It was all couched in the most cordial terms. But last weekend there occurred an exchange of letters which, in Vatican terms, was the closest thing to “pistols at dawn” since Archbishop Viganò and Cardinal Ouellet exchanged pleasantries in the papers last year.
The letters concerned the Vatican’s 2018 arrangement with mainland China regarding episcopal appointments – a deal which has been widely criticised, most prominently by Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus of Hong Kong.
The exchange saw a clash between Cardinal Zen and the recently elected Dean of the College of Cardinals, Giovanni Battista Re, who sent his missive to the members of the College, defending the September 2018 deal. Cardinal Re argued that the deal is pf a piece with the thinking of John Paul II and Benedict XVI vis-à-vis China, and that Cardinal Zen is wrong when he asserts that Benedict XVI rejected substantially the same deal.
Cardinal Zen wrote an open letter to Cardinal Re by way of reply, disputing Re’s assertions. Zen quoted Benedict XVI’s own words in response to a direct question from journalist Peter Seewald, recorded in the 2016 book-length interview, Last Testament. In the English translation of the book, one finds Benedict saying: “It was clear that [Cardinal Secretary of State] Casaroli’s policies, although well intentioned, had basically failed.”
“Rather than trying to be reconciled to [the Soviet regime] through conciliatory compromises,” Benedict continued, “one must strongly confront it. That was John Paul II’s basic insight,” and Benedict said he “shared” it. Zen apparently wants readers to infer from John Paul II’s rejection of Casaroli’s Ostpolitik directed at the USSR and Soviet satellites – and Benedict’s participation in that rejection – a rejection of current policy. It is a fair surmise, perhaps, but not ironclad.
Zen also challenged Re to produce the evidence of both the harmony and Benedict’s support of the deal as reached, from the archives of the Secretariat of State. Don’t hold your breath while Re chews over whether to produce the goods.
The thing to understand about the Vatican’s China deal is that the Holy See’s goals – in the short term, at least – are not the relinquishing of the Chinese government’s grip on ecclesiastical life or the expansion of ecclesiastical liberty on the mainland. The Holy See’s short-term goal appears to be to stave off full-blown, systemic and deadly attack. Think Diocletian-level persecution, only with all the tools available to a post-industrial surveillance state.
If that’s what one is trying to avoid, then it is easy to see how – right or wrong – a bad deal could be more attractive than no deal.
Considering the business in the light of realpolitik, one also sees how a figure like the outspoken Cardinal Zen – universally recognized as a hero of the faith – serves the Vatican as a sort of unofficial “bad cop” to “good cop” figures like Cardinal John Tong Hon, who succeeded Cardinal Zen in the see of Hong Kong, which he has described as a “bridge Church” to the mainland. More officially, one thinks of the Holy See’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who is the Vatican’s face for the current arrangement and a lightning rod in this affair.
As interesting as the letters are for what they say, what they don’t is more interesting still.
There’s no assertion on the Vatican’s part that the deal is anything close to the greatest thing since sliced bread, and no hint of a cease-and-desist order to Cardinal Zen.
It is often said that both the Vatican and the Chinese leadership think in centuries – and that’s not wrong – but it doesn’t help the Chinese Catholics on the ground right now as they negotiate an increasingly dangerous landscape.