The Journal’s Errors

Wednesday’s Asian and Europen editions of The Wall Street Journal included a 300 word editorial [subscriber only] commenting upon a recent White House visit paid by Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong. The editorial correctly notes that this visit was not noted in China’s state media, and speculated that this was partly because the state media hoped that nobody would notice. That’s probably true.

On the other hand, Cardinal Zen has never been publicity-shy, and the fact that he made little effort to trumpet this visit suggests that he had his own reasons for keeping it quiet (indeed, the late May visit wasn’t covered in the Hong Kong or US media – including the Wall Street Journal – so far as I can tell). Likewise, the White House made no extraordinary announcement to trumpet it, either.

My guess is that both Zen and the White House realize that the Vatican and Beijing are at a sensitive point in their ongoing diplomacy (of which the forthcoming Papal letter plays an important part) and had no interest in upsetting the Chinese side. The fact that the news of the visit leaks via a Wall Street Journal editorial – several weeks after the fact – is strong evidence, indeed.

For years, the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial page has been admirably steadfast and unwavering in its commitment to religious freedom worldwide. However, like so many critics of repressive religious policies in China and elsewhere, the Journal and its brethren either refuse to recognize the complexity of the situation in China, or just simply refuse to update their understanding. Thus, in the Journal editorial we get the tired, old, factually incorrect assertions about “China’s ‘official’ Catholic Church, the Catholic Patriotic Association.”

Factually incorrect because the Catholic Patriotic Association isn’t a Church at all; it’s a government administrative body, established in 1957, with regulatory control of Chinese Catholics and their places of worship. But China’s Catholics, its priests, its sisters, and even its bishops, are no more required to join the CPA than they are required to join Rotary. This is a verifiable point, but the Wall Street Journal‘s editorial writers don’t seem very interested in looking beyond their prejudices. A further case in point is the Journal‘s incorrect assertion that Cardinal Zen is “the Vatican’s chief negotiator with China.”

Quite simply, he’s not. This is an easily verified fact, and if the Journal had bothered to actually look into the situation they would have learned that Vatican diplomacy with China has mostly bypassed Zen. As reported in Korazym, when the Vatican decided to dispatch diplomats to Beijing, they dispatched Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli (whom I discussed in a post earlier in the week).

Is it really too much to ask that those who pontificate on important points of faith bother to know the facts about that faith? I have no idea whether the Journal‘s editors are ignorant of China’s Catholic situation. Maybe so, maybe not. But whatever the reasons for their flawed and factually incorrect editorial, the truth is that it helps nobody in China. If the Journal were truly interested in supporting China’s Christians, it would make an effort to recognize the complexity of the situation in which they live.

Finally, a personal point. Over the last week some critics of my reporting on Shanghai’s Catholics have suggested that I am blind to the plight of China’s Underground Christians. Let me assure you: I am not. At the same time, I feel that the Western media has suffered from a dearth of reporting on the lives of “open” Church Catholics in China, and that dearth has contributed to a biased and distorted view of religious life in China. It is my very modest hope that my reporting on the open Church Catholics in Shanghai will play a positive role in a more robust understanding of China’s religious situation. The Cultural Revolution ended in 1976; since then, something new has emerged. It serves nobody – neither China’s Christians nor interested parties in the West – to believe otherwise.


  1. The situation of the Catholic Church in China is very complex indeed. Politics and personal interests have make it worst. It may be right to say that Cardinal Zen was probably not the “the Vatican’s chief negotiator with China” but there is no doubt that he has a very very important role to play. His role is more like a bridge. And it is not the first time that he had not disclosed his meetings with important people in the international circle.

  2. Frank – I totally agree with you. Zen does, indeed, have an important role in the process. My point was merely to show that the Journal is over-reaching in its coverage, and not really concerning itself with the true situation in China.

  3. That kind of error is sort of like reading something like this and wondering if the author has any idea about the church he’s writing about.

    “In the process, he’s become a different sort of Catholic than he was when he was ordained (by a French priest, he points out)—a personal transformation that’s mirrored by the changes at work in China’s growing population of Catholics, both underground and open.”

    (Since everyone who knows Catholic theology knows only bishops can administer the sacrament of ordination.)

  4. Also, if Catholics are not required to join the CPA do you have an alternate explanation for this:

    “The repeated arrests and abuses are attempts to convince Bishop Jia to join the Catholic Patriotic Association (CPA), i.e. the organisation through which the Chinese Communist party tries to control the Catholic Church.”

    Are the repeated arrests not in fact for this reason?

  5. HJS –

    Thanks for visiting the site. In regard to your first comment, the French priest in question was Auguste Haouisee, the Vicar Apostolic of Shanghai from December 13, 1933 until June 11, 1946, at which point he was named bishop of Shanghai (prior to being assigned to China, Haouisee was ordained Titular Bishop of Cercina). Vicar Apostolic, because the Chinese Church was not granted its own hierarchy until 1946. Under those conditions, as a missionary church, there are no bishops; instead, there are Vicar Apostolics to administer dioceses, and Vicar Apostolics administer the sacrament of ordination. Jin was ordained under this circumstance, as was the future Cardinal Kung and Bishop Fan. Rest assured: this was a point that was discussed and vetted carefully during the Atlantic’s ten day fact-checking of my profile. “Priest” was used for simplicity; Jesuit would have worked just as well.

    As for your second point – let me answer in two parts. My first point is that – if you come to Shanghai – I promise to personally introduce you to dozens of open Church Chinese priests, sisters, and laity who are not members of the CPA. Alas, I cannot promise you an introduction to a bishop. But rest assured, CPA membership is no longer required of open church members, and actual members are a very, very small minority among the laity. As for priests and sisters, I’m afraid that I don’t have the statistics for you. But no matter – it’s a fact easily verified.

    Second, Bishop Jia. I wonder, why did you link to the article referring to his 2005 arrest and release, and not to the recent articles covering his June 2007 arrest and release? Could it be because the most recent AsiaNews article (June 23) does not support your point? I excerpt the text here:

    “The motive for this latest arrest remains unclear, but experts explain to AsiaNews that it may be a “provocation” in view of the imminent publication of the Pope’s letter to China’s Catholics. According to many faithful, the police and government in Hebei fear that the Pope’s letter may result in tension and unrest. Even at the time of John Paul II’s death the police cracked down on the Church and closely followed the bishops to make guard against “revolt” and unadvisable gestures.”

    The article link is here:

    Of course, if this is the motive for the recent arrest, it is equally if not more objectionable than the reason cited for his 2005 arrest. But my point is not to accuse you of cherry-picking links; instead, I hope you will appreciate that persecution of underground church members has many origins and motives, and typically they are local in nature. It may very well be that the local Religious Affairs office does, in fact, regularly arrest Bishop Jia with the intention of forcing him to join the CPA. At the same time, there are plenty of underground bishops across China who are NOT arrested, ever. The situation is complicated, and it becomes even more so. My current article in the Atlantic was designed to highlight that.

    Again, thank you for your comments and visit to the site.

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