What the arrest of a Vatican-backed bishop tells us about the China deal

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State (Getty Images)

Remember when Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo told us that “those who are best implementing the social doctrine of the Church are the Chinese”? I assumed he was just a relic of the 1960s and 1970s, when huge swathes of the Left romanticised Mao. (Others preferred Stalin or Che.)

Now I’m starting to wonder.

Last December, a delegation from the Vatican approached several underground Chinese bishops asking them to resign in favour of their “patriotic” counterparts.

Among them was Bishop Vincent Guo, who was ordered to make way for Zhan Silu of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. (Never mind Zhan was illicitly ordained and therefore excommunicated – that would have been swept under the carpet.) Guo would have then been appointed an auxiliary bishop under Zhan. He refused.

On 27 March it was reported that the Chinese government had arrested Guo. Happily, he was released on 28 March – but only on the condition that he no longer celebrate Mass in his role as a bishop.

So, maybe Bishop Sorondo has a point. The Chinese government is now enforcing its own version of Catholicism – by deciding which loyal Catholic bishops may or may not celebrate Mass. Medieval European monarchs used to play a similar trick, often with the complicity of a craven hierarchy.

Of course, the Vatican didn’t want Guo arrested. We shouldn’t be surprised if the Vatican Secretariat of State helped secure his release.

But Cardinal Pietro Parolin, its boss, cannot have been surprised by this turn of events. He must have anticipated that Communist politicians would be emboldened by the veneer of legitimacy granted by the Vatican’s new willingness to share power. After all, that’s what happened in Vietnam, where Parolin negotiated a similar accord in 1996.

Parolin’s apologists are tying themselves in knots in an attempt to defend him. “What is typical of the international activity of the Holy See today is a direct appeal to the logic of the Gospel and not to a worldly or political logic,” writes Massimo Faggioli in the Global Times, a Communist propaganda organ. In other words, the Church poses no threat to the regime.

Yet both “worldly or political logic” and the “the logic of the Gospel” tells us that Catholicism and Communism are diametrically opposed. Catholics from Poland to Cuba have often been the fiercest anti-Communists, while Communist governments have been virulently anti-Catholic (even if Pope Francis appeared to overlook this fact when he visited the Castro brothers).

Beijing isn’t so naïve, either. Even with negotiations under way, the Chinese government is closing Catholic parishes that allow children to attend Mass. They’re still actively working to absorb and mutilate the Church, on the (not unreasonable) assumption that faithful Catholics will undermine Communism

The Parolin Doctrine may be defined as the refusal to accept this glaring historical reality. It is the belief – contrary to common sense, historical precedent and the teachings of the Church – that Catholicism and Communism are anything less than mortal and perpetual enemies.

One hates to sound like a straggling Cold Warrior. But Vatican diplomacy is not the same as secular diplomacy. The Church’s first duty is to save souls; to do this, she must secure her own liberty and autonomy. The Parolin Doctrine discards both.