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Doubling down on a bad deal

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re’s defense of the indefensible is a last gasp of the old Vatican Ostpolitik.

The faithful attend Mass at Beijing's South Catholic Church Sept. 29, 2018. (CNS photo/Jason Lee, Reuters)

Perseverance on a difficult but noble path is a virtue. Stubbornness when confronted by irrefutable evidence of a grave mistake is a vice. The latter would seem an apt characterization of a letter sent on Ash Wednesday to the entire College of Cardinals by its new Dean, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re. In that letter — his first official act as Dean — Cardinal Re reprimands the redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen, SDB, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, for his criticisms of the agreement the Vatican made with the People’s Republic of China in 2018.

The bloom is off the Chinese rose just about everywhere in the world. So it is more than disturbing that the Holy See should be doubling down on what everyone (except those directly involved in cutting it) thinks is a very bad deal: bad, because it allows the Chinese Communist Party to nominate candidates for bishop, which the Holy See can then approve or reject.

Why is the bloom off the Chinese rose? Why are China and its “model” no longer lauded in the global commentariat? The initial Chinese mishandling (and worse) of COVID-19, the coronavirus, has had an impact. Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, however, there was mounting concern about the intentions and brutality of the Chinese communist regime: about its herding Uighurs into concentration camps; about its assaults on religious communities, including the defacing and demolition of Catholic churches after the accord with the Holy See was signed; about its aggressive military moves in the South China Sea; about its creation of an Orwellian internal security apparatus through facial-recognition technology; about its ranking the Chinese citizenry according to their political reliability (meaning their acquiescence to what  the Chinese Communist Party dictates); about its international espionage, often conducted behind the cover of putatively independent technology companies like Huawei; about its relentless digital attacks on Taiwan; and about the global Chinese “Belt-and-Road” initiative, which financially shackles Third World countries to the Beijing regime.

Yet nary a public word has been spoken by Vatican diplomacy about any of this.

What is most disturbing about Cardinal Re’s letter, however, is its claim that the 2018 Vatican-China agreement is in continuity with the diplomacy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. To my understanding, that is simply not right — or at best, it’s a distortion of the historical record in service to defending what can’t be defended on the merits.

Yes, John Paul II and Benedict XVI sought ways to unite the Church in China. But neither was prepared to do so at the expense of the Church’s right to order its internal life by Catholic criteria. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI could have had a deal in which the Chinese government would propose candidates for bishop, which the Vatican would then accept or veto. Both popes declined to accept any such arrangement, not only because it contradicted the teaching of Vatican II in its Decree on the Pastoral Office of the Bishops in the Church and Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon Law, but because they knew that that concession would weaken the Church’s evangelical mission in China. The deal Cardinal Re defends is not in a line of continuity with the policy of John Paul II and Benedict XVI: it is an even worse deal than the deal those popes would not make. For it concedes nominating power to the Chinese Community Party, which manages religious affairs in China, not the Chinese government. And that is, in a word, intolerable.

Cardinal Re’s defense of the indefensible is a last gasp of the old Vatican Ostpolitik, the failed policy of making concessions to totalitarian regimes that did much damage to the Church in east central Europe during the 1970s. Italian Vatican diplomats still defend that policy, claiming absurdly that it set the table for the Revolution of 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But what did the Ostpolitik actually accomplish? It made the Hungarian hierarchy a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Hungarian Communist Party, gutting the Church’s evangelical credibility in the process. It demoralized Catholicism in what was then Czechoslovakia. It put unnecessary pressure on the Church in Poland. And it facilitated the deep penetration of the Vatican by communist secret intelligence services.

Cardinal Re’s letter laments that the path forward for the Catholic Church in China is difficult and complex. Who could doubt it? That path is not made easier, however, by making unbecoming concessions to thugs — or by calling out fellow-cardinals who challenge the 2018 Vatican-China deal because it does precisely that.

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About George Weigel 484 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. If this “Provisional Agreement” is in line with the intentions of St John Paul II and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then why not disclose it to the public and put the question to rest? The refusal to disclose the contents of this clearly bad “Secret” deal is both cowardly and hypocritical on the part of the current Pope and Vatican leadership.

  2. Mr. Weigel seems to go to great lengths to put all the blame for this on Cardinal Re, and leave out Pope Francis of any responsibility. Hard to believe that Cardinal Re did this on his own.

    • Maybe the article is more about “doubling down [on a bad deal]” than the deal itself. Cardinal Zen himself very recently placed the blame more on the Secretariat of State than on the insulated Pope Francis. Maybe Cardinal Parolin is an accomplished ventriloquist and Cardinal Re is his hand-puppet? But who am I to judge?

  3. Thugs love other thugs. Tyrants love other tyrants. The so-called Left, who are now passing for the “new-and-improved-catholic-church-of-social-salvation”, who appear as the “angels” of mercy, compassion, inclusion and protection of Nature, absolutely love unrepentant thugs, criminals and tyrants. Never ever repenting or ever accepting responsibility for their destruction and the disasters brought by their “good intentions” is as the very core of their false demonic gospel, totally opposing the repentance and humility demanded by Jesus True Gospel. “Humility is the only virtue no demon can imitate” (St. John Climacus) and it shows quite graphically.

    Now we have high ranking people at the Vatican doing the exact same thing by doubling down on a deal with the Chinese Government that is a total disaster and treason to the Chinese Catholic Church. No repentance, no responsibility, no accountability, no real mercy, and only bowing to the brutality of sinful dictators, as very probably they are bowing to the dictator Satan in their own hearts. Let us never bow to any dictators, whether inside our own hearts, politics, social life or the Church. Let’s bow only to Jesus, the TRUE Lord, and pray for the end of paganism, humanism, compromise and cowardice in the Church!!

  4. Does anyone else think it odd or unnerving at least, that what began in China is now shutting down St. Peter’s square and Masses in Rome?? Hmmmm

  5. Thank you, Mr. Weigel. The Soviet Union fell, in part, because there were a few public voices, and then more than a few, who pointed out the bankruptcy of its ideology and corresponding brutality. Sadly, too many, including high churchmen, practiced “see no evil, hear no evil” long after the truth was evident to any thinking person. So with China’s government.

  6. Weigel does a good job of laying out the facts, but he is way too kind, and way to optimistic. As long as there are Vatican diplomats, there will always be Ostpolitik with its attending back stabbers. Thank God, that there is justice in the next life, it certainly isn’t found here on this earth.

  7. The official declaration today , of the Corona virus being a pandemic and thank
    God , The Church advocating fasting also to deal with same – which , in turn would help to deal with the other pandemic that we also have been warned against , for a while –
    that of demonization and of hardening of hearts .
    St.John Paul 11 who too dealt with such , now to intercede at far greater levels , along with many other martyrs and saints and thus , the concerns voiced through article such as the above , to add more of such prayers , by more persons . Thus , let us hope that same would make all the difference , that the hardened hearts and faces would be touched at whatever level/positions /places they are , with the Father’s love .

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