WashPost's Wan Presents Chinese Communist Government, Vatican on Equal Moral Plane

In a 41-paragraph front-pager today, the Washington Post's William Wan looks at how the "New pope will be challenged by strained ties with China." "A reset is possible as both sides introduce new leadership," added a subheadline. The website version had a wildly different headline, "For China's Catholics, new pope brings hope."

Throughout his article, Wan  used language that suggested that the Vatican and the Communist Chinese dictatorship were on the same moral plane (emphases mine):

BEIJING — Of the long list of problems the next pope will inherit once the white smoke rises in Rome, few on the diplomatic front can rival the bitter, in­trac­table relationship between the Vatican and the Chinese government.

The two powers have long battled for control over Catholics in China, but the situation has worsened in the past two years to the lowest point in decades. Bishops touted by the government have been excommunicated by the pope. Meanwhile, China’s government has called the Vatican “unreasonable and rude” and stepped up its surveillance and detention of Catholics who remain loyal to the pope in illegal underground churches.

But even as Catholics here responded to Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement with surprise, many took note that his successor is expected to be named within days of China’s own grand conclave next month, when a new generation of top leaders takes control of government.

“It’s an opportunity for the two sides to restart,” said Ren Yanli, an expert on Catholicism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.

“Both sides are new,” he said. “They can move forward without historical burdens on their shoulders.”

Even those most optimistic, however, acknowledge that any rapprochement would take much time and require a breakthrough on the conflict at the heart of the rift: which side has final say over who gets ordained in China.

The Vatican maintains that the pope has sole authority in appointing bishops. China’s atheistic Communist Party — long distrustful of what it considers foreign religions — insists that only China should select its church leaders.

The fight between two of the world’s most hierarchical and authority-driven powers has become so fraught that Chinese authorities have in some cases resorted to kidnapping bishops approved by Rome, according to the Vatican, and pressured them into laying their hands upon government-chosen bishops at their ordinations — a move meant to lend such ceremonies legitimacy despite Vatican opposition.

To regular parishioners and priests caught in the middle, the choice comes down to obeying their earthly rulers or their spiritual ones.

Of course, the Catholic Church has long held that secular authorities have no right to name bishops. Church rejection of lay investiture long predates the rise of Communist China and applies to every secular political system, no matter how authoritarian or democratic. What's more, the Chinese Communist government employs brutal force to break up all manner of religious institutions which do no submit to government interference. The Vatican, on the other hand, has no army and uses no brutal much less lethal force to enforce church discipline.

To treat the Chinese Communist government in Beijing on an equal moral plane with the pope and the cardinals of the Catholic Church is patently offensive. What's more, the headline "New pope will be challenged..." suggests the onus for rapprochement is on the pope, not on Chinese leaders. Indeed, Wan gave space for a "powerful leader in the state-backed church," one Anthony Liu Bainian, to bash outgoing Pope Benedict XVI for his opposition to Communism.

But even as Wan sought to paint the kerfuffle as one wrapped up with distrust on both sides of the conflict, it becomes pretty clear that its the Chinese government that is heavy-handed in its dealing with prelates ultimately loyal to the pope and not the Party (emphases mine):

In an interview last week, he praised the pope as a loving man but criticized the pope’s “working staff on China affairs,” saying they had “an unfriendly, even hostile attitude toward China.”

Liu said Chinese officials told the Vatican repeatedly about the 2010 candidate, Guo Jincai, before his ordination. But, Liu said, the Vatican refused to approve Guo because of his ties to the Communist Party.

“They just don’t want bishops to support socialism. They hope China becomes like Eastern Europe,” he said, an apparent reference to the late Pope John Paul II’s key role in ending communism in Poland.

The Vatican said that it made its opposition clear in advance and called Guo’s ordination humiliating, offensive and “a painful wound upon ecclesial communion.” The Vatican did not explain its objections, but Guo occupied a top position in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and was described by the Vatican’s Asia news agency as “pampered by the regime.”

Many Chinese and foreign experts attribute China’s break from the Holy See to a wave of dramatically more aggressive diplomacy by China since 2010 — fueled by a new sense of power from China’s rising economy and military.

Last year, glimmers of hope briefly appeared when a rare candidate acceptable to both Beijing and Rome was ordained in Shanghai. But those hopes were dashed after Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin stunned hundreds by abruptly announcing at his ordination that he was dropping out of the state church. His words, captured on video, were met with applause from the audience.

Soon after, he was detained by authorities and stripped of his title.

As we've noted time and time again, the Washington Post is no fan of the conservative leadership of the Catholic Church. But that distrust of the Vatican over theological and moral issues should not bleed into the paper's treatment of the Vatican as regards its dealings with a repressive Communist regime.

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