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Prophecy vs realpolitik: Has the Vatican chosen state over Church in China?

The Vatican’s foreign minister on Friday said the Holy See has not spoken out on the clampdown on freedoms in Hong Kong because there is no sense in the Vatican that such an intervention would do any good. 

The admission from Archbishop Paul Gallagher, who heads the Secretariat of State’s section for diplomatic relations, highlights the tension between the prophetic and the pragmatic aspects of the Vatican’s role in international affairs, and especially in its dealing with China. 

Archbishop Paul Gallagher. Image via Vatican Media/YouTube


For Hong Kong especially, Gallagher’s remark might undermine whatever good the local Church can hope to achieve in conversations with the government, as the Vatican has already made clear its position.  

During the course of a press conference on Lebanon June 25, Gallagher was asked why the Vatican has spoken out on political instability and civil unrest in the Middle East, but not on the situation in Hong Kong, where authorities have led a year-long crackdown on basic civil liberties and freedom of expression, since the imposition of the National Security Law in July last year.

“Obviously Hong Kong is the object of concern for us. Lebanon is a place where we perceive that we can make a positive contribution. We do not perceive that in Hong Kong,” said the archbishop. “One can say a lot of, shall we say, appropriate words that would be appreciated by the international press and by many countries of the world, but I — and, I think, many of my colleagues — have yet to be convinced that it would make any difference whatever.”

Gallagher’s view, that Vatican statements in support of Hong Kong civil liberties and against totalitarianism would have no effect on government action, reflects a broad policy in the Secretariat of State to avoid public challenges of Beijing over widespread human rights violations, including the mass genocide of Uighurs in the mainland province of Xinjian. 

That policy — not publicly commenting on human rights abuses and atrocities in the world’s most populous country —  is widely understood to be linked to a provisional agreement signed by the Holy See and China in 2018 and renewed in 2020. 

The agreement grants Communist Party authorities effective veto power over the appointment of bishops on the mainland.

From the purely diplomatic perspective, Gallagher would seem to have a point. Beijing’s efforts to dismantle Hong Kong’s special political and legal status have not been deterred by global outcry.

And China’s anti-Uigher policies continue undettered amid reports of mass concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, forced abortions and sterilizations, and other atrocities.  

At the same time, despite the Vatican’s agreement with Beijing, the Communist Party has continued to arrest, detain, and otherwise harass Catholic clergy on the mainland who refuse to acknowledge the party’s effective sovereignty over the Church in the country, and it has continued with local church demolitions. 

There is a reasonable calculus that, while intervention by the Vatican to speak out against the Chinese government’s actions is unlikely to help, strident opposition from Rome on humanitarian grounds could make matters worse for Catholics on the ground. 

On the other hand, both Church observers and China watchers have noted that the Vatican’s effective silence on Chinese human rights violations, coupled with its closer diplomatic ties through the provisional agreement, can be taken as a tacit endorsement of the regime, and as a source of scandal. 

While silence by the Vatican may be strategic, many warn that it compromises the Church’s ability to speak out credibly on other civil and political crises, like Lebanon and Burma. That point seems at least partially illustrated by the question put to Gallagher on Friday.

As China continues to emerge as the globe’s foremost abuser of human rights, activists inside and outside of China have called on the Vatican to offer a prophetic witness for human rights and dignity in the face of political oppression, and even genocide. 

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To many observers, the Secretariat of State appears to be separating, or even suborning, the Holy See’s prophetic role from its pragmatic diplomatic efforts; in effect choosing a separation of Church and state affairs. While there may be arguments in favor of this approach, it is worth noting that the Holy See claims sovereignty in international law, and engages in diplomacy at all, in order to safeguard her freedom to speak prophetically without having to defer to civil governments. 

If diplomatic entanglements like the Vatican-China deal function to restrict, even tacitly, the Church’s ability to witness to human life and freedom, the entire purpose of her sovereign status becomes self-referential, existing to support its own existence and not at the service of the evangelization. 

But even accepting that there are special political sensitivities in the case of Hong Kong, it is not clear that Vatican silence on the situation is to the benefit of the local Church. 

The Holy See has only just managed to announce the appointment of a new bishop for the diocese which, although not believed to fall under the terms of the 2018/2020 agreement, was a process fraught with political considerations and saw two candidates approved and then spiked before they could be announced over concerns about how they would be perceived both by Beijing and local faithful. During the period between permanent bishops, Catholic institutions, including parishes and schools, have come under direct pressure to endorse state-approved notions of “patriotism” and steer clear of contentious political issues.

Gallagher’s comments on Friday came the same day that Honk Kongers lined up in the streets to buy the final print edition of Apple Daily, the newspaper forced to close by local authorities after the arrest of its owner, Jimmy Lai, a Catholic, last year, and the subsequent freezing of its bank accounts and assets. 

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In the days before to the paper’s final closure, police raided Apple Daily’s newsroom and arrested several top editors and journalists for alleged breaches of the National Security Law, citing some 30 articles in the paper which they said effectively invited international sanctions on Hong Kong and China in response to government actions.

A week earlier, Agnes Chow, another Catholic pro-democracy activist, was released after spending six months in prison for attending an “unlawful assembly” to protest a 2019 law that would have allowed for the extradition to the mainland of Hong Kongers arrested for political crimes.

Earlier in the month, thousands of extra police were deployed to prevent the annual vigil held to remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 — Hong Kong had been the only Chinese territory where it was permitted to mark the event.

Speaking during his first press conference after being named as Hong Kong’s next bishop, Fr. Stephen Chow, SJ, confirmed he had attended a Tiananmen vigil the previous year, despite those events being suppressed, ostensibly because of the coronavirus.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” said Chow in May. “We would like to remember it in our dialogues with the government, so that it is not forgotten.” 

On Friday, Gallagher said “we hope the new bishop is going to do a lot of good work.”

But Chow’s work could be made all the harder, and his position as bishop and defender of the local flock all the more isolated, if China knows the Vatican is already convinced that nothing it says or does will make a difference.

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