The average person today is awash with information about events all over the world. A person in Nebraska can with a flick of his finger see what a friend is having for dinner in Nepal. The endless stream of novelties and the quick succession of information short circuits, so to speak, the critical faculties of people who tend to believe whatever they hear or read. Coupled with the toxic philosophy of relativism, which does not believe truth is objective, people become submerged in the subjective. This brings about disorder and destroys a sense of perspective and proportion in so many minds, creating a huge amount of anxiety in the average person.
It is in days like this that I especially like to encourage each person to take time to read real, critical histories. History is an important science by which we are able to research, document and then perhaps interpret the events of the past. Some of the best histories ever written have something to say to us about the human condition, as well as particular human beings. They illuminate the present by explaining the past. History is the science which frees from our ignorance and exclusive focus on the immediate, and reminds us that most of the things which have affected the human race are perennial in nature.
In this vein, the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once quipped that “All new news is old news happening to new people.” So it is today, and so it will be until the world’s ending.
After completing my commentary on the recent Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis Communio, which expanded the role and authority of Synods in the Universal Church, I also heard about the announcement of a sort of Concordat between the Holy See and the Chinese Communist State. Both events are related because they manifest a Papal Administration completely compromised in regard to the Church and even its legitimate self-interest. The Chinese agreement essentially surrenders the libertas Ecclesiae, as it has been understood for centuries, to an aggressively anti-religious and intrinsically wicked state. Ever since the dawn of Communism, the Church again and again has condemned it as a system repugnant to God and to human nature. But what baffles me even more as an observer of these events is how historically illiterate the Holy See seems to be at the current time. We are not yet forty years removed from the time when Ostpolitik, the official diplomatic policy of placating Communist states, was in fashion. That was an abysmal failure, as Communism spread its tendrils all throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America, and human rights continued to be egregiously violated. The Holy See and the Church were the losers in this policy. Saint Pope John Paul II, having lived in the impoverished “socialist paradise”, knew its depravity and inherent violence toward God, first by obscuring the face of God, which then as a consequence clouds man’s true understanding of himself, as Gaudium et Spes proclaimed, a document John Paul II helped compose. He knew there could be no conviviencia with Communism, and it must be opposed and exposed as the inhuman system which it is.
The Chinese underground Church appeared as the Biblical Philadelphia, of whom Christ said in John’s Apocalypse, “You have kept my word and not denied my name…because you have kept my word in patient endurance…I am coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown.” (Revelation 3:8-11) In so far as is possible, the current agreement despises the endurance of these confessors (and martyrs) of the faith, by making faithful bishops resign and go into exile, while “official bishops”, sanctioned by the government, become the official Church hierarchy in the Middle Kingdom. This is no longer even passive resistance, or even weak resistance: this is absolute surrender. Although certain sources claim that the provisional agreement grants the Pope the power of veto over Communist appointees, one does not need a degree in history or political science to know that the Chinese government will undoubtedly abuse and ignore these provisos. These frequently lifelong diplomats of the Holy See demonstrate an embarrassing and alarming naivete. Just to compound evidence, who can forget the appalling words of Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, who said in February 2018 to Vatican Insider that China’s government observes Catholic social teaching the best; that is, the government which practices forced abortions and sterilizations, which burns Churches, imprisons political prisoners, and denies religious freedom? Can we even imagine such a statement of such atrocious and appalling ignorance (or perhaps malice) being made during the Pontificate of John Paul II?
This news, as I have said before, is not new. It is old news, happening again. Just as I referenced the proven disaster of Ostpolitik in the late 20th century, one cannot help but recall the numerous, centuries long struggles that the Holy See had regarding the libertas Ecclesiae, (the liberty of the Church) a complex concept historically which is quite simple practically: the Church has a right to be free from the state in regard to her religious and moral authority. This includes the training, selection and elevation of clergy and her internal governance. Most importantly, she has a right and a duty to live and to act subject to Christ and divinely revealed truth.
When the state was hostile to the faith, as in the ancient Rome, the Church resisted to the best of her powers, and converted the Empire with her heroic faith and charity in the face of incredible malice. When the state was neutral or supportive of the faith, the Church, especially in her monastic communities, attempted to avoid total entanglement and worldliness which the union of altar and throne implied. Sometimes this was a successful process, preserving the Church from being a branch arm of the state. Sometimes it was not, and she was subjected to enormous pressure to compromise on various issues. Most famously, one can recall the story of the outstanding English Bishop St. Thomas Becket, who suffered martyrdom in his own Cathedral at the hands of agents of King Henry II, who attempted to control the English Church via the Constitutions of Clarendon. Other examples include the famous Investiture Controversy, where nobles of various principalities claimed the right to “invest” their Bishops with the signs of their office, a gesture which implied they were sovereign over them, or even that their sacramental authority proceeded from them, since the porrectio instrumentorum was broadly regarded in the Middle Ages as the “matter” of Sacred Ordination.
The 11th century Gregorian Reform included the humiliation of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at the Castle of Canossa, where he knelt in the snow to beg absolution from the excommunication imposed on him for supporting the investiture of Bishops. This effectively brought the controversy to an end . This apogee of Papal authority and moral rectitude coincided with salutary advancements in adherence to Christian morals, doctrine and discipline at that time, providing a bedrock for that flourishing of Latin Christian Civilization during the High Middle Ages. The significance of Canossa was not lost even to Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who in his Kulturkampf in the 19th century said he would “not go to Canossa” in regard to Pius IX and his own demands for the Libertas Ecclesiae.
One could continue speaking about the Libertas Ecclesiae in various historical scenarios such as the Protestant Reformation or in the Modern Concordats in the Age of Revolutions up till the present day. Yet all this news is simply a variation of a theme in history which may be summarized thus: the subjection of the Church to the state, or the subsumption of the Church by the state is in theory and practice intrinsically dangerous to her fundamental constitution. The Church above all swears allegiance to Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, as sojourners in statu viae on Earth, for we “have here no abiding city.” (Hebrews 13:14) While Saint Paul enjoined Christians to honor and respect the authorities here on earth, even the Apostles made no bones about calling the Roman Empire, the world order of the day, “Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13), or the place of captivity. If the Church is subjected to the state, she will most certainly suffer martyrdom and persecution. If she is subsumed by the state, she most certainly will suffer a corruption of her internal and primary allegiances.
The question then is, does the Holy See know its own history? Why can’t it recognize that the China Agreement, if it is implemented as reported, would be an abandonment of her sacred rights, which are in some cases centuries in the making? The Chinese treatment of the Church is diabolical in its cunning, because it both subjects and subsumes the Church at the same time: the Church is not simply suppressed, as in Pre-Constantinian Rome, nor is it subsumed, as in Reformation England. Instead, the true Church is suppressed and replaced by one whose allegiance is not to Christ, but to a State which explicitly denies and destroys anything to do with God.
Without entertaining outlandish conspiracy theories, it feels as if we are living with a Manchurian Papacy, a subversive pattern of acting and speaking which seems to undermine the integrity of the Office itself. It is not entirely clear why this is happening or where the epicenter of the problems lie. Perhaps Cardinal Parolin and others are moved by the plight of Chinese Catholics and have a single minded, even myopic desire to stop their suffering by all means necessary. These are humane and benevolent motivations, but they are not the only possible ones. One is obliged as a Christian to think the best of others, although I fear the worst. Perhaps the Holy See Diplomatic Corps should be advised by a Papal historian who can remind them of all the ways the Holy See has failed the cause of the Church before, because in this current era, it seems to be failing in all of them. Santayana once again is spinning in his grave.