The failure of the Vatican under Pope Francis to stand up for persecuted Catholics and Catholic beliefs is a grave threat to Catholicism and all Catholics, argues Fr James Grant.
The communist assault on the Catholic Church was unrelenting for more than 70 years and has left the church to this day enormously weakened in many parts of the world.
The church leadership of the communist era understood clearly this confrontation was not episodic but a life and death struggle for the church. This was particularly the case during the pontificate of John Paul II (from 1978 to 2005), born Karol Józef Wojtyla, who prior to his election had been Archbishop of Kraków in Poland, behind the Iron Curtain. He had direct experience of the means by which communists sought aggressively to eradicate their primary ideological adversary, the Catholic Church. Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and other countries around the world subjected church members to harassment, imprisonment, denial of human rights and state-sanctioned murder.
From time to time the church did seek positions of compromise with communist regimes, notably during the Vatican’s Ostpolitik in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Hungary. The primary strategy of Ostpolitik was rooted in the Catholic fear of destruction in the countries of the Warsaw Pact (the means by which the Soviet Union bound Eastern Europe into its politico/ military structure). Pope John XXIII (1958-1963) and Pope Paul VI (19631978) undertook not to publicly criticise Communist rule and initiated dialogue in the hope of the removal of intimidation of church members.
The outcome of this Vatican tolerance would witness aggressive Russian and Eastern European spy agency penetration into local Catholic organisations and into the Vatican itself. This situation further weakened the Vatican’s ability to effect change in Eastern Europe, compromised loyal Catholics, empowered Communist sympathisers and allowed for the swift arrest and detention of Catholic human rights activists. These policies left the church gravely compromised and fundamentally weakened to this day. On the other hand, stubborn and unapologetic resistance kept the church alive in Poland, Lithuania and the Ukraine.
APPEASEMENT DID NOT WORK IN THE CONFRONTATION WITH HITLER, NOR DID IT WORK FOR THE CHURCH IN THE COMMUNIST YEARS
The great lesson of this period is that appeasement did not work in the confrontation with Hitler, nor did it work for the church in the communist years. Despite great suffering, successful resistance to communists was only seen in a strong sense of Catholic identity and persistence in upholding the values of human nature, community and ultimate destiny. Sometimes the church is also defined by what we oppose and—as John Paul II knew— if we oppose nothing, Catholicism is lost.
The current passivity of the Vatican under Pope Francis (2013– ) is of grave concern. Do we really imagine China, North Korea or Cuba—or, for that matter, Islamic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran—have changed any of their central tenets? Do we not actually find that the attacks on Catholics remain bloody affairs, where Catholics around the world are still persecuted and murdered in large numbers with little or no comment from a confused papacy. In Syria, Pope Francis has initiated an undemanding approach towards the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, counselling Western governments against military intervention. The results have been marked by an unprecedented humanitarian and refugee crisis. Following a Papal visit and indulgent Vatican policy towards Cuba, arrest rates of Catholics have increased and many local human rights initiatives have been crushed.
The Vatican in recent years has embarked on a wider practice of conforming to the world around it. This is seen most clearly in the statements of Pope Francis which rarely, if ever, highlight the beauties of Catholicism or call on individuals to undertake achange of life towards searching out the truth of Catholicism. A church which has no mission, or fails to challenge society, is a church not only in decay but at risk of death.
This disengagement between the Vatican and society is seen all over Western Europe—in France, Holland, Belgium, and the United Kingdom, but most notably in Ireland which has voted recently to change abortion and marriage laws. These votes are very much a rejection of Catholic identity. As Irish Times columnist Laura Kennedy noted: ‘The Catholic Church is the most poisonous entity in Irish history…it should have no role in our collective morality.’
In these two votes, Ireland has firmly advocated for secularisation but of far greater concern is the complete absence of a Catholic view — not even a humble suggestion that indeed many things have been done well by Catholics for the advancement of Western society.
If the church cannot at least highlight the things it does well, in what way can it rebuild trust and credibility? If a church is unable to stand up for its beliefs in public forums, why would any European feel remotely drawn to such an entity? Attracting people to Catholicism is based on making a case for the truth beyond the current secular mood. The papacy of Francis has completely failed to understand such concepts.
The willingness of Pope Francis to downplay Catholic culture and beliefs is also on display in Vatican engagement with China and Venezuela. For decades the Vatican has fought with the communist regime over control of the Chinese church. The communist government insists Chinese Catholicism must be under Chinese communist party philosophical control, through membership of the government-controlled Catholic Patriotic Association.
All previous Popes and Vatican statements have recognised the fundamental challenge such supervision would apply to the Catholic Church. Such an association fundamentally destroys the freedom of the church, removing its ability to propagate the faith directly to the Chinese people, without coercion, bias or communist filters. To faithful Catholics such as Thomas More and John Fisher, Christ entrusted his church to St Peter—not to the kings of nations.
IF THE CHURCH CANNOT AT LEAST HIGHLIGHT THE THINGS IT DOES WELL, IN WHAT WAY CAN IT REBUILD TRUST AND CREDIBILITY?
Under Pope Francis there have been signs this freedom might be compromised. Such a compromise would see the Vatican ratify selections of Bishops from lists prepared by Chinese communists. In what way Catholic freedom would be maintained is hard to fathom, particularly as Chinese authorities are unlikely to suggest the names of Bishops who are hostile to them.
The head of the Catholic Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, writing in the South China Morning Post, was even more forthcoming about the realities of such a compromise:
The Vatican must recognise the regime’s Bishops and those priests who have not sought the approval of government are unfit for the people to work with.
From 1999 until the present day, the Bishops of Venezuela have been critical of the governance of Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro. Their criticisms always have contained an economic and a civil rights dimension. In response, both leaders have been strongly anti-Catholic in their public statements and have encouraged left wing supporters to threaten Bishops and clergy and to vandalise Cathedrals and Church property. In 2017 the Venezuelan Bishops warned their country was becoming ‘totalitarian, violent and an oppressive state system’.
A national survey of the same year found 87 per cent of Venezuelan families now live below the poverty line. Maduro’s tactics have been to increase arrests and human rights abuses, while further suppressing the private economic sector.
None of this is unknown to Pope Francis, having previously been Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In 1991 Hugo Chávez nationalised key industries, notably the farming and oil sectors. Prior to these actions, Venezuela had proven capable of feeding itself—it now imports 75 per cent of its required food supplies. The nationalisation of the oil industry has resulted in oil production steadily collapsing. In 2018 production levels were at their lowest since 1949.
A massive increase of government spending and public sector employment for Maduro supporters has eroded the oil industry’s ability to pay for imported goods. It is estimated 80 per cent of required medications are currently unavailable to Venezuelans, resulting in the increase of previously under control diseases such as malaria, measles and diphtheria.
The United States Treasury now notes the Venezulean Government and military officials have become heavily involved in the importation of illegal drugs to the United States. The continued silence of the Vatican to the plight of ‘Catholic Venezuela’ seems destined to ensure the persecution of Catholics and human rights activists will continue apace.
In appealing to Pope Francis for support, the Venezuelan bishops were to be disappointed. All Pope Francis could suggest was to continue dialogue, to talk seriously and to adhere to agreements. In China and Venezuela, Pope Francis has distanced himself from the public cries for help from local bishops.
While it is well known that Pope Francis has a strong preference for socialist government—particularly if they insist they are supporting ‘populist reform’—it is extremely dangerous to place such ideological preferences ahead of the realities on the ground confirmed by suffering Bishops and local Catholics.
The facts on the ground in 2018—in Europe, South America and China—suggest a papacy and Vatican seriously disconnected from reality. The consequences of such disconnection remain the oppression and persecution of local Catholics, along with a failure to support justice, Catholic culture, values, and individual freedom.