Joshua Wong is a young Chinese human rights activist, recently sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison on the Orwellian charge of “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly”—meaning, in Chinese Newspeak, urging others to protest peacefully the tyranny now throttling Hong Kong. In his first letter from prison, the uncowed Mr. Wong wrote, “Cages cannot lock up souls.” Indeed, they cannot. But the failure to defend the caged by standing in solidarity with them can do the gravest damage to evangelization.
Jimmy Lai, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent Catholic defenders of religious freedom and other basic human rights, was back in jail in early December; his bail in a civil lease dispute was revoked on the grounds that he might flee and is a national security risk to boot. The real reason for his incarceration, of course, is that keeping Mr. Lai in prison stifles his ongoing challenge to repression. In numerous interviews, Jimmy Lai has emphasized that his Catholic faith undergirds and sustains his commitment to human rights for all, even as the XI Jinping regime tries to ruin his business and threatens his life. Has Jimmy Lai been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against his persecution since he became a prime target of China’s overlords? No.
Martin Lee is another devout Catholic—a distinguished barrister and pro-democracy activist—who has seen his work undone as Beijing tightens its stranglehold on Hong Kong in brazen disregard of the commitments it made in 1997, when Great Britain reverted sovereignty over the territory to China. Profiled in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lee rebuffed any suggestion that he would ever leave Hong Kong: “If I have the choice of dying peacefully in bed outside Hong Kong, or dying in pain in a Chinese jail, the question for me is not how I die, but will I go to heaven? Dying without my convictions is what would really give me pain.” Has this Chinese embodiment of the spirit of St. Thomas More been encouraged by a public word of protest from the Vatican against Beijing’s tyranny? No.
Just before Thanksgiving, the Vatican initiated a meeting between Pope Francis and a group of NBA players and their union representatives, evidently to discuss issues of justice in the United States. Has any similar outreach been made to Chinese Catholic human rights activists—or even to the redoubtable Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and another courageous defender of religious freedom throughout China? No.
Attempts to defend this shameful Vatican reluctance to support beleaguered Chinese Catholics publicly remain unpersuasive, even ludicrous. Some argue that current Vatican China policy is necessary to regularize the Catholic situation in China, which suffers from a deficit of bishops; how a method of appointing bishops that leaves the opening moves in the process to the Chinese Communist party, in violation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (which was given legal effect in Canon 377.5 of the Code of Canon Law), is not self-evidently clear. Others argue that the Church must take thuggish regimes as they are and try to create open space for Catholic life under those circumstances; but this makes no sense in today’s Chinese situation, where the XI Jinping regime uses intimidation and torture to impose on the entire country what amounts to an alternative religion—canine fealty to the Chinese Communist party and its maximum leader. As for the risible claim that the arrangement begun in 2018 is an advance because it recognizes the pope’s position as head of the Catholic Church: Of what use is that recognition of the obvious, in the face of ubiquitous regime propaganda touting XI Jinping as a quasi-divine figure to whose benevolent wisdom all must defer?
Like Catholicism-vs.-communism in east central Europe during the Cold War, Catholicism-vs.-communism in China is, ultimately, a zero-sum game. There is no middle ground of accommodation where everyone lives happily ever after. Someone is going to win, and someone is going to lose. The Ostpolitik of the Vatican in the 1960s and 1970s never grasped this; John Paul II did, and the self-liberation of Poland and other Warsaw Pact countries followed in 1989.
Chinese Communism is not immortal. When it ends, China will be the greatest field of Christian mission in centuries. A Catholicism identified with the old, despised regime will be at a serious evangelical disadvantage in post-communist China: not least because it will be seen to have failed Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Joseph Zen, and so many other noble and courageous confessors of the faith.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on George Weigel’s weekly column The Catholic Difference