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Cardinals deny seeking papal sway

NCR Staff

Two U.S. cardinals have denied a magazine's allegations that they asked Pope John Paul II to influence the position the U.S. bishops' conference takes on China.

New York Cardinal John O'Connor and Boston Cardinal Bernard Law respectively described as "not factual" and "without foundation" a July 7 The New Republic cover story on religious persecution in China that stated, in part, "The National Council [sic] of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), which opposes renewing MFN ["most favored nation" trade status], has wavered on dealing with Beijing; in 1996 it lobbied Congress to continue subsidizing exchange programs with the Chinese 'Patriotic' churches."

The article continues, "The NCCB's John Carr says that the church seeks 'reconciliation' in China." But the article said that, according to Michael Horowitz of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank, in the past year O'Connor and Law "have prompted the pope to pressure" the National Conference of Catholic Bishops "to stop coddling Beijing, and the council (NCCB) is beginning to make a U-turn on China."

An O'Connor spokesperson told NCR, "the cardinal has never addressed the subject with the Holy Father. The cardinal said, 'I am very concerned along with many other member bishops of the NCCB [about the plight of Christians in China] but this is not a subject I have taken up with the Holy Father.' "

In Boston, a spokesperson at Law's office said "the allegation or rumor regarding Cardinal Law is false and without foundation. Cardinal Law believes that the conference's position has been consistently appropriate."

When NCR contacted Horowitz to say the cardinals had denied his assertion, he replied, "Well, I mean they would, wouldn't they. What can I tell you?"

Despite the cardinals' demurral, Horowitz declared he was "confident that Cardinals O'Connor and Law were playing heroic roles in turning around the bishops' conference from its accommodationist approach."

He told NCR the bishops' conference had lobbied Congress against cutting off taxpayers' money being spent on exchange programs that involved the Chinese Patriotic churches. Conference spokesman Msgr. Frank Maniscalco said that in fact the conference had "never taken a formal position" on the issue.

As for commenting on the status of Catholics in other countries, said Maniscalco, the conference follows the lead of the local bishops or, where that is not possible, as in China, that of the Holy See.

"This is a bishops' conference," said Maniscalco. "We are in contact with the Holy See and [on such international issues] we follow the direction of the Holy See. The Holy See is not shy about making its feelings known to the conference. MFN for China [which the U.S. bishops opposed] is a decision of our government," he said, "so we deal with that as a policy of our government."

In April, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., chairman of the bishops' Committee on International Policy, said "the time has come to return to linking MFN trading status to improvements in human rights and religious liberty."

In addressing "evidence of widespread religious persecution," in addition to mentioning incidents in the Philippines, Pakistan, Burma and East Timor, McCarrick singled out China and Vietnam, where "Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, as well as Buddhists continue to suffer gravely for their religious beliefs and practices."

John Carr, conference social development and world peace department secretary, said he thought the idea that two U.S. cardinals would have to "get the pope to lobby us -- that's quite impressive."

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 1997