The picture you’re looking at is of Jennifer, my spouse, and Pope Francis. Seconds before, Jennifer knelt to kiss the fisherman’s ring. Pope Francis, showing impressive strength for a man of his age with only one lung, hoisted her onto her feet and shook her hand instead. This said something to me, which I’ll return to at the end.
But let’s start out with some background. While you read this there are over a million Uighurs in detention camps in China. The Chinese communist party subjects them to forced “re-education”, it sterilizes uighur women, and has subjected many thousands of uighur women to have forced abortions. It uprooted hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and “cleansed” whole regions of them.
For the past quarter of a century Alexander Lukashenko has been the dictator of Belarus. He has run sham elections, imprisoning and torturing opponents. Belarussian people are routinely abducted from the streets and subjected to imprisonment without trial, torture and murder. His opulence is contrasted with the relative poverty of his people, he controls every aspect of Belarusian life, the media, the educational system and he embodies the very worst elements of the USSR.
This is the background. Two totalitarian regimes. Two totalitarian regimes that Pope Francis acquiesces with.
Pope Francis has never criticized Lukashenko. He has, recently, made some moderate comments against China’s ethnic cleansing of Uighurs. But his policy has been to work warmly with both regimes to get some form of Catholic Church presence on the ground. To do so in China he agreed that final say on which bishops are appointed in China rests with the Chinese Communist party.
You’ve probably heard about the brutal murder of Thomas Beckett in the cathedral? This was part of a millennia old struggle between rulers and the Church over who appoints bishops. The Church refused to allow rulers to put their own men in positions of power. Anselm (not yet of Canterbury) was sent to England to fight this very battle. And many people, like Beckett, died in order to stop the Church becoming an arm of state power.
You may argue, and you’d be right, that, indirectly, the Church too often became an arm of state power anyway. But the principle was, for most of Church history, sacrosanct. The Church appoints bishops, state rulers can not appoint their own lackeys. This policy has meant that in pretty much every nation there has always been at least one “meddlesome priest” (as Henry II said of Thomas Beckett) who is a thorn in the side of oppressive regimes. We might think of Oscar Romero, or the clerics marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr and so on.
This gives us a sense of how significant it is that Pope Francis did a deal with the Chinese Communist Party wherein there could be a Catholic Church presence “on the ground” in China, only as long as the Chinese Communist Party had the final say in what bishops were put in place.
Thomas Beckett was martyred in defence of the Church deciding who would become Bishops, rather than the State. Pope Francis surrendered control of the appointment of bishops to a totalitarian State, who, even if they’re not genocidal (although many claim they are) are actively involved in ethnic cleansing.
In doing so the charm offensive by the Chinese Communist Party was given a massive boost. Can we really believe that the ethnic cleansing of Uighurs is so bad when the Pope is a close partner? If thousands of forced abortions were a bad thing, would Pope Francis be surrendering appointment of bishops to the very government that is conducting them? After all, none of these Catholic bishops in China (appointed by the CCP) have critiqued the ethnic cleansing of Uighurs, so this ethnic cleansing must be for a good purpose? Right? Of course, only clerics guaranteed not to criticize the regime become bishops, and if they criticize the regime, they’re gone. That’s the deal that Pope Francis struck. There can be a presence on the ground but only if the Church surrenders its capacity to critique the regime, no matter how totalitarian and no matter how horrific its crimes.
If you’re in any doubt about this policy, we need only return to the subject of my last post. On December 22nd Pope Francis did a deal with Lukashenko allowing the head of the Church in Belarus to return AS LONG as he stopped critiquing the regime. Pope Francis, the avuncular pastor who rode the bus to the Vatican, is fine acquiescing with such regimes as long as there are people on the ground to offer the last rites to someone who is dying from torture at the hands of the dictator. Last rites are important. But Pope Francis has a position and a responsibility to not acquiesce with evil. I could, and maybe will, in future blog posts speak about how this acquiescence with state evil in favour of some pragmatic good is a perennial Jesuit temptation, but for now I want to conclude by returning to that picture you saw at the beginning.
Pope Francis is a humble man. Given the how carefully the Vatican cultivate this imagine, I’d say that he is extremely proud of his humility. Because of this he was appalled when Jennifer tried to kiss his papal ring (and perhaps he’d even have been appalled if I wasn't there taking a picture of such a "poor optic"). But Jennifer wasn’t showing this deference to Jorge Borgolio, as wonderful and admirable as he is. She was face to face with the chair of Peter, and she, a Catholic, was being deferential to it. It wasn’t about Francis, it was a moment of deep significance to Jennifer. She knew who this man was - the Pope - no matter who he was - Jorge Borgolio. He was the Pope. She knew his standing and significance. She knew his capacity to do good and shape the world. Pope Francis, though, was having none of it. His humility wasn’t taking second place to Jennifer’s devotion.
Pope Francis is adamantly devoted to being the humble pastor. The pastor who wants to care for people on the ground. The pastor who at the time of that picture, as now, is curiously unaware that he is the Pope. He is a man, curiously unaware that his arrogant commitment to being a humble pastor is bolstering and enabling totalitarian regimes, which the servant of the servants of God is called to oppose.