What you missed: Martians, Communists, and the people in your neighborhood

The Friday Pillar Post

Happy Friday friends,

Yesterday, NASA landed the rover Perseverance on Mars; the craft plunged safely (whatever that looks like) into the surface after a 6 month, 292 million mile trip from Earth. 

I have no idea what it will do now it’s there. It will probably start rolling timidly along collecting samples, like some kind of mechanised Victorian nurse. Or it will break, most likely. I did hear that Perseverance will fly kind of a drone on Mars, if it doesn’t break. 

I don’t know the details, but I still think it’s cool. 

The sheer maths of figuring out how to fire off a rocket from the Earth (rotating at 1,000 miles an hour and revolving around the sun at another 67,000 miles per hour) into the space where Mars will be six months from now is, frankly, insane.

But here are a few other stories that also merit your attention.

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A court in Canada found the Archdiocese of St. John liable for horrific decades of abuse committed in an orphanage run by the Irish Christian Brothers. The decision, which ruled that the local diocese had oversight responsibility for the religious order — even as the diocese argued otherwise — will likely open the doors for a spate of new lawsuits against Canadian dioceses, and likely drive some into bankruptcy. This will be a big and ongoing story for the Church in Canada.

Pope Francis this week made some changes to the Vatican City code of penal procedure. The changes to how criminal trials in the city state can proceed seem aimed squarely at a few cases expected to make it to court this year.

But if prosecutors hope to make it to trial, and Pope Francis hopes to see real financial reform, they still face stiff opposition every step of the way, with the same constellation of curial vested interests and client state media that fought off Pell’s reforms five years ago.

And the Chinese Communist Party has issued a new set of rules on the appointment and registration of clerics for all religions. The rules include provision for the appointment of Catholic bishops - without reference to the Vatican. We talked to some people in China about what this means. It wasn’t what I expected to hear.

When you catch a dragon by the ears 

Like most people, when I read the Communist Party’s new rules for selecting bishops in China I assumed that the deliberate omission of any mention of the Vatican-China deal was, in effect, a declaration of China’s intention to start ordaining bishops as they saw fit (again). But it turns out that at least some people accustomed to dealing with the Beijing government see the omission simply as a way of not acknowledging the Vatican deal in Chinese internal law. 

I was skeptical at first, but clerics in the ground pointed out to me that the real reason the Chinese bishops need to keep the Vatican onside has nothing to do with fearing Roman disapproval, and much to do with skepticism of the state-sponsored Church, and its bishops, among local Catholics - the vast majority of whom used to be underground. 

Of course, whether the Vatican-China deal is technically alive or dead doesn’t seem to matter all that much in terms of practicality. Although Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin hailed it as a success, and championed its renewal for another two years back in October, it hasn’t actually delivered the one thing it was meant to: bishops for Chinese dioceses.

After nearly two and a half years of the deal, it has delivered exactly two and a half bishops (three on paper, but one counts for half for our purposes: he was consecrated and announced by the CPCA, with Rome needing 24 hours to catch up on events). Some 50 mainland Chinese dioceses still have no bishop, and the Diocese of Hong Kong is currently led by an 81 year old emeritus.

But, of course, if the situation is clearly unsustainable for the Church, it’s presumably just fine for the Communist Party, who are unlikely to worry much at the lack of pastoral provision for Chinese Catholics. Beijing does not want the Church to grow in China, or for faith of Catholics to be sustained and nurtured. The government’s plan for religious “Sinicization” in China makes that clear. 

Domestic rules and diplomatic agreements to one side, the gridlock and dysfunction is the point for the Chinese government, or at least a perfectly acceptable outcome.

It’s one of the many crippling disadvantages the Vatican has in dealing with the CCP, disadvantages that were, in 2018, screamingly obvious to pretty much anyone paying attention to the situation and who didn’t work in the Secretariat of State. Since then, the situation has become worse. Much, much worse.

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Since the original 2018 deal was signed, the world has now, finally, become aware of the unspeakable horrors being carried out in Xinjiang Province, where more than a million Uighurs are being held in concentration camps and subjected to systematic torture, political indoctrination, rape, forced sterilization and abortion, and more.

This is the government with which the Vatican has, as Cardinal Parolin put it, “accumulated more mutual trust and consensus through a series of positive interactions.” 

The Vatican-China deal has many critics, but a few defenders as well. Some have pointed out that the Holy See has more than once granted the civil government the right to propose or veto candidates for episcopal office. They say China is only the most recent example of the Church coming to terms with Caesar to ensure the faith can be practiced. Not all of those countries, they point out, were led by exemplary or even especially tolerant leaders.

But this defense misses the point. The scandal of the Vatican-China deal is not that the Church lacks the legal or diplomatic authority to agree to it; unquestionably it can. The scandal is that Xi’s China represents a public, mechanised, moral evil more obvious and intentional than any government with which the Vatican has made an agreement since the 1933 Reichskonkordat, and the demonic National Socialists no more respected their Vatican deal than Beijing will.

There is also the question in China of the arrested and disappeared bishops, like Bishop James Su Zhimin, who was first arrested in 1997 and has not been seen since 2003, and others like Bishop Guo Xijin, who has been harassed, arrested, made homeless, and then - last year - forced to resign as a bishop for his refusal to sign a Communist iteration of the Act of Supremacy.

Chinese Catholics are not oblivious to the scandal of the Vatican’s formal cooperation with the people who hunt their bishops for keeping their faith, and neither are many in the rest of the world.

Of course, there is no easy way out for the Vatican now. However little the deal has delivered, and however monstrous the association has become, what are they to do?

If Rome were simply to walk away from the deal, they could expect, as an opening response, for the CPCA to install its own bishop in Hong Kong, seizing control of the parishes and schools there, and stamping out one of the few still-independent (albeit under siege) footholds the Church has.

The reality is, having sat down at the negotiating table, the Vatican is now trapped in its own deal. All they can do is pray China does not choose to alter it any further.

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Lasting impressions

As I have mentioned before, I am not, of my nature, a social creature. I also have an irrational (?) paranoia about people knowing where I live. Perhaps this is the inevitable result of a lot of investigative reporting.

Consequently, although we have lived in the same house for nearly three years now — this is nearly a record for us — I do not know the name of a single neighbor. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a monster. I know them by sight, I wave if I am working in the garden and I see someone emerge across the road and nod if they are on my side of the street. But in my own mind I have come to know each of my surrounding neighbors quite well, or at least the versions of them I have invented for myself.

There’s Hunter, who lives next door. Hunter is not his name (or if it is, it is the most extraordinary coincidence), but I call him that in my head. I like Hunter. He sits on his back porch when it’s warm and fires a BB gun at squirrels attacking his bird feeder (hence the name). He smokes cigars and likes to barbecue as he smokes them. I approve of that sort of thing.

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I also like Buddy, who lives across the street and one door over. Buddy’s a cop. I call him Buddy because he called me Buddy once, during the only verbal exchange we ever had. When he’s not on night shift, Buddy parks his squad car in front of my house, which I appreciate. He also has a large dog; I approve of that sort of thing, too.

I’m less fond of New Guy, who lives directly opposite us and moved in about six months ago with a set of California license plates and Apple stickers on the rear window of his Prius. He shops at Whole Foods and I am pretty sure he’s trying to gentrify our street. I have a suspicion he might be a vegetarian, but I could just be making that up because I don’t like him.

I go back and forth on our neighbors on the other side, the Fans. They block my driveway a lot, and they throw gameday parties that carry on into the night well past my tolerance for a Sunday. But I have more than once caught Mr. Fan sneaking a Newport out back and flicking the end over the fence into my yard to hide it from his Mrs. I can respect that.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, our road took a lot of ice this week, like a lot of roads did. But we all have heating and water. We all have food. Many people don’t. Maybe some of them are your neighbors. Maybe you don’t know their names either. 

Please don’t let that stop you from checking on them.

We must, as Himself said, love our neighbor as ourselves. I like to think that if the chance arose, I’d feed New Guy a steak. I hope you would too.

See you next week, and be excellent to each other.

Ed. Condon
editor
The Pillar