Could it be that the Holy See under Pope Francis is curiously indulgent of authoritarian regimes? The Holy Father is an undisputed friend of the downtrodden, but it sometimes seems that he is also a friend to those who tread upon them, especially if they are on the left side of the political spectrum.
The comments of Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo on China will not, it can be expected, be repeated by other Vatican prelates. Global incredulity and barbed ridicule rained down upon the chancellor of the Pontifical Academy for Science and the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences after he held up China as a model of Catholic social teaching. Consequently, it is likely that others inclined to profess admiration for those in Beijing who persecute the Catholic Church, procure compulsory abortions and pollute the air with reckless abandon will now keep their mouths shut.
It would be grossly unfair to associate the Sinophancy of Bishop Sánchez Sorondo with any others in the Holy See. Yet the chancellor, who has served since 1998 and is now 75, has grown in prominence since the election of his fellow Argentine, Pope Francis, in 2013. He has turned the academies away from scholarly exchanges toward political activism of a leftist sort. While the propaganda turn for the Chinese regime was an unusual step, to be sure, it does fit a pattern of what one might mischievously consider a preferential option for the left, even when the regimes in question are tyrannical.
Of course, the priorities of the political left can fit within the broad principles in Catholic social teaching. In his 2016 book Without Roots, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “In many respects democratic socialism was and is close to Catholic social doctrine and has in any case made a remarkable contribution to the formation of a social consciousness.”
When The Economist accused Pope Francis of sounding like a Leninist, he told an Italian newspaper that “the communists have stolen our flag. The flag of the poor is Christian. Poverty is at the centre of the Gospel.”
Yet while the Holy See stands in solidarity with the poor, there is also a recent pattern of it associating itself with those who oppress them – often, but not always, on the left.
In 2013, when Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was found to have crossed President Barack Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons, the Holy Father galvanised an international prayer campaign against Western enforcement of that red line.
Vladimir Putin took note and offered himself as a guarantor for Assad handing over his chemical weapons. That gave Obama a way out and allowed Putin to present himself as a defender of Christians in Syria, to the presumed satisfaction of the Holy See.
Last week Assad was accused by Amnesty International and others of using chlorine gas on his own people again. No prayer campaign will be necessary this time; there is no danger at all of Western retaliation.
For his part, Putin, having outfoxed both military and moral powers over Syria in 2013, decided it was propitious to advance his own imperial ambitions. He had to wait a few months so as not to complicate his hosting of the Sochi Games in 2014, but no sooner had the Olympic flame been extinguished than he unleashed Russian firepower on Ukraine, invading and annexing Crimea and occupying the eastern part of Ukraine. That occupation continues to this day, and none of the diplomatic class that will go to Russia in June for the World Cup will offer a peep of protest.
The Catholics of Ukraine looked for vigorous support from the Holy See, only to find tepid statements that seemed to blame the invaders and the invaded equally for the invasion. The apostolic nuncio in Kiev, Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, stood in vocal and steadfast solidarity with the beleaguered Ukrainian Church. He was shifted the next year to Switzerland.
In 2015, the Pope’s trip to Bolivia included the world meeting of popular movements, at which Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president, took a prominent role. It can be debated precisely where on the socialist-Marxist-communist spectrum Morales fits, but there is no doubt that he belongs in the parade of leftists of authoritarian tendencies that have plagued Latin America. Morales himself gave a hint of where he sees himself when he infamously gave the Holy Father a blasphemous “crucifix” of Jesus nailed upon a hammer and sickle.
Two months after the Bolivian visit, Francis added Cuba to the front end of his trip to the United States, a follow-up to the Holy See’s role helping the US and Cuba to reopen diplomatic relations. Earlier that year, Raúl Castro received an unusually warm welcome at the Vatican. The warmth towards the Castros continued in Havana. Victims of the Castro brothers’ 50-plus years of oppression were not accorded a papal reception. Taking the measure of the Vatican diplomacy, Castro tightened the screws on religious freedom after the papal visit.
No matter, a few months later, in early 2016, Pope Francis honoured Castro with another papal visit, this time a short layover for the historic meeting with Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Kremlin’s precise place on the ideological spectrum can be disputed, but its authoritarianism cannot. Yet the Holy See has been pleased to work with it. The price of the meeting with Patriarch Kirill was a statement that spoke of the heroic Ukrainian Catholics as an “ecclesial community”, language usually reserved for Anglicans and Protestants. The Ukrainians were volubly upset – and the Pope later walked back his language – but both Patriarch Kirill and his patron, Vladimir Putin, were no doubt pleased.
In 2016, Evo Morales was back at the Vatican, this time a guest of Bishop Sánchez Sorondo at the academy’s commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. While he didn’t bring his hammer-and-sickle Jesus to the meeting, it remained incongruous for him to be an honoured guest marking the papal encyclical which explained why communism was a theological, anthropological, cultural, political and economic failure.
For good measure, Bishop Sánchez Sorondo invited Senator Bernie Sanders of the United States to the same conference. Notwithstanding the curiosity of inviting one candidate during a presidential campaign to visit the Vatican, it remained unexplained why the only American senator to call himself a socialist would be so favoured. Or perhaps it was precisely because of that.
In the autumn of 2016 and into the spring of 2017, the longstanding economic crisis – including a shortage of basic food and medicine – in Venezuela took an ominous turn, with the regime of Nicolás Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chávez, resorting to unconstitutional measures to stifle the opposition. When protests spilled into the street, Maduro’s forces killed dozens upon dozens of citizens, and unleashed violence against Catholic bishops and churches.
Throughout 2016 and 2017, the Holy See did not speak about the depredations of the Maduro regime with the ferocity reserved for Europeans or Americans insufficiently welcoming of migrants and refugees. After interventions from the Holy Father that seemed to draw an equivalence between Maduro and the opposition, the entire executive of the Venezuelan episcopal conference arrived in Rome last June, uninvited and unannounced, to demand a meeting with the Holy Father to clarify that the Vatican was on the same page as the Venezuelan Church.
In late 2017, the negotiations with Beijing approached the point where Cardinal Joseph Zen became greatly alarmed over the concessions the Holy See was prepared to make to the regime in order to regularise relations. He sounded a public alarm last month, travelling to Rome to make the voice of the underground Church heard.
The Holy See launched a media offensive in response, with Cardinal Pietro Parolin explaining his approach in press interviews, conceding that alternative views were legitimate. As part of that, someone thought it wise to let Bishop Sánchez Sorondo share his views on China.
In the event, the Sánchez Sorondo interview was counterproductive. President Richard Nixon was able to go to China precisely because his anti-communist credentials were not in doubt. President Anwar Sadat was able to go to Jerusalem only after he had launched a surprise attack on Yom Kippur. The Holy See can only reach an agreement with China that is credible if there is confidence that its diplomacy stands foursquare against leftist tyranny. Since 2013, that has been an increasingly difficult argument to make. And Bishop Sánchez Sorondo has made it much more difficult still.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and editor-in-chief of convivium.ca
This article first appeared in the February 16th 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here