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On cages and evangelization in China

Like Catholicism-vs.-communism in east central Europe during the Cold War, Catholicism-vs.-communism in China is, ultimately, a zero-sum game.

Riot police detain a man during a Sept. 6, 2020, protest in Hong Kong against postponed elections. (CNS photo/Tyrone Siu, Reuters)

Joshua Wong is a young Chinese human rights activist, recently sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison on the Orwellian charge of “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly” – meaning, in Chinese Newspeak, urging others to protest peacefully the tyranny now throttling Hong Kong. In his first letter from prison, the uncowed Mr. Wong wrote, “Cages cannot lock up souls.” Indeed, they cannot. But the failure to defend the caged by standing in solidarity with them can do the gravest damage to evangelization.

Jimmy Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent Catholic defenders of religious freedom and other basic human rights, was back in jail in early December; his bail in a civil lease dispute was revoked on the grounds that he might flee and is a national security risk to boot. The real reason for his incarceration, of course, is that keeping Mr. Lai in prison stifles his ongoing challenge to repression. In numerous interviews, Jimmy Lai has emphasized that his Catholic faith undergirds and sustains his commitment to human rights for all, even as the Xi Jinping regime tries to ruin his business and threatens his life. Has Jimmy Lai been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against his persecution since he became a prime target of China’s overlords? No.

Martin Lee is another devout Catholic, a distinguished barrister, and pro-democracy activist, who has seen his work undone as Beijing tightens its stranglehold on Hong Kong in brazen disregard of the commitments it made in 1997, when Great Britain reverted sovereignty over the territory to China. Profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lee rebuffed any suggestion that he would ever leave Hong Kong: “If I have the choice of dying peacefully in bed outside Hong Kong, or dying in pain in a Chinese jail, the question for me is not how I die, but will I go to heaven? Dying without my convictions is what would really give me pain.” Has this Chinese embodiment of the spirit of St. Thomas More been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against Beijing’s tyranny? No.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Vatican initiated a meeting between Pope Francis and a group of NBA players and their union representatives, evidently to discuss issues of justice in the United States. Has any similar outreach been made to Chinese Catholic human rights activists – or even to the redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and another courageous defender of religious freedom throughout China? No.

Attempts to defend this shameful Vatican reluctance to support beleaguered Chinese Catholics publicly remain unpersuasive, even ludicrous. Some argue that current Vatican China policy is necessary to regularize the Catholic situation in China, which suffers from a deficit of bishops; how a method of appointing bishops that leaves the opening moves in the process to the Chinese communist party, in violation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (which was given legal effect in Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon Law), is not self-evidently clear. Others argue that the Church must take thuggish regimes as they are and try to create open space for Catholic life under those circumstances; but this makes no sense in today’s Chinese situation, where the Xi Jinping regime uses intimidation and torture to impose on the entire country what amounts to an alternative religion – canine fealty to the Chinese communist party and its maximum leader. As for the risible claim that the arrangement begun in 2018 is an advance because it recognizes the pope’s position as head of the Catholic Church: Of what use is that recognition of the obvious, in the face of ubiquitous regime propaganda touting Xi Jinping as a quasi-divine figure to whose benevolent wisdom all must defer?

Like Catholicism-vs.-communism in east central Europe during the Cold War, Catholicism-vs.-communism in China is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. There is no middle ground of accommodation where everyone lives happily ever after. Someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose. The Ostpolitik of the Vatican in the 1960s and 1970s never grasped this; John Paul II did, and the self-liberation of Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries followed in 1989.

Chinese communism is not immortal. When it ends, China will be the greatest field of Christian mission in centuries. A Catholicism identified with the old, despised regime will be at a serious evangelical disadvantage in post-communist China: not least because it will be seen to have failed Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Joseph Zen, and so many other noble and courageous confessors of the faith.


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About George Weigel 323 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 book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), and his new book, Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021).

16 Comments

  1. Readers might conclude that Mr. Weigel was more in touch with reality if he didn’t manage to omit the gigantic and well-known fact that the “embrace of the Communist Party of China” is the lifelong work and goal of “Lord McCarrick,” still in “full communion” with all of the faithful, despite his being an unrepentant arch-criminal.

    Why would that go unobserved by Mr. Weigel? Hmmm?

    • why don’t you ask him? I don’t have the impression it is deliberate but it would be interesting to read the reply to this question.

    • Here you go again with the McCarrick obsession. Maybe it goes unobserved by Mr. Weigel because it’s not relevant. Maybe the personal axes you are always grinding prevent you from seeing that clearly.

      • In contrast to what may simply be unintended ignorance on your part, people not ignorant about McCarrick know that McCarrick has long fostered the secret deal with the Communist Party in China.

        Indeed, diocesan news sources in the AD of Washington reported on his travels there repeatedly when he was Archbishop of Washington.

        This CNA story sums up his repeated visits to China in the 1990s through 2006:

        https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/mccarricks-unofficial-role-in-vatican-china-relations-42192

        2 years ago, a commenter either at First Things or on these pages recounted the story of when McCarrick was about to retire, or had recently retired as Archbishop of Washington (2006), he was the guest speaker at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC, and stunned his audience by going off topic and suggesting that the Catholic Church formerly recognize the Communist Party Church, aka “The Patriotic Church.” in China.

        Let’s all (including you A) stipulate that the deal with China is the topic of Mr. Weigel. And let’s stipulate also to the published fact that when the Pontiff Francis liberated McCarrick, he was enlisted by PF and the Vatican Secretary of State Parolin, to help seal the secret accord with General Secretary Xi.

        Reality is often judged relevant by those not predisposed to avoid seeking the truth. We are always free to face reality and move in its direction.

      • And since you are so kind to keep visiting me at my comments A, here is a gift article for you:

        https://newmansociety.org/land-o-lakes-statement-caused-devastation-50-years/

        And further…a link to the very document mentioned, the “Land-of-Lakes Statement” of 1967, whereby now some 90

        % of formerly “Catholic Universities” broke away from Church authority:

        http://sycamoretrust.org/wp-content/uploads/Land-OLakes-Statement.pdf

        And note the list of co-signers includes the then-President of the University of Puerto Rico, our very own “Reverend” Theodore McCarrick.

        McCarrick, from start to finish, for 50 years, the engineer of the demolition of the Church in the US.

    • We don’t know if McCarrick is still in “full Communion” or anything about his state of mind and soul at this present time. And are you insinuating that Weigel and McCarrick had a relationship?

  2. Brilliant article. Each of us must ask: “What would Jesus say in the Vatican handling of the China Catholic and other religions situation”. Should we use politics to gain a foothold in China; or do we simply and strongly, announce the right of humans to practice their faith in Jesus? It is something we should pray about.

  3. For over thirty-five years. I have carried a small yellow book, the “Thoughts of Jesus Christ”. It was issued by the Catholic Truth Society London in 1972 to combat Mao’s Little Red Book (Older readers will remember it) it presents no shallow fashionable image of him. It expresses his unique authority his clear ethic and good news of the kingdom, as it reveals Him God-man, the risen Lord, whose message is truly radial because it is supernatural…

    “Jesus Christ thought is the only message for an era in which human beings find themselves alone and purposeless”… The only information given is direction under different headings with Gospel reference. The simplicity of the book with minimal information impels the reader to contemplate the words of Jesus Christ in different life situations, this can be and is illuminating and encourages further study and spiritual growth, the onward transformation of the human heart…

    Quote “It is the most powerful ideological weapon for opposing oppression, misery, and inhumanity. Jesus Christ’s thought is the guiding principle for all of those who would follow him to perfect manhood. Therefore, the most fundamental task in our social political and ideological work is at all times to hold high the sign of the Cross, to arm the minds of the people throughout the world with it and PERSISTLY use it to command every field of activity”…

    The cover has long gone, like much of my old self, the remaining pages are yellowing and torn, some words can no longer be read but it is of no importance as there is no vacuum in my heart, as to some degree His Word now lives.

    To anyone who may consider reading The Little Yellow Book *(if you can obtain one) note it is a tool for contemplation, as it contains the ‘living’, Word of God which is supernatural and radial, it cannot be misunderstood by anyone approaching his Word (Will) with honesty, it’s beauty (Truth) cannot help but inspire integrity, no matter of what religion, race, creed, state of being you are or belong to.

    Whatever happened to the little yellow book?

    But more importantly whatever happened to our God given ideals once propagated by the Church.

    Note * I contacted The Catholic Truth Society, via e-mail about eighteen months ago, asking for the price, for a rerun of the book, (if it was out of print). They said my e-mail would be forwarded to another department, and that they would get back to me, they never did.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ.

  4. I was spent my childhood and adolescence in Thailand and Malaysia (father was a civil engineer) and have been wondering what happened to the protesters in HK who were arrested. Australian media has been remarkable for its silence re support for Hong Kong protesters, while jumping on every “rights” wagon going, especially LGBT, here. Their bias is characteristic of the moral and spiritual degeneracy now plaguing us; the media spread the plague and those who resist are ridiculed, which is no form of reasonable argument. I am surprised but pleased to find out at least what is happening to Mr Wong and his courageous fellow prisoners,I certainly have not heard anything via Australian news. It never occurred to me that the Chrisitan West would let Hong Kong go in this way, abandoning justice and integrity; we cannot simply ignore truth.

  5. Mr. Weigel writes: “There is no middle ground of accommodation where everyone lives happily ever after.” But, wait, what if “accommodation” is cross-dressed by clerical word merchants as “accompaniment?” Then, short-term “provisional” agreements…

    This plastic and synodal-like path was pioneered, also as a provisional maneuver, by Chairman Mao himself: “On the principle of freedom of religious belief, all religions are tolerated in the Chinese liberated areas. Protestantism, Catholicism, Mohammedanism, Buddhism and all other religions will be protected by the people’s government so long as the believers abide by the laws [!] of the government. Everybody is free to believe [!] or not to believe in a religion; neither compulsion nor discrimination is allowed” (Mao Tse-Tung, “On Coalition Government” [Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1955], 109).

    By this double-speak, one is almost reminded of one President Obama who spoke reassuringly about freedom of “worship”—in place of openly-lived freedom of religion. Chairman Obama and his successors….Also, in lockstep, the Muslim “Declaration of Human Rights” (1981) acknowledges “freedom of worship” but not freedom of religion as is assured in the earlier United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

    • By changing hearts and minds, which applies to any country at present, in the face of the onslaught of the media popularising social engineering and the introduction of same in govt schools. Resistance must be expressed because this is a spiritual war. The past would demonstrate to you that Christian refusal to bow to state ideologies, leading often to social exclusiion or rebuff, imprisonment, or death, has triumphed over the “hard power” of a hostile state. I wonder why you use these terms and pose such a question, which sounds faithless – or do you mean that the Vatican is not standing up to be counted? What exactly do you mean, unless you are afraid that Christ cannot overcome the present disorder?

  6. Surprised to read this totally biased criticism of the situation & personalities in HK. I can see that the writer is totally ignorant of the HK situation. Has the writer ever read all the evidence charged against Joshua Wong who called for the siege of the Police H/Q for 12 hours, causing dysfunction of the police in maintenance of peace & order? Has the writer ever looked into the Tabloid published by the devoted Catholic Mr. Jimmy Lai, which won its circulation by contents in pornography, sensational reporting & fake news? Please talk to more people in HK before making any comment on our situation here, when we suffered from blocking of traffics, fire-bombs attacks, violence & assaults from the “peaceful protesters” throughout 2019.

    • Charles … you need to go out more … get a life ..read more than the local CCP propaganda rags .. and prepare for what is coming to HK! Or perhaps you are a member of the CCP anyway and look forward to the total lack of freedom? I live in a beautiful, relatively small capital city in Australia = Adelaide, capital of South Australia = 1.1 million people. I have Chinese neighbours on both sides of me who in the past three years have fled China for freedom here. AND I’m REALLY sorry that you have suffered traffic jams in H.K. because citizens were fighting for YOUR freedom!

      • Interesting to read people from Australia telling me what has happened in HK where I live. I have nothing to do with CCP & their propaganda. It was me who suffered from the blocking of the train & the freeway for public transports because of gangs fighting for MY freedom. It was me who was afraid to pull out my cell phone for fear of attack by unknown people thinking that I was trying to take pictures of their evil deeds. Thanks a lot, but no thanks. How can one get out & get a life when he facing attacks from the freedom fighters who were ready to kill? Please read more news reports from all sides. There were people heavily beaten, set on fire & stoned to death by these so called freedom fighters fighting for MY freedom. I don’t mind people turning blind eyes on these evil deeds, because there are so many of them in the real world. But please do pretend to be a Catholic & follow the teaching of Jesus Christ when you are doing so.

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