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The Vatican’s Deal with the Dragon

History shows that resistance, not appeasement, is the best approach to oppressive regimes. The Church should take note in China.

Sitting in the Catholic Cathedral in Shkodra, Albania, last Easter, filled to capacity with more than 5,000 people spilling outside the doors, it was hard to imagine that less than thirty years before, the Cathedral had been a gymnasium. It was not, of course, a gym first—it had been the center of Catholic worship until the Communist dictator, Enver Hoxha declared in 1967 that Albania would be the world’s first atheist State.

That was just the conclusion to decades of the most brutal repression of the Church in any country controlled by a Communist party in Europe. After seizing power in 1945, Hoxha unleashed the kind of persecution not seen since the first centuries of Christianity. Priests were drowned in latrines, shot, imprisoned merely for the possession of religious items, and some, including a young nun, Maria Tuci, were tied in bags with wild animals.

One of the reasons Hoxha attacked the Catholic Church with particular ferocity is because he saw the Church as a foreign power and therefore both a challenge to his regime and an alternative source of loyalty for the people.

The Vatican had attempted, principally in the 1960’s into the late ’70’s, what was called the doctrine of “Ostpolitik”—borrowed from the doctrine of relations between West Germany and the Communist East—to try to engage in dialogue with various Communist regimes in an attempt to either save the Church or improve the conditions under which Catholics were struggling. There was no Ostpolitik with Hoxha’s regime—his aim was the total destruction of the Church.

Criticized by many from the beginning, the Vatican’s Ostpolitik, while allowing the Church to continue in some form in countries like the former Czechoslovakia or Hungary, with varied degrees of repression, in practice produced a severely weakened and compromised Church, riddled with communist spies, barely allowed to function beyond the Church building, and always producing some kind of “officially” approved Church, which in reality was nothing less than a communist-controlled body, staffed by collaborationist priests and bishops.

Where the internal Church resisted this “Ostpolitik,” notably in Poland, the Church emerged from the decades of Communist oppression with both vigor and strength and was identified by the people as one of the guardians of truth and resistance during the times of trial. Where the “dialogue” weakened the Church most, and where infiltration was most successful—Czechoslovakia and, to a lesser extent, Hungary—the Church is still recovering. Yet, in all these countries, underground or resistant groups of hidden priests and laity kept the faith alive. In some ways the Vatican played a peculiar game, sometimes behaving with almost the same brutality as the Communists, as when they removed the heroic Cardinal Joseph Mindzsenty, from his position as Primate of Hungary, yet at other times arranging the secret ordinations of bishops and priests.  

It was only with the election of Pope John Paul II, in 1978, that Ostpolitik began to disappear, unsurprising given John Paul’s experience in Poland as a priest, bishop and Cardinal under the Communist regime.

While understanding the perceived aim of Vatican Ostpolitik: some form of salvation for the Church until “better times,” the failure to realize that compromising with regimes bent on not only the ultimate realization of atheistic materialism, but controlling every aspect of its citizens lives, would leave only the equivalent of a “Reichskirche,” the official Church set up by the Nazis, in some shape or form.

When a policy has failed, and been seen to have failed, with the benefit of both hindsight and empirical evidence, it is curious for such a policy to be revived, with both the same arguments and the same culture of secrecy and duplicity in place again.

Yet that is exactly what is happening at this moment as the Vatican and the Communist leaders of China prepare to renew a secret accord which was first agreed two years ago. Officially due for renewal on September 22, many reports indicate that it has already been agreed, in fact, at a September 14th meeting on, of all things, Ostpolitik, Cardinal Parolin stated that the agreement would be renewed by October. The Communist regime in China has persecuted the Church with various levels of attrition since coming to power in 1949. Like Hoxha’s regime in Albania, one of the particular concerns of the Chinese Communist government is that the Catholic Church is a “foreign power,” with foreign leadership, and hence must be brought under the control of the regime. As in other countries, the Communists created the “Patriotic Church” to control every aspect of Church life, in particular appointing bishops independent of the Vatican. A parallel “underground” Church emerged, loyal to Rome, and subject to many kinds of persecution.

The accord, signed in secret, in theory allowed for some kind of unity between the “official” Patriotic Church and the underground Church, especially focusing on the appointment of bishops with both Vatican and government approval. However, it seems to most knowledgable observers that the agreement gave most of the power to the regime and, two years later, more than half of China’s 98 Catholic dioceses are still without bishops. Meanwhile the official doctrine of the Communist party is to “sinicize” every aspect of religious life in China, not only Catholicism. Persecution of the underground Church has continued, with bishops and priests being arrested; just a few days ago, Fr. Liu Maochun, of the Catholic diocese of Mindong, was arrested by the Religious Affairs Bureau of the Communist State and disappeared for seventeen days.

According to the charity Open Doors USA, “every facet of persecution” of religion has increased in China in recent years, with the persecution of “Church life”—parish activity, religious education, social action—at what they measure as “90% persecution.” The world is only just beginning to realize the extent of the persecution of the Chinese Uighur Muslims, according to some experts reaching the level of genocide, with conservative estimates of more than 1.5 million Uighurs in “re-education camps.”

It is this brutal, duplicitous, persecuting regime that the new proponents of Ostpolitik are about to reach agreement with, while thousands, perhaps millions of faithful Catholics suffer continual harassment and persecution. Cardinal Zen, the heroic eighty-eight year old former Archbishop of Hong Kong has consistently called for the Vatican not to renew this agreement. He, perhaps naively, excuses Pope Francis from any involvement in the accord, rather accusing the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, of “manipulating” the Pope. Yet when Zen has tried to engage with Pope Francis on the issue, he has said that the Pope “never answers my questions.”

Jimmy Lai, the Catholic entrepreneur in Hong Kong, recently arrested by the increasingly repressive pro-mainland regime of the island, tweeted in the last few days that the “CCP broke the pact with the Vatican, demolished churches and persecuted believers.” He asked whether the decision to renew the Vatican/China agreement was made “out of naivety, or is it corruption? Or both?”

This decision, both the initial agreement two years ago, and the likely decision to renew the deal, is not the ultimate responsibility of Cardinal Parolin. It is a decision only the Pope can make. It may seem inappropriate for a Catholic to criticize the Successor of St. Peter, but, as St. Paul said in the Letter to the Galatians (2:11-13), “when Peter came to Antioch I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.” Pope Francis must not defend the indefensible. While the choice may seem impossible—either acquiescence and subjugation or increased persecution—the lesson of Albania is, perhaps, something the Pope should consider. When the regime fell, despite the most intense persecution, the Church emerged. Some priests had survived, the laity had secretly baptized their children—the Church rose again, not compromised and not controlled.

Fr. Benedict Kiely is the Founder of Nasarean.org, a charity helping persecuted Christians.