Frank and Nick: Is the Provisional Agreement a Really Shrewd Move?

The Taiwan website Storm Media has offered a rationale of sorts for Pope Francis’s “provisional agreement” with the Chinese government on the status of the Catholic Church in China: “Toward China, ‘A Daring Advance to the East,’ with a Deliberate Choice to Remain Silent: Is Pope Francis a ‘Cold Machiavellian’?” (December 23 2018).  The unsigned article notes that ever since the agreement was made in September, the Chinese authorities have been engaged in a relatively systematic campaign seemingly designed to exterminate the underground community (as well as a perhaps more overt campaign against the Protestant “house churches”).

The article says, “So far, the Pope has not made any public statement about the sufferings of the underground clergy and faithful.” Nor, for that matter, has the Pope said anything about China’s rather brutal treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.

Also, the article goes on, on his visit to Myanmar (aka Burma) in November of 2017 the Holy Father declined to say anything about that government’s mistreatment of the Muslim Rohingya minority. When the world press took note of this silence, once he arrived in Bangladesh a few days later, and met with a Rohingya delegation, asking their forgiveness–causing Myanmar netizens to label him a chameleon.

His Holiness later explained his silence in Myanmar itself as a means of maintaining a continuing dialogue with Myanmar’s rulers. The article explains that Francis’s operating principle is “unending dialogue.” “In his eyes there is no counterpart that he is unwilling to discuss things with, and for the sake of dialogue there can be no forbidden zones.” The article notes as well the Pope’s silence on Russian intervention in the Ukraine and on the mistreatment of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (which is in full communion with the Roman Church). Perhaps the reasoning is the same: keep the lines open with Moscow and the Orthodox Church. The article also reminds us that Francis has declined to “dialogue” with critics inside the Church itself who question his stand on migrants, saying they are no true disciples of Christ but rather politicians concerned with counting ballots. And he has not hesitated to label US President Trump as “immoral” for his stand on illegal immigration. The article does not delve into deeper explanations for which issues His Holiness he chooses to speak about and  on which he prefers to remain silent.

The analysis explains the position taken on China by reference to Francis’s “Jesuit heritage” (血統–“bloodline”). He has a “great admiration” for his Jesuit predecessor, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), one of the early missionaries to China,who judged that the best approach to evangelizing the country was to win over the elite. Ricci mastered the Chinese language and familiarized himself with the intricacies of the higher cultural tradition, becoming the model of a Confucian gentleman. At the same time he “sugar-coated” Christian doctrine with western science and technology, demonstrating to the highly-educated literati that Christianity itself was also part of a high cultural tradition as worthy of respect as that of China. In this way he hoped to prepare the soil of China to provide nurture for a local Christianity.

Francis’s contemporary crony and main Jesuit advisor, Fr. Antonia Spadaro, expatiates on this theme: Ricci’s experience shows that the Church need  not fear the Party’s drive to “sinify religion.” Rather, Party policy will help Catholicism establish strong roots in China. The Church’s arrangements with Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire (with no more Christians being thrown to the lions and such). “The key question is whether Catholicism one day will no longer be the beliefs of a minority of the Chinese people, but rather become a force throughout the whole of China.” Stubborn resistance to the Chinese government is a dead end. Sporado admits that the Vatican’s concessions have “perhaps” caused loss of hope among some in the underground, but this is “part of the ‘give and take’ of negotiations.”

The Storm article goes on to speculate that Francis is acting on a very long-term strategy: for the agreement also means the Chinese government has recognized the Pope as the head of the Church.

The Storm article cites the September 2018 interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel with an anonymous cardinal, who characterized the Pope as a “cold, cunning Machiavellian.” The Pope’s plan is to transform China through the gospel. As Machiavelli understood, “In order to achieve their goals leaders cannot be too choosy about their methods.” Machiavelli describes how Robert the Bruce had his own son put to death. Similarly, Pope Francis has demanded the resignation of two underground bishops: “The individual must be sacrificed for the sake of the whole.”

The Storm article concludes: “Francis, the successor of Saint Petr, is wading into deep waters of controversy. His eyes are on the big picture, his ultimate hope being the transformation of China through the gospel. His methods are flexible and expedient. Like Matteo Ricci, he will kowtow to the Chinese imperial throne in order to change communist China, just as Christianity came to permeate the Roman empire from within. He hopes to bring the Catholic Church in China from an oppressed minority into a influential force of the mainstream. Only time will tell if he can do this.”

Well–what’s one to think? The last part of the article reflects another part of the Jesuit heritage, almost as a caricature of the calumnies of the order’s early enemies. The adjective “Jesuitical” refers to overly clever reasoning, aimed as presenting as right and good what is transparently wrong and vile. The early Jesuits were accused of a willingness to use whatever means necessary and effective, without regard to their inherent virtue, in order to achieve good results–the power and prestige of the Church and, according to their critics, of their own Order. Matteo Ricci’s program of enculturation–an attempt to identify those broad areas of compatibility between Chinese thought and culture and Catholic Christian doctrine, not the submission of the Church to the mercy of a hostile political power–is one example of this sort of flexibility–but in his case a proper sort of flexibility, not a justification for doing evil so that good may come.

The notion that the end justifies the means is also typically held to be a Jesuit tenet, although the concept itself has consistently been rejected in Catholic moral teaching from gospel times on. It’s also the moral principle most often associated with Machiavelli (the Spiegel’s cardinal did not intend his characterization of the Holy Father as a compliment).

But be all that as it may: Machiavelli may have thought that in politics especially the end does justify the means. But he would also have cautioned that the means should have a decent chance of bringing about the desired end. Whether caving in to the demands of those persecuting the Church without even taking note of the persecution, and abandoning to their fate those willing to put up with the persecution is a slick way of precipitating a general evangelization of China is, as the Storm article says, something only time will tell.

The Spiegel’s cardinal, however, may be giving the Holy Fathertoo much credit. The current political and organizational (and spiritual) chaos in the Church as a whole does not carry the mark of shrewd Machiavellianism. Our current Machiavels do not seem all that good at calculating, or reasoning from means to ends. Or perhaps Storm’s  conjecture that placing the Chinese Church entirely at the mercy of a hostile autocracy is a clever way of bringing about the conversion of China is intended in the way that the late Dean Swift’s proposal that eating the babies of the poor would be a cheap and convenient solution to the problem of hunger in Ireland.

“Kremlinological” analyses of Vatican politics suggested in late 2018 that the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was concentrating power in himself and his office, positioning himself as the most viable candidate in a future Conclave. Parolin was the architect of the provisional agreement with China, and the agreement itself considered a mark of his influence and his most significant achievement. By the end of the year these same sources were finding that Parolin’s star had faded significantly, in large part because of how the agreement was working out.