News Analysis

Leading articles

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Style and substance

You hold in your hands the first US edition of the Catholic Herald. It was 130 years in the making, but we think you’ll agree that it was worth the wait.

We started in London in 1888. Our editors belonged to the second generation of English Catholics eligible to sit in Parliament since the Reformation. Public processions wouldn’t be legalised for another three decades. It was around that time that our first editor, Charles Diamond, was locked up for sedition. English Protestants viewed us as a mouthpiece for Irish republicanism – which, in fairness, we probably were.

No one could ever fault the Herald on the quality of its writing, though. GK Chesterton rightly observed: “The Catholic Herald is nearly the best, or the only, newspaper that we have.” “Read the Catholic Herald,” he urged his fans, “whether you are a Christian, a theosophist or a devil-worshipper.” (Any Satanists among you are strongly encouraged to turn directly to the Life & Soul section.)

We published Mgr Ronald Knox’s obituary for Chesterton. “The death of Chesterton appears like an overshadowing of the sun,” he wrote. At 6ft 4in and 300lbs, GK seemed to have that effect in life as well. And Evelyn Waugh served as our special correspondent at the Eucharistic Congress in Budapest. “In England we are always a minority, often a very small one,” wrote the author of Brideshead Revisited. “There is a danger that we look on ourselves as the exceptions, instead of in the true perspective of ourselves as normal and the irreligious as freaks.” That’s as good a motto for the Herald as any.

Waugh’s friend Graham Greene took to these very pages to defend his novel The Power and the Glory, which some pious readers criticised for its unsparing depiction of a Mexican whisky priest. Greene railed against “prudish Catholics who believe that a writer should never introduce into his work anything that belongs to the savage and lustful world and should concern himself only with the good and the beautiful”.

Prudes still won’t find the Catholic Herald to their tastes. We don’t run interference for bad bishops, and we don’t give a pass to pro-choice politicians just because they turn up for Christmas Mass. We’re not afraid to talk about the issues that can ruin a Thanksgiving dinner: politics, abortion, sex, gender, clerical abuse – yes, even liturgy. Those subjects that are off-limits at the water cooler (not to mention swathes of Catholic news outlets in this country) are also the subjects that most impact the lives of ordinary Catholics.

We’ve always prided ourselves on injecting a certain amount of style and finesse into these controversies. So, when we made the decision to come to America, we resolved to bring all her best Catholic writers under one roof. That meant recruiting battle-hardened veterans of religious media. But we’ve also brought on some of our distinguished co-religionists who work for secular publications. We want to be your one-stop shop for the best reporting, analysis, and commentary in the country.

That’s why we have Matthew Schmitz of First Things and the peerless historian and raconteur Charles Coulombe writing fortnightly columns. J Arthur Bloom of the Spectator USA will write weekly news analysis pieces starting in the new year. Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post, John O’Sullivan of National Review, Robert Royal of The Catholic Thing, Philip Lawler of Catholic World News, and Prof Adrian Vermeule of Harvard Law School all join us as contributing editors.

The jewel in the crown of the US edition, however, might be our “agony priest”: the legendary Fr George Rutler. Readers are invited to send questions to [email protected] and Fr Rutler will answer them with the dry, effortless wit for which he’s so renowned. We also have a team of photographers, illustrators and cartoonists all working together to give the Herald its signature bold, clean, minimalist design. Beauty, brains, faith and good humour: this is, very simply, the best Catholic magazine in the world. We’ve known that for more than a century, of course, but now you can see for yourself.

Michael Davis, US Editor

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China’s secrets

Late last month Cardinal Joseph Zen presented Pope Francis with a seven-page letter. In it, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong said that the Holy See’s “provisional agreement” with China had plunged the underground Church into crisis. Some officials, he said, were contacting Catholics who had remained loyal to Rome despite persecution and telling them that, according to the agreement, they were required to join the state-controlled Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). As the pact’s details have not been published, the underground faithful were unsure whether obedience to the Pope required them to comply.

Much grim news has emerged from China since the agreement was signed in September. Reliable sources report that authorities in Hebei province have detained at least four underground priests for refusing to join the CPCA. Last week Asia News said that police had seized underground Bishop Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou. He will spend up to a fortnight on what officials, in Orwellian fashion, describe as a “vacation period”. In reality, he will be subject to isolation and indoctrination.

Can we declare the provisional agreement a failure? Not yet, say its Catholic defenders. They point out that police have arrested underground priests and bishops for decades, and argue that it is unrealistic to expect the oppression to end overnight. They also note that many of the reports come from a single province, Hebei, and therefore the problem may be local rather than nationwide.

Some observers believe that the arrests are driven by China’s internal politics. In October 2017, the Communist Party’s Central Committee approved a sweeping plan to “sinicise” religious communities. The State Administration for Religious Affairs, which oversaw the CPCA, was disbanded. The United Front Work Department (UFWD), a powerful agency that reports directly to the Central Committee, took over its responsibilities. The UFWD is eager to prove to party leaders that it can effectively “sinicise” religion.

Local government leaders, meanwhile, are wary of Beijing’s new hands-on approach to religion. “They are not happy,” says Francesco Sisci, a senior researcher at China’s Renmin University. “So they are sloppy or try to sabotage Beijing. If they undermine the agreement, they can recover some of their previous power.”
Sisci thinks this internal resistance indicates that the central government is genuinely committed to the provisional agreement. “It is a proof of Beijing’s determination in the agreement,” he argues, “that problems are only scattered in a very few places and are not very widespread.”

Given China’s size and that it is shrouded in secrecy, it is difficult to tell what is really happening to the Church there. It is also hard to judge the effects of an historic agreement barely a month after it was signed. Catholics worldwide should take comfort if the renewed persecution of the underground Church is indeed only a localised matter that will become less severe as the agreement takes hold.

Yet the early signals are not encouraging, and Cardinal Zen is right to raise his concerns – while fully respecting that, in the end, the Pope’s authority is supreme.