Personal and responsible participation in public life is at the core of Catholic social doctrine

Gianni Criveller

Updated: March 25, 2021 11:13 AM GMT

Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats (right), deputy chairman Raphael Wong (2nd right) and supporters hold a protest against Beijing’s plan to change the electoral system in Hong Kong on March 17. (Photo: AFP)

On March 23, Gerard O’Connell, a Vatican-based journalist, interviewed Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, about China and Hong Kong.

O’Connell asked a good question: “Pope Francis spoke out against oppression in Myanmar. Why is he silent on China and Hong Kong?” I commend that the Vatican is finally talking about this grave issue and that Pope Francis has called for peace in Myanmar. Nevertheless, I take exception to some of Gallagher’s answers to O’Connell.

Observing that there are human rights abuses everywhere in the world is a poor argument for justifying the silence about China and Hong Kong. Is there any logic in the Vatican’s commendable long-term support for the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and the resounding silence about the tragedy of the Uighurs in China? (And without mentioning Tibet, Inner Mongolia, or the restrictions on religious freedom).

It appears to me as a case where one is strong with the weak and weak with the strong. Is the 2018 Vatican-China agreement really worth all this silence, even if the agreement has produced much too little?

As for Hong Kong, Gallagher says the Vatican has observed that there is a division within the Catholic community. However, I would observe, the division is not right in the middle, like 50 and 50. And the division is not about freedom and democracy, as most want them.

The division is rather about whether the Church was to openly support the movement. And whether the movement should have accepted partial results rather the continuing with mass demonstrations.

Moreover, the division is increasing because of a lack of a bishop with full authority. I believe Hong Kong Catholics would have accepted the directives of a leader chosen, in full freedom, by the Vatican. This was possible two years ago, after the death of Bishop Michael Yeung. He died in early January 2019 after a long illness (so it came as no surprise), and the movement only started the following June. Much precious time was lost, and now, the more the Vatican waits, the more Catholics become suspicious that the bishop might be chosen under interference or even pressure from Beijing.

To the best of my knowledge, most Catholics in Hong Kong are sincerely disappointed. In the midst of their great anguish, the Vatican was silent. And Hong Kong Catholics hardly appreciate the silence on the witness offered by a good number of respected and popular Catholic leaders now in prison (like the young Agnes Chow) or waiting for trial (such as the elderly Martin Lee).

Educated in Catholic parishes, schools and associations, they entered politics out of loyalty to their Catholic faith and conscience.

I wonder if ‘not acting’ because of a division is good policy. The Holy See’s mission is also about helping to sort out local splits. Not choosing a new bishop appears to be a dereliction of duty, especially given the tension within the community and the frightful misfortune suffered by the entire city in this historical occurrence.

It might be true, as Gallagher suggests, that ‘grandstanding statements’ do not necessarily produce good results. So why does the Vatican speak on any worldly issues in the first place? Returning to the case of Hong Kong and China: what is the subtext here? Is the Vatican unable to speak for fear of retaliation?

Finally, Gallagher’s long discourse on democracy is a bit … too long. While freedom is certainly an evangelical value, as Jesus is the author of our freedom, democracy is not, technically, an evangelical imperative. But personal and responsible participation in public life is at the core of Catholic social doctrine. Violence, killings, indiscriminate arrests, torture, oppression and brutality of all sorts should simply be condemned, in the name of the Gospel.

The encyclical Fratelli tutti has spoken about the significance of popular movements for a ‘political conversion.’ I believe that this is exactly what happened in Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020 and now in Myanmar. Hong Kong’s popular movement was peaceful (with the exception of episodes of violence yet to be independently investigated) and supported with a landslide election on Nov. 24, 2019.

It was a movement lead by young people, generously committed to a better future for their city. It was a time of great hope for Hong Kong, China, Asia and the world. Yet, it was suppressed with little reaction from the world, conveniently busy with the pandemic, and no reaction at all from the Vatican. I find this truly sad.

I am afraid that those responsible for the Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar might have assumed that, after seeing the outcome in Hong Kong, they could get away with it. The resistance of young people in Myanmar (270 of them brutally killed, thousands arrested) and of religious sisters kneeling in front of armed police platoon, proved them wrong.

Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in Greater China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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