China watchers usually argue that the international community's willingness to look the other way on China's abysmal human rights record is the result of selfish business interests. Human nature being what it is, that rationalization generally holds water.
The Vatican's persistent wooing of Beijing, on the other hand, poses a mystery. After all, it does not own factories in China, nor, for all we know, does it have any financial investments there. Given that the lure of business -- or, in practice, financial blackmail -- do not apply to the Vatican's relations with Beijing, the Pontiff and his subordinates would appear to be free to act toward China as they see fit.
But except for occasional criticism -- mostly by Cardinal Joseph Zen (
There is no doubt, however, that if any of the three bishops had not been in Beijing's good graces, bishophood would have remained an elusive dream. This is par for the course with a central government that continues to meddle in religion, as prominently displayed in Beijing's treatment of Tibetan Lamas and the evisceration of religious tradition in Tibet proper.
Surely the Vatican is aware of this, as repression of religious groups -- Muslims and Falun Gong specifically -- has received no small amount of publicity.
So what happened? How could the Vatican choose to deal with Beijing and, above all, do so without a concomitant and sustained criticism of the regime's record on human rights, religious or otherwise?
The answer, inauspicious as it may be to say on Christmas Day, is that the Vatican is on its way to making a deal with the devil. Rather than harvesting financial gain the way countries and multinationals do, however, what it covets are the souls of millions of Chinese.
In doing so, the Vatican is continuing the long, ignoble tradition of a political message that sees humanity in zero-sum terms -- the more souls the better, regardless of local customs in foreign lands or the devastating consequences of their actions.
In return, what Beijing seeks most is neither the salvation of Chinese souls nor more religious freedom for its people. What it wants is diplomatic recognition from the Vatican at the expense of Taiwan.
Left unchecked, the Vatican's missionary zeal could very well mean that, just as happens with countries that deal with China regardless of the poor human rights conditions there, morality will be crucified for the attainment of a quantifiable objective.
Money, souls -- Beijing exploits both as goods that can be traded for the achievement of its political objectives.
If the Vatican hopes that by engaging Beijing it will be able to influence its behavior, it is in for a rude awakening. For in the end, the more it engages China without setting and enforcing human rights policies, the more complicit it becomes in the repression of Chinese.
And it would be pure delusion to think that Chinese Catholics would be spared.