BY MARIO ALEXIS PORTELLA · This past Sunday Pope Francis appeared to the faithful from Papal Palace window to address the faithful during the traditional Angelus prayer. Many throughout the world were hoping to hear the Bishop of Rome speak out against the martial law the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has imposed on Hong Kong residents that has suppressed their freedom and autonomy—it is customary for the pope to address an international issue after giving an exegetical discourse. Instead, Francis spoke about how the United Nations Security Council adopted a Resolution which proposes some measures to deal with the devastating consequences of the coronavirus, particularly for areas in conflict zones—the request, which has yet to have been carried out, is for a global and immediate ceasefire, which would allow that peace and security necessary to provide the needed humanitarian assistance is commendable.
As reported by various news reporters, such as the Italian journal Il Libero Quotidiano and Christopher Altieri, Rome bureau chief for the Catholic Herald, there was bulletin distributed to journalists before the Pope’s Angelus prayer that contained some important words on the crisis in Hong Kong—the speech was to be read immediately after the Angelus exhortation.
The apparent statement the Pontiff was to have reads as follows:
“In recent times, I have followed the development of the complex situation in Hong Kong with particular attention and not without concern, and I would like first of all to express my cordial closeness to all the inhabitants of that territory. In the current context, the issues addressed are undoubtedly delicate and affect everyone’s life; therefore it is understandable that there is a marked sensitivity in this regard. I therefore hope that all the people involved will be able to deal with the various problems in a spirit of far-sighted wisdom and authentic dialogue. This requires courage, humility, non-violence and respect for the dignity and rights of all. I then express the vow that social life, and especially religious life, express themselves in full and true freedom, as indeed various international documents provide for it. With my constant prayer I accompany the whole Catholic community and the people of goodwill in Hong Kong, so that they can build a prosperous and harmonious society together.”
Aside the fact that the would-be statement was mild, at best—Vatican personnel did not provided an explanation why Francis omitted the prepared statement at the last minute—it would have nevertheless been a significant intervention only because for the first time the Pope would have addressed the crackdown on democracy by the CCP. Why this abstention, providing the story is true? Was it an act of diplomatic brilliance on the part of the pope?
On April 9, the Holy See publicly thanked China for its generosity for its donation of medical supplies to the Vatican Pharmacy as the coronavirus has overwhelmed the Italian peninsula. Matteo Bruni, director of the Vatican press office, said that the donations are “an expression of the solidarity of the Chinese people… to all those who are committed in assisting people struck by the COVID-19 and in the prevention of the coronavirus epidemic that is underway.” Bruni went on to say that Pope Francis expressed his “gratitude to the bishops, the Catholic faithful, the institutions and all other Chinese citizens for this humanitarian initiative, [and assured] them of [his] esteem and prayers.”
While the cordiality by the Vatican spokesman is part of diplomatic protocol, the irony is, as reported by the online journal Crux, the Vatican refrained from making any public statements of recognition for Taiwan’s (officially Republic of China) donation of food and 280,000 medical masks on April 14.
Despite being Taiwan’s sole diplomatic allay in Europe—Beijing insists Taiwan is a Chinese province and has a policy of diplomatically isolating the Taiwanese—the Vatican sent a strong signal of where its interests lie by acknowledging China and not Taiwan.
In a June 20th interview on The War Room, Chinese dissident and whistleblower Guo Wengui claimed that the CCP “allocates $2 billion a year” to the Vatican in order to gain influence over its internal policy making and to pay for its silence on the CCP’s repression of religious freedom.
In 2018 Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Piero Parolin engineered an undisclosed provisional agreement with Chinese officials on the appointment of bishops—the CCP names bishops for its state Church, the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association; the Bishop of Rome approves thereafter. The Vatican had stated: “Pope Francis hopes that, with these decisions, a new process may begin that will allow the wounds of the past to be overcome, leading to the full communion of all Chinese Catholics.”
This has been condemned by 88-year-old Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, described then entire affair as “the most cruel thing” the Vatican has done concerning the Catholic Church in China, and “absolutely against the doctrine of the Church, because it encourages people to be part of a schismatic Church.”
Prior to the Communist takeover of China in 1949, it is estimated that there were about 3 million Catholics in the country. Under the slogan of national unity, notwithstanding being an atheist government, China showed a degree of tolerance towards religion. Eventually, with the goal of placing religion under government control, the CCP subsequently severed ties with the Vatican, deported all foreign missionaries, closed down churches run by foreign bishops and established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association in 1957.
In his encyclical Ad Apostolorum principis of July 29, 1958, Pope Pius XII deplored the attitude and activities of the Patriotic Church established by China and declared the bishops who participated in consecrating new bishops selected by the Association to be excommunicated. Since the 2018 agreement, Pope Francis has recognized the legitimacy of eight Chinese bishops, appointed by Beijing without the Vatican’s approval, in addition to favoring it over the “Underground Church”—the separation directly affects around 12 million Catholics in China, who are roughly evenly split into a so-called underground church that looks to the Pope for authority, while others attend Sunday mass in state-run churches controlled by Beijing’s Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.
We must always remember that Communist China is one of the greatest violators of human rights, and despite signing the undisclosed deal with the Vatican in 2018, which is due to expire this September, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China reported that religious persecution has increased religious persecution has increased—local Chinese authorities subjected Catholic believers in China to increased persecution by demolishing churches, removing crosses, and continuing to detain underground clergy. The Party-led Catholic national religious organizations also published a plan to ‘‘sinicize’’ Catholicism in China as it simultaneously continues to hold up the recognition of 23 bishops chosen by the Vatican—the CCP requires written approval for the clergy to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, followed by a pledge of loyalty and obedience to the party leadership.
While one can understand the Pope’s reluctance in condemning the CCP’s latest suppression in Hong Kong for fear of further backlash, the Vatican’s silence, as communicated by Cardinal Zen —who said this week that he is prepared to suffer arrest and trials under Hong Kong’s draconian new National Security Law—is deafening.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.