The Catholic Church vs. Totalitarianism: What’s Changed — and What Hasn’t?

NEWS ANALYSIS: Pope Francis sparked a furor when he urged Chinese Catholics to be ‘good citizens,’ but experts say the Church, by its very nature, remains a thorn in the side of contemporary totalitarian regimes from China to Nicaragua.

Most recently, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who refused to leave the country and remains behind bars, has emerged as the most powerful, if silent, witness to the sufferings of the voiceless.
Most recently, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who refused to leave the country and remains behind bars, has emerged as the most powerful, if silent, witness to the sufferings of the voiceless. (photo: Moises Castillo / AP)

WASHINGTON — During his recent state visit to Mongolia, Pope Francis used the small Asian democracy’s proximity to its vastly more powerful neighbor to send good wishes to the “noble Chinese people” and a message of reassurance to Communist Party leaders in Beijing. 

Chinese Catholics should be “good Christians and good citizens,” said the Pope.

Likewise, he framed the Church as an ally, not a threat, to the Chinese government.

Jesus sought to address the sufferings of a “wounded humanity” through the proclamation of the Gospel and did not seek political change, he said, in a Sept. 2 address to bishops and other members of the Church. 

“For this reason, governments and secular institutions have nothing to fear from the Church’s work of evangelization, for she has no political agenda to advance and is sustained by the quiet power of God’s grace and a message of mercy and truth, which is meant to promote the good of all.” 

The disconnect between the Pope’s conciliatory tone and Beijing’s latest round of restrictions on religious practice has stirred anxiety about the Church’s shifting posture toward totalitarianism, leading some Catholic experts to question whether Francis has grasped the lessons learned from the seismic Church-state battles of the Cold War, which ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The papal remarks echoed the respectful, sometimes vague, language of diplomacy that has accompanied Rome’s efforts to defend and extend the controversial 2018 Vatican-China accord over Catholic bishop nominations, even after Beijing violated its terms and appointed prelates without the Pope’s input

But while Francis may see the path of “dialogue” as the only way to secure the survival of Catholicism in China, Beijing is ramping up its policy of “Sinicization” of religion, making obedience to the party a central goal. 

Hong Kong’s new Bishop Stephen Chow, who joined Francis in Mongolia and has echoed his message of respectful dialogue, faces these headwinds in his own diocese. Bishop Chow will become one of 21 new cardinals of the Church at a Sept. 30 consistory at the Vatican.

Earlier this year, Bishop Chow got pushback from his flock for asking Chinese Catholics “to love our country and our Church at the same time” during a historic trip to mainland China. Later, in a column for his diocesan newspaper, Bishop Chow clarified that the path of dialogue “is not about kowtowing” to party leaders.

Reacting to the fallout from the Pope’s comments in Mongolia, Nina Shea, a leading expert on international religious freedom at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, urged the Vatican to reassess its policy and rhetoric. 

“The Church needs to be clear about the danger it faces from the totalitarians around the world,” Shea told the Register.

“If the Church submits to this kind of system — including by silence and cover-up — it will discredit itself and forfeit its moral authority,” she added, while noting the Vatican’s silence on a range of human-rights issues in China. 

 

The Ostpolitik Approach

Critics like Shea are urging Francis to find inspiration in Pope St. John Paul II’s muscular engagement with totalitarianism in Eastern Europe. 

John Paul’s crucial insight, papal biographer George Weigel has long argued, was his belief that the power of the Church primarily arose from its moral witness and direct appeals to the conscience of oppressed peoples, not its political or diplomatic moves. Thus, the Church must speak with clarity when dealing with totalitarian regimes like China.

“The nature of totalitarianism and its built-in determination to extinguish all forms of civil society, including the Church, remains the same,” Weigel told the Register. 

“The inability of some Vatican diplomats to grasp that point remains, alas, the same,” Weigel added, as he recalled John Paul’s efforts to circumvent the  accommodationist policy of Ostpolitik instituted by Popes John XXIII and Paul VI.

Under that policy, the Vatican backed off from criticism of the Soviet bloc and entered into negotiations with party leaders, hoping to obtain some breathing room for the persecuted Church under the Soviet yoke.

Weigel has contended that Ostpolitik was an abject failure, weakening the moral force of Catholicism in satellite nations and leaving the Vatican itself vulnerable to Soviet penetration. His second biography of the Polish pontiff, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, published in 2011, documented the efforts of Soviet bloc intelligence agencies to surveil and blackmail Church leaders and influence the Vatican’s policies. Weigel further contends that the dynamism of the Church in Poland arose, at least in part, from the “tough-minded” refusal of the Polish primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, “working in tandem with the man who would become Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla,” to adopt the accommodationist line.

Their efforts, said Weigel, were further inspired by and anchored in Catholic social doctrine that affirmed both “the inviolable dignity and infinite value of every human life, which totalitarianism denies,” and the principle of subsidiarity, which “supports the robust pluralism of civil society created by natural associations like the family.” 

The Soviet Union is no more, but dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who recently vowed support for Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who invited Russian troops into his country last year, still threaten the stability of the world order, as well as the practice of the faith. 

Since the Second World War, the governing philosophy of totalitarian regimes has been Marxism, which is “explicitly atheistic and looks upon the Catholic Church as part of the layer of ideology that disguises and promotes the interests of the capitalist class,” Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, told the Register.

The Catholic Church, through its beliefs, sacraments, hierarchical structure and global presence, “threatens these regimes more than any other religious community,” he added. 

“This is not a religion that can be confined in people’s heads or homes, but is necessarily ‘out in the world.’” 

 

Lessons Learned in Nicaragua? 

Questions about the Vatican’s foreign-policy priorities have only grown more urgent as the Pope’s own religious order, the Society of Jesus, grapples with the recent suppression of the Jesuits and the confiscation of their properties in Nicaragua, where the government of Daniel Ortega, and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, has veered into “totalitarianism.”

In a commentary for America, the Society of Jesus’ magazine, newly ordained Jesuit Father Bill McCormick, visiting assistant professor of political science at Saint Louis University, issued a stinging indictment of Ortega’s actions and suggested that his moves against Catholic institutions came straight from the “Dictator’s Playbook.” 

“The great enemies of any unjust regime are the family and marriage, the church, unions — and any social bodies with their own justifications for existence and activity apart from the state,” wrote the U.S. priest.

In some ways, this hard-nosed analysis of Nicaragua’s descent into state terror provided a wake-up call for Jesuits who had once backed Ortega, a Marxist-oriented Sandinista revolutionary, who came to power in 1979. 

Back then, many Nicaraguan Jesuits were trusted allies of the new Sandinista government, and Jesuit Father Fernando Cardenal would serve as the Sandinistas’ minister of education. 

In 1984, after the Nicaraguan bishops condemned Ortega’s expulsion of six Catholic priests, U.S. Jesuit Father Philip Land of the Jesuit-founded Center of Concern in Washington acknowledged that John Paul and Nicaraguan Church leaders viewed the Ortega government as “totalitarian, communist, Leninist.” But Father Land disputed such labels. 

“I don’t understand why John Paul II looks at it as persecution,” he told The Washington Post in a 1984 interview. “It’s an issue of power between state and church.” 

Father Land’s comments marked a theological and political shift within the order and across parts of the Church in Latin America, where some practitioners of liberation theology adopted a Marxist critique of capitalism and were much more concerned with U.S. interference in the region, including President Ronald Reagan’s funding of the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan “contras,” than the depredations of the Soviet Union. 

“In Latin America, the big enemy is not Marxism, it is capitalism,’’ stated Brazilian Franciscan Leonardo Boff, an influential liberation theologian known for his synthesis of Christian theology with Marxist socioeconomic analysis.

In 2007, after Ortega again assumed the office as president of Nicaragua, he relaxed his grip on power for a period of time, but tensions quickly resumed between the government and Catholic leaders, and some raised the alarm that democratic freedoms were under assault.

In 2018, a political crisis ignited by Ortega’s economic policies resulted in mass protests and a brutal response from the regime. An estimated 328 people died, and some 2,000 people were injured. 

Since then, a campaign of state-sanctioned harassment of all the regime’s perceived opponents has led to the imprisonment and subsequent deportation of opposition leaders and priests, student activists and bishops, including the papal nuncio.

Most recently, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who refused to leave the country and remains behind bars, has emerged as the most powerful, if silent, witness to the sufferings of the voiceless. “This is a brutal regime that does not respect liberty and life,” exiled Nicaraguan Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez told the Register last year. “People have been condemned unjustly and tortured.”

During this period, the Jesuit-run University of Central America, in Managua — once a hotbed of pro-Sandinista activism — became a refuge for student leaders and other pro-democracy advocates. Now, the university has also been confiscated by the regime, and the Jesuits, who have been evicted from their privately owned residence, are left to grapple with a revolution that has violated its promises and turned on its friends. 

The Register asked Father McCormick to offer his thoughts on the lessons learned from Ortega’s retaliation against a former ally, but he did not respond by deadline.

Francis, for his part, has said relatively little publicly about the situation in Nicaragua. 

But in March, as Bishop Álvarez faced mounting pressure from Ortega to leave the country, the Pope sharply criticized the regime, comparing it to “a communist dictatorship in 1917, or a Hitlerian one in 1935.”

Nicaraguan Catholics were heartened by his rebuke.

“He has not forgotten Nicaragua, and he is following what is going on closely,” Max Jerez, 29, a U.S.-based Nicaraguan student leader and former political prisoner who was expelled from his country in February, told the Register.

A Church source with knowledge of the Holy See’s deliberations regarding Nicaragua told the Register that Francis had adopted the path of prudence.

“We knew what was coming when the papal nuncio was booted out of Nicaragua,” said the source, who could not speak on the record because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Now critics ask, ‘Why doesn’t the Pope call out Ortega?’ But that would make an already bad situation worse.”

To some degree, this same argument also explains the Vatican’s position on China.

But while this Church source defended that policy as well, he could not point to any big wins for Francis in his engagement with totalitarian systems. 

Meanwhile, Nina Shea, who has documented the Sandinistas’ violation of human rights and studied the Jesuits’ role in Nicaragua, would like more plain talking from the Vatican. 

“It’s tempting to think of Ortega as a corrupt, petty tyrant,” said Shea, who served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom from 1999 to 2012.

“But while Ortega gave up on the Sandinista ideology decades ago, he retained the totalitarian mechanics of control,” she said. 

“He is a small part of a global cartel of totalitarian powers who support each other with arms, funds and U.N. votes — and who are united in seeking the destruction of the Catholic Church.”

When it comes to negotiating with dictators like Ortega and China’s Xi Jinping, she concluded, “The Holy See needs to understand that it cannot win with them.”

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