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Making sense of the Vatican’s approach to dictatorial regimes

Critics have faulted Pope Francis for not protesting these assaults on the Church in China and Nicaragua. But is the criticism reasonable?

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, is monitored by police in early August 2022. / Photo credit: Diocese of Matagalpa

Why hasn’t Pope Francis spoken up forcefully about the oppression of the Church by dictatorial regimes in China and Nicaragua?

It’s a fair question whose answer can perhaps be found in the precedent of several popes of the 20th century.

First a quick look at what’s been happening lately in those two countries.

In China, the most blatant recent incident was the conviction and fining of Cardinal Joseph Zen and five others for not registering a relief fund for pro-democracy demonstrators.

The $500 fine imposed on the Cardinal, former archbishop of Hong Kong, was apparently intended as a warning: “Don’t provoke us or it will be worse next time.” Meanwhile the Holy See and the Chinese government agreed on another two-year extension of their 2018 provisional pact that allows the government to choose bishops subject only to a veto by the Pope.

In Nicaragua, the regime of President Daniel Ortega has closed down Catholic TV and radio stations, expelled the papal nuncio and religious orders, and imprisoned Catholic leaders including priests. As this is written, the case of Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa, accused of “damaging the Nicaraguan government” by protesting the misdeeds of the Ortega regime, has been referred for trial and the Bishop is under house arrest.

Critics have faulted Pope Francis for not protesting these assaults on the Church. But is the criticism reasonable? Consider what his predecessors did in situations not unlike these.

Start with Pope Pius XII. While it isn’t true that he said nothing publicly about Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, he did say relatively little. As historian Michael Hesemann shows in his richly documented study The Pope and the Holocaust (Ignatius Press, 2022), that was the price Pius paid to work quietly but effectively by mobilizing the Vatican diplomatic corps in Nazi-occupied countries to get thousands of Jews to safety. And when the German occupiers of Rome began rounding up Jews, Pius ordered convents and religious houses to shelter them and made Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican itself available for that purpose.

By Hesemann’s count, 960,000 Jews were saved directly or indirectly by the Pope’s efforts.

After World War II, Pope Pius practiced unyielding opposition to the communist regimes of Eastern Europe that by then were persecuting the Church. But the 1960s and 1970s saw a significant change in the Holy See’s approach under Pope St. John XXIII and Pope St. Paul VI. With Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Vatican Secretary of State, spearheading the effort, the Vatican now pursued a policy of Ostpolitik that involved seeking accommodation with the communists to gain breathing room for the Church.

True, Pope St. John Paul II set aside Ostpolitik in favor of a confrontational approach epitomized by his triumphant 1979 visit to Poland, which contributed powerfully to launching the process that culminated in the downfall of communism. But that was only possible because he judged correctly that the regimes involved were by then decayed and vulnerable.

While different in many ways from those of the past, the challenges now facing the Catholic Church in China and Nicaragua also have significant similarities to the problems that the Holy See faced, first with Nazis and then with communists, during and after World War II. Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI concluded then that making the best of a bad situation would accomplish more good than confrontation.

And if that is how Pope Francis reasons today about China and Nicaragua, only future events can show whether he was right or wrong.

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About Russell Shaw 288 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. If Pope Francis is secretly helping to smuggle thousands of Uyghurs out of China, my opinion of him will be completely changed.

    • To The Latin Masked Catholic: Insightful comment. I’ll bet Archbishop Georg Ganswein would agree and add that the late Pope Benedict XVI couldn’t have said it better himself.

  2. Sad to say, but this is more weak and unimaginative company-man analysis from Mr. Shaw. Dear Mr. Shaw, perhaps you should consider the possibility that the Holy Father does not criticize Communist regimes because he is in sympathy with their policies. It is not as though he keeps his leftist political views secret. On the other hand, he has always been very outspoken in his opposition to right-leaning governments and has done what could to bring them down because he despises their agendas. As for the Christians who suffer under Marxist and Islamic tyrannies, he couldn’t care less.

  3. You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.

    For, after just a brief moment,
    he who is to come shall come;
    he shall not delay.
    But my just one shall live by faith,
    and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.

    We are not among those who draw back and perish,
    but among those who have faith and will possess life.

  4. Shaw is usually a very perceptive commenter but in this case he is comparing apple and oranges at least on one aspect. Pius XII had met Hitler when he was a Vatican diplomat and considered that he was totally given over to evil and that dialogue with him would be fruitless. That is very different from the current approach to China which is treating them as worthy dialogue partners despite their recent track record of not honoring the Hong Kong agreement with Britain.

  5. Some will argue that the arbitrary is the regimen of Papa. Cultural Marxism is a destructive policy regardless of where it is practiced.

    Proverbs 21:30 No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the Lord.

    Matthew 16:18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

    Isaiah 46:10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’

    1 Corinthians 1:25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

  6. Jesus never condemned Caesar’s wars, crucifixions, welfare or other secular ‘social justice’ issues. Instead Jesus sent His Disciples into martyrdom for preaching the Word of God for repentance and the Spiritual Life salvation of souls.

    God was King and Ruler over Israel in the Promised Land. In the Promised Land, God protected Israel from other kingdom’s armies and God poured out great blessings upon Israel. In return, Israel became twice as evil in their massive sinfulness as other nations. God kicked Israel out of the Promised Land. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon was just as ruthless as Adolph Hitler. It is God who put king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and all ruthless dictators to this day, in power over His people on earth, as a punishment so that they might repent of their sinfulness, so that God may grant them peace on earth.

    In the Second Secret of Fatima, God offers the Catholic Church, and the world, a reprieve from His punishment of ruthless tyrants. God requested that the Catholic Church get mankind to repent of their massive sinfulness and Consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and in return God will grant peace to the world rather than the punishment of WWII. The Catholic Church chose to rejected God’s offer of peace on earth and chose God’s punishment of WWII instead. Pope Pious XII worked hard at giving us the false image that he was actually the big hero during WWII, as he led us through our Catholic Church chosen punishment of WWII.

    Second Secret of Fatima
    You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.

    Now God has offered Peace on earth to His repentant Catholic Faithful. Jesus now wishes to Come and Deliver His Faithful from the Evil One on earth. Jesus instructs us to receive His gifts of Divine Mercy this coming Divine Mercy Sunday. Those who do so become Jesus’ ‘Elect’, whom He will remove all earthly punishments from God and Place His Catholic Church back into the Garden of Eden, on free-willed earth. Like his predecessors before him, Pope Francis now too rejects this offer of Peace on Earth from Jesus, as Pope Francis leads the Catholic Church deeper into massive sinfulness against God.

    Please visit: ‘Jesus is Getting Married’.

  7. You seem to be woefully inadequate in history. When the Church in Spain seemed to have lost its godly path, the Church turned to the very devil and his minion –Hitler and Mussolini. During World War II, Pious XII did not excommunicate them – even though both of them were Catholics. The “Saintly” Pope John Paul II, appeared on the Presidential Palace and waved to the cheering supporters of Pinoche of Chile — a ruthless and brutal dictator.

    • The Church in Spain turned to Franco because the Republican Regime was burning churches and monasteries, and murdering priests, monks, and turned to Franco as obviously he was willing to put a stop to it. It never “turned to Hitler and Mussolini” and in fact Pope Pius XII was involved in the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler.

      Hitler left the Catholic Church in his teens and the diaries of Martin Borman and Joseph Goebbels, his closest confidants, confirmed that he despised Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. Mussolini was an atheist. The Church therefore cannot excommunicate two dictators who were never Catholic in the first place.

      Pope St John Paul II didn’t intend to appear next to Pinochet, and was tricked into doing so, which made him furious.

      Perhaps you should review the sources you get your Church history from since most of them seem to be unreliable at best, and pure fabrications at worst.

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