Joseph Cardinal Zen, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, will not go away quietly. Which makes it difficult for the Vatican diplomats to go quietly and cut a deal with Chinese regime. What is playing out now, as the Holy See reportedly nears a deal with China on normalising relations, revisits a centuries-long debate about how the Church should deal with hostile, persecuting powers.

More specifically, the very public denunciation of Vatican diplomacy by Cardinal Zen revisits the Ostpolitik practised by the Holy See during the 1960s and 70s. The “eastern politics” of Vatican diplomacy sought to achieve breathing room for the Church under communism by ratcheting down the anti-communist rhetoric and reining in the underground Churches faithful to Rome. The Ostpolitik was the attempt by Blessed Paul VI to try a different path than that of Venerable Pius XII, who shut down all official contacts with the Soviet empire and its satellites.

In practice, Ostpolitik was bitterly opposed by the much of Catholic leadership who had suffered persecution behind the Iron Curtain. To do a deal with the Devil was to betray the witness of the martyrs. Or, as Cardinal Zen puts it with characteristic frankness, it is like St Joseph negotiating with King Herod after the massacre of the innocents.

Blessed Paul VI’s Ostpolitik was a cause of suffering for him; while he believed it was right, he took no pleasure in either dealing with the Devil or opposing the heroic pastors who daily bore the brunt of the battle. It was not, he conceded, a “policy of glory”. It was employed on the grounds that it was, according to the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, the best way to salvare il salvabile – to save what could be saved.

The policy did not save much. It did not strengthen the Church behind the Iron Curtain, though it did secure the release from prison – at the cost of permanent exile – of several bishops. The one local Church that remained steadfast and strong under communism was in Poland, and there the primate, Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, insisted that he, and he alone, would deal with the Polish communists. Such was his towering stature that he kept Vatican diplomats at bay for some 30 years, blocking the ne plus ultra of Vatican diplomacy, a full-status nunciature and exchange of ambassadors. He judged the price of that to be too high.

Cardinal Zen has rather the same view. The difference today is that we are able to hear the disagreements openly.

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