ROME – It was St. John Henry Newman who introduced the term “well-poisoning” into the argot of logicians, as a special instance of the well-known ad hominem fallacy. The idea is that just because there’s reason to distrust the party advancing an argument doesn’t make the argument itself invalid.
One wonders whether, if Newman were around today, he might be warning Pope Francis and his Vatican team about the dangers of just that fallacy vis-à-vis China.
Of late, Crux and many other news outlets have reported that Francis is facing growing pressure to speak out on China’s varied human rights abuses, including its constrictions of religious freedom. In a recent interview with Crux, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback bluntly said the Vatican needs to realize China can’t be trusted.
Brownback joins a number of others, including longtime China-watcher Benedict Rogers in a recent Foreign Policy magazine essay, who lamented Francis’s relative silence on the fate of the largely Muslim Uighur minority in China.
Yet Francis’s seeming aversion to confrontation with China is well documented, ranging from a recent decision not to pronounce a chunk of text on Hong Kong in a draft of his Sunday Angelus address to not even publicly protesting revelations that state-backed Chinese hackers had penetrated the Vatican’s own computer systems.
Conventional wisdom has it that the pope’s discretion is related to looming negotiations with China over the renewal of a provisional agreement regarding the appointment of bishops signed in 2018, and intended by the Vatican as a first step towards normalizing relations with Beijing and thus providing greater legal and structural protection for the Catholic community in the country.
Critics claim that since the deal was signed, the situation on the ground in China for religious minorities has gotten worse, not better, and that Chinese authorities read the pope’s reticence to push back as a sign of weakness and thus as a green light to press ahead.
Let’s stipulate that deciding when to speak in ways that a foreign power might not like is terribly complicated, because a pope has to think not only about his own reputation but the consequences of his words for people on the ground. In that regard, the example of the Dutch bishops protesting the deportation of Jews in 1942 and the round-up of 92 Jewish converts to Christianity that followed, including St. Edith Stein, is emblematic.
Anyone who thinks such choices are obvious has never felt the burden of responsibility on his or her shoulders.
That said, it nonetheless does seem anomalous that Pope Francis, generally the champion of the underdog and the oppressed, is pulling his punches when it comes to China. Aside from fear of unintended consequences, and aside from the diplomatic imperative of saving his deal with Beijing, might there be another factor at work?
This brings us back to Newman, because one suspects that Francis and his team may resist the critics’ advice on China because, frankly, they’ve got other reasons to be skeptical of who’s voicing that criticism.
In that regard, Brownback is a good case in point. He’s a devout Catholic well-known and respected in the Vatican, and he’s obviously virtuous because he’s from Kansas.
Yet Brownback is also a major Trump supporter, which isn’t exactly a position embraced by many in the pope’s inner circle. He’s also a staunchly pro-life conservative American Catholic, of precisely the sort criticized by a key papal advisor, Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, in a 2017 essay in the semi-official Vatican journal Civiltà Cattolica.
In general, many of the voices currently pushing Francis to go after China tend to be foreign policy hawks, often also highly critical of “Islamic terrorism” (a concept Francis has rejected on principle, arguing that terrorism is always a perversion of religion rather than an expression of it.) They tend to be cultural conservatives as well, often lukewarm about much of Francis’s social and political agenda, such as the fights against climate change, the death penalty, and the arms trade.
More broadly, the same point probably can be made about why Pope Francis hasn’t been more outspoken on the issue of anti-Christian persecution. Aside from the fact that he likely doesn’t care for the seemingly confessional nature of framing the issue that way, it’s also true that many of the people pushing him to go further aren’t necessarily his allies on other matters.
None of this is to say that popes ought to base decisions on such seemingly political considerations, nor that Francis and his team even think consciously in such terms. However, human nature being what it is, all of us are simply more likely to be open to constructive criticism from people we know have our backs.
Thus, two take-aways.
First, the fact that many of those urging Pope Francis to challenge China more aggressively may not have the highest stock in this papacy does not, ipso facto, make them wrong. The argument has to be addressed on its merits, independent of who’s pushing it.
Second, those who wish Francis to engage China more robustly might consider cleaning up their own wells a little bit, so the fear of poison doesn’t get in the way of their proposed cure.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.