For both Church and state, appeasement is a bad idea

Making concessions to the Chinese government with regard to the appointment of bishops could very well hurt the Church’s ability to be an authentic and consistent moral voice in the world.

People pray during morning Mass Jan. 30 in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Beijing. (CNS photo/Roman Pilipey, EPA)

In any age, the politics of “appeasement” can be quite seductive. Free democratic nations naturally and reasonably do not want conflict, so they consider making territorial and other concessions to militant and aggressive interlocutors in exchange for peace and possibly other concessions.

Those tempted by appeasement should consider the lessons of history – how the appeasement of Hitler by Neville Chamberlain worsened the position of the West, and how more recent efforts to appease Iran have increased their capacity to project power throughout the Middle East.

But there is also a clear philosophical antidote to the temptation of appeasement, best explained in the classic fable of the frog and the scorpion. The fable goes something like this – a scorpion asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is reluctant, because he fears being stung by the scorpion. The scorpion re-assures him, noting that if the scorpion were to sting the frog in the middle of the crossing, they would both die. So the frog agrees to help the scorpion. But midway across, the scorpion stings the frog anyway. As they are both dying, the frog asks the scorpion, “Why?” and the scorpion replies, “It is in my nature.”

Nations and people behave more in accordance with their natures than their interests. Thus, those with limited and legitimate grievances can be appeased, but those whose modus operandi involves seeking power and control far beyond what can reasonably be given can never be appeased. Concessions simply strengthen them for a subsequent attack.

I have the pleasure of co-chairing the Canada-Holy See Parliamentary Friendship Group. Because of that, and because of my own Catholic faith, I am certainly loath to criticize decisions of Church leaders. I am also, generally speaking, an admirer of Pope Francis, and in particular of his call for the Church to place a greater emphasis on material self-denial and on solidarity with the poor. All that being said, though, I observe with considerable dismay the way in which my beloved Church seems to be buying into the failed logic of “appeasement” once again. Like Western democracies, I would have hoped that the Church would have learned from its own failed appeasement experience in the 1930s. Alas, it seems that neither have.

A little history of Church appeasement is important here. In 1933, the future Pope Pius XII, then the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, signed a Concordat with Nazi Germany, which defined what the relationship between the state and the Catholic Church would be in Germany. This was not, as some of Pacelli’s ill-informed critics have sometimes tried to suggest, the result of any sympathy for Nazism. It was, rather, the Catholic equivalent of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Give the German state certain concessions that they want, including some influence over the appointment of bishops, and receive peace and some concessions in return. We should be clear that this policy was not born of ill-intentions, and had a certain understandable logic to it.

In the end, Pacelli’s appeasement was as successful as Chamberlain’s – both hurt the ability of their proponent to have a clear moral voice in opposition to Hitler, and Hitler flagrantly ignored his own commitments under both agreements before the ink from his signature was dry. Whether in dealings with the Church or with other states, a scorpion is a scorpion. (Pacelli himself would learn this lesson fairly quickly. Still during the reign of Pius XI, the Church published a German encyclical in 1937 denouncing violations of the Concordat and Nazism more generally, which was smuggled into Germany and read from pulpits on Palm Sunday, to the surprise and dismay of Nazi officials. Upon his election, Pacelli, then Pius XII, would play a vital intermediary role between the German anti-Nazi resistance and the allies.)

It is widely believed that the Catholic Church is now on verge of signing a new Concordat – this time with the Communist Party of China. This reflects a legitimate desire of the Church to bring together the pseudo-schismatic “Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association” (which in practice denies the ecclesial primacy of the pope) and the Catholic Church as we understand it, which operates underground. The full integration of these communities in some sort of accord would necessarily give the Chinese state some degree of control over the appointments of bishops, and put the underground church under the influence of these “patriotic” bishops. It is also expected that some of the heroically faithful underground bishops would be expected to resign in this new arrangement.

This potential accord has been widely criticized, including by leading Chinese Catholic figures like Cardinal Joseph Zen. Zen said recently, “I acknowledge myself as a pessimist regarding the present situation of the Church in China, but my pessimism has a foundation in my long direct experience of the Church in China…I had direct experience of the slavery and humiliation to which our brother bishops are subjected.”

In my opinion, the practical consequences of this deal would be very bad. Under an agreement of the sort expected, the Chinese regime would be able to exert more and more practical influence over all aspects of Church life, and the Church would have no leverage to push the People’s Republic of China to follow through on its commitments. The underground church, once absorbed, would be much more vulnerable. Although life for previously underground Catholics might be materially easier for a time, that is hardly of paramount importance. These underground Catholics have risked and in many cases given their lives in search of spiritual authenticity, not material well-being. The prioritization of the material over the spiritual is, after all, the principle objection which serious Catholics would levy at Marxism in all its forms.

If this deal goes ahead, it may also hurt the Church’s ability to be an authentic and consistent moral voice in the world. In the fight against Soviet communism, in which the Church ultimately rejected appeasement, its message of universal human dignity, and in particular the work of St. John Paul II in Poland, played a seminal role in bringing down the Iron Curtain. In a world where more and more Chinese are Christian and have access to information from the outside world, the Catholic Church could play such a role again. Its priority should be on justice and human dignity, and it should recognize that paying off a scorpion and helping it to grow stronger is no way to advance those objectives.

At the same time, there is one glorious antidote to the generally terrible experience of clerical appeasement. The first German bishop appointed under the terms of the Concordat signed between the Vatican and Hitler was Clemens Von Galen, the bishop of Munster. His was the diocese where my grandmother lived. Her father was Jewish, and she was Protestant by confession, but she attributed her survival in substantial part to the bold anti-Nazi pronouncements of Von Galen. He created a climate of resistance to Nazi rule in Munster, which very nearly got him killed. The Nazis decided that they would be better off dealing with him after the war, though many who followed him and distributed his sermons (such as the well-known Sophie Scholl of the White Rose movement) paid with their lives.

In retrospect, allowing the appointment of Von Galen was a huge blunder for the Nazis. Whatever diplomatic errors are made will have significant consequences, but those of us who are Catholic need not worry too much. The Catholic Church has not survived for over 2,000 years because of flawless diplomacy pursued by Vatican bureaucrats. Such strategies, thankfully, are not the rock on which the Church is built.

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About Garnett Genuis 1 Article
Garnett Genuis is a Canadian Member of Parliament from Alberta and the Deputy Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. He also serves as the Co-Chairman of the Canada-Holy See Parliamentary Friendship Group, a cross-partisan body of MPs and Senators that works to build up the relationship between Canada and the Holy See.


  1. Mr.Ganius is missing the point. Pope Francis is not seeking appeasement. Jesus’ commission the Church to spread
    the Gospel. He didn’t say ‘only to free nations’. Evangelization is different from spreading Democracy even though they are overlapping in
    some areas. We have also seen how the
    US spreaded it’s Democracy, by military force or subversion. This is not political ideological warfare nor is it a war of ego. It is a tregedy to mix the 2 together as it destroys the genuine sincerity of the Church & the trust of the host nation. Evangelization is hardwork. The Bishops of the Underground Church are limited by their mobility due to old age & could be under surveillance.
    They can only provide very limited pastoral care to their flocks. We should pray to the Holy Spirit to guide the Pope in this issue. I would also ask everyone to avoid name calling, finger pointing & respect the
    Pope in office.

    • Name calling? Like calling the overlords in mainland China atheistic Communists who as a rule subvert human rights and civil liberties? Would you make vain martyrs of those courageous men and women, clerics and prelates who functioned for decades to preserve the unity of the True Faith in communion with Peter, only to be sold-out to the worst chairman-dictator since Mao? Don’t believe it? Check out Cardinal Zen’s thoughts on this subject in a 10/26/18 CNS article: “Zen went as far as to accuse the Vatican of purposefully mistranslating Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics that called for the reconciliation of the churches. In a delicate passage about how priests in the underground might accept recognition by the Chinese authorities without necessarily betraying the faith, a critical caveat was left out about how ‘almost always,’ however, the Chinese authorities imposed requirements ‘contrary to the dictates’ of Catholics’ conscience,” said Zen. This error in translation was ‘too important to have not been deliberate.’”

  2. Just a question: If the underground Church will not do business with the Chinese government, then why would they come “above ground” for Rome doing business with the Chinese government?

  3. A comparison of Pacelli and Chamberlain’s appeasement is a stretch too far. Pacelli did get some assurance for the Church and , though violated by Hitler, did allow for some operations to continue and thus provide for covert moral support for the Catholics and Junckers opposed to Hitler. In Chamberlain’s give away, nothing was gained and everything forfeited. The Chinese are approaching Pope Francis in the same way as Chamberlain and are expecting the same result.

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