Letters from the Synod—2023: #5

Published October 11, 2023

First Things

The Synod and a Murderous New World Disorder

A Synod dedicated to advancing the Church’s mission cannot ignore the world in which that mission must take place. Nor can it ignore how Vatican diplomacy has its effects on Catholicism’s evangelical efforts. These matters will likely not be discussed at Synod-2023, at least in the Synod’s tightly-managed small discussion groups. Some Synod members may address the murderous new world disorder, and the current state of Vatican diplomacy, in the Synod’s general congregations. Should that happen, some truth-telling is in order.

Catholics are being persecuted all over the world, and in various forms. Thug regimes like those in China, Cuba, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and terrorist gangs along what Samuel Huntington described as Islam’s “bloody borders,” take violent (including lethally violent) action against Catholics who defend religious freedom and other basic civil liberties—and the Vatican’s voice seems muted, certainly more so than under John Paul II. Less violent but nonetheless crippling forms of anti-Catholic prejudice and persecution occur regularly in countries that imagine themselves to be developed democracies; and despite Benedict XVI’s brilliant “September Lectures” on the moral and cultural foundations of the free society, those who resist these depredations are deplored by Catholic progressives (who believe themselves supported by the present pontificate) as fevered “culture-warriors,” or reactionaries. The Church that once seemed to be the world’s premier institutional defender of religious freedom—the Church that once helped inspire a revolution of conscience that shaped the nonviolent collapse of European communism—seems to have lost its prophetic edge, its willingness to speak truth to power. And that is arguably having a depressive effect on the Church’s basic evangelical mission. Who is going to be interested in a Church that seems reticent to defend its own?

And then there is Holy See diplomacy. 

Whatever its intentions, the papal “peace mission” in the face of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine has done little to ease the suffering in that conflict, although we may hope that the peace mission’s alleged progress on the repatriation of Ukrainian children kidnapped by Russian forces eventually comes to fruition. During the Synod’s first week, yet another deliberate Russian ballistic missile attack on a civilian target—a village café in the Kharkiv region—took at least fifty-one lives, including the lives of children; where was the moral condemnation of such barbarism that one might rightfully expect from the Vatican?

Then, as the Synod was wrapping up its first week of work, Hamas terrorists committed the worst outrages in the Holy Land in decades, which included the brutal murder of hundreds of civilians and the kidnapping of over one hundred women and children as hostages. And Vatican diplomats initially fell back on their default position of appealing to “both sides” for restraint.    

The disconnect between the current “foreign policy” of the Vatican and the Church’s evangelical mission is rarely commented upon but should be. Take the Holy See’s current China policy, for example. The agreement to allow the Chinese Communist Party a prominent role in the selection of bishops has not led, as Vatican negotiators hoped, to an easing of pressures on Catholics in China or Hong Kong. The Chinese regime flagrantly violates the provisions of the accord it made with the Vatican in 2018 by installing bishops without the Holy See’s agreement; and the Holy See manages, at best, a tepid plea for better cooperation. How is any of this kowtowing advancing the Church’s evangelical mission in China, now or in the future? Xi Jinping’s fantasies notwithstanding, the Chinese communist regime is no more immortal than any other communist thugocracy. And when that regime collapses, China will be the greatest field of Christian mission since the Europeans came to the Western Hemisphere in the sixteenth century. In that circumstance, the Christian communions that cooperated with the old and despised regime are not going to be at a comparative advantage. 

Then there is the Holy See’s current approach to what is indisputably a crisis of unsustainable migrant flows from North Africa: a crisis fueled by failed regimes and unscrupulous human traffickers; a crisis that is having the gravest effects on public order in many Mediterranean countries (and elsewhere). That Pope Francis keeps the desperate plight of many migrants before the world’s eyes is his duty, and he fulfills that duty with passionate conviction. But as one veteran European diplomat at the Vatican told me five years ago, the pope’s “absolutism” on the migrant issue is “shrinking the space” on which a solution commanding a broad consensus can be found. At some point, moral witness must be mediated through the cardinal virtue of prudence if that moral witness is to have the desired policy effects in the tangled mess that is contemporary European politics. 

These are not the issues of priority concern to Synod-2023, whose Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document) reads as if such things were not going on. But they are of concern to Catholics around the world—and to those who look to the Church, from outside the Catholic household of faith, for challenging and effective moral leadership in a world that is becoming ever more chaotic and brutal. And they ought to be raised in some forum during Synod-2023.

George Weigel

What I Would Say to the Synod

LETTERS FROM THE SYNOD-2023 asked two prominent human rights advocates what they would say about the Church, world affairs, and Catholic prisoners of conscience, had they the opportunity to address the Synod now meeting in Rome. Their answers follow.

Xavier Rynne II    

Elliott Abrams has been a longtime participant in interreligious foreign policy dialogues and was a strong defender of the religious freedom of Christians during several terms of governmental service. 

A graduate of Harvard College, the London School of Economics, and Harvard Law School, Mr. Abrams, who is now Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as an assistant secretary of state for International Organization Affairs, then Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, and finally Latin American Affairs during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, and as Deputy National Security Advisor on the National Security Council of President George W. Bush. His books include Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in a Christian America.  

Since the work that began in Vatican II and led to the Council’s declaration on the Church’s relationship to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, relations between the Church and the Jewish people have reached levels of understanding that were previously unimaginable. So Jews will not seek from the Synod any comments on the history of Jews, the meaning of Judaism, or relations between the Church and the Jews of the sort that made Nostra Aetate such a historic document. 

It is rather in the Church’s universal role that Jews, and so many others, may seek and hope for a certain firmness of belief and of conduct that are so badly needed—and so often missing thus far in the twenty-first century. There can be few individuals who have not been amazed by the social changes through which we are living and the speed with which they have overtaken us. Those changes are sometimes forced upon believing Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the ground that their beliefs are incompatible with “progress” and “enhanced understandings,” and are instead old, outmoded, and even hateful. 

“The faithful” in our society have lost ground in recent decades. And it sometimes seems that the “commanding heights” of our culture—in the media, the great foundations, the universities, and (closer to ground level) even the elementary and secondary schools—are unalterably opposed to allowing families and individuals to practice what their faith teaches. The Catholic Church has often been a bulwark in defense of ideas, beliefs, and institutions that, we may still be astonished to learn, require defending—the most obvious being the family, and the rights of parents to educate their children in their faith. 

This role is being forced on the Church in many ways: for example, when we see a Catholic hospital required to offer abortion coverage, or when devout Catholic parents are disqualified from adoption. One might have thought that Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, or would-be adoptive parents are fulfilling such a valuable social role that assaults on them would instantly fail. But it is not so, and the Church will have to resist. In doing so, it must not and need not work alone; on the contrary, it can fulfill yet another invaluable role by helping to rally Americans of all religions who want to live out their faiths as parents, citizens, and employees. This certainly includes Orthodox and other traditional Jews. When the Church protects its own faithful from such assaults on religious freedom, it is protecting observant Jews as well. No institution can form a more powerful defense than the Catholic Church, not only in its own churches and in its schools and colleges, but also through the influence it can have across our society and culture. 

The role I describe is the fierce intellectual defense of religious freedom, and more broadly of individual freedom, as the “free exercise” clause of the Constitution demands. No doubt remains that this freedom will continue to be at risk; and if today the U.S. Supreme Court reliably defends it, who can say whether that will be true a decade from now? The safest protection is a society that understands the stakes and wishes to protect religious belief and practice. Given the views of these matters in the law schools and universities, and in the media, it’s an uphill effort that will require moral and intellectual leadership from Jews, Evangelicals, and not least leaders in the Catholic Church. 

That is not only true in the United States, but especially in Europe where militantly secular groups fight to ban kosher slaughter and even circumcision—steps that would simply make Jewish life in Europe impossible. In a continent where hunting, bullfighting, and whaling are lawful, it is hard for Jews to avoid seeing outlawing kosher slaughter as an anti-Semitic act. And in its favoring (or to use the current terminology, “privileging”) of animal welfare over religious freedom, this step clearly emerges from a pantheistic view of the world. Jews need the help of all those with a biblical view of life, God, and nature if they are to retain their ability to practice their faith. Will the Catholic Church come to their aid?

The struggle for religious and individual freedom also requires the active participation of the Church in world politics, where there are bloody assaults on human rights every day. One might have hoped a century ago, after the First World War, that freedom of religion and political freedom would be far more widespread than they actually are. There are gains and losses, and certainly the fall of the Soviet empire—in which the Catholic Church, led by Saint John Paul II, played such a central role—marked a great advance. But everywhere the struggle goes on. Here, too, the Church can and should play a continuing role, refusing the moral relativism that suggests that some peoples are not fit for freedom—or that their oppression is none of our business. 

Every population everywhere cares more for its own well-being than for that of people half-a-world away, and that is natural. So is the temptation of a political and moral isolationism, an indifference to the fate of those with whom we do not share citizenship. But the universal Church should be reminding all of us that indifference is a sin; condemnation and rejection of the kind of brutal oppression we see in places like Nicaragua and China is required of us all. I choose those two examples, not because they are the worst in the world (though they are surely near the top of the list), but because the Church itself is persecuted in both places.

Yet we do not see from Rome right now the kind of leadership for which one might have hoped, and that we experienced during John Paul’s papacy. Instead, we see periods of quiet and others of accommodation, which suggest that the great light of human rights has dimmed. Towards the State of Israel we too often see a disturbing moral equivalency; even after the most vicious terrorist attacks, such as those of this very month, instead of a condemnation of terror we hear blind calls for “all sides” to stop the violence. But “all sides” are not terrorists, and the Church’s long experience with just war theory should have elicited a more compelling response from the Vatican to the massacres of civilians.

The Catholic Church’s support for human rights is of interest to all free people but especially to Jews. Our own history has taught us that only when human rights are broadly respected, for all citizens, can Jews be safe; and it has taught us that indifference to the slaughter of Jews is a moral crime and a sign of growing dangers. During the long history of the Cold War, the Church succeeded when it stood, even if alone, for freedom; and when it engaged in a form of moral relativism that some defended as realpolitik, it failed. Those lessons should be studied now, for the cause of freedom sorely needs the Church’s strong adherence and leadership.

Sebastien Lai (@SupportJimmyLai) is leading an international campaign to seek freedom for his father, Jimmy Lai.

I am writing to the Synod for two reasons. The first is to tell my father’s story as a modern example of the power of faith in inspiring a man to do the right thing. The second is to ask you, as leaders of the Catholic Church, to call for his immediate release from unjust detention in Hong Kong.

My father, Jimmy Lai, has spent over one thousand days in a Hong Kong prison. He is known for being many things: a newspaper publisher, a tycoon, a democracy activist, a prisoner of conscience. Throughout all of these roles, my father since 1997 has been a fervent Catholic.

At seventy-five years old, my father is Hong Kong’s oldest political prisoner. When he was twelve, my father fled to Hong Kong as a refugee from the oppressive Communist China of the 1960s. He had to carve out a life for himself as a lone boy in a strange city, but he told his family later he never felt alone.

Before his work in advocating for democracy, my father was an entrepreneur. A self-made man, he went from child laborer to eventually founding the clothing chain “Giordano,” which at the time was one of the fastest growing apparel brands in Asia. This in turn made him rich; he was the archetype of what the freedoms of Hong Kong could bring.

My father began advocating for democracy in China after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In 1995, he founded Apple Daily, the largest Chinese-language newspaper that dared to criticize Chinese authorities and demand full democracy for Hong Kong. The paper’s mission was grounded in the belief that independent information led to choice, and choice led to freedom.

Standing up for freedom against an autocratic state had many consequences. My father was forced to sell his stake in “Giordano.” For years, he was followed and threatened. The message was clear: Stand up for democracy and we’ll make your life hell. But Dad, in all my memories of him, was always happy and smiling; he described his stance for freedom as a calling.

If one’s sole purpose was to maximize wealth, the choice he made wasn’t the pragmatic thing to do. But Dad knew there were more important things in this life than one’s net worth. He found a higher calling in life than the pursuit of wealth. After Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997, he converted to Catholicism. For his whole life, he had sought to understand the powers that protected him and blessed him with so much. He also sought the source of the deep convictions that guided him to pursue the moral and right path. He found his answer to these questions in God.

His growing faith became the foundation of his life. In 2020, when the Hong Kong authorities began to clamp down on the city’s freedoms through a national security law, he felt God’s call to stand up for his principles. At the age of seventy-three, he took a stand with his home and his people.

At its core, my father’s decision to stand up to tyranny is a simple act of faith. It is this faith that sustains him as he approaches the end of his third year behind bars. He holds onto the hope of the Cross, drawing pictures of and meditating on Jesus and Our Lady, Mary, in his solitary cell. My father chooses to see his trial and tribulation as a blessing, as a way to feel closer and more in communion with God.

My father lives out his Catholic values. He is a man who, in spite of his worldly successes, has willingly given up everything in order to stand up for his beliefs: in the defense of the freedoms that underpin the right to religion and worship. In Matthew 19:24, Jesus said, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” Unlike the rich young man in Matthew’s Gospel, my father has been willing to turn his back on his worldly possessions to follow Jesus. My dad stands unburdened to do the right thing by God.

Priests at school taught us that religion provided a “moral compass.” Believers like my father, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and other Catholics who show their faith through their actions are defending this moral compass from corruption in Hong Kong. I ask that you do the same. Please join my call in demanding freedom for my father.

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