Colluding with Dictators?

02-18-2018Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Our beleaguered leader is really taking it on the chin these days. His election was a surprise to many, and many long for the days of his predecessor. The bureaucracy actively works against him and seems to dog him at every step. He is accused of colluding with the worst kind of dictator and even compromising with a foreign power. In fact, he has been accused of being a dictator himself. Grant it, some of the things he says leave people scratching their heads and his administration running to explain what he said. Every major news outlet from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal has recently editorialized against him and questioned his decisions. Does he deserve to be judged so harshly? I think not, which puts me in the minority position.

I am referring to Pope Francis, of course. The recent decision by Pope Francis to accept seven Chinese bishops that were appointed by the Communist government of China has drawn plenty of criticism. The worst of these criticisms is that he has sold out Chinese Catholics that have remained faithful to the Vatican. Even worse, he is cozying up to a dictator and compromising the freedom of the Church. One of the points of contention between the Vatican and the Chinese government is the appointment of Bishops. The Chinese government has insisted that it alone can appoint who becomes a Catholic Bishop. As a result, there has been a split in the Church between the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (only priests and bishops part of the Association are recognized by the Chinese government) and the Catholics that are loyal to the Vatican. For years now, the Vatican has been working to resolve this problem, and I think the recent move by Pope Francis was the right move.

If you remember when Pope Benedict XVI became the Roman Pontiff, he issued a long letter to the Chinese Catholics expressing his solidarity with them and promising to work to normalize the status of the Church in China. One of the things he wrote in that letter that was mostly unnoticed (but not by the Chinese officials) was to rescind the permission that had been given to Chinese bishops that allowed them to ordain a seminarian who had not gone through seminary formation, and that a bishop could ordain a priest a bishop without the usual two additional bishops normally needed for the consecration of a new bishop. The reason he rescinded this permission was to help in the negotiation with the Chinese government. He also realized that this situation was now causing more division than benefit to the Church in China.

One of the problems has been that some of the older bishops ordained with Vatican permission have refused to step down. Imagine if Bishop Olmsted, upon reaching mandatory retirement at 75, refuses to step down while a new Bishop, agreed upon by the Vatican and the U.S. government, is appointed for the Diocese. Imagine, too, that Bishop Olmstead insists that he is still the bishop, and the new Bishop is an imposter. You can imagine the division it would cause. This situation has been going on for years and has been a barrier to any rapprochement between the Vatican and China. The Vatican finally was able to reach an agreement in the case of seven bishops that both the Vatican and the Chinese government could agree on.

This caused a lot of upset especially from Cardinal Zen, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong. Cardinal Zen is no doubt a holy man who I am sure will one day be canonized a saint. But in this case, he got it wrong. The Cardinal lived through the torturous years of the Cultural Revolution and suffered greatly for his loyalty to the Vatican. Things have changed since then and the Chinese are slightly more open to working with the outside world than before. So Pope Francis took this opportunity to try to create something approaching normalcy for the Church in China.

The challenge for Pope Francis and the Vatican is that the Church has to find a way to exist under a Communist regime.  What we would consider acceptable is far from possible in China. The Vatican took this little crack in the door to try to move things forward. They are fully aware that the Communists are not trustworthy and are experts at manipulation and control. But that should not be a reason to refuse all cooperation.

A lot of ink has been spilled criticizing Pope Francis on this issue. But the situation in China is very complex, and there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than we know about. Therefore, any solution will be less than ideal and fraught with all sorts of possible traps. This move by the Pope may spur more changes in the Church in China, or it may go nowhere. But it is worth a try. Hopefully, this is the beginning of something good in China. Even a small opening can allow the Holy Spirit to move in China in powerful ways. Let’s pray that happens soon.

Love, Fr. John B.