When the State attacks the Church
Bishop Peter J. Elliott looks at State oppression of Christians in history and today
Behind the war against the Church, from Nero to Kim Yong-un, is the perennial and more complex problem of the relationship between the Church and the State, an unresolved two-thousand year saga of loss and gain. Turning from that vast topic, I focus on the experiences of persecuted Catholics which reveal the methods used by various States to attack, control or even destroy the Church. In several case studies I share recent memories of my own to help make sense of a cruel drama that is still unfolding, with menacing trends.
However, when examining State attacks on the Church, we should always remember, honour and celebrate the courage of our persecuted brothers and sisters. From them we learn three simple lessons. We adapt. We witness. We survive.
Before it was toppled by the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the hard-line Communist regime ruthlessly persecuted the Church in Czechoslovakia, concentrating on Slovakia, the Catholic partner in that unhappy union of two disparate peoples. The main target was the clergy. In Slovakia they carried the historical burden of wartime collaboration with Hitler, when the small country was ruled by a priest, Msgr Jozef Tiso, who was hanged for war crimes in 1947. Some honour him as a national hero; others revile him as a collaborator.
I lived in the Czechoslovakian Collegio Nepomuceno in Rome from 1984 to 1986, before the Communist regime collapsed. I learnt that there were two lists of candidates for the priesthood: the official government list, a quota designed to limit the number of clergy, and a longer illegal list of unapproved candidates, many of whom fled to the Collegio Nepomuceno, but at the cruel cost of never being able to return home.
Hearing the story
A few years later, in happier times, in a Vatican delegation I visited the restored nation of Slovakia. On the trip North from Bratislava to the national seminary in Spis Kapitula, our driver was a young priest. On the way he told us his story.
After training secretly for the priesthood, the Bishop insisted that his ordination be carried out in a hidden way. One evening he presented himself at the Bishop’s apartment, knelt down and was ordained with the laying on of hands and the anointing. All the while the television blared away and the police officer sitting in a car on the other side of the street could only record a brief visit, not knowing that the man who left the apartment was now a priest.
Each day he would celebrate Mass on a table in his bedroom, using a medicine glass for the wine, and without vestments. Then he went to work as an administrative clerk in a factory, where the manager looked the other way. In the evening he ministered as a priest in safe houses.
I learnt more about these safe houses when a delegation of shabbily dressed men and women came to the Vatican and visited the Pontifical Council for the Family in about 1990. They knew no Italian but had good English so I was directed to listen to their story. They were secret priests, like the man I have described, and religious sisters who lived in a hidden convent. After working in offices and factories by day, they would go to a specific house in the evening. The priest would hear confessions while the nuns catechised children or gave natural family planning guidance to women. Mass was celebrated followed by a meal shared by the families who had gathered secretly.
I was moved by their account which sounded like the earliest era of our Church, the time of the domestic churches. I told them I hoped they would continue this ministry, but now that freedom had come they made it clear that they wanted to use public churches, live in presbyteries and convents and, note this, dress as priests and nuns. One had to sympathize with their wish to return to normal. But I hope that they did not lose something precious, for it was how they survived under persecution.
In Romania I witnessed a different situation, after the fall of the dictator Ceauescu. He maintained tight control of a compliant Orthodox Church while he persecuted a non-compliant Catholic minority, Roman Rite and Byzantine Rite. The government used Orthodox clergy as agents and spies, as I had already discovered in 1968 while studying in Oxford where two of them operated in three Anglican theological colleges. The Communists severely restricted the Catholics and impeded ecumenical cooperation by encouraging Orthodox anti-Catholicism.
In 1996, again as part of a Vatican team travelling in central Romania, I visited a presbytery, consisting of three stories and an attic. After lunch, the clergy showed us how it functioned after the Communists confiscated it and relegated the priests to the ground floor. Inside door frames and skirting boards wires went up to the attic, where a harmless old man could pull a switch and listen to any conversation in any apartment, paying special attention to the priests. He sent his weekly report to the local Party officials. This was control by scrutiny, but that is now made much easier through better technology.
When we reached the seminary in Iasi, we found a huge square apartment block. At the centre, with balconies overlooking it, was a spacious chapel. It had been built illegally in the last years of the Ceauescu regime, a concealed seminary, now functioning freely with plenty of students of the Roman Rite and the Byzantine Rite. Relations with the Orthodox were still chilly, but are now much warmer.
3 The Chinese puzzle
When we turn to China we find another technique, the creation of a Catholic Patriotic Association, a Church subservient to the Communist State and no longer under the Pope, while Catholics loyal to the Pope formed an Underground Church. Unlike Slovakia, where the two levels of the Church carefully functioned as one, the Chinese State successfully split Catholics into two separate communities, one favoured, the other oppressed. Divide and conquer.
My sources, which are recent, indicate that the split between the two communities is less acute and that in some ways there is a kind of merging between Patriotic and Underground Catholics. When I was in the Delegation of the Holy See at the Beijing UN Conference on Women, 1995, I had to issue precise warnings to Catholics in NGOs not to try and contact the Underground Church and not to go to Mass in a “Patriotic church”. On the one hand you would become a menace to underground Catholics; on the other hand you could be used for propaganda photographs.
Cardinal Zen, former Bishop of Hong Kong, went to Pope Francis to warn against a Vatican-China deal selling out faithful Catholics in the interest of a diplomatic resolution of the problem. The Pope has recognised some bishops from the Patriotic Church and accepted the resignation of two underground bishops. This has provoked different reactions. While the internal Catholic situation is supposed to have improved, for all people of faith the wider situation is fragile and complex. We hear that persecution is more intense with “religious affairs” now handed over to a department with an Orwellian name, the United Front Work Department. As the State intends, it remains a Chinese puzzle.
Persecution in Islamic nations presents another form of State attack on the Church, that is, when this war is driven by another religion with a totalitarian mind-set. Here we find a spectrum of situations, from Saudi Arabia, where all religions apart from Islam are absolutely banned, through the Emirates, where churches are kept in compounds, in a religious quarantine, to the selective persecution of larger communities such as the Copts in Egypt or the Christian minority in Pakistan, with uncertain levels of toleration in a more pluralist context such as Lebanon. Thousands of Christians have been driven out of Iraq and Syria. Yet history records that in all these Middle Eastern countries and across North Africa we were well established long before Islam invaded in the sixth and seventh centuries.
5 And North Korea
Nevertheless, the range of Islamic pressures on Christians cannot match the worst persecution which prevails in the “hermit state” of North Korea. At this stage our information is incomplete and fragmentary. The constitution of North Korea speaks of freedom of religion and, before the Korean War, Pyongyang was a major Christian city. Today the situation is very complex. Visitors are shown a functioning Catholic church in the capital but without a priest. Officially there are about 8,000 Catholics in North Korea with an unknown higher number of unregistered members of the Church. Let us keep them all in our prayers.
Discrediting the Church
To lead into the situation in the United Kingdom and my own country, Australia, I indicate another effective way to attack the Church, that is, to use moral scandals to destroy the credibility of the Church among her people and in the wider community. In Nazi Germany, in the Rhineland in 1935 and 1936, some Franciscans and other religious were put on public trial for alleged sexual misconduct. The aim of the State was first of all to discredit the Church in one of the most Catholic regions of Germany, more precisely to break the authority of priests and keep children away from them, while directing children into the kindly arms of the morally impeccable Hitler Youth... After the War, in Communist Poland, the sins of clergy were also raked up during phases of persecution.
Today in Australia
Anti-Catholic elements in the media in my country continue to exploit the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse against the Church. In my state, Victoria, one small political group has taken up this cause. The Victorian Sex Party (yes, that was its name) has miraculous morphed into the Reason Party, with an anti-Catholic agenda directed against privileges regarding the taxation of charities. Of more concern is the anti-Catholic bias among the Greens which seems to be fuelled by Cultural Marxism. In Australia, the Greens seek a secularist State apparently including the elimination of all religion-based schools. While that is not the policy of the major Parties and has no political traction, we should never underestimate the plans of those who seek to restrict us.
However, some commentators point to the hard-won government aid to our schools as another weapon to control the Church, that is, by making the Church dependant on the State. But in Australia this works two ways, at least at present when the main Parties watch out for an emerging Catholic parents’ vote. What is of concern is the intrusion of ideological programs into schools, such as the “Safe Schools” project and the LGBTQI gender agenda. If we accept government aid, are we bound to secularist or neo-pagan curricula? This dilemma is much the same in the United Kingdom.
This is why the Australian Conference of Catholic Bishops is monitoring threats to religious freedom. Some are quite surprising and worrying. Recently, Bishop Robert McGuckin of Toowoomba, an astute canon lawyer, argued that proposed “treason laws” could turn all Catholics into potential spies because we can be deemed to be subjects of a foreign power, the Vatican. Accompanied by a lawyer, he has spoken for the Church at the parliamentary hearing on the Foreign Interference Bill. This is where people of faith feel the repercussions of the tense international situation, the war on terror, the rise of nationalist Russia and imperialist China.
“A spy for the Vatican”?
Defining Catholics as representatives of a foreign power has always been the paranoid motive for Chinese Communist persecution. Bismark used the “foreign power” of the Vatican in his struggle against the Church in Germany, the Kulturkampf. Hitler, an apostate who hated and feared the Church, obsessed about the Vatican. Above all, Queen Elizabeth I used treason trials to persecute Catholics in England, which set the course for centuries of persecution.
In this mindset, any Catholic becomes “a spy for the Vatican”, a threat to state security. In the age of the war against terror and much cyber spying we are often told that we must give up various civil liberties. Is that to include our freedom of religion?
Redefining the Freedom of Religion
In this regard a more subtle attack has begun. The cultural Marxists and the hard-Left want to redefine the Freedom of Religion. They prefer to speak of “freedom of worship”. But that is what Communists, Fascists and Nazis allowed. “Yes, you can go to church, synagogue, mosque or temple, but that is all we will permit, after all religion is a delusion in your head.”
What is ruled out is:
• freedom to express beliefs in public,
• freedom for believers to associate apart from worship,
• freedom to pass on religious faith in the home,
• freedom to run faith-based schools and universities,
• freedom to run hospitals where a strong pro-life ethical code prevails,
• freedom to serve the poor, the suffering and marginalised without relying on a
socialist system, and most importantly,
• freedom, when required, to challenge and oppose the State on moral grounds.
Securing Freedom of Religion
How then can we make the Freedom of Religion secure? We have been warned about the pitfalls of defining civil liberties too precisely, that is, by legislation in Acts of Parliament and Charters. At the same time we should not trust legislation that graciously includes “exceptions”, “exemptions” or “concessions” for “religious people” because these can be taken away the next day. In the current uncertain situation I would favour settling for the status quo, embodied in the Constitution of my own country, parliamentary prudence in the United Kingdom, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and other accepted international instruments. But we must guard and define what freedom means, always watching efforts to control and manipulate locally, particularly through non-elected judges, government departments and tribunals. Moreover it seems wise to emphasise freedom of conscience to demonstrate how religious freedom is lived by persons.
However, there is another way, a concordat, that is, a formal diplomatic agreement between a nation and the Holy See, recognising and listing the mutual rights and functions of the Catholic Church and a specific State. But the 1933 Concordat between the Third Reich and the Holy See turned out to be trap, a brutal restriction and a weapon of persecution. Having studied that historical event and its dire consequences, I would warn that, in the wrong hands a concordat becomes a means of control, buying the Church off with financial subsidies and promises which soon evaporate, followed by the carrot and stick method, playing on our fear of losing privileges even as these are taken away one by one.
A concordat also has to be administered by a government department that involves itself in a close scrutiny of the Church. Here we should be wary of any government bureaucrats and experts who take too much interest in the Church, because that does not necessarily indicate respect, often quite the opposite. So if a “Ministry for Religious and Cultural Affairs” were ever established in Whitehall or Canberra, we should know that we are in real trouble.
Nevertheless, whatever may befall, however we may be pressed or afflicted, Jesus Christ bids us rejoice: “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account …..” (Matthew 5:11). As always - We adapt. We witness. We survive.