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Australian nun briefly detained in Philippines for political activism

April 17, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Manila, Philippines, Apr 17, 2018 / 07:02 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- An Australian nun was arrested and briefly detained earlier this week in the Philippines as the government cracks down on foreign human rights activists in the country.

Sister Patricia Fox was arrested April 16 by immigration authorities at her convent, where she serves as the Philippine superior of the international Catholic congregation Sisters of Our Lady of Sion. She has been working primarily with the rural poor in the country for the past 27 years.

Fox was held for 22 hours by authorities before being released, after “no probable cause” was found for her arrest and she was proven to be a legally documented alien with a missionary visa, according to UCA News. There is still a pending further investigation of her activities to determine whether she should be deported.

The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines’ news outlet (CBCP News) reported that they were told Fox was arrested for being an “undesirable alien” for participating in regional farmer protests.

The Philippines’ Intelligence services (NICA) have also charged Fox with participating in anti-government rallies. The organization claims it has a photo of the nun with a clenched fist holding a sign that says “Stop Killing Farmers”, according to Newsweek.

Immigration law in the Philippines stipulates that participating in rallies and political activities is a violation of the right to stay in the country.

Jobert Pahilga, Fox’s lawyer, denied these claims in a statement and said that she “has done nothing wrong or illegal that would warrant her arrest, detention and possible deportation.”

He said that his client was traveling to Tagum City to gather data on human rights violations against farmers in the area.

Fox said that she has stood in solidarity with the rural poor during rallies, but not as a political action.

“I would call it religious because we are called to stand beside the poor,” she told CBCP News. “I haven’t joined partisan political rallies but I have been active in human rights issues.”

Several human rights and Church leaders have denounced the arrest of the nun, including Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo.

Pabillo told UCA news that Fox’s arrest was a “form of persecution and harassment” and that the nun “is too old to run from the government or from whatever allegations they are accusing her of.”

“This is political,” Pabillo added. “The government is trying to intimidate individuals and groups who are in pursuit of social justice for the oppressed and the poor.”

Fox is among several foreign human rights activists who have been arrested or barred from re-entering the Philippines in a recent crackdown on foreigners by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration.

“There’s no martial law yet but they are already going after people who oppose them,” Pabillo told CBCP News.

Fox will remain in the Philippines for the forthcoming investigation.


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Cardinal Pell’s lawyer argues no grounds for trial as hearing ends

April 17, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Melbourne, Australia, Apr 17, 2018 / 02:47 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As Cardinal George Pell’s pre-trial hearing closes, his lawyer told an Australian court Tuesday that the charges being brought against the cardinal is based on false accusations.

“The allegations are a product of fantasy, the product of some mental problems that the complainant may or may not have, or just pure invention in order to punish the representative of the Catholic Church in this country,” Robert Richter, head of Pell’s defense team, said April 17, according to Reuters.

Richter added that the most serious of the alleged offences could not possibly have occurred, telling the court that the charges brought against Pell, who has been “the face” of the Catholic Church in Australia, “ought to be regarded as impossible and ought to be discharged without batting an eyelid.”

Pell’s attorney additionally cast a shadow over the credibility of some of the complainants, highlighting their inconsistencies with dates, saying that the alleged instances of abuse are “not to be believed,” because they remain “improbable, if not impossible.”

Richter told the court that Pell, who is prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, should not be committed to trial because the evidence did not hold “sufficient weight to support a conviction,” and that a trial would “be a waste of public time, effort and money.”

Prosecutor Mark Gibson said Richter’s statements were speculation, remarking that the defense’s arguments do not “fundamentally impact on the reliability of the complainants’ evidence.” He also suggested that Richter’s claims about complainants seeking revenge on the Church were “nothing more than a theory.”

Magistrate Belinda Wallington said that Richter may have taken some arguments “too far,” saying that she believes “issues of credibility and reliability are issues for a jury.”

Pell was not present during the hearing’s final day at the Melbourne Magistrates Court. Wallington will determine May 1 whether Pell will be sent to trial.

Pell has been involved in ongoing court proceedings since June 2017, when he was charged with alleged historical sexual abuse crimes in his home state of Victoria dating back to the 1970s. He has maintained his innocence and will plead not guilty if his case proceeds to trial.

“I am innocent of these charges, they are false,” Pell told journalists in June 2017.
During the hearing, the Melbourne Magistrates Court heard testimony from 50 witnesses. During this time, Richter launched a counter-attack against the Victorian Police, who opened a special operation in 2013 to investigate Pell. Richter called it “an operation looking for a crime because no crime has been reported.”

Pell, 76, was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Ballarat in 1966. He heads the Secretariat for the Economy and is one of the nine cardinals advising Pope Francis, but has been on leave from his duties since last summer.


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Charged with concealing abuse, Australian archbishop affirms innocence

April 11, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Newcastle, Australia, Apr 11, 2018 / 02:46 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- During court proceedings in Australia this week, Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide maintained his innocence, denying allegations that he concealed a serious sexual abuse offense allegedly disclosed to him in the 1970s.

The local court in Newcastle heard Wilson’s defense April 11. The archbishop confirmed under oath that he had no memory of being told of sexual abuses involving two altar boys and a fellow priest in the Hunter region of New South Wales.

“From the time this was first brought to my attention last year, I have completely denied the allegation,” said Wilson in March 2015. He took a leave of absence during the initial charges.

“I would again like to express my deep sorrow for the devastating impact of clerical sex abuse victims and their families, and I give assurance that despite the charge, I will continue to do what I can to protect the children in our care in the Archdiocese of Adelaide,” he continued.

Wilson was accused in 2014 of ignoring cases of sexual abuse, and remains the most senior Catholic Church official to be charged with concealing abuse.

He has also been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Wilson said that his current medication is helping his memory, “although it’s not perfect,” according to the Australian Associated Press.

The alleged scandal took place in the 1970s, involving a priest named Fr. Jim Fletcher who served in the Maitland diocese along with Wilson. At the time, Wilson had been ordained a priest for only one year.

The victims of the scandal, Peter Creigh and another altar boy who is unnamed for legal reasons, said they both had told Wilson of their abusive experience with Fletcher.

Creigh allegedly told Wilson in graphic detail of the abuse in 1976. However, Wilson said the conversation never took place, noting, “I don’t think I would have forgotten that.”

The second victim claimed he had told Wilson of the abuse in the confessional in 1976, but Wilson allegedly dismissed the boy with a penance, saying that he was lying. Wilson said he would never tell someone in the confessional that they were untruthful, and that he did not remember having seen the boy at all in 1976.

Fletcher was convicted of nine counts of sexual abuse and was jailed in 2006. He died within the year of a stroke. Wilson said he had no previous suspicions about the integrity of Fletcher’s character.

Wilson additionally told the court that if he had been notified of the scandal, he would have offered pastoral care to the victims and their families, and reported the event to his superiors.

The archbishop has attempted four times to have the case thrown out, which has been denied by local magistrate Robert Stone. If convicted, Wilson would face up to two years in jail.

Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, president of the Australian bishops’ conference, said in 2015 that he hopes the matter will be resolved swiftly, noting that the presumption of innocence equally applies to Wilson.

“I urge people not to make any judgement until the charge against Archbishop Wilson has been dealt with by the court,” Hart said.


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Archbishop Fisher: Priests will suffer punishment before breaking confessional seal

April 10, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Sydney, Australia, Apr 10, 2018 / 06:09 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid attacks on the seal of confession in Australia, Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney has said priests will suffer punishment before betraying their sacred obligations.

Confession “is threatened today both by neglect and attack. But priests will, we know, suffer punishment, even martyrdom, rather than break the seal of Confession,” Archbishop Fisher said April 1 during his homily for Easter Sunday at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney.

“For Confession is a privileged encounter between penitent and God; here the Christian enters the silence and secrecy of the Tomb, to be re-Eastered; and no earthly authority may enter there.”

Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended last year that priests be legally obliged to disclose details of sexual abuse revealed in the confessional, and that failure to do so be made a criminal offense.

Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne has also opposed any moves to mandate violation of the seal, having said that confession “is a fundamental part of the freedom of religion, and it is recognized in the Law of Australia and many other countries. It must remain so here in Australia…(but) outside of this, all offenses against children must be reported to the authorities, and we are absolutely committed to doing so.”

The Archbishop of Sydney’s comments came as part of his teaching on the sacraments and eternal life.

In the sacraments “Christ’s Paschal mystery is remembered, its fruits applied to us here and now, and a heavenly life promised us,” he said. “To miss the sacraments or receive them only half-heartedly, is to fail really to participate in Holy Week. For it’s through the Eucharist and Priesthood that we join Jesus’ Last Supper; in Confirmation and Matrimony that we experience the climax of Good Friday; and with three more sacraments that we rise from the Empty Tomb.”

“Baptism is inextricably tied to Holy Week because Jesus Himself described the crucifixion as the ‘Baptism’ He must suffer; Jesus Himself gave forth water from His pierced side as the source of Baptism; Jesus Himself appeared at Easter to tell His disciples to go out evangelizing and baptizing. This the Church has done ever since. As St Paul explained, to be baptized is to die with Christ, be buried with Christ, and be raised up with Christ to new life. Baptism is the sacrament of rebirth, purification, justification, eternal life…”

Archbishop Fisher noted that in the Soviet Union, baptism was called a “health menace”, and, moreover, that “as recent testimony before the Ruddock Inquiry into Protection of Religious Freedom in Australia highlighted, we cannot take the freedom to hold and practice our beliefs for granted, even here in Australia.”

“Powerful interests now seek to marginalize religious believers and beliefs, especially Christian ones, and exclude them from public life. They would end funding to faith-based schools, hospitals and welfare agencies, strip us of charitable status and protections, cast us as ‘Public Enemy No. 1’. We may not always be as free as we are now to evangelize and baptize as Jesus mandated at the first Easter.”

He then moved from baptism to confession, noting that baptism “cannot be repeated as sin, sadly, can”, and thus there is the “second baptism” of confession.

“From Old Testament times we heard the call to confess our sins and we learnt of God’s boundless mercy,” the archbishop said. “In the fullness of time Christ came absolving sins … the newly Risen Christ passed the authority to absolve contrite sinners to the apostles, saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit: those who sins you forgive, they are forgiven; those whose sins you retain, they are retained.’ So Confession is another beautiful Easter gift, stirring us to contrition and resolve to sin no more, enabling a life-long journey of conversion, reconciling us to God and the Church, and giving us ‘pardon and peace’.”

“So the Easter sacrament of Baptism regenerates the spirit; the Easter sacrament of Penance renews the heart; but it is the Easter sacrament of Anointing that restores the body,” he preached.

“Our sacrament for the sick is not green tea or cloning. Our aid to the dying not the secular sacrament of euthanasia, either … But in a country with few religious liberty protections and many pressures for euthanasia, how free will Christian health providers like St Vincent’s be in the future, how free our health professionals, how free patients even, to reverence life from conception to natural death, especially when others think them burdensome or better off dead?”

“The future of our religious freedoms – and so of our sacraments – will depend whether our generation protects both the freedoms and the sacraments,” Archbishop Fisher said.

He noted that “The women go to the Tomb today to anoint the broken body of Jesus and instead find it is risen.”

“Like the Church after the Royal Commission and amidst many humiliations and challenges, like each of us when we feel broken of body or bruised of spirit: we need the healing power of God, anointing the sick person, even the sick Church, so we can be rebuilt, given new purpose and strength.”

“There’s something even better than açai and kale here,” he said, referring to “our culture’s secrets to living forever or till it feels like forever.”

“The Maundy Thursday sacraments of Holy Eucharist and Holy Orders teach the Church to live with Christ for worship and service. The Good Friday sacraments of Holy Confirmation and Holy Matrimony reveal she must die with Christ for inspiration and love. And the Easter sacraments of Holy Baptism, Holy Penance and Holy Unction show we must repent and let Christ transform our spirits, hearts and bodies, that He might raise them up to eternal life.”


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The Chinese village where Catholics are sceptical of a Vatican-China deal

April 4, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Baoding, China, Apr 4, 2018 / 04:15 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- As the Holy See reportedly negotiates a deal with the government of mainland China,  some Catholic residents of a town in the country’s Hebei province are raising concerns over the anticipated agreement.

Youtong is home to around 5,000 people, about half of whom are Catholic, according to Christian Shepherd and Dami Sagolj, writing for Reuters. Many of the homes are decorated with Christian messages of “Emmanuel,” or signs reading, “We have faith in you, Jesus.”

The town holds a number of churches, including a church belonging to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, two large underground churches, and several unofficial house churches.

The Catholic Church in China has been split between the government-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the underground Church, which is persecuted and whose episcopal appointments are frequently not acknowledged by Chinese authorities.

The underground churches are monitored by local officials but generally tolerated. However, many underground priests, bishops, and laity have faced persecution and harassment.

“While some Catholics in Youtong told Reuters that a long-awaited agreement could bring clarity and freedom to practice their religion openly, others said they worry the deal will sow further discord in the community,” Shepherd and Sagolj wrote. Reuters visited Youtong March 30, Good Friday.

One underground church in Youtong is led by Bishop Pei Ronggui, 84. Pei spent four years in a labor camp after his church was raided in 1989. He said in 2016 that the government would have to change its attitude before any deal with the Vatican would be workable.

When Reuters visited Pei, he “appeared to be under pressure from authorities.” He was accompanied by a man “wearing a belt with a police emblem buckle” who “said Pei could not hear well enough to do an interview, ushering him away.”

“The same man then followed Reuters journalists for the next 24 hours, joined intermittently by others in as many five vehicles, underscoring the sensitivity of the situation.”

Fr. Dong Guanhua, who pastors another underground church in Youtong, said the Vatican-China deal would only draw more people to the underground churches. He expressed concern over any compromises the Vatican would make to ensure the accord.

“The word ‘compromise’ sounds good, but to some churchgoers it will sound like you are abandoning your faith,” Dong said. He claimed in 2016 that he had been secretly consecrated a bishop 11 years earlier, but the Vatican has said a consecration of Dong had not been authorized.

“People say I am trying to break away, but in fact I am sticking to the old road, while the Vatican’s policy changes,” he continued.

One villager said that Dong “does not listen to anyone,” but that some people “like his style, because he tells it like it is.”

At the church of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, Fr. Ju Ruibin “rescinded an earlier invitation” to Reuters to attend Good Friday services at his church “after apparent pressure” from the men who followed the reporters.

Shepherd and Sagolj wrote that “While relations among the rival churches are cordial, some villagers warned that local schisms could arise from renewed attempts to push together the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association … and underground churches loyal to Pope Francis.”

But one townsman, Pei Ziming, said the Vatican-China accord is somewhat contradictory, since the two countries have opposing agendas.

“They say you can see what truly matters to a country by considering its architecture,” Pei said.

“In many European countries, the biggest buildings are the churches. In China, the biggest buildings are all banks and government offices, because that’s where real faith lies.”

The Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has been pursuing efforts to “Sinicize” religion within the nation. Xi, in his role as general secretary of the Communist Party, has encouraged “new approaches” to religious and ethnic affairs.

The Holy See is in negotiations with the Chinese government that could eventually lead to Vatican recognition of seven illicitly ordained bishops aligned with Beijing and to a more normal life for underground Catholics.

A Chinese government official who oversees religious affairs said April 3 that government restrictions on bishop appointments are not a violation of religious freedom, as he emphasized that religions in China must “adapt to socialist society.” The official, Chen Zongrong, added that “I believe there is no religion in human society that transcends nations.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, a Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, has been notably opposed to any agreement with the Chinese government, saying, “better no deal than a bad deal.”

And one commentator has written that “For all the Vatican’s efforts to cement a deal with China, there is no clear prize at the end of the road. Every new report suggests that, by accepting Communist nomination of episcopal appointees, the Church will cede considerable practical authority over the Church in China. Worse, as the arrest of Bishop Guo and the threat to Vatican-Taiwan relations show, the moral authority of the Church is being materially sacrificed.”


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Four Christians killed in Pakistan

April 3, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Quetta, Pakistan, Apr 3, 2018 / 12:11 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Four members of a Christian family were killed by gunfire in the Pakistani city of Quetta on Monday in an attack for which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

The April 2 attack by men on two motorcycle came as the family was travelling in a rickshaw in a Christian neighborhood. The family, from Punjab province, were in the capital of Balochistan province to visit relatives for Easter.

According to Dawn, a Karachi daily, the deceased are Imran Masih, Tariq Masih, Pervez Masih, and Firdus Bibi. Sehar Pervez, a girl of about 12 and a daughter of one of the deceased, was injured in the attack.

“It appears to have been a targeted attack,” provincial police official Moazzam Jah Ansari told Reuters. “It was an act of terrorism.”

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack April 3 through its Amaq News Agency.

In a separate incident in Quetta the same day, five people were killed after a protest by Hazaras, a Shia Muslim minority ethnic group.

Pakistan’s state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim.

Christians have been targets of terrorist attacks and persecutions for blasphemy in recent years. A December 2017 attack on a Methodist church in Quetta killed eight.


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Cardinal Pell’s court hearing weighs evidence for abuse allegations

March 29, 2018 CNA Daily News 2

Melbourne, Australia, Mar 29, 2018 / 11:43 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A hearing will that will decide whether Cardinal George Pell will go on trial for alleged abuse came to a conclusion Thursday after Pell’s attorney launched a vigorous defense and sought to cast doubt on the path from the first police investigations through the filing of legal charges.

Pell’s defense lawyer Robert Richter, 72, engaged in cross-examination of the charges against his client, with Victoria Police Crime Command’s head of serious crime, Paul Sheridan, taking the stand in court.

The Victoria Police launched a special operation in 2013 to investigate Pell, “Operation Tethering.” Richter charged that at its launch, “it was an operation looking for a crime because no crime had been reported.”

Sheridan confirmed the effort had been launched in 2013 specifically to gather information on the cardinal. There was a search for complainants and no one came forward until more than a year after the investigation began.

The total number of charges are not public, but most abuse allegedly took place in the 1970s. An additional allegation concerned the cardinal’s time as Melbourne’s archbishop from 1996-2001. Cardinal Pell has said he is innocent. He currently heads the Holy See’s Secretariat for the Economy and is one of the nine cardinals advising Pope Francis.

The hearing in Melbourne Magistrates Court concluded Thursday after hearing testimony from 50 witnesses, including Pell’s accusers, CNN reports. The cardinal was present every day of the hearing.

Richter charged that the police operation investigating Pell was dormant for two years without any accusers, Australia’s ABC News reports. He contended that investigating officers pursued relatively “benign” allegations against the cardinal while putting more serious allegations against a nun and a teacher “on the back burner.”

Sheridan rejected this, saying there could be a better explanation, but he did not know why police did not pursue the other cases.

Pell’s attorney claimed that police made more in-depth inquiries into the cardinal due to “public and political pressure,” suggesting this was linked to the work of the Royal Commission investigating abuse.

Richter also said detectives investigating the cardinal failed to follow proper procedure in interviewing potential witnesses. Police made charges against the cardinal in relation to an alleged crime at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then interviewed choir members and personnel.

“How could this happen that no relevant inquiries were made with other relevant choir members … before the Cardinal was charged,” said Richter.

A search warrant executed in 2016 on several addresses in Melbourne failed to look for the cardinal’s diaries in the archives of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This would have described the cardinal’s movements and possibly exonerate him, the defense attorney said.

The attorney also tried to attack the credibility of the prosecution, saying there was no supporting evidence or witnesses behind accusers’ claims of abuse. He claimed that some alleged abuse victims had been treated in psychiatric hospitals or had been allegedly abused by other clergy.

At one point the attorney attacked the credibility of the magistrate, Belinda Wallington. During a discussion about the precise date the cardinal allegedly abused a victim, the magistrate did not accept a date he said was a fact. He then applied for her to be disqualified on the grounds of “biased view of the  evidence.”

The magistrate immediately responded “Your application is refused.”
Cardinal Pell had asked for police statements before his October 2016 interview with police. The request was refused, but he did receive a summary of allegations including dates and locations.

The cardinal is excused from an April 17 hearing but will return to court for a final decision at some point in the future. He will spend Holy Week at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Sydney.

After the charges against Pell were announced, he was granted leave from his post by Pope Francis in order to return to Australia for the trial.

Detectives had secretly planned to arrest Cardinal Pell at a November 2015 Royal Commission hearing in Melbourne. Ten days before the hearing, the cardinal said he could not travel for health reasons. He gave testimony by video from Rome in March 2016.

Richter objected that it would have been illegal to arrest Pell simply to question him.

On March 2, 2018 prosecutors dropped a key abuse charge after the complainant passed away in January. The accuser, Damian Dignan, was joined by another classmate who in 2016 alleged that Pell engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior when they were minors, both students at St. Alipius school in Ballarat, decades before.

Defense attorney Ruth Shann argued that Dignan was not credible,  since his claim came nearly 40 years after the alleged abuse and after reading about other cases in newspapers. She said his complaint had a “domino effect” leading to other people contacting police.


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Commentary: What will be gained from a deal with Beijing?

March 28, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Beijing, China, Mar 29, 2018 / 12:00 am (CNA).- Ever since President Nixon famously “opened” China to the West, the country’s rise as an economic and political superpower has been a thorny nettle to grasp. The conventional wisdom has been that, while there are grave and pervasive issues in China relating to political freedom and human rights, these will be gradually eroded by a developing economy and growing middle class –  a process best hastened by open trade and engagement with Western nations.

The hope of many policy makers, be it realistic or fanciful, is that China will slowly, eventually, change from within. But as leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement can attest, many of them fresh from jail, if the change is coming, it isn’t yet in view.

Indeed, as President Xi relaxes into his new role of President-for-Life, things appear to be moving backwards, rather than forwards. Political and religious arrests, forced sterilizations, human organ trafficking – these are not the stuff of Orwellian nightmares, but part of any serious discussion of the situation in China. Just this week President Xi rolled out the red carpet for the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un; a man reported to have executed musicians with anti-aircraft guns, and abducted schoolgirls for sex slaves.

In the Machiavellian world of realpolitik, in which China’s status as an economic and military superpower make it too big to be ignored, governments may find that the unpalatable task of doing business with China is unavoidable. But it need not be so for the Church. The Church has no trade deficit with China, no sovereign territory to defend in the South China Sea, no national debt held by the Chinese government. The Holy See, through its status as a sovereign entity in international law, is in a unique position – it has the diplomatic clout to make its voice heard, without the entanglements of a major nation state. With this in mind, what are Catholics to make of the deal being brokered between China and the Vatican?

Since the New Year, there have been numerous reports of a concordat in the making between the Chinese government and the Holy See. The apparent substance of the deal is to hand the Chinese government considerable power over episcopal appointments in exchange for bringing the underground Church above ground, ending the split with the state-sanctioned Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.  Public criticism has been fierce from respected figures like Cardinal Zen, a hero of the Chinese underground Church, who called the proposed deal an “act of suicide” by the Church and a “shameless surrender.”

In response, the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, has said “sacrifices” need to be made, and that the plan is not “a political exchange, but falls within the evangelical perspective of a greater good, the good of the Church of Christ.” Parolin’s hope is that “we won’t have to speak of ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’ bishops, ‘clandestine’ and ‘official’ bishops in the church in China, but about meeting among brothers and sisters, learning the language of collaboration and communion again.”

If the Vatican’s strategic aim is that a unified Church in China will provide an opportunity for a more public and influential Catholic voice in Chinese society, the signs are not encouraging. As CNA has reported recently, news of President Xi’s lifetime term came with a reordering of government business, with one change being the placement of the state-approved Church under the direct supervision of the explicitly atheist Chinese Communist Party. Yesterday, Bishop Vincent Guo Xijin, of the underground Church in China, was detained by state authorities. He was apparently taken in by the police for refusing to concelebrate Mass with an illicitly consecrated, state-backed bishop. He has since been released, but forbidden from celebrating the Chrism Mass.

As one of the underground bishops apparently earmarked by the Vatican to give way to a state-anointed replacement, the government’s treatment of Bishop Guo gives a foretaste of the sort of “government first, Catholic second” enforcement a united Church in China can expect. Indeed, the publicity around the Vatican’s pressure upon Bishop Guo to step aside in hopes of a future deal may have served to embolden Chinese authorities to act. The de facto delegitimization of faithful bishops in China by the Vatican’s political maneuvering may have practical, as well as spiritual, consequences for the faithful in China.

Also today, reports have emerged that the Vatican-China deal may have broader diplomatic implications. It has been suggested that any deal on bishops may come with pressure on the Vatican to break off diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, the democratic nation better known as Taiwan. The Chinese government insist that Taiwan is a rebel province, and place heavy pressure on countries not recognize the island as a sovereign state. The Holy See has recognized the Republic of China since 1942, and remains among the most prominent sovereign entities to do so.

A Vatican rethink on Taiwan may well be expected – doing business with China often comes with the condition of adopting the “One China Policy,” and rejecting Taiwanese claims to sovereignty. If the Vatican could be persuaded to abandon its support, it would end of one of the Holy See’s most high-profile principled diplomatic stands of the modern era.

Of course, the actual text of any agreement has not been signed, or disclosed for public discussion. Until the actual details of any such deal are known, it is impossible to say with certitude what is good or bad about it. What can be said, indeed what seems obvious, is that there not yet a clear upside to the possible deal with Beijing.

For all the Vatican’s efforts to cement a deal with China, there is no clear prize at the end of the road. Every new report suggests that, by accepting Communist nomination of episcopal appointees, the Church will cede considerable practical authority over the Church in China. Worse, as the arrest of Bishop Guo and the threat to Vatican-Taiwan relations show, the moral authority of the Church is being materially sacrificed. Yet nothing appears to be on offer in return, beyond the nebulous hope that a unified Church, under Communisty party oversight, could open new possibilities – which seems unlikely, as long as police can arrest any bishop who is too Catholic for Beijing.  

Supporters of the deal say that it will diminish persecution of faithful Catholics in China. But Xi’s call for the “Sinicization” of all religions in China might mean the opposite- that Beijing will pressure bishops to downplay some aspects of Church teaching, and that faithful clerics and laity could be hung out to dry. Those willing to toe Beijing’s line might be safe, for now, but those who hold fast to faith might have little place to turn if they openly evangelize, speak out too boldly in favor of human rights, or refuse to contracept.

The Holy See exists, at the diplomatic level, to be an outspoken champion for human dignity and religious freedom. Its unique status is supposed to insulate it from the worldly concerns and pressures which tie the hands of governments. Yet in its dealings with China, the Vatican is risking the unique moral authority its effectiveness rests upon. Without that, the Church becomes just another NGO doing what it can – a witness to human limitations, not divine truth.

Ed Condon is a canon lawyer working for tribunals in a number of dioceses. On Twitter he is @canonlawyered. The opinions experessed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Catholic News Agency.