The Holy See is turning to the East. But the move could be very risky

Cardinal Pietro Parolin has been in Moscow this week, and Russia’s ambassador to the Holy See, Alexander Avdeev, is absolutely delighted. The two nations, he told La Stampa, share “a high level of mutual trust and a great harmony on many issues”. The Holy Father, he explained, is “very esteemed and loved by the citizens of my country”.

Parolin himself was notably more reserved. He told Corriere della Sera: “After the period of ideological opposition, which obviously can’t entirely fade from today to tomorrow, and in the new scenarios that have opened up since the end of the Cold War, it’s important to take advantage of every occasion to encourage respect, dialogue and mutual collaboration in a view to promoting peace.”

The Vatican is finding that to be true more and more often as its attentions turn East. Yet reconciliation with one’s enemies always runs the risk of alienating one’s friends. Former Soviet states like Russia and the Ukraine, as well as nominally Marxist ones like China and Vietnam, are home to millions of Catholics. Most live as second-class citizens, if not outlaws. The governments are generally willing to negotiate for Catholics’ (and the Church’s) rights. But any dialogue is built on decades of repression, intrigue and a lingering mistrust of “Western agents” – usually, by definition, anyone who falls under the authority of Rome.

So while Cardinal Parolin speaks of “new scenarios”, the current problems go a long way back. During the Stalin years, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was banned and its properties turned over to the Russian Orthodox Church. The rights of Byzantine Catholics have been a sticking point in Russo-Vatican relations. The problems were only exacerbated by the invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Neither side is relenting. At a synod in Rome three years ago, Metropolitan Hilarion – seated directly behind the Pope – launched a blistering attack on Ukrainian Catholics.

He accused them of trying to steal Orthodox parishes and of orchestrating the “Maidan Revolution” that ousted pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, wrote an open letter to world leaders earlier this year pleading with them to “stop the aggressor” and end the “humanitarian emergency” – Europe’s worst, he claimed, since World War II.

But the Pope and Patriarch Kirill have been working diligently to reach some agreement. In 2016, they convened in Havana – the first such meeting between leaders of the Catholic and Russian Orthodox communions. This resulted in a joint declaration that found much common ground, including their optimism at the flowering of religion in the former Soviet Union and concern for Christians being persecuted in the Middle East. No progress was made on the Ukraine crisis, however, and Archbishop Shevchuk said in an interview that many of his flock felt betrayed by the meeting.

This is the minefield that Parolin entered when he arrived in Moscow on Monday: a world where religion and geopolitics are inextricably bound together. When dealing with Putin and his underlings, the cardinal won’t have been able to say exactly whose interests were being represented: the Russian government’s or the Moscow patriarchate’s? The answer, very probably, was both.

Many expected him to downplay the Ukraine issue and look at geopolitics more broadly – particularly the Syrian conflict. As Parolin told Il Sole 24 Ore last month: “The diplomacy of the Catholic Church is a diplomacy of peace. It does not have power interests: neither political, economic, nor ideological.” This was a clear echo of the Holy Father’s statement to the G20 summit in Germany just days earlier, when he called for an end to “useless slaughter” and emphasised the “need to give absolute priority to the poor, refugees, the suffering, evacuees and the excluded”.

Some insiders expect the Vatican and Moscow to search for common ground (or common enemies) elsewhere – namely, the American-led coalition. Don Stefano Caprio, professor of Russian Culture and History at the Oriental Pontifical Institute of Rome, told La Stampa that “President Putin’s politics end up being quite compatible with … the Vatican’s politics.” They share an “opposition to the globalisation intended as the unilateral American and Western supremacy over the world”.

Pope St John Paul II was unavailable for comment…

Then again, this is in some ways just a revision of the Church’s Cold War-era policy of Ostpolitik: the pursuit of rapprochement between the communist East and the capitalist West. Beginning with the papacy of Paul VI, one of the Vatican’s principal diplomatic objectives has been to act as an impartial liaison between the two blocs, both in the pursuit of world peace and to ease the suffering of Catholics trapped behind the Iron Curtain (or at least its imposing ruins).

Take another example: China. In 1951, shortly after Mao’s revolution, the communist government broke all ties to the Vatican and began appointing its own bishops.

This new sect, dubbed the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, remains the only officially recognised “Catholic” body in the country. As a result, many of China’s Catholics – those under the authority of bishops appointed by Rome – have been driven underground to avoid persecution.

The Holy See has been anxious to restore ties with China and bring the estimated four million Catholics worshipping in secret – the so-called “Catacombs Church” – back into the light. For its part, China is happy to negotiate. But it has set terms that previous papacies would have considered untenable. As foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “China is willing to develop relations with the Vatican if the Vatican severs its diplomatic ties with Taiwan and refrains from interfering in China’s internal affairs … particularly interference in the name of religion.”

The Vatican and the People’s Republic may reach an agreement like the one with Vietnam, whereby the Pope appoints bishops in consultation with the Communist Party. As for “internal affairs”, meaning Taiwan, the Church has maintained an apostolic nunciature in Taipei since the civil war. But, as the Vatican-watcher Andrea Gagliarducci points out, the nunciature’s chargé d’affairs was relocated to Turkey in March last year. No replacement has been appointed and there’s no indication one will be anytime soon. Indeed, the Holy See may be hoping to relocate the post to Beijing as a gesture of goodwill to the communists. That would be a boon to the Church’s efforts to normalise relations with China. It would also be a serious betrayal of Taiwan’s 400,000 faithful.

The Taiwanese aren’t the only ones feeling the crunch. Plenty of mainlanders worshipping in “catacombs churches” are also opposed to any rapprochement on the government’s terms. “It’s possible that Rome may betray us,” said Fr Dong, a priest in Hebei province, told The Telegraph. “If this happens, I will resign. I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party.” Those are strong words, but they are understandable. After all, true reconciliation comes only after repentance. Giving the regime a veto on appointing bishops means that Chinese officials won’t be asked to repent; they will be vindicated.

Of course, this is primarily a question of religion. The premises for rapprochement seem dubious if Ukrainian and Chinese Catholics won’t accept a peace brokered with the regimes that have terrorised them for generations. But as the Church has decided to play arbitrator, it’s also a question of politics. And if the Holy See really does seek peace between the West and East, it won’t achieve it by alienating the United States, Britain and their allies.

Then there’s the question of justice. “We are suffering like Jesus on the Cross,” says Fr Dong, “We fight for religious freedom and follow the Gospel – but we are not supported by either Rome or China.”

While the Vatican’s goals are noble, they are perhaps too ambitious for such a small sovereign state. If the Holy See succeeds in brokering a peace between the US-led coalition and Russia to end the Syrian civil war, that would be marvellous. But if that peace gives Putin a tighter grip over the Crimea, the Church will have failed in its principal duty: to stand up for the rights of its faithful in the Ukraine. Worse yet, what if the Vatican fails to reach an accord and only manages to make the Western powers feel sold out?

And if the Holy See appears to legitimise the government that persecutes them, some Chinese Catholics may well form a breakaway church. After all, it happened in the Philippines during Spanish colonial rule. So, while Rome may gain partial control over the six million who belong to the “Patriotic Catholic Association”, would it be worth losing the four million who have suffered so long for the Apostolic Church?

The status quo certainly isn’t ideal, but the Vatican could easily make things much worse. If Cardinal Parolin returns to Rome promising “peace in our time”, we can be fairly certain that it is doing just that.

Michael Davis is a freelance writer based in Boston

This article first appeared in the August 25 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here