the Western nations any longer. The idea that we can appeal to some common humanitarian principles at the international level – though something devoutly to be wished – is being challenged before our very eyes. Other visions of the good (or evil) are quite prominent in the world. And deserve to be called out in blunt terms when they result in violence against the innocent, whether in China, the Middle East, or the developed nations. We will not convert those who hold those views to a more human or Christian vision with our currently weak appeals to dialogue and fraternity. To some, dialogue and false fraternity – absent the moral and military means to protect the innocent from attack – are just other names for weakness and decadence.

Catholicism used to be the one Christian body that had a strong and coherent view of the need for both co-operation with all men of goodwill, as well as a willingness to confront those who are not well-intentioned. Do we still?

The pope made the news last week during his flight back from Asia [15] when he declared: “The use of nuclear weapons is immoral, which is why it must be added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Not only their use, but also possessing them: because an accident or the madness of some government leader, one person’s madness can destroy humanity.”

However good his intentions may be (as in changes to the Catechism about capital punishment and his opposition to life sentences), we know that nuclear weapons will never be abolished. And troubling as that fact is, it’s in some ways a good thing. No country is likely to disarm when other countries, countries with far different values than Pope Francis, possess weapons of mass destruction as well. It’s a sad fact about our human nature, but at this moment in human history only mutual deterrence prevents nuclear blackmail or outright use of nuclear arms. What would China or North Korea do with their nukes if the United States did not have them?

As Winston Churchill immediately perceived decades ago, when he heard of the U.S. nuclear attacks on Japan, “henceforth, security will be the sturdy child of terror.” A realistic morality, for our moment of history, has to find some room in its deliberations for the necessity of nuclear weapons in the hands of more reasonable global powers, as a means of deterrence, precisely to prevent their ever being used.

It’s a good thing for any pope to remind the world that the use of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction is a grave moral evil. And that even possessing them is morally problematic.

It’s not a good thing, however, when we allow unrealistic and utopian visions to mesmerize us, even as serious threats and the actual persecution of our fellow believers and many other innocents around the world proceed apace.

We cannot allow our desire for better relations – with China, the Muslim world, or the secular forces in our midst – to stop us from speaking some hard truths and acting on them. Anything less will spell further suffering and death to the very people we have the responsibility to protect.

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*Image: Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows, 1909 [Cleveland Museum of Art [17]]

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.