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Aiding China's Christians requires restraint

Not true, said Cardinal John O'Connor in denying a claim in a The New Republic story by Michael Horowitz. The neoconservative Horowitz is quoted as saying that O'Connor of New York and Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law have "prompted the pope to pressure" the U.S. bishops to stop coddling Beijing, and that the bishops' conference consequently "is beginning to make a U-turn on China."

Law's office similarly said the allegations were "without foundation" and that Law believed the Catholic Conference's position on China "has been consistently appropriate."

The mention is in one of four paragraphs touching on Roman Catholicism in a six-page cover story by Jacob Heilbrunn on the persecution of Christians by Beijing.

China's persecution of believers is an ill that has long been decried by the Catholic church. But the latest highlighting has a vital twist to it, as Heilbrunn notes.

U.S. conservatives, like the Hudson Institute's Horowitz, have been bereft of a suitable enemy since the Soviet Union melted down into a mess of interconnected puddles of lawlessness, mobster capitalism and despair.

Ideologues of right and left hate a villain vacuum. The U.S. right must regard it as nothing less than providential that a pagan Beijing more familiar with China's history than Rome's has delivered into the hands of U.S. conservatives, so in need of a suitable cause, an unending supply of persecuted Chinese Christians.

The traditional human rights groups, once watchful on persecution, seem to be shying away. Is that in part because pursuing persecution is becoming so politicized? The goad for much of the recent conservative rhetoric was opposition to Most Favored Nation trading status for China -- which the Catholic bishops also opposed.

In the conservatives' new coliseum, the pain and agony of Christians battling the gladiators formed in China's Cultural Revolution has been turned into fax and E-mail politics for the American right.

The fact is that the freedom of the Catholic Conference and individual bishops to speak out on issues is constrained by many intricacies. One of the restraints is that U.S. bishops would never speak out absent an invitation to do so from the local bishops in China. Given the restrictions on local bishops in China, such an invitation is unlikely.

That is why Catholic bishops' conferences around the world generally take their lead on China from the Vatican. The Vatican's China diplomacy in turn has a treading-on-eggshells quality as Rome attempts to maintain relationships with both above-ground and underground Catholics.

Pope John Paul II has been extremely circumspect in what little he has said, and Rome is placing much weight on the recommendations of Hong Kong's Cardinal John Baptist Wu. For sure, many of China's unregistered believers are being hounded in their modern catacombs. At some point, Hong Kong's believers may be next. Many of them are in a double jeopardy situation, identified not only as believers but also by Beijing as dreaded democrats -- in other words, dissidents.

On this issue, Beijing deserves no mercy. But the persecuted Christians are worthy of better treatment than as pawns in the expanding media hype of the U.S. right.

As a famous physicist is reputed to have said, "Every complex problem has an answer that is simple, easy to understand and wrong." The plight of China's Christians is being made too simple, too easy to understand.

At the very least, now that the Most Favored Nation imbroglio is ended, someone ought to try to bring together all interested or involved U.S. parties -- political, religious, ideological, humanitarian, media -- under a tight agenda to work out what they have in common on behalf of China's believers. Failing that, we fail those believers.

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 1997