The Holy See’s overtures to the Communist Bloc severely damaged its credibility. It must not make the same mistake in China
Unfortunately, when someone in the Vatican talks about the Church’s “soft power”, they still mean it in a political (worldly) sense. The gentlemen of the Vatican delude themselves if they think they are still among the “big players” in world politics.
First of all, let’s see if Ostpolitik was successful in the Church in Europe, as some claim.
When John XXIII and Paul VI allowed the Holy See to try this approach, the situation was impossible. The hermetically sealed “Iron Curtain” did not allow any information to leak out. Mgr Agostino Casaroli was wandering in the dark. The commission of cardinals was not able to provide him with any actual orientation; it gave him carte blanche.
At the same time, the Vatican was full of spies: from Poland, East Germany and the Soviet Union. Casaroli was a saintly man, but he was no miracle worker. He humbly said that he sought only a modus non moriendi (“a way of not dying”). The Church did not die because Ostpolitik saved it, but because of the faith of those peoples (this is what Pope Benedict wrote to me one day).
But for Ostpolitik supporters, Casaroli succeeded in setting up the ecclesiastical hierarchy in those countries and thus guaranteed the sacraments. Yes, but almost all bishops were backed by the regime. Given the strong faith of the people, even the servants of the regime could not and dared not destroy the Church. Unfortunately, Ostpolitik severely damaged the Holy See’s credibility.
So why did John Paul II make Casaroli his secretary of state? Some say it was because the two had different ways of seeing things and so could complement each other, but there are also those who say that the pope wanted to use Casaroli as a “smokescreen” so as not to scare the Russians and thus silently carry out his plan to free Poland and Europe from communist dictatorships.
In order to know what Pope Benedict thought about Ostpolitik, just read that page in his Last Testament (his interviews with the German journalist Peter Seewald
after his resignation from the papacy), in which he clearly states that Ostpolitik was “a failure”.
Unfortunately, in China the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) has succeeded; the communists have managed to drive a wedge within the Church from the very beginning. Nevertheless, there were still so many healthy forces. Over the years, the Holy See encouraged compromise rather than supporting the brave.
Someone has called this compassion. What compassion? Encouraging people to accept slavery instead of getting rid of it?
Bishop Wu of Zhouzhi, who is recognised by both sides, wanted to prevent the government from organising his episcopal ordination, imposing the presence of illegitimate bishops. So he had himself secretly ordained. Angry, the government refused to recognise him for 10 years. In fact, they mistreated him. But in the end, with his clergy closely united, he was able to fulfil his pastoral duties.
Finally, the government said that if Bishop Wu accepted an invitation to concelebrate with the illegitimate Bishop Ma Ying Lin, then they would recognise him as bishop. He agreed (we suspect with the Holy See’s encouragement). From the pictures of that day, we can see that his priests, instead of looking happy, looked very sad. Why give in after so many years of brave resistance?
After five years of resistance, Bishop Thaddeus Ma of Shanghai wrote a “turncoat” article, going so far as to concelebrate with illegitimate Bishop Zhang Shi Lu in Fujian. There is a lot of speculation about what happened. But I doubt anyone will convince me that Rome did not suggest to him to make some conciliatory gesture. (The Vatican hasn’t owned up to it, but neither has it denied it. It has simply said that being suspicious is not right.) But what have they gained? Bishop Ma has lost the trust of both the official and the underground communities. In 2012, the latter had pledged its obedience after Bishop Thaddeus Ma courageously quit the CPCA.
Realising that the Ostpolitik was a failure does not mean closing the door to dialogue. Recently, Pope Francis said that “dialogue is a risk, but I prefer the risk than the certain defeat that comes without holding dialogue.” Quite so. Let us keep the door open to dialogue, but let us keep in mind its risks. What risks? Those of seeking an outcome at any cost. That of being deceived.
This is an edited extract from For Love of My People I Will Not Remain Silent (Ignatius). Cardinal Joseph Zen is the former Archbishop of Hong Kong