VALLETTA, Malta — Prior to February 24, there was a possibility, however slim, that Moscow had succeeded in arguing that the Russian-speaking populations of the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk had legitimate grievances against Kyiv, and that their demand for autonomy enjoyed at least some degree of moral legitimacy.
However, once Putin opted for power over persuasion in launching an all-out invasion, that opportunity was lost. Not only did the offensive backfire militarily, but it generated an unprecedented show of global support for Ukraine, regardless of its record in the Donbass.
The lesson here is that hard power is often the enemy of soft power, sometimes turning your enemy into a martyr and yourself into a villain.
Beijing now finds itself faced with the implications of that lesson, albeit in a lesser way, following the arrest on Wednesday of 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen for alleged violations of Hong Kong’s security law, in particular “collusion with foreign forces”.
If China had been paying attention, it would have realized that in recent years Zen had become increasingly marginalized in the Francis Papacy due to its vocal criticism of the Vatican’s agreement with Beijing on the appointment of bishops and also of his growing ties with other well-known critics of Francis, in particular the Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
Famously, Zen traveled to Rome in October 2020 to try to influence Francis’ selection of a new bishop for Hong Kong. The opening came after rumors that the planned appointment of Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha had been withdrawn because he was photographed at pro-democracy protests, suggesting another form of Vatican deference to Chinese sensibilities.
Zen, however, couldn’t even get a meeting with the pope, indicating that he was indeed stuck. The fact that the Vatican renewed the agreement with China despite its express objections confirmed this point.
This sign of papal displeasure came against the backdrop of Zen calling the Vatican line on China “sickening” and accusing Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin of telling “a series of lies Open eyes “.
It also came after signs that Zen’s dissatisfaction with the China deal was turning into anti-Francis resistance in other areas. For example, Zen was a signatory to an open letter written by Viganò in May 2020, claiming that the coronavirus pandemic was being manipulated to impose authoritarian modes of government around the world.
“The imposition of these illiberal measures is an ominous prelude to the realization of world government out of control,” the letter states, claiming that “under the guise of eradicating a virus, centuries of Christian civilization could be obliterated.” and an “odious technological tyranny” could be instituted.
Other signatories included the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, German Cardinal Gerhard Müller and the Archbishop Emeritus of Riga, Cardinal Janis Pujats, neither of whom would exactly appear on the lists of favorites of this papacy. .
It is therefore reasonable to assume that if China had done nothing, Zen would probably have remained inconsequential in papal policy-making and would have enjoyed cachet only in deeply conservative circles with axes to to grind with this papacy on many fronts. In other words, Beijing would have had little to fear, at least as far as Rome was concerned.
Now, however, Francis can no longer afford to ignore Zen, as his arrest (and whatever may follow in terms of prosecution and even possible incarceration) is intended to generate sympathy and activism on behalf of of Zen all over the world.
On Wednesday evening, the Vatican issued a statement stating that “the Holy See received the news of Cardinal Zen’s arrest with concern and is following developments with extreme attention.”
Hong Kong Watch’s Benedict Rogers called the arrest “incredibly horrific,” while former US Ambassador for International Religious Freedom and Republican Sam Brownback and Democratic activist Katrina Swett said the Chinese Communist Party had “sunk to a new low”. with his action against the nonagenarian prelate.
Assuming that Chinese officials intend to press ahead with the accusations, these will not be one-off reactions but the prelude to a global campaign, a campaign in which Catholic leaders at all levels will be compelled to play a leading role. Indeed, Zen would become the new Cardinal József Mindszenty, the Hungarian prelate whose incarceration by the Soviets and subsequent exile to the United States Embassy in Budapest was a Catholic cause celebre during the Cold War.
Whatever their own differences with bishops, Catholics of all persuasions resent seeing them thrown behind bars after show trials just because of their political beliefs.
For starters, the net effect would almost certainly be to invest Zen with greater moral authority and a greater voice in global Catholic conversation. Of course, if Zen were to travel to Rome today, it’s impossible to imagine the pope wouldn’t find a place for him on his schedule.
More broadly, the Zen case, especially if Beijing compounds its initial miscalculation by finding him guilty of something, will also increase pressure on the Vatican to rethink its entire China policy, especially the bishops’ agreement. .
If putting a cardinal in jail is China’s way of showing its bilateral consideration for the Vatican, the reasoning would be, what exactly was gained by this deal that justifies ceding a significant measure of control over the appointment of Catholic leaders in the country?
Critics, including Zen himself, often say the Vatican simply doesn’t understand China. The cardinal’s arrest, however, would seem to demonstrate that there is an equal and opposite tendency for China to misunderstand the Vatican, or, for that matter, the wider Catholic Church.