Benedict XVI did not cite them by name in his address to the diplomatic corps. But he clearly stated how he judges them: by the yardstick of truth and freedom. An interview with the bishop of Hong Kong.
ROMA, January 13, 2006 – In his address four days ago to the diplomatic corps, the first one of his pontificate, Benedict XVI left out the names of Iran and China. And the silence over Iran was initially pointed out with disappointment by Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, in a declaration later corrected and purged of its polemical overtones.
But pope Joseph Ratzinger referred to Iran and China in at least three passages.
He referred to China when he urged “the removal of everything that impedes access to information, through the press and through modern information technology,” and denounced the absence of religious liberty: “in some states, even among those who can boast centuries-old cultural traditions.”
As for Iran, where the pope asserted that “the state of Israel has to be able to exist peacefully in conformity with the norms of international law” it was easy to see a condemnation of the Iranian demand to “eliminate” Israel, expressed recently by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
But a reference to both of these countries could also be found in another key passage of the pope’s speech.
It is the passage in which Benedict XVI pointed to “political systems of the past, but not only the past, [...] a bitter illustration” of a dominion “which is based on a lie and has so frequently marked human history, nationally and internationally, with tragedy.”
Truth, and the rejection of it, were the pivot of the pope’s entire speech.
Commenting on it in “Avvenire,” Vittorio E. Parsi, the expert on international relations for the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, wrote that by “making truth the hinge of foreign policy,” the pope’s address to the diplomatic corps showed itself as “strongly Ratzingerian in its style and content.”
In effect, the thesis that “truth can only be attained in freedom” is typically Ratzingerian. It leads to the conclusion that “no government can feel free to neglect its duty to ensure suitable conditions of freedom for its own citizens without thereby damaging its credibility to speak out on international problems.” In these words from the pope, Parsi recognized “a more authoritative defense than ever of the ethical superiority of liberal and democratic systems.”
Both Iran and China – as well as other states – crumble under the pope’s withering critique, which hinges on the truth-freedom nexus.
But the pope is not alone. In full agreement with his statements, “Avvenire” – a newspaper closely linked to cardinal Camillo Ruini – prominently published, on January 5, a front-page editorial and an important exclusive interview. The editorial was on Iran, and the interview was on China, two crucial countries where both truth and freedom are seriously restricted, not without some responsibility on the part of the West.
Here are both of these texts, which were issued by the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference: the first is interesting above all because of the clarity of its analysis; the second is full of up-to-date information on the changes taking place in the Chinese Church.
1. The case of Iran. How far you can go by denying the truth
by Adriano Pessina
The press agencies have spread the news that an international conference will be organized in Tehran to consider whether “the Jewish Holocaust happened or not.” The initiative, according to the newspaper “Siasat-e-Rouz,” was promoted by the Association of Muslim Journalists in Iran, and follows declarations by president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called the Holocaust a “legend” and has proposed moving the state of Israel to Europe or the United States of America.
This is a strategic step of some importance: after having denied the Holocaust, Tehran pretends to ask whether it happened, thereby disguising its own penchant for lies behind the democratic form of discussion.
So Iran seems to have assimilated very well some of the typical theoretical models of Western culture. And, in fact, the West runs the risk of finding itself unprepared in the face of this machinery of lies dressed in the trappings of culture.
Never before in our age has the notion of truth been subjected to such discredit in the name of freedom of opinion, in the name of freedom of thought, in the name of democracy itself. We are, in fact, immersed in a latent, daily historical revisionism. We have constructed a public opinion that thinks itself capable of guaranteeing tolerance, reciprocal respect, and the coexistence of persons and peoples by demolishing the very idea of truth, denying the differences between error and truth and between error and lies.
Every opinion – it is said – deserves respect and has the right to be expressed, because freedom is what counts. And in this protection of liberty separated from truth, lies have a lot of room to run. But freedom has consequences. Even the falsifiers of history, politics, finance, and science are free: think of the recent fraud by Hwang Woo Suk of Korea over embryonic stem cells. But these exercises of freedom are ignoble and shameful. Praise and blame, these great instruments of democratic life, are built on the recognition of the criterion of truth – a truth that, unlike lies, does not depend upon the unfettered will of an individual or group, but on the actual reality of things.
Fundamentalism and the arrogance of absolutist power risk finding themselves in a strange and macabre dance with the forms of liberal radicalism and ethical skepticism: it is no accident that the West seems unable to find the correct reaction and response to these new forms of mass falsification. We lack the courage to silence those who lie, the courage to establish a line of demarcation between those who deserve our respect and those who deserve our blame, because we have renounced the normative idea of truth. We interpret courage as violence, and we interpret our weakness as democracy.
Tehran’s arrogance has a familiar flavor – it strongly reminds us of the complacency of many of our intellectuals who exhibit their skepticism. But the sweat and blood of all those who died in the concentration camps forbid us to accept that there is no difference between the butcher and the victim, between the truth and lies.
[Adriano Pessina is a professor of moral philosophy and the director of the Bioethics Center of Sacred Heart Catholic University in Milan]
2. The Chinese yoke. An interview with the bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun
by Luigi Geninazzi
Q: Your Excellency, there are some who admire China for its impetuous economic development, and some who maintain it is a threat to the world. How do you see it from your point of view?
A: “Beyond the many analyses, one observation must be made: an extremely heavy yoke still exists in China. The communist party wants to control everything – not just the structures, but also the minds and hearts of its citizens. Today the methods have changed a little, but the fundamental reality has remained the same. No one dares to say what he really thinks. Let’s take the case of Hong Kong: the Beijing government formally guarantees autonomy, and we are still free to speak out. But day after day it is extending its control in a very clear and decisive way. But I don’t want to appear too pessimistic to you. There is also the possibility of freedom from this yoke.”
Q: What are you referring to?
A: “To the Church, of course! My conviction, which I try to express in a subtle way because it might provoke a strong reaction from Beijing, is that the Catholics are winning. With patience and tenacity, they are gaining significant room for freedom. The communist government controls the structures, but no longer the minds and hearts of the faithful. After so many years of forced separation in China, there is effectively one Catholic Church there; everyone wants to be united with the pope.”
Q: But there is still a distinction between the official Church and the underground Church. What still needs to be done for full reconciliation?
A: “As always, the obstacle is the control exercised by the party. I will explain. The official Chinese Church is under the supervision of two major structures, the bishops’ conference and the Patriotic Catholic Association, which in reality is the communist party’s longa manus for controlling the Church. The bishops’ conference has been without a president for two years; after the death of the last office holder, they have not been able to find another ‘trustworthy’ candidate. The head of the Patriotic Association, Beijing bishop Michael Fu, is ill and above all is seriously lacking in credibility in the eyes of the faithful. In short, the official structures have no leadership. The man in charge is Mr. Liu Bai Nie, the executive secretary of the Patriotic Association. But he is a boss who runs the risk of ending up without any followers.”
Q: What happened?
A: “Many of the bishops nominated by the Beijing government did not have peace in their hearts, and wanted to be recognized by the Holy See. Beginning in the 1980’s, John Paul II very generously granted these requests. At the present time, 85 percent of the bishops of the official Chinese Church have obtained the legitimization of the Vatican. The bishops who have not been approved by Rome feel marginalized, and they are rejected by the clergy and the faithful. The novelty is that, while in the past it was the bishops already named by the government who asked for pontifical approval, now it is the candidates for the episcopacy of the official Church who are concerned about being named by the Holy See. It is an interesting situation, but one not devoid of risks, in that the candidate selected by the government is not always the ideal person for the Vatican.”
Q: The Holy See has recently restated its willingness to establish diplomatic relations with communist China, breaking relations with Taiwan and transferring its nuncio from Taipei to Beijing. Are we close to an historic agreement?
A: “The universal Church is attentive to the millions of faithful in communist China, and it is ready to take a very painful step. But we must explain thoroughly to the faithful of Taiwan that [the transfer of the nunciature] is not a betrayal, but a necessity imposed by the situation. In short, it is not a decision to be bandied about lightheartedly. Then also, what will we receive in exchange? Is the Beijing government ready to grant religious liberty? This is the point.”
Q: What is your impression?
A: “I note that, while the Vatican is pushing for an agreement, the Chinese communists are in no hurry. They want to put some things in order first, for example the episcopal nominations in many vacant dioceses. And I have the impression that the Patriotic Association will try to advance its own men in order to contrast the nominations that it has had to accept recently, like that of the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai. I don’t see an agreement right around the corner, we still need some time.”
Q: Is it true that pope Karol Wojtyla asked for your help in order to realize one of his great desires, that of visiting China?
A: “It was the beginning of 1997, we had a long conversation, and the Holy Father did nothing but repeat: I want to go to China. But I replied: I cannot do anything! There was talk of a possible trip to Hong Kong for the conclusion of the Asian synod, but the Beijing government immediately said no.”
Q: China’s influence and prestige on the international stage are continually increasing; it has entered the WTO and will host the Olympics in 2008. Can all this have a positive influence on relations with the Vatican?
A: “There isn’t a single reply to this. China must not be isolated, all right. But we must carefully evaluate the effects of international openness. For example, when Beijing organized the Asian Games, there was no great upsurge of freedom. On the contrary, bishops and priests were incarcerated. And still today, repression against Catholics and dissidents continues.”
Q: Your Excellency, you took to the streets one month ago, together with the demonstrators calling for full democracy for Hong Kong. Aren’t you afraid of involving the Church in strictly political questions?
A: “Listen well: the Catholic Church of Hong Kong took part in the demonstrations two years ago against the famous article 23, the project for anti-subversion measures that would have seriously limited the freedom of citizens and associations. The plan was finally withdrawn. Now the question of universal suffrage is in play. According to the fundamental law [which acts as Hong Kong’s constitution], it could have been gradually introduced by 2008. But the authorities blocked everything, proposing a reform package that has no connection to universal suffrage. I simply wanted to ask a question, and I did so publicly: When could we arrive at this objective? They told us: Not now. All right, we accept that, but we want to know when. It is the citizens’ right, a right the Church cannot help but defend.”
That same day, January 5, when the interview with the bishop of Hong Kong was published in “Avvenire,” the Cardinal Kung Foundation and the agency Asia News released the news of the disappearance of the underground bishop of Yongnian, bishop Han Dingxian, imprisoned since 1999.
Together with him, there are two other bishops no longer being heard from. All three are from the Hebei region and members of the unofficial Church. The other two are James Su Zhimin of the diocese of Baoding, arrested in 1996, and Francis An Shuxin, auxiliary of the same diocese, arrested in 1997.